7 Things To Know About Harper Lee's First Editor

by Emma Cueto

With the publication of Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set a Watchman , looming, and with people already reacting to the first chapter (which can be read online), now seems like a good time to look at the woman who helped create Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird 50-ish years ago. A recent piece in the New York Times takes a close look at Therese von Hohoff Torrey, who used the name Tay Hohoff in her professional life, Harper Lee's first editor. And it's pretty clear that she's someone worth knowing about.

Tay Hohoff was in her 50s when she first began working with Harper Lee in 1957 at the now defunct publishing house J. B. Lippincott Company. Lee originally delivered the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman, but Hohoff did not feel the book was ready for publication. Instead, she started pushing Lee to explore the story more, and over the next few years, the book changed form and instead shifted focus from Scout as an adult to Scout as a child, eventually becoming the classic work we all know and love, To Kill a Mockingbird. Which sort of means that Go Set a Watchman is less of a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird and more of a first draft.

As Jonathan Mahler writes in the New York Times:

The release of “Watchman,” which has been only lightly copy-edited, also leads inevitably to the question: Who was the invisible hand guiding Ms. Lee as she transformed this book into “Mockingbird”? Maybe more to the point, how big a role did she play in reconceiving the story from a dark tale of a young woman’s disillusionment with her father’s racist views, to a redemptive one of moral courage and human decency? And, for that matter, how would Ms. Hohoff have felt about the decision, more than a half-century later, to publish a prototype of “Mockingbird”?

Most of these questions can never be answered for certain, of course. But it is worth taking a closer look at Tay Hohoff, regardless. Here are 7 things that you should know about this legendary editor:

She Was A Trailblazer

Over the course of her time at Lippencourt, which stretched from 1942 until her retirement in the 1970s, Hohoff rose from being an editor to becoming senior vice-president of the company at a time when it was still rare for women to hold such a senior position in a publishing house. But it seems she was well-suited to the job and comfortable having such authority. Edward Burlingame, who was an editor at Lippencourt at the time, described her as, "a powerful gray-haired lady who knew her own mind and spoke in a frank sort of way.”

She Was a Very Kind, But Very Intensive Editor

As you might expect from the fact that she was able to steer Harper Lee from writing a story about a disillusioned young woman to instead producing a child's coming-of-age story, Hohoff was very hands on and influential in shaping her authors' work. But unlike some infamous editors, she wasn't heavy-handed or domineering. One author she worked with in the 1960s said recently, “She was closely attentive and tough, but I never felt manhandled by her.” In working with Harper Lee, the two could apparently spend hours discussing a point in the novel. “When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours,” Hohoff once wrote. “And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country.”

She Once Stopped Harper Lee From Throwing To Kill a Mockingbird Away

Apparently at one point during their revisions, Harper Lee was so frustrated that she took the pages of the manuscript and threw them out the window — then called Hohoff, who talked the author into going outside to pick them up again. To think that if Hohoff wasn't successful, one of the classics of American literature never would have been finished!

She Wrote Her Own Book

Around the same time she was working with Lee on To Kill a Mockingbird, Hohoff was writing a book of her own, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott, an early 20th century activist from New York. The book, titled A Ministry to Man, was published a year before Mockingbird was released. It has long since apparently fallen out of print, but used copies exist on Amazon.

She Kept Her Name After She Got Married

A former associate who had just started at Lippencourt when Hohoff was editing To Kill a Mockingbird remembers that Hohoff and one of the other female editors at the publishing house were the first women she knew to keep their names after marriage. And apparently Hohoff had strong feelings that women should not change their names.

She Lived to Be 75

During her life, Hohoff was married twice, had two children, and enjoyed a long and successful career. She died in her sleep in 1974 at the age of 75.

She Was Very Protective

Although Hohoff apparently tried to coax Harper Lee into writing a second novel many times over the years, she didn't let the publishing house's impatience get to her, nor did she let them pressure Lee. Instead, she seems to have been fiercely protective of her author. Burlingame told the New York Times,Tay really guarded Nelle [Harper Lee] like a junkyard dog. She was not going to allow any commercial pressures or anything else to put stress on her to publish anything that wouldn’t make Nelle proud or do justice to her."