When Harper Lee Doodled in Shakespeare Class
She wasn’t one for self-portraits. Not counting Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the only picture Harper Lee is known to have made of herself is one she literally drew: a pen-and-ink sketch in which she is asleep. A line of “Z”s connects Lee, curled up on a bed, to a dream bubble that contains her two literary agents—a married couple, who are seen working outside in a garden and hanging laundry on the line, while a cigarette and a cup of coffee wait on a windowsill (presumably for Lee, a fierce devotee of both). A charming image, it lives in obscurity among contracts, clippings, letters, telegrams, and royalty statements that make up the rest of the literary agency’s archives at Columbia University. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was the only one of its kind.
In fact, though, Harper Lee loved to draw, and a trove of her visual art will soon be sold at an auction by Bonhams. The first of its kind on the market, the collection includes thirteen ink drawings, one pencil drawing, and an acrylic portrait. Nine of the images are caricatures that Lee created and captioned during college—most likely during a Shakespeare class that she took, because they include a series of his characters. King Lear stands on the cliffs of Dover, with a price tag (“$3.98”) hanging from his cloak like an Elizabethan Minnie Pearl; Julius Caesar smokes a pipe while “contemplating the infinite”; Othello towers over an angel and a devil, apparently displaced from his scrawny shoulders; Cassius drips dry outside the Roman baths, where “you must have a ticket before you bathe”; and Malvolio, “the impatient one,” crosses his legs while “waiting to go to the jakes” (nowadays more commonly known as the john).
Sketched and shaded, mostly on lined loose-leaf paper, the characters are, with one exception, modelled on a friend of hers, Charles Weldon Carruth, a fellow undergraduate at the University of Alabama. Carruth’s exaggerated face rests like a bobblehead doll atop the various antagonists and protagonists of Shakespeare’s plays, each set on pedestals or installed in playful scenes. Some of them are signed—either “Nelle Lee” or “NLee,” because she was not yet going by her middle name—and two of them are dated from the fall term of 1945, when she was almost certainly enrolled in the Shakespeare course taught by one of the school’s most famous faculty members, Hudson Strode.
Lee talked about Strode’s course elsewhere, but, even if she hadn’t, the mustached professor is recognizable in one of the funniest sketches in the lot: he’s wearing the breeches and curled-toe shoes of a court jester, together with an anachronistic bow tie, and brandishing one of his own books. The grandson of a Confederate colonel, Strode wrote a three-volume biography of Jefferson Davis, along with a half-dozen travel books; he also directed the University of Alabama’s theatre troupe. But he was most famous for a creative-writing course that he taught. Earlier that summer, Time magazine profiled Strode’s workshop—a novelty at the time, in that it had no lectures or textbooks, instead allowing a select group of students to focus on their fiction.
Lee never studied creative writing, with Strode or anyone else, but that didn’t stop her from dropping out before graduation and moving to Manhattan to become a writer. Carruth moved to New York City, too, and the two Alabamians stayed in touch. He worked in radio and television, then settled into a position with the Catholic News; Lee worked for a short time as an assistant editor at the School Executive, a trade magazine for education professionals, then took a job as a ticket agent, eventually landing at the British Overseas Airways Corporation, where, one day, she took reservations for Sir Laurence Olivier. That fact would have delighted “Sir C. W. Carruth,” as Lee captioned her old college friend in a sketch of him as Hamlet, with Yorick’s skull and a bloody knife hidden behind his back.
But Lee did not limit herself to caricatures. The auction also includes five realist studies of Carruth, along with an acrylic portrait she painted of him as a Christmas gift in 1952. This was around the same time that she was falling in love with the city’s art museums—and, on the evidence of her own work, specifically with the style of Edward Hopper. Some of the paintings that she produced in those years went home to her family, including a seascape and an empty bench that waits beneath a window, bereft or expectant; that one was so striking it appeared with Lee’s sister on the cover of a southern magazine, after “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published.
From a sticker on the back of the Carruth portrait, it seems that the struggling artist soon to be known as Harper Lee was buying her art supplies at Garber’s on Third Avenue, not far from her apartment in Yorkville, the neighborhood where she lived most of her adult life. “You can see these moments of her moving around as a young person, writing, trying to get published, finally getting a book contract,” Darren Sutherland, a specialist at Bonhams, said. “To me, the drawings show a young, broad interest in the arts.” They also, he said, demonstrate “her biting passion for the artistic in all forms, and her sense of humor.”
That devil’s-walking-stick wit was famous at the University of Alabama, where Lee ran the college humor magazine and wrote a regular column for the student newspaper called “Caustic Comment.” Her juvenilia includes a withering attack on university librarians who loaned out “Ulysses” only after tearing out the “Penelope” chapter and an irreverent revision of the famous reply to Virginia O’Hanlon’s query about Santa Claus called “Naw, Virginia…It’s just your Ma and Pa,” complete with related real-world advice that the girl should believe in fairies: “I saw two of them together the other day in Jimmie’s, huddled together reading THE WELL OF LONELINESS.”
One of Lee’s fellow editors on “The Rammer-Jammer” once joked that Lee majored in “debunking,” and she continued doing so long after college. In her private letters, she skewered everything from this magazine (“I agree with you completely about ‘The New Yorker.’ I wouldn’t take it—it gets sent to me”) to the current President’s casinos (“The worst punishment God can devise for this sinner is to make her spirit reside eternally at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City”) to small-town morals (“No filthy postcards, please. We have a new postmaster who goes to my church”). Her comedy was also on display in the nicknames she often gave herself when signing letters: “Francesca da Rimini,” one of Dante’s damned, when she felt hopeless; “E. Bouverie Pusey,” the Anglican theologian, when she got worked up about some finer points of theology; and “Victoria R/I”—the Queen Empress Victoria—when she felt royal and moody.
But, seven decades ago, she was still just Nelle, doodling her way through Shakespeare class, trying to figure out whether “NLee” looked better with a space between the first initial and the surname and how squiggly to make the capitals. It was almost like she knew that someday she would be famous, even though, by the time she was, it was not only under a different name, but for a different art form. Fortunately for us, her friend Charles already thought that everything she did was worth saving.