On Dec. 15, 1939, the moment for which Atlanta had held its breath finally arrived: The Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street hosted the worldwide premiere of the movie “Gone With the Wind,” capping a thrilling three days when Clark Gable,Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland showed up everywhere in town from the Cyclorama to a Junior League ball.
But perhaps no one was more anxious for premiere night to come — and then go away again — than the diminutive woman who’d started the whole frenzy three-plus years earlier.
“Won’t it be wonderful when all of this is over!” Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind’s” author, wrote on Sept. 19, 1939, to a friend, Annie Laurie Kurtz. “… I am happy that I am not handling admissions. I cannot help resenting, however, the burden that has come down on us because of the premiere.”
And that was Mitchell being rather restrained, as an intriguing new book makes clear. Edited by John Wiley Jr., “The Scarlett Letters — The Making of the Film ‘Gone With the Wind’” (Taylor Trade Publishing, $34.95) features 360 letters carefully culled from thousands in the Mitchell collection at the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It’s an entirely one-sided conversation: Wiley, who’ll appear at the Margaret Mitchell House on Dec. 15, would have needed permission from everyone else to publish their letters — an almost impossible task after 75 years.
But it almost doesn’t matter that we don’t get to read what prompted Mitchell to scathingly write to a former Smith College classmate on March 16, 1939: “I thought you were one friend I could rely on not to parade before the public what few remnants of my private life I have left.” News flash: Mitchell was a very good writer. As such, her letters featured thorough recaps of all that had previously transpired, usually coming right after “Dear So-and-so.”
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Some of what she wrote, quite frankly, strains credulity. Or at least it makes you laugh.
“For weeks and months I’ve been too busy to buy any dresses or underclothes and my underwear was in sad shape,” she wrote on Nov. 29, 1936, to thank her mother-in-law for a birthday gift of slips and panties. “Several times when I was trying to buy dresses and was standing in these worn and faded garments … strangers pushed into my fitting room.”
But while the lifelong Atlantan may have created some of the more lovably melodramatic characters in fiction — we’re looking at you, Prissy and Aunt Pittypat — Wiley thinks she didn’t exaggerate the extent to which public fascination with her book and then its long-gestating film version upended her life.
Atlanta in the 1930s “was really still a small town,” Wiley said by phone from Virginia, where he owns one of the world’s largest private collections of “Gone With the Wind” memorabilia and writes a quarterly newsletter for fans and collectors. Apparently, people thought nothing about approaching Mitchell to ask if she was working on a sequel or whether Rhett and Scarlett ever got back together.
“Someone asked her to autograph a copy of the book at a funeral,” said Wiley, who became intrigued by Mitchell’s letters while researching an earlier book he co-authored, “Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood.”
Things got even crazier after Selznick International Pictures bought the movie rights in the summer of 1936. Friends, supposed relatives, total strangers and the press all hounded her for casting suggestions, or wondered if she could get them an audition.
Mitchell wrote almost everyone back to say that she’d signed away her rights and had almost nothing to do with making the movie. That tactic, which Wiley attributes to self-preservation and good old-fashioned Southern manners, maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“She did create her own problem somewhat,” Wiley chuckled. “She would add one little personal something to her standard answer, like, ‘Oh, I’ve heard Mobile is beautiful, I’ve always wanted to visit there.’ And then of course that person would write back, ‘Oh, Miss Mitchell, please come visit,’ and then she would have to write back again, ‘Oh, I’m so busy, but if I’m ever that way … .’”
But the book isn’t all just Mitchell whinging on about the perils of sudden fame. Many letters went to people working on the movie, including screenwriter Sidney Howard, whose script for “GWTW” ended up winning an Oscar, and George Cukor, the original director. She hooks them up with people and resources to provide a historically accurate picture of antebellum-era Atlanta, all the while fretting that her beloved scrappy survivor-turned-striver of a hometown will be overly romanticized onscreen.
“God help me when the reporters get me after I’ve seen the picture,” she wrote in February 1939 to Susan Myrick, a Macon friend who worked on the movie as a technical adviser and faithfully funneled set reports and gossip back to Mitchell. “If Tara has columns and Twelve Oaks is such an elegant affair I will have to say that nothing like that was ever seen in Clayton County.”
Wiley thinks plausible deniability was a major reason Mitchell remained officially hands-off. That way, if people hated the movie, Atlantans in particular, she could shrug and say, “Don’t blame me.” It can get exhausting reading her point-by-point takedowns in letters to studio types trying to highlight her in their publicity campaigns or her ungracious excuse-making for not signing Vivien Leigh’s copy of “Gone With the Wind.” (If she broke her “No more bothersome autographs” policy for one person, Mitchell wrote to her onscreen Scarlett O’Hara in January 1940, she’d have to break it for everyone.) But you also have to respect how she stood up for herself when it felt like everyone was trying to take over her life.
In fact, you may end up agreeing with Clark Gable’s assessment of Mitchell, whom he finally he met at the Piedmont Driving Club a few hours before the movie’s premiere.
That assessment turns up — where else? — in a letter from Mitchell to him about a month later.
“Perhaps you did not say, as you left Atlanta, that I was ‘fascinating,’” Mitchell coyly wrote the man who played Rhett Butler. “But the papers credited it to you and my, how my stock has gone up!”