80 - Harper Lee

Before she was a Pulitzer Prize winner or donned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nelle Harper Lee lived in New York, working as a reservations clerk for Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways while writing numerous unpublished essays and short stories.

When her literary agent encouraged her to develop one of those short stories into a novel, she quit working her full-time job to focus on her craft. By 1957, she had submitted the manuscript, and after several rounds of back and forth, edits, and reworking, “To Kill a Mockingbird” hit shelves in 1960, forever changing the landscape of American literature.

Harper Lee pictured in a local courthouse while visiting her hometown

A year after the novel was published, over 500,000 copies had been sold and it had been translated into 10 languages. This swift success is even more remarkable when we take into account the lack of technology and social marketing that existed in the 1960s. Harper Lee did very little promotion of the novel, as her nature was to let her work to speak for itself and avoid the spotlight.

Early Life

As a child, Nelle Harper Lee was described often as “a tomboy and a precocious reader” by those who knew her. She attended public school in Monroeville, Alabama then Huntingdon College, a private school for women in Montgomery.

After one year, she transferred to the University of Alabama where she became an initiated Sister in the Nu Beta chapter of Chi Omega in 1946. Many have noted that her membership in Chi Omega was surprising because of her often reclusive behavior and intense focus on studying and writing independently most of the time.

After graduation, she flew across the pond to study at Oxford University. Then, she returned to the University of Alabama to study law until ultimately deciding to move to New York in 1949, with just six months left in her law program.

To Kill a Mockingbird

It was here that she wrote the monumental novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Instantly successful, present in almost every high school and middle school English class in the United States, “To Kill a Mockingbird” quickly became a classic, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

The plot and characters of Harper Lee’s novel are loosely based on her own perspective of what was taking place with her family, her neighbors and an event that occurred near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

Of course, the book holds a special place on millions of readers’ bookshelves, but for Chi Omegas the connection is so much more.

“The most valuable book in our collection is a 1995 signed copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. I purchased the book in 1995 at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi for $23,” says National Archivist Lyn Harris.

Cover of the signed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” housed in the Chi Omega Archives
Inside of the signed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” housed in the Chi Omega Archives

One of the photos our National Archivists wishes she could get her hands on is an image of Harper Lee with the Chi Omega badge on. The pictures below show her on a segment of Charles Osgood’s show “Sunday Morning” on CBS.

Lyn says, “I’ve been hoping to find a picture with Sister Lee wearing her badge. Could this be it?”

Harper Lee, second from the left, featured on a segment of Charles Osgood’s show “Sunday Morning” on CBS
Harper Lee, middle, featured on a segment of Charles Osgood’s show “Sunday Morning” on CBS, note the possible Chi Omega badge on her sweater

In 2004, Harper Lee was awarded the Malinda Jolley Mortin Woman of Achievement Award of Chi Omega. The note she wrote the Fraternity in thanks is, “among our most precious possessions in the Chi Omega Archives,” says Lyn.

Harper Lee’s handwritten remarks after receiving the Malinda Jolley Mortin Woman of Achievement Award of Chi Omega

In a 1964 issue of The Eleusis, it was noted that Harper Lee had spent the summer writing her “next book.” Although our acclaimed Sister is assumed to have continued writing privately, she never published that book.

Excerpt from The Eleusis in 1964

After “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published and the Oscar award-winning movie came out in 1962, Harper Lee stopped talking to the press, avoiding the effects fame that inevitably come with success of this magnitude. Throughout her life, Harper Lee truly lived in a manner of being “loveable, rather than popular,” leaving the popularity title for her work.

In 2007 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush in the White House, but even then she spoke very little. On the 50th anniversary of Mockingbird‘s publication in 2010, Lee remained elusive as honorary celebrations took place across the country.

Harper Lee receiving her Presidential Medal of Freedom

The Sequel that was Really a First Draft

Although that second book that was mentioned in the 1964 issue of The Eleusis never came to be public, another book did and it was written even before “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

According to the Washington Post, Harper Lee explained when she was just starting off, she wrote “Go Set a Watchman” about a woman nicknamed Scout who returns home to Maycomb to visit her father, Atticus. After reading the manuscript, her editor apparently asked her to rewrite the story from the point of view of Scout as a child.

The Washinton Post article goes on to include a quote from Harper Lee stating, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.”

The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel that has sold over 40 million copies since it was first published in 1960.

Harper Lee’s first written and second published novel, “Go Set a Watchman”

Fifty-five years later, in 2015, “Go Set a Watchman”, was published as Harper Lee’s second-ever published book and energized readers to reconnect with this beloved author.

Harper Lee, 2007

Harper Lee joined the Omega chapter on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89.

Since her death, a broadway play based on the novel began running in 2018 and is currently still gracing stages in New York City.

“Far from being merely a social fraternity, Chi Omega represents a body of women with shared values and goals, an organization dedicated to helping its members achieve their full potential of becoming superior citizens, of making a difference to this country. Already, the Chi Omega list of achievements is a long one, and it will be added to by each generation,” Harper Lee.