Mocked by the Mockingbird

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Clifford Irving, the cat who thought he ate the canary. It turned out to be the other way around.

Clifford Irving is alive and well and writing books more than 40 years after being caught peddling a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. It’s a great story that was made into the movie The Hoax with Richard Gere. By 1970 Howard Hughes was a recluse seen by no one, and Clifford Irving figured that nothing could drag Hughes out into the sunlight, even the publication of a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes.

As was accurately depicted in the picture The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio, anybody messing with Howard Hughes was going to come out bloody as long as that man’s heart continued to beat. Hughes didn’t exactly step into the sunlight to fight Irving, but he held a press conference by telephone that I remember very well and blasted Irving for the fake book. Clifford Irving gambled and lost and spent a year and a half in prison as a result.

Call me a skeptic, but I can’t help but wonder if history is repeating itself, this time in foolproof fashion. It’s a sad world we live in when the surprise headline about publication of Harper Lee’s second book causes me anything but glee. Her simple story of Atticus Finch and Scout and Jem bowled over the literary world and has continued to sell a million books a year for decades. To Kill a Mockingbird won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize and then transitioned seamlessly into a great motion picture, which doesn’t always happen. The film version earned five Oscar nominations and three wins, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck as Atticus. I can’t imagine that any of you haven’t seen the movie—it’s a humdinger.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the great American novel, and its author has frustrated us ever since the book’s publication because this was all she wrote. She saw the avalanche of publicity that resulted and fled. Case closed. Harper Lee, one-hit wonder of the ages.

But wait! I read the New York Times article yesterday about another manuscript by Harper Lee being discovered and thought: This is too good to be true! But my immediate second thought, knowing the circumstances, was: Wait, this is too good to be true.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The real Harper Lee, back in the day.

Supposedly, the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman, a novel that picks up the story of Atticus and Scout 20 years after events in Mockingbird, was discovered attached to a copy of the original Mockingbird manuscript. Watchman is described as a sequel written prior to Mockingbird.

Here’s the thing. At age 81, Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, apparently a big one. Her sister Alice, an attorney who had been Harper’s caregiver and companion, died in 2014. Alice’s death not only devastated Harper; it left her without protection in making decisions like using her name and that of her famous book to hawk another book. Based on lifelong behavior, this is the very last thing one would expect from Harper Lee, yet the very thing that happened yesterday when news rattled the publishing industry to its bones about another Lee novel. Press releases quote the incapacitated woman, who according to witnesses at her sister’s funeral may no longer be all there, as saying of Go Set a Watchman, “[I am] pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

As of this writing, Go Set a Watchman, almost half a year from release, has shot to #1 on the Amazon bestseller list and To Kill a Mockingbird is #2. Oprah is gushing with excitement. That’s fine, but I have been dealing with New York publishers for 30 years, and I’m here to tell you that today they are soulless corporate monoliths in survival mode. Oprah may be gushing, but I’m sitting here thinking about this 88-year-old, wheelchair-bound sweet soul who’s imprisoned in a withered body and no longer capable of rational thought. Given her situation and the timing of her protector’s death, I can’t help but smell a rat. A big one.

Caveat emptor, my friends. Caveat emptor.


  1. Mighty cynical, but quite possibly correct!

    When Facebook had that thing a while back where folks posted their favorite authors, I questioned one person’s listing of Harper Lee by commenting: “Harper Lee?!? What has she done for me LATELY?”

    This cynicism reminds me of how cynical the crew on the set could be. One day I overheard the comment: “Zapruder?!? He only ever made one good film!”

  2. I read that in the past Harper Lee has called her protector attorney sister “Atticus in a skirt,” while comparing herself to the shy Boo Radley of her novel. It does seem contrary to Lee’s character to suddenly (and within a few months of her sister’s death) expose herself to publishers and the public.

    Is the shy, vulnerable Boo being dragged into the limelight by unscrupulous, souless individuals? It’s just speculation now, of course, but you get an awful gut feeling about this surprise publishing announcement.

    Let’s hope that our cynicism proves to be misplaced. In any event, come this summer the world will have a chance to see a second Lee novel.

    1. Summer will come, and there will be a novel with Harper Lee’s name on the cover. These are certainties. And for the record, Boo is, in this case, more than vulnerable. Boo is defenseless.

