Harper Lee Seen for the First Time in Eight Years: A Fascinating Glimpse of America's Beloved Writer Ahead of 'Go Set a Watchman' Release

The famously reclusive author attended a lunch in her honor on June 30

Photo: Mary Murphy & Company LLC

Harper Lee made her first public appearance in nearly a decade at a celebratory lunch in her honor and, exactly two weeks before the release of her highly anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, the famously reclusive author brushed aside speculation that she might not have wanted her long-lost manuscript published.

“Of course I did, don’t be silly,” Lee said at the event in Monroeville, according to attendee Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department, who related the author’s comments to The New York Times.

The June 30 luncheon was one of only a handful of known outings Lee has made since 1964 – and capped months of public skepticism over the 89-year-old To Kill a Mockingbird author’s health and state of mind in agreeing to publish Go Set a Watchman. Lee is now largely confined to a nursing home in her native Monroeville, Alabama.

In April, the Alabama Department of Human Resources ended its elder-abuse investigation after, officials there said, Lee was able to answer questions about the book to investigators’ satisfaction, USA Today reported.

Lee’s long-lost manuscript – the precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird which she had hoped would be her literary debut – spent decades in a safe deposit box before being uncovered by her lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, last August. It was later turned over to Mockingbird publisher HarperCollins.

In a taped interview that Lee’s literary agent Andrew Nurnberg gave to Sentell ahead of the lunch, and calling Lee by her given first name, he recounts a conversation he had with the author about Watchman: “I told Nelle I found it such a strong novel and I hoped she wanted to publish it, and asked would she like to read it again. She said: ‘Oh no, I remember it very well, no problem. But if you think people will enjoy it, let’s publish it.’ ”

Nearly 60 years after she wrote Go Set a Watchman, Lee was presented with a finished copy at the lunch on June 30.

The author, who has poor vision and hearing, was lively and animated as she signed copies of the book and chatted with attendees, The New York Times reports.

She sat next to her longtime friend Joy Brown, who lent her money when she was living in New York City in the 1950s so she could write her novels. The event was also attended by publishing industry executives including Susan Sandon, managing director of a division of Penguin Random House UK, which will release Watchman in Britain.

“It was lovely to see Nelle’s delight in the book itself,” Sandon said in a statement.

As the literary world awaits the novel’s release on July 14, PBS will add to the anticipation by airing an exclusive interview with Lee, titled “Harper Lee: American Masters” and conducted by filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy (pictured above).

Fans will also be able to read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

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