When Harper Lee decided to try to make it as a writer, she relocated (like many before her and since) to New York City. When she got there she found (like many before her and since) that she was so preoccupied with paying her rent—by working at an airline office and bookstore—that she had little time left over to focus on her writing. Fortunately, some attentive and generous acquaintances figured this out and changed the course of U.S. literature with some very personal philanthropy.
Lee spent Christmas 1956 with her close friends Michael and Joy Brown and their two young boys. Michael was a Broadway lyricist, and the year before his musical House of Flowers starring Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll had been a hit, so the family was enjoying a burst of unanticipated prosperity. Toward the end of their gift exchange that holiday, the Browns handed Lee an envelope. Inside was a note that said: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
Harper Lee later explained: “They’d saved some money and thought it was high time they did something about me…. Whether I ever sold a line was immaterial. They wanted to give me a full, fair chance to learn my craft, free from the harassments of a regular job. Would I please accept their gift?… What made them think anything would come of this? They didn’t have that kind of money to throw away…. I went to the window, stunned by the day’s miracle…. A full, fair chance for a new life…Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.”
During that gift year, Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and became one of the most influential American books of all time.