The Player: Part One - David O Selznick was the archetype for the big-shot Hollywood producer: selfish, reckless and over-sexed, but with a talent for putting magic on the screen that could excuse any excess of temperament

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He came to California in 1926, aged 24, after his father had made a fortune in the movies and lost it. By 1935 he had married Irene Mayer, daughter of the head of MGM, and was ready to go independent. He was also about to make the most important purchase of his life.

IN THE SUMMER of 1935, Margaret Marsh of Atlanta was hard at work on her large book. She had begun the writing 10 years earlier, when arthritis had immobilised her and marriage to John Marsh kept her home, but she had 'never sent it to any publishers because, to be quite frank, I didn't think much of it. Written as it was at the height of the Jazz Age, I didn't think it would sell as a 'Victorian' type novel almost as long as Anthony Adverse and about war and hard times in Georgia. And also there was precious little obscenity in it, no adultery and not a single degenerate, and I couldn't imagine a publisher being silly enough to buy it.' But in April, Harold Latham, a vice- president at Macmillan, had come to Atlanta scouting. He had been told there was a book, in envelopes and packets here and there around the Marsh house, and Latham spirited it away from the shy yet ardent writer.

Macmillan accepted the book and asked the author to finish it - quickly. They wanted to publish in the summer of 1936. Peggy Marsh would be Margaret Mitchell on the title page. Macmillan wanted some other changes, too: 'Pansy' O'Hara hardly felt worthy of the written woman. So she became Scarlett.

Then there was the title. All along Peggy had had a title - Tomorrow Is Another Day. Yet she thought it could be improved. She and her publisher exchanged ideas:

Another Day?

Tote the Weary Load??

Not in Our Stars???

Bugles Sang True????

Until one day, when Peggy was dipping into the 19th-century English poet Ernest Dowson, she found a phrase that seemed stricken with the very loss that had overtaken her South: 'Gone with the wind.' The pieces were in place and the rapidly revised manuscript, with the new title, was delivered to the printer.

By that summer, David, Irene and three- year-old Jeffrey Selznick were in residence at 1050 Summit Drive. Irene had wanted a house that felt 'in the country and yet in the city,' and the Summit Drive location matched those needs: only a few hundred yards north of Sunset Boulevard and the Beverly Hills Hotel, yet on a twisting lane where there were only a few other estates - the Chaplin house opposite and Pickfair (owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks) further up the road.

Two years earlier, Irene had set out to find the best architect in the area. Everything she liked was by Roland Coate, who had been successful in the 1920s, so she persuaded him - this was 1933, the bankers' worst year - to work for her. Coate designed a large, two-storey Georgian Colonial mansion with every possible modern convenience. There was a projection room, and bedroom windows which David could open and close electronically without getting out of bed; there were latticed porches and alcoves with display cabinets for porcelain. There was comfort, prettiness, a certain ill-defined air of the past and no flourish to disturb the conservatism of the occupants.

There was a considerable distance between the quarters shared by Jeffrey and his nanny and those of his parents. The separate bedrooms (David snored mightily, so the couple seldom passed entire nights together, or woke together), guarded by double doors, had been designed with two different people in mind. Daniel