After Harper Lee's death earlier this year, bits and pieces about her life have come trickling out. Most of this stuff has been interesting, but frivolous, like her secret New York City apartment. A new revelation though was recently discovered by Charles J. Shields, her biographer, and it raises a bunch a interesting questions. It's an unsigned article published in Grapevine, a magazine for members of the FBI, about the Clutter murders, the infamous quadruple murder made famous by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
From The Guardian:
The article was about the gruesome murder of Herb and Bonnie Clutter, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon at their farmhouse in Kansas. Lee accompanied her childhood friend Truman Capote on his assignment for the New Yorker, reporting on how the community was reacting to the brutal murders.
The article is lurid but thorough, describing the crime scene (the family was found "bound hand and foot and shot at close range") and its investigation. The main figure in the story, Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey, had very little evidence to work with and still solved the crime.
But Shields' detective work sussing out that Lee had written the article is equally as thorough and impressive. He was revising the biography about the author, Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee, he wrote a decade ago. He decided to look over Kansas newspapers for information about Lee he may have missed when he found a column in the Garden City Telegram written by a friend of Lee's about a pair of writers coming to town to investigate the crime that said:
“The story of the work of the FBI in general and KBI Agent Al Dewey in particular on the Clutter murders will appear in Grapevine, the FBI’s publication.
“Nelle Harper Lee, young writer who came to Garden City with Truman Capote to gather material for a New Yorker magazine article on the Clutter case, wrote the piece. Miss Harper’s first novel is due for publication … this spring and advance reports say it is bound to be a success.”
Shields set about confirming with the Grapevine which told him there had been a rumor circling for years that Lee had written something for the magazine, but no one knew what. Shields suggested that they search the February or March 1960 issues and “Lo and behold, in March 1960 is a … very well-written feature story about the Clutter case.” Shields says it was very much in fitting with Lee's character to have written the article anonymously.
There's long been a (false) rumor that it was Truman Capote and not Lee who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, possibly stemming from Capote downplaying Lee's role in helping him while he worked on In Cold Blood. This is should put all that to rest.
The Grapevine announced that it would reprint Lee's article next month. Shields said that there were other determining factors that lead him to the conclusion that Lee was the writer, such as details only she and Capote could have known. He also said that “it reads like a darned good feature story.” That new information will be included in the updated version of her biography Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee: From Scout to Go Set a Watchman, out today.
[h/t The Guardian]
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