Harper Lee's Big Break - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Harper Lee's Big Break

Harper Lee's Big Break

By Sean Braswell

Author of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee, in local coutrhouse while visting her home town.
SourceDonald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images


Because maybe you know someone special who could use a break.

By Sean Braswell

There are many ways to kill a mockingbird before it’s had a chance to sing, but negligence may be the most common: leaving it alone to languish in the cage of a dead-end job, relationship or situation that allows it little time for song. Such was the fate that almost silenced Harper Lee.

More than half a century after its publication, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird still sells over 750,000 copies per year. A fact that undoubtedly played a role in the lawsuit filed by the late writer, who alleged that she was duped by a literary agent into signing over the rights to her masterpiece.

But before Mockingbird was published 56 years ago, America was a much different place. By 1956, Emmett Till had been murdered for whistling at a white woman, and Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat, but the civil rights movement had just begun. And by 1956, Nelle Harper Lee from Monroeville, Alabama, and her landmark novel had yet to influence generations of schoolchildren and millions of adults — nor could she have conceived of such an outcome.

Harper Lee, author

Source Biography.com

That’s because 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 56 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.

You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.

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.”

Lee demurred at first, but the Browns insisted she accept their support for a year so that she could focus on her passion without distraction.

In short order, Lee quit her job, got an agent and devoted herself to writing. 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 .

The Browns kept their gift a secret for more than 50 years, but as an 83-year-old Joy Brown recalled recently, she and her husband thought of Lee as a writer and nothing else. And if they could do something about it, “She was not going to spend her life working as an airlines clerk while hoping to become something else.”

Michael Brown humbly insists that he and Joy “are not responsible for what occurred…It would have happened with or without us. All that we did was hurry it up a little.” 

But Lee never forgot her friends’ generosity and how it helped her realize her dream. As Miss Maudie, the Finches’ wise neighbor, counsels Jem in Mockingbird , “Don’t fret…Things are never as bad as they seem.”

Especially when your circle of friends includes a couple of angel investors.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories