Born in Raymond, Mississippi in 1895, Muna Lee was the eldest of nine children. When she was seven, her family moved to Oklahoma, but Lee returned to Mississippi to attend Blue Mountain College when she was fourteen. By eighteen, she had graduated from the University of Mississippi, and the 1913 Ole Miss annual saluted her talent:
Muna Lee has been with us only this one year, but all who have had classes with her have found that she is a person with brains. We are glad that she came to us in time for Ole Miss to claim her as one of her daughters.
Lee published her first poem within a year of graduation. Hundreds more poems would follow, including a volume entitled Sea-Change (1923). After spending two weeks teaching herself Spanish, Lee landed a New York job with the U.S. Secret Service during the First World War. As a confidential translator, she censored mail written Spanish as well as in Portuguese and French.
Within a year, she had met and married Luis Munoz Marin, a poet and journalist whose father was an esteemed Puerto Rican statesman. The couple divided the next two decades between New York and the island. During this period she began to translate Latin American poetry and prose into English, served as director of International Relations at the University of Puerto Rico, and advocated for woman’s suffrage and equal rights.
In 1941, the U.S. State Department offered Lee a position as a cultural affairs specialist arranging exchanges of literature, art, and film with Latin American nations. It was in this context that she made the acquaintance of William Faulkner when she attempted to persuade the notoriously reclusive author to visit Brazil. Faulkner responded in a letter: “Can there be more than one Muna Lee? more than one whose verse I have known since a long time?” Two months after retiring from the State Department in 1965, Lee died in Puerto Rico.
Between 1933 and 1938, this accomplished woman turned to writing mysteries for both fun and profit. With Maurice Guiness, a Shell Oil executive stationed in San Juan, Lee co-authored five mysteries under the penname “Newton Gayle.” Published by Scribner’s in America and Gollancz in England, the volumes were also translated into Spanish and Italian. The series received good reviews.