Harper Lee skeptic

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.