Penguin Random House and the Harper Lee memoir controversy
July 16, 2014 | 4:36 pm
The dispute between Harper Lee and her self-styled chronicler Marja Mills is receiving substantial coverage for a feud that goes back to 2011, when Penguin originally acquired the rights to Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. Even at that point, Lee’s attorneys released a statement from the celebrated author that she had not “willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills. Neither have I authorized such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.” Mills, however, insisted that she had written confirmation from Lee’s sister Alice that both sisters had cooperated with the project.
What about Penguin’s role in the controversy, though? From the start, they stood behind their author, releasing a copy of Alice Lee’s letter and insisting that the book had been written with direct access to both sisters. And with the actual publication of the same book, they and Mills are continuing to reiterate the same arguments. Lee, meanwhile, continues to insist that she never gave any backing or endorsement to the book. Furthermore, revisiting the controversy has brought out some other distasteful details of the book’s genesis, and of the statement from Alice Lee allegedly endorsing Mills’s work.
“Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister Alice,” Lee wrote in her recent letter, here in full along with the original 2011 letter courtesy of Entertainment Weekly. “I understand that Ms. Mills has a statement signed by my elderly sister claiming I cooperated with this book. My sister would have been 100 years old at the time.”
To my mind, there is no doubt on two points. Mills did have direct access to the Lee sisters, whether or not they actually authorized her to publish anything about the experience. And Harper Lee does not endorse or approve of anything she wrote. There may be legal arguments about retrospective withdrawal of authorization of a biography or memoir, but Mills doesn’t seem to have much moral ground to stand on.
Unauthorized biographies written without the consent of their subjects or trustees, or where consent was withdrawn, are hardly new: Ted Hughes is one of the more publicized recent cases. But Mills is insisting in the face of Lee’s own denials that the sisters cooperated with full foreknowledge in the creation of her book. Effectively, Penguin Random House is backing the view that Harper Lee went back on her word. Why do I find that so hard to believe?
“After my stroke, I discovered Marja claimed I cooperated with this book,” Lee continued. “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”
By publishing this book, Penguin Random House has upset and distressed one of the world’s best-loved authors, now in her eighties, very possibly with the help of a statement obtained under false pretenses from a centenarian. That’s pretty much the kind of respect for authors that we could expect from the owners of Author Solutions.