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With a Little Help From Her Friends

7 October 2014

Harper Lee’s big break:

…in 1956 Lee was a rather taciturn 30-year-old ticket agent for the British Overseas Airways Company, who, like many aspiring writers, had come to New York City to pursue her dream. But after seven years of struggle, it seemed beyond her grasp. And without further help, and with no Kickstarter for another 53 years, that is perhaps where her dream would have ended.

Luckily, thanks to an introduction from Truman Capote, her childhood friend and neighbor, Lee had made two very good friends in New York: a Broadway composer named Michael Brown and his wife, Joy, a Balanchine dancer.

Lee became a bona fide extension of the Brown family, and any free time she had that was not devoted to writing was spent with Michael, Joy and their three boys at the Browns’ East 50th Street brownstone. The Browns had read Lee’s short stories, and they appreciated her dream — and her immense gift — better than anyone. They also shared her frustration at the challenges of writing while holding down a full-time job.

So, in the fall of 1956, when the Browns came into some cash because Michael had been hired to create a show for Esquire magazine, they decided to do something about Lee’s situation and to give their friend a big break — literally. When Lee opened her Christmas present from the couple that year, she found a note that read: ”You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.

Author nurturing, 50’s style.

Just over a year later, she had a finished manuscript and a publisher. And the result of the Browns’ generous gift (which Lee later repaid in full) and Lee’s newfound freedom was no less than the Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling novel of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird .

More detail at OZY.

Bestsellers, Quit Day Job

17 Comments to “With a Little Help From Her Friends”

  1. It’s wonderful what we as individuals can do for other individuals with one time gifts. Often the effects are more wide spread than we can imagine.

  2. I recently watched a documentary on Nell. The excerpt above leaves one thing out. Not only did the Browns gift her with a year of room and board to write her book, the two of them teamed with her and made major developmental input.

    As I recall, they basically took a string of sketches and short stories and created a plot line around them.

    I always bristle when people imply that the publishing mechanism made this book possible. Really it was a team of three people, spending a year – and only possible because of a financial windfall. I don’t mean Harper Lee any disrespect, by the way.

    • Yes — it’s a very touching story, how her friends believed in her dream and worked together to make it come true. I love it! 🙂

      • On a certain level, I can sympathize with Truman for being a little miffed. Sure, he was a caustic person. But I imagine it was hard for him to be overshadowed, when his work was so intensely his own effort.

        All of this is hearsay, of course. I was not even born!

        • I think Harper Lee helped Truman Capote with In Cold Blood by doing extensive research and helping with the interviews. So even Capote’s work wasn’t really solely his own effort either. Not that this detracts from his accomplishment, just as having help from her friends doesn’t detract from Lee’s.

  3. There’s nothing new about beta readers, based on this article. Beta readers who also give you room and board, that’s special (unless it’s your spouse :)).

  4. Makes you wonder how many great novels have been lost because the author was too time-stressed to write them.

  5. The Browns had read Lee’s short stories, and they appreciated her dream — and her immense gift — better than anyone.

    I was struck by this quote–noting that, so far as I can determine, none of her short stories are available today in book form. Perhaps they were all in the category of raw material for To Kill a Mockingbird? Perhaps Harper Lee has not wanted them collected? I have no information but am hoping someone else will enlighten us. :o)

    • I believe the documentary that will help is called “Hey Boo”. Been a little while since I saw it, but I believe it talks about the collection of stories being rejected until the Browns assisted by helping to form it into a novel.

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