Fifty-six years ago, Harper Lee wrote her first novel, which turned out to be one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. To Kill a Mockingbird’s revelation that in the South—or rather, in America—a black man could lose his life over a crime he clearly didn’t commit, resonates today just as it did when it was first published in 1960. The question now that Harper Lee has died is what will happen to the book that’s still required reading at schools around the world and makes millions every year.
Mockingbird sold more than 40 million copies and earned Lee the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, yet Lee famously shunned the spotlight. For decades she refused interviews, and many of her friends and family say she vowed never to publish again.
Then last year, from the confines of her Alabama nursing home, she changed her mind. Lee agreed to let her attorney, Tonja Carter, publish Go Set a Watchman, the meandering,
uneven first draft of what later became her novel.
Watchman sold more than 1 million copies and was the third bestselling book on Amazon.com last year. Lee had been making about $3.2 million a year from Mockingbird. Thanks to Watchman, last year she made several million more.
Last summer I traveled to Alabama to talk with Carter and those who knew her about the questions surrounding Watchman’s publication.
There were a lot of them, from the manuscript’s disputed origin to whether Carter, who had durable power of attorney over Lee, should also be serving as the trustee of her estate and the vice president of the newly created Mockingbird Company, a nonprofit Lee created in May 2015 to oversee Mockingbird’s cultural legacy and future stage adaptations
of the play.
Those stage adaptations can bring in a lot of money, although for a long time none of it was going to Haper Lee. She didn’t write the theatrical version of To Kill a Mockingbird and therefore never retained the rights to it. Those belong to Dramatic Publishing Company, a 131-year-old music and theater publishing house in Illinois owned by Christopher Sergel, the grandson of Mockingbird’s original playwright.
Last year Dramatic Publishing transferred the production rights from Monroe County Heritage Museum, which is based in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., to the Mockingbird Co., which starting this year will oversee its production and collect any revenue it generates.
In the past, the play had brought in as much as $200,000 in ticket sales every year and had served as the museum’s primary fundraiser, allowing it to maintain the town’s domed courthouse as well as several other historic sites in the area. According to people associated with the museum, the organization has suffered financially since losing the rights.
Dramatic Publishing is also in a bind: It does not retain the rights to the recently announced Broadway production, which will be based on an entirely new script written by Aaron Sorkin. But if the Broadway version is performed at amateur or regional theaters, “those rights have to flow through us,” says Sergel.
In her death, Lee leaves behind not just To Kill a Mockingbird’s lucrative legacy but now a second book, a Broadway play, and a new nonprofit that appears to be the umbrella under which all this has been organized. With no children to inherit her considerable wealth, there’s one question still to answer: Who now will end up controlling Lee’s legacy?