  3. I’m so glad you’re hearing warning bells. Me, too. This makes me sad. I love To Kill A Mockingbird. And I love and respect that Harper Lee said “so long” to the commercializing rat race that I’m pretty sure would’ve devoured her. My first thought when I heard the news of the discovery was I don’t believe any of this and if I read Watchman and the words don’t ring true, I’ll probably throw up. Then I read about the attorney, Tonja Carter, who represents her now (she worked with Lee’s sister) and if a fraction of it is true, I think Ms. Lee is being treated with incredible disrespect and no one is looking out for her best interest. I cannot imagine these are Harper Lee’s wishes. The whole thing is shameful.

    And this isn’t the first time this attorney failed to protect Ms. Lee who from what I’ve read needed a strong guiding hand because she’d sign anything. She was duped out of her royalties for Mockingbird. This same attorney Tonja Carter, notarized a document presented to Ms. Lee at a meeting to establish a trust. This document presented seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the meeting was to reconfirm assignment of the copyright of Mockingbird to Lee’s former attorney. Lee signed it and Carter notarized it. In my opinion, what Carter should’ve done is say what the hell is this and Harper, don’t sign it. This led to Carter chasing down info after the fact and ultimately hiring a more powerful NY firm to go after the shyster who tried to screw Harper Lee out of her money. It’s an interesting long legal read and the case is way bigger than Carter’s signature, but search Tonja to get to her role.

    Click to access 2015_0224_leelawsuit.pdf

    I smell a rat, too. And it isn’t just the publisher. Winfrey will buy the rights to film the book to get the Oscar she so covets, and will make money. Carter has lined up her fees and perhaps a percentage of the royalties, and will make money. And whoever ultimately inherits Lee’s estate will do just fine, and will make money. In the meantime, Harper Lee sits in a nursing home probably oblivious to the shenanigans being done in her name.

    I’ll stop now. Just researching all of this makes me want throw up. Shameful.

    1. I tweeted about my column this morning and was reading some tweets by others under #HarperLee. I am astonished how many people are gushing about the prospects of reading Harper Lee’s new book and not pausing to look at circumstantial evidence. Super-skeptic Michael Moore seems to have been among the first to pre-order his copy on Amazon!

      1. I get it. On the surface it’s exciting. My heart skipped a beat when I read it. And then you take a deep breath and ask one question, is this what Harper Lee wanted? I don’t believe the manuscript was attached to the back of the original and Lee didn’t know where it was. I think she knew exactly where it was and wasn’t interested in publishing it. We’ll never know for sure because Ms. Lee can’t speak for herself. But it’s a little suspect that her lawyer discovered it and then speaks for Ms. Lee saying she is “happy as hell” about her new book. I talked to my attorney husband about it this morning and he shrugged and then asked, “You think this is the first time someone took advantage of a rich, old lady?” Freakin’ lawyers.

      2. I’ll go you one better: Who’s to say there ever was a second Harper Lee MS? Who’s to say this entire scheme wasn’t hatched long ago and contingent to drop upon Alice’s death + 60 or 90 days? The conspirators are highly motivated to lock ranks and march on.

  4. Hughes’ power was such that in “Screwball,” released in 1975 (a year before Hughes’ death), Larry Swindell (or the publisher’s lawyers) danced around mentioning Hughes as the man who deflowered Carole Lombard.

    1. I didn’t know that, VP, but it doesn’t surprise me. It’s dicey writing about any living subject, but the shadow of Hughes would have been particularly ominous.

  5. From the summary it looks like this book is a revisionist look at “To Kill a Mockingbird” meant to degrade the Supreme Court and make a silly comparasion between the civil rights movement of the 60’s that concerned the rights of a race vs. new “rights” that are being hatched to revise civilization to match monied interests that can make a fortune off of the new secularist humanist “freedoms” that always cost money in the end. Change your sexual identity? Sure, just pay up. Your want to die with dignity? Of course, don’t use a shotgun, pay somebody. Abortion? No problem, sign here and pay. Two gay men want kids? Surrogates are available for a price. Thank you so much for this article. I googled “Go Set a Watchman hoax ” and found this amazing
    assessment. How brilliant is Robert Matzen?!

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