How a Christmas Gift Changed Harper Lee's Life

And those of generations of readers
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 25, 2014 6:17 AM CST
How a Christmas Gift Changed Harper Lee's Life
In this Aug. 20, 2007, file photo, author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala.   (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)

If it hadn't been for a New York City couple, the world might never have seen To Kill a Mockingbird. Its author, Harper Lee, was a ticket agent for British Overseas Airways in 1956, and it was difficult for her to find time to write with a separate full-time job, Ozy reports. She discussed this concern with her friends Michael and Joy Brown, a couple her friend Truman Capote had introduced to her. Michael, who died this year, worked as a writer of industrial musicals—performances, often with big budgets, that US corporations would produce to inspire their workers, the New York Times reports in his obituary. Michael Brown's work included, for example, a "Love Song to an Electrolux" and a DuPont musical called Wonderful World of Chemistry.

The work brought in plenty of money, and at Christmas 1956, Lee found an envelope for her in the Browns' Christmas tree. "I opened it and read: 'You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas,'" she wrote in the 1960s, as the New York Daily News reported. Though she was reluctant to accept the gift—which she eventually repaid—the couple supported her during the period, allowing her to quit her job and write To Kill a Mockingbird. That gift's impact continues to reverberate, as the book still sells more than 750,000 copies per year, Ozy notes. (Lee, now 87, has had her fair share of trouble in recent years: She recently sued her agent as well as a museum in her hometown.)

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