The making of Scarlett O'Hara

'Gone with the Wind' was published 60 years ago this month but most of what we know about its author, Margaret Mitchell, was discovered in the last two years. Fran A Chalfont reports from Atlanta

Although visitors to Atlanta this summer will not find any traces of Tara, Scarlett O'Hara's home in Gone With The Wind, they will find a virtual treasure trove in the Road to Tara Museum, housed in one of central Atlanta's very few grand old hotels. Should they venture afield, they'll find selected items from the largest private collection of Gone With The Wind memorabilia on display until 9 September in the town of Newnan, 30 miles south of Atlanta. And although the building containing the flat where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind was set ablaze by an arsonist in May, there are plans to develop a new Mitchell shrine in the heart of midtown Atlanta. Unnoticed by the organisers of the Olympics, a whole industry is developing around a literary figure about whom, until lately, little was known.

Like the winds of change that followed the burning and occupation of Civil War Atlanta in 1864, the publication of Gone With The Wind 60 years ago this month immutably altered Margaret Mitchell's life. It transformed her from an anonymous researcher - so meticulous that she documented at least four sources for every historical event in her epic novel - to a permanent celebrity, whose writings thereafter consisted of thousands of letters in response to queries both banal and constructive. As early as 1936, Mitchell found difficulty in reconciling her public southern-belle image with her self appraisal as "one of the short-haired, short-skirted hard-boiled young women who preachers said would go to hell or be hanged before they were 30."

Some misunderstandings are more serious. She is often viewed as a nostalgic apologist for a tainted ante-bellum past, although it's often the case that such critics have neither read the book nor become familiar with her life. Mitchell herself was all too aware of the power of image and myth. After seeing the film of Gone With the Wind, she scoffed at the references to the South as a "land of Cavaliers and cotton fields." Her book, by contrast, stressed the yeoman origins of the Southern planters who generally had few or no slaves. She also unsuccessfully tried to emphasise that "North Georgia homes were plantation plain," as she wrote to a friend. "North Georgia wasn't all white columns and singing darkies and magnolias. But people believe what they want to believe and the mythical old South has too strong a hold on their imagination to be altered by the reading of a 1037-page book."

The book's detractors seem to forget that the book celebrates the themes of survival and realignment after great social or natural upheavals - and that in 1936 Mitchell declared her abiding interest to be in "what makes some people survive catastrophes and others... apparently just as brave and strong... go under."

The accusations that Mitchell was a racist have been disproved, at least in part, by the recent revelation that she privately paid for the education of at least 20 black Atlanta medical students, including Otis Smith, the first licensed black paediatrician in Georgia, who declared that, if it had been publicly offered, such generosity "would not have been well received in the political climate of the Forties. She was trying to protect her conservative Atlanta family from criticism."

Up to now, Mitchell's life has been well documented by several biographical/critical studies, a large edition of letters relating to Gone With The Wind and her small collection of early articles written for the Atlanta Journal. The constant invasions of privacy concomitant with fame finally caused Mitchell to request that her letters, papers, and unpublished manuscripts be destroyed after her death in August 1949, after she was hit by a car. However, like the phoenix (Atlanta's civic symbol), Mitchell's creative canon has become recently resurgent through Henry Angel Jr, son of a rejected beau and long-time friend. In November 1994, Angel approached Atlanta's Road to Tara museum with a collection of 57 photographs, 15 letters, and a story written in two copybooks. The museum hired Debra Freer to edit and publish this material, "the largest cache to surface since Mitchell's death, and revealing much new information about her life."

The story is Lost Leysen (Orion, pounds 12.99), a 13,000-word novella written in 1916, when Mitchell was 16. It is set on a South Pacific island and its chief interest lies in the affinities between the main characters and Mitchell's own friends or characters that later appeared in Gone With The Wind. The heroine is closely modelled on Courtenay Ross, who along with Mitchell and Angel, made up a childhood gang known as "The Dirty Three". The plotline, of love and literally volcanic loss, is recounted by Bill Duncan, a veteran sailor and expatriate Irishman like Scarlett O'Hara's father. One of Courtenay's suitors is presented as "tall, broad of shoulder and lean of hips," suggesting Gone With The Wind's Rhett Butler. Leysen's villain, and the character most offensive to current political sensibilities, is Juan Mardo, a wealthy landowner. Mitchell makes him of mixed race, Japanese and Spanish, "possessing the devil's own dark beauty" with "a soft red woman's mouth that always sneered." As Freer points out, this ethnic casting reflects the general fear of Japanese expansion in the South Pacific, as reflected in "yellow peril" scares and stricter immigration laws following the First World War.

