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Review: Authors mine relationships with J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee

Imagine that one of the most beloved, bestselling — and reclusive — American authors invited you to move in next door, or called the office where you worked and engaged you in friendly conversations. Would getting to know an author whom millions of readers could only dream of meeting change your life? • For Marja Mills and Joanna Rakoff, the answer would be yes. • Mills was a Chicago journalist in 2001 when she knocked on the door of the Monroeville, Ala., house where Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, had lived for decades. Novelist Rakoff (A Fortunate Age) was a 24-year-old fresh out of graduate school in 1996 when she was hired as an assistant at a New York literary agency (even though she didn't exactly know what a literary agency did) whose most important client was J.D. Salinger, of The Catcher in the Rye fame. • Mills' memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door, is an engaging look at the everyday life of the woman who created Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem. Rakoff's My Salinger Year focuses more on her life as a young woman trying to find her way in New York, but it also gives us intriguing glimpses of Salinger, who influenced her in unexpected ways.

At the Laundromat with Harper Lee

Mills' editor at the Chicago Tribune sent her to Monroeville when Chicago picked To Kill a Mockingbird for a citywide reading program. She visited the town's tourist stops geared to the book and talked to locals, but she stopped at Lee's home only as a gesture, since the author had long since stopped doing interviews and was "as beloved and unknown as a person can be." To her utter surprise, her knock was answered by Alice Finch Lee.

Alice is 15 years older than her famous sister and served as her gatekeeper. When Mills met her, Alice was almost 90 and still practicing law with Barnett, Bugg & Lee, the same firm that had employed their father, A.C. Lee, inspiration for Atticus (although Harper Lee called her sister "Atticus in a skirt").

After Alice's careful vetting, Mills was invited to meet with Nelle, as everyone in Monroeville calls her. (Harper is her middle name, chosen for publication for its gender-neutral nature; the name was given to her in honor of a doctor who saved the life of the middle Lee sister, Louise, when she was an infant.)

Not only did journalist and famous author hit it off; Mills ended up extending her stay for days to continue the interview. The friendship grew over several years as she made return visits. In 2004, Mills, who has lupus, had to leave her full-time job, and with the Lees' encouragement she moved into a house next door to theirs for more than a year in order to work on this book.

It takes us inside the Lees' comfortable but modest home and lives. Nelle might have withdrawn from the public eye, but in Monroeville she was a social butterfly with a wide circle of family and friends, many of whom Mills meets. She becomes close to both sisters, enjoying their skillful storytelling and learning to deal with their serious hearing loss and their aversion to technology — they don't own an air conditioner, computer or cellphone, although Alice does much of her business by fax because her deafness makes the phone useless.

Both sisters are voracious readers; Nelle loves Faulkner but reads little contemporary fiction, although she likes the Harry Potter books. Mills hangs out with Nelle at the Monroeville McDonald's as well as visiting places in nearby towns, like a Pentecostal church in Scratch Ankle and the Laundromat in Excel, since the multimillion-selling author has never gotten around to buying a washing machine.

In places The Mockingbird Next Door feels repetitious and padded with extraneous details, but much of it is richly interesting. There's Nelle's description of Gregory Peck, who became her lifelong friend after he played Atticus, as "delicious." And there is plenty of dish about Nelle's relationship with Truman Capote, who lived next door to the Lees when he and Nelle were children. They went from close friends to budding writers — she moved to New York City after he found success there with Breakfast at Tiffany's — to collaborators on his book In Cold Blood, which she helped to research, but they fell out after that. Mills reports that Nelle dismissed the notion that she resented him for rumors that he helped write Mockingbird (even he said it wasn't true). But she and Alice were still angry that he had told biographers that their mother, Frances Lee, who suffered several mental breakdowns, had tried to drown baby Nelle.

"Truman was a psycho, honey," Nelle says to Mills. "He thought the rules that apply to everybody else didn't apply to him."

Most of all, The Mockingbird Next Door is a warm portrait of the relationship between the two sisters, which makes its epilogue especially poignant. In 2007, after Mills moved back to Chicago, Nelle suffered a stroke that left her in a wheelchair. By 2009, Mills writes, "she was not the Nelle I knew." Alice was still practicing law on her 100th birthday in 2011, but soon after that a bout of pneumonia led to her decline. After a lifetime of sharing a home, the sisters now live in two different assisted living facilities.

Answering fan letters to Salinger

My Salinger Year might sound like the title of a book about devoting 12 months to reading his fiction. But Rakoff's memoir reveals that, although she had a master's degree in literature and was widely read, when she went to work for Salinger's literary agent in 1996 she had never read any of his work, having early on formed the idea that his writing was "precious." Indeed, even after she develops an acquaintance with the author himself via phone conversations, it takes her months to settle down one weekend and read through all of his books. "Salinger was nothing like I'd thought," she writes. "Nothing. Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all."

As the book begins, Rakoff has abandoned a plan to move to California with her kind, parent-approved college boyfriend and instead is living in a nightmarish apartment in Brooklyn with a new boyfriend, Don, a sardonic socialist and sort-of professional boxer who divides his free time between working on an interminable novel and criticizing her for her bourgeois tendencies.

She stumbles almost immediately into the job at what she calls the Agency, working for its president, whom she calls "my boss" throughout, although in a 2010 article that was the basis for the book she identified both boss and agency: Phyllis Westberg at Harold Ober Associates, which represented Salinger throughout his career.

Rakoff delivers an entertaining account of life in the Agency's eccentric and very low-tech office. Her first task is typing up — on a Selectric typewriter, since there are no computers — letters her boss has recorded on a retro Dictaphone. (Later the boss breaks down and acquires a single desktop computer for the entire staff, mainly so they can police unauthorized use of their clients' writing.)

Among the first instructions to Rakoff is this: Never, never, never give out "Jerry's" address or phone number. After a moment when she thinks the boss is talking about Jerry Seinfeld, she realizes that it is Salinger who is the Agency's prize client. Soon she's given a sheaf of letters from Salinger's fans and instructed to respond with a form letter regretting that, per the author's instructions, the Agency cannot forward them.

She discovers that, even though Salinger published his last new work in 1965 and gave his last interview in 1980, the letters come in every day by the dozens and hundreds from around the world. She also finds herself so touched by some of them that she composes individual responses, with some surprising results. And one day, even though everyone in the office has told her that she has no hope of ever being in contact with Salinger, she answers the phone to hear a shouting man (like Lee, Salinger suffered hearing loss) who soon develops an interest in her, encouraging her to pursue her own writing and asking her advice about a publishing project of his own.

Rakoff only meets Salinger in person once, when he visits the office unexpectedly: "(A) tall, slender man strode slowly though the finance department, glancing to his left and right with confusion. … even from afar I could see that this man had large, dark eyes and truly enormous ears, the sorts of ears I now knew he'd also bequeathed to poor, doomed Seymour Glass."

But working in his very large shadow has an impact on the choices she makes about her own career and personal life, long after she leaves the Agency. Thirteen years later, she writes, comes word of Salinger's death. She pulls Franny and Zooey off the shelf and reads the passage in which Franny, in the midst of a breakdown, says she wants to talk to her brother, Seymour, who has committed suicide. "That was the point at which my husband found me sobbing, loudly, phlegmily, haplessly trying not to wet the pages. …"

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee

By Marja Mills

Penguin Press,

278 pages, $27.99

My Salinger Year

By Joanna Rakoff

Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $25.95

Review: Authors mine relationships with J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee 06/30/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 11:58am]

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