As It Happens

Reclusive 'To Kill A Mockingbird' author Harper Lee takes mysteries to her grave

Mary McDonagh Murphy made a documentary about the beloved and famously private writer and says, with Harper Lee's death at 89, there are many questions the world will never have answered.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'To Kill A Mockingbird', Harper Lee, before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Harper Lee shied away from the spotlight most of her life. And today, with news of her death, she is again the centre of attention for those who adored her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

But her death at the age of 89 means that she will now remain inscrutable.

Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To kill a Mockingbird," in a March 1963 file photo. (The Associated Press)

"So many questions that we would all like to ask her, answers that we'd all like to get, have now gone to her grave," documentary maker Mary McDonagh Murphy tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

Mary McDonagh Murphy (

Murphy not only made a film about Lee and her immensely popular novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. She wrote a book about it. After all that, there are still many things she longs to know.

"We want to more about how she wrote the book and what she would say about Atticus (Finch). She created these heroes and people think of her as a hero because she created them and, from what I know, she had a very complicated response to fame," says Murphy.

Actor Gregory Peck as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird." (AP/Universal File)

Lee, it seems, found the attention To Kill A Mockingbird brought her too intense. She gave her last interview in 1964 and said almost nothing else publicly in the 52 years that followed.

Murphy met her briefly last year when her second novel, Go Set A Watchman, was published. Lee actually wrote the book before To Kill A Mockingbird. The manuscript was lost and rediscovered. It has the same characters, but it is set later, in the 1950s. Many readers were shocked because the father character, Atticus Finch, displays racist attitudes.

Tony Lyerly and his granddaughter Maraih Lyerly, 3, wait with others to buy "Go Set A Watchman" at Ol' Curiosities & Book Shoppe in Monroeville, Alabama in July 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters)

Murphy was allowed to ask the author one question. Her query: "Did you ever think you would ever see this novel published?"

"She said, in the feisty, kind of grown-up Scout way her close friends say that she really behaves, she said to me, 'Of course, I did. Don't be silly,'" Murphy recalls.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?