Above is the poster for the movie Gone with the Wind in French as it was in theatres in Paris and Brussels in the early 1940s. Friday, June 17th, was my husband and my 44th wedding anniversary. We had thought of going on a trip out of state to celebrate but instead we decided to visit the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta which is celebrating the book 75th anniversary this year.
My grandmother bought me subscriptions to the girls’ magazine “La Semaine de Suzette” when I was a little girl. I remember, maybe in 1947 or 1948, reading in this magazine a story happening in the American South. There was an illustration showing a little girl in front of a large mansion with columns. The story talked about a war in the southern states of that country, called in France “La Guerre de Sécession” (Secession War.) I thought that since the land was covered mainly with cotton fields there would have been fewer houses to destroy like in the war we had in France just a few years before – I saw some badly damaged houses on our trip to Normandie. Back then I would have never believed that one day I would live in the south of the USA and in the very state (Georgia) where the story was set.
It took us about 45 minutes to drive to the house now known as the Margaret Mitchell House. It is located in Midtown Atlanta, at the corner of 10th Street and Peachtree.
After Margaret’s second marriage to John Robert Marsh on July 4, 1925, the couple moved into the ground floor apartment shown on the picture below. Behind the three tall windows on the left was an alcove where Margaret liked to sit and read.
This is what is written on the sign shown below, on the lamppost: “1965 Shining Light Award honoring Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) author of “Gone With The Wind” for her contribution in portraying Atlanta and the Historic South to the World. Atlanta Gas Light Company – WSB Radio.”
This was one of the first brick homes in Atlanta, built in 1899. First a single family home it became “The Crescent Apartments.” After being abandoned and boarded up it deteriorated and was set afire by arson in 1994. The German industrial company Daimler-Benz AG restored the apartment house. I remember well watching on the news, in May 1996, that the house had caught fire again, just as the $4.5 million renovation was about to be completed in time for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. (It was arson again.)
The Daimler-Benz company started the cleaning and rebuilding immediately. Luckily, Margaret Mitchell’s apartment had escaped with minor damage. The restored house opened to the public in 1997 - it is included on the National Register of Historic Places. We entered through the back entrance, the same entrance Margaret would have used when she lived in Apartment no. 1. A docent took us first to a large room with exhibits on the life of Margaret Mitchell. Next to it is a small side room showing Margaret's desk at the Atlanta Journal where she was a reporter. Many pictures in the museum show Margaret from childhood all the way to her untimely death in 1949.
The docent explained that Margaret had been quite a tomboy and an uninhibited young lady, dancing the tango with bells tied to her garter-belt making noise as she danced.
Some of the pictures were for sale as postcards in the gift shop and I purchased several.
Passing a lion carving we went up the stairs. There were just two empty rooms and a painting of Margaret Mitchell. I looked through the curtains and we walked back downstairs to Apartment no. 1.
Margaret and her husband John lived in Apartment no. 1 from 1925 to 1932. It is small, about 650 sq. ft. There is a living room, a bathroom, a bedroom and a kitchen. The apartment is furnished in the style appropriate for the period when Margaret lived there and wrote Gone With The Wind. The couple had obtained some heirlooms from their families but it was mostly hand-me-downs and second-hand furnishings.
There they entertained many friends. They had decided not to live with Margaret’s widowed father in the large house where she grew up. Margaret’s mother, Maybelle, was a strong supporter of woman suffrage. She was the president of one of Atlanta’s most militant groups of suffragettes. Her grand-father Phillip Fitzgerald had emigrated from Ireland and settled on a small plantation near Jonesboro (now Clayton County about 25 miles south of Atlanta.) Maybelle had married Eugene Mitchell, a prominent lawyer and President of the Atlanta Historical Society. Unfortunately she died during the influenza epidemic of 1919. Margaret came back home from school then to be with her father. Later she became the first female columnist in the South’s largest newspaper under the name Peggy Mitchell. Margaret’s family home and her father are pictured below.
