Harper Lee's will, unsealed, adds more mystery to her life

Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2006.
Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2006.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • When novelist Harper Lee died in her sleep two years ago, at age 89, she left a trail of lingering questions about her life and work.

Why had she decided, in her final years, to publish a second novel, 55 years after her breakout success, To Kill A Mockingbird? Were there other unknown works? Who would inherit her literary papers, sought by many universities, as well as her estate, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars?

On Tuesday, an Alabama court unsealed Lee's will, but the mystery surrounding one of American literature's most cherished authors only deepened.

The will, signed on Feb 11, 2016, eight days before her death, directed that the bulk of her assets, including her literary properties, be transferred into a trust she formed in 2011.

Trust documents are private, so all questions about what will become of her literary papers and who beyond her closest relatives might benefit from her assets, will remain unanswered for now.

Lee never married or had children and the court papers identified her heirs and closest living relatives as a niece and three nephews, who are expected to receive an undisclosed portion of the estate through the trust.

The will named Ms Tonja B. Carter, Lee's long-time lawyer, as the executor, or personal representative, of the estate, and it provided her with wide-ranging powers to shepherd Lee's literary legacy and the rest of her assets.

Ms Carter had gone to court in 2016 to successfully persuade Probate Judge Greg Norris of Monroe County to seal the will, citing Lee's desire for privacy. And while the estate had stressed in court papers that making the will public could lead to the "potential harassment" of individuals identified in it, the document itself is strikingly opaque.

It was unsealed on Tuesday on the basis of a lawsuit filed by The New York Times seeking to review the document.

"It's a public record, and the press and the public have a right to public records," said Mr Archie Reeves, the lawyer who represented The Times.

The document's lack of transparency will likely fuel scepticism among those who feel that Ms Carter had amassed too much power over Lee's career and legacy. The will gives Ms Carter substantial control over Lee's estate and her literary properties, which are assigned to the Mockingbird Trust, an entity that was formed in 2011. Ms Carter served as one of its two trustees at the time.

She declined to discuss the will, citing Lee's penchant for privacy. "I will not discuss her affairs," she said.

One of the two witnesses to the will, Cynthia McMillan, a former resident assistant who had helped care for Lee at a facility where she had lived, said in an interview that Lee seemed cogent when she signed it. "In my opinion, she was," Ms McMillian said.

The estate was built largely on the outsize success of Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, Mockingbird, which since its publication in 1960, has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and remains a staple on American school curricula. In addition, Go Set A Watchman, her second novel, sold more than 1.6 million hardcover copies, according to data provider NPD BookScan.

Mockingbird alone sells more than one million copies a year worldwide, generating some US$3 million (S$4 million) in royalties for the copyright holder, according to court documents.

Lee had always lived simply, despite her fame and mounting wealth, and long shared a modest brick home in Monroeville with her older sister, Alice, who died in 2014.

Lee could be seen around town in sweatpants looking for bargains at a Dollar General Store, washing her clothes at a local laundromat, drinking coffee at a McDonald's or eating at David's Catfish House, where her usual iced tea and a small plate of catfish would cost about US$6. Often miscast as reclusive, she was no hermit, but she was as ferociously private as she was famous and shunned interviews.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2018, with the headline 'Harper Lee's will, unsealed, adds more mystery to her life'. Subscribe