Journalist Recalls the Summer He Worked Alongside Harper Lee

At a New York publication called The School Executive.

ToKillAMockingBird50thCoverToday in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the paper’s former education editor Charles Whaley jumps back to the post-World War II days. In the summer of 1949, he had just graduated from the University of Kentucky and was looking to spend a useful summer in New York before starting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Whaley wound up at The School Executive, a now defunct NYC publication where one Nelle Harper Lee had been hired earlier that same year by editor Dr. Walter Cocking, who also engaged Whaley. Intriguingly, when author Charles Shields published his 2006 biography of Lee, titled Mockingbird, there was no mention of her The School Executive days. It was Whaley in fact, post-publication, who made Shields aware. From the Courier-Journal article:

Shields asked me to share my memories of Harper from those days for a future revision of his biography Mockingbird.

”I remember Lee as being very friendly and outgoing, chipper with a warm smile and friendly greeting as she walked through the office,” I wrote him in part. “I also have a recollection of her being with a young man of her age (name escapes me; was it John?) as they chatted with me. Did he work there, too? Not sure. But this chat did take place in the office on Park Avenue South. Was he a boyfriend or just a friend? He was Southern, I’m pretty sure.”

Shields, I believe, was the first to reveal the huge role that Nelle’s New York friends Michael and Joy Brown, whom I also got to know years later, in the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Truman Capote, her hometown friend, had asked them to befriend her when she moved to New York.

Go Set a Watchman, the very belated sequel to Lee’s seminal 1960 novel, will be released July 14. Whaley meanwhile has been working on a biography of Ben Bagley, a New York record producer who spearheaded off-Broadway revues.
 
[Jacket cover courtesy: HarperCollins]