In 1936, when the first edition of Gone With The Wind was published it sold more than a million copies in the first six months. It is on the list of best-selling books, selling more than 30 million copies in 38 countries. It has been translated into 27 languages. In 1937 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Margaret Mitchell started writing the book in the apartment pictured above. She was staying off her feet after an ankle injury. It is said that Margaret wrote the first draft of her book from memory. She had been brought up listening every Sunday since she was a wee child to stories about the “War of Northern Aggression.”
As an anniversary present to ourselves we purchased the paperback 75th anniversary edition of Gone With The Wind as pictured at the beginning of this post. It was published in May 2011 by Scribner and features the book’s original jacket art. Years ago I had purchased, as another anniversary present for my husband, a good second-hand 1940 motion pictures edition of the book.
Going through the small garden we entered an annex building containing more memorabilia and exhibits on the 1939 motion picture of Gone With The Wind.
She would listen to the tales of Confederate War veterans visiting her home and did not realize that the war had been fought a long time ago. She knew about the burning and looting of Atlanta as other children know about fairy tales. Many years ago I read the book “The Road to Tara: the life of Margaret Mitchell” by Anne Edwards where she explains how Margaret grew up listening to all these battle and war stories which became part of her life.
A large portrait of Scarlett O’Hara from the Butler Mansion in the film is also displayed there.
In the back of the room there are several seats in front of a large television screen which continuously runs a 90 minutes documentary film on the making of the movie. I did not know that the US public had offered names of actresses who they felt would be a perfect Scarlett. The film shows several of the actresses auditioning for the part – Paulette Goddard was a favorite. It took two years for Mr. Selznick to decide on Vivian Leigh as his Scarlett. It was also interesting to find out that “the burning of Atlanta” was the first scene that had been shot at the Culver Studio in Los Angeles for this movie. For this scene many sets and backdrops of older movies, like the 1933 King Kong movie set, were used. Below are several shots I took from this GWTW documentary.
The actual front door of Scarlett’s home “Tara” is exhibited in the room. It was Betty Talmadge, the former wife of governor and US Senator Herman Talmadge, who purchased in 1979, for $5,000 what was left standing of the GWTW set (doorway, windows, cornice, etc.)
Margaret Mitchell was not pleased with the way Tara had been depicted in the movie. In a letter to a friend Margaret said that compared to other sections of the South, Atlanta and North Georgia were new and crude at the time and white columns were the exception. Director Selznick turned the house into an elaborate white mansion. Below is the first sketch for Tara in 1938 then the extended sketch for the 1939 film and a scene with Scarlett.
In the years leading to the Civil War most of the plantations in that part of Georgia were small and extremely rural, in the backwoods. There are some large Greek revival mansions, like we have in Marietta, but they were built by rich merchants and military men. Below is Tranquilla built in 1849 in Marietta by General Andrew J. Hansell.
Below is another Marietta historical house. It was built in 1848 for John Glover a successful businessman and the first mayor of Marietta. Originally on 3,000 acres it encompassed only 13 acres when my friend from the Rose Society owned it. Most of the land now surrounding the house has been sold to build condos.
A plaque in the movie museum explains this myth:
“Over time Hollywood’s romantic interpretation of the South blurred the images so carefully crafted by Margaret Mitchell. The O’Hara family members were Irish immigrants living in the poor North Georgia Hills country one generation removed from log cabins. Selznick transformed the family into Southern plantation aristocracy and created a Tara which existed neither in the mind nor in the book of Atlanta journalist Margaret Mitchell. For millions around the world the movie Gone With The Wind defined the South for much of the 20th century. Images from the film, not the book , have fostered stereotypes that have shaped public expectations about the people and landscape of the South particularly Atlanta. …”
Rich owners now build what they believe are Tara style mansions in subdivisions down my road – examples below.
Margaret Mitchell died on 16 August 1949 following injuries received when she was struck by a speeding taxi as she crossed Peachtree Street. I show the picture I took of her grave in my post Historic Atlanta Cemetery.
“In a weak moment, I have written a book." - Margaret Mitchell