To kill a legacy: the mystery of Harper Lee deepens

World

To kill a legacy: the mystery of Harper Lee deepens

Her unsealed will fuels an unseemly wrangling over the assets of the famously private novelist

Harriet Alexander


The intrigue surrounding Harper Lee, the American novelist, has deepened two years after her death, as the unsealing of her will revealed that her assets have been placed into a secret trust run by her long-term lawyer.
Lee, who died at the age of 89 in February 2016, lived at the home she shared with her sister in Monroeville, Alabama.
Her book To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, still sells more than a million copies a year, generating about $3-million in royalties, according to court documents.
In addition, Go Set a Watchman, her second novel, published half a century after her first, was the bestselling book of 2015 in the US, selling more than 1.6-million hardcover copies.
Lee never married or had children, and the court papers identified her heirs as a niece and three nephews.
She signed the will eight days before her death, and directed that the bulk of her assets, including her literary properties, be transferred into a trust.
Her lawyer, Tonja Carter, went to court in 2016 to successfully persuade a judge to seal the will, citing Lee’s desire for privacy, a decision overturned this week by The New York Times.
The will named Carter as the estate’s executor, and gave her wide-ranging powers to control Lee’s literary legacy and her other assets.
Carter found herself in the spotlight in 2015 when The New Yorker ran an article (“Harper Lee and the mystery of Monroeville”) that raised questions about her highly litigious control of Lee’s estate.
Carter responded to questions about the publication of Go Set a Watchman by writing a piece in The Wall Street Journal describing how she found the manuscript unexpectedly in a box of Lee’s possessions in 2014.
Abuse, coercion and fraud
Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, had severe vision and hearing problems, and had moved into an assisted-living facility.
In 2013, Lee’s lawyers said she had been coerced into signing away her copyright because she was “an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see”.
An Alabama agency investigated whether Lee was a victim of elder abuse and financial fraud and determined that no abuse had occurred.
The publication of Go Set a Watchman also raised questions as to whether Lee had other unpublished works. Since trust documents are private, it remains unclear what will become of her literary papers.
Carter declined to discuss the will, citing Lee’s penchant for privacy.
“I will not discuss her affairs,” she told The New York Times, after the judge ruled in the paper’s favour.
– The Daily Telegraph

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