(Nelle) Harper Lee was born on 28 April 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Her parents were Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch. Her father was a lawyer who served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938; Lee later based the character of Atticus Finch on him, using her mother's maiden name. As a child she was a tomboy, and she became close friends with her neighbour, the young Truman Capote, later the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany's. The character of Dill is based on him.
Lee followed her father’s footsteps and studied law at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949. Here she wrote for several student publications and spent a year as editor of the campus humour magazine ‘Rammer Jammer’. Lee lived a rather stressful life, having to travel between her cheap apartment in New York City and her family home in south-central Alabama to care for her father. She worked as a reservation clerk until 1958, when donations from friends allowed her to devote herself to writing. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. It was an overwhelming success, and Lee was alarmed by her sudden fame. Though she is still living, she has yet to publish any other novels.
The social background of To Kill a Mockingbird is based on Lee's experience of racism in the 1930s and beyond. She wrote the novel in the 1950s, when the Civil Rights Movement was active.
The character of Boo Radley is based on a person Lee and her friend Capote knew when they were young. Capote said “he was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything [Lee] wrote about it is absolutely true.”
Tom Robinson's trial was partly inspired by the controversial Scottsboro Trials, when nine young African-American men were accused of rape by two poor white prostitutes, one of them underage. Further inspiration was provided by a number of cases in which Lee's father participated.
To Kill a Mockingbird became an immediate bestseller and won great critical acclaim. Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. A film was made, with an Academy-Award winning screenplay by Horton Foote, starring Gregory Peck.
In 1999, the book was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll by the Library Journal. It remains a bestseller today, with more than 30 million copies in print.
J.B Lippincott and Co was the first publisher of To Kill a Mockingbird.
The character of Harper Lee is played by Catherine Keener in Capote (2005), and by Sandra Bullock in Infamous (2006).