Of more significance overall are the letters and photographs kept by Angel. Freer's excellent prefatory essay on Mitchell reproduces some 30 photographs and nearly all the letters. It reveals that Mitchell and Angel knew each other since the age of 12 and that, with Courtenay Ross, they joined a boys' baseball team, fought mudball wars, and acted in a play, The Traitor, written by Mitchell and based on DW Griffith's epic Civil War film, The Birth of a Nation. Mitchell, recalled Ross in a 1980 interview, played the hero, Steve Hoyle. Her photograph in this "trouser-part," with close-cropped dark hair, holstered revolver and gaiters, is just one of several included here which reveal Mitchell's growing creativity and independence. Another photograph and letter show her projecting a very different image at a debutant ball, where she "stunned onlookers by performing a wildly suggestive dance that ended with a long kiss." Just as Scarlett O'Hara shocked prudish Atlantans by dancing while in mourning, Mitchell's "Apache dance" similarly offended the arbiters of 1921 society, who rejected her subsequent application to join the Junior League.

Mitchell's 1922 letter turning down Angel's marriage proposal states her feelings explicitly yet sensitively: "It's your happiness, I want, dear, and if money and the old life of likker, gambling and women will give you a measure of happiness, then I'm for you... if I ever say I care about you - or feel the same toward you except that I can't marry you, please take my word for it. I do love you, old timer."

Instead of marrying Angel she married, first the alcoholic, violent and spectacularly unsuitable bootlegger, Red Upshaw (note the Christian name, pitched exactly between Scarlett and Rhett), then the altogether more stable figure of John Marsh, a public-relations executive. Their story, as told in Marianne Walker's 1993 study, Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With The Wind (Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1993) is one of partnership and deep mutual affection. It seems they shared an interest in local history, dialect and the role of contemporary women; and Marsh played a crucial part in the conception of Gone With The Wind.

On an autumn night in 1926, with Peggy confined to their flat with an injured ankle and making no progress in writing "an adventure story set in the Jazz Age," Marsh urged her to think instead about a historical novel about Southerners who could not only survive tragedy but grew stronger after going through it - including some she had researched in her journalistic work, members of her own family and even Marsh's mother, who supported a large extended family after her husband's sudden death. The next evening John gave Peggy her advance birthday present: a stack of yellow copy paper, a small table and a second-hand Remington typewriter...

Henry Angel Jr's revelations were followed, this April, by the news that another Atlanta family had discovered in their cellar about 200 pages of short stories and journal entries Mitchell wrote between the ages of 10 and 14. She "published" the stories through her imaginary Urchin Press, and later kept a journal which reveals a remarkable level of self-awareness and determination. "I know I'm as smart as the other girls, but the trouble is that I am lazy... I am one of the people who never do well unless they are made to do it. I'm human. I want to be famous in some way - a speaker, artist, writer, soldier, fighter, stateswoman or anything nearly... I think there is a phrase in the Bible that says, 'Knock and it shall be opened unto you.' I have tried, in my way, to do my best, and heaven knows that I have asked enough to be the smartest person on earth... only I'm not. Quite a difference. Well, here's to one more try for 1915."

The new material reinforces the growing awareness of Mitchell as a strong individualist whose rebellions against conformity ranged from her wildly ill-advised first marriage to her eccentric typing methods, which included rarely hitting the apostrophe key (her apostrophes appear as '8's). A woman of passion, energy and enlightened views, she is gradually emerging from the flouncing shadow of Scarlett O'Hara. In the world of Tara studies, it seems, tomorrow generally is another day.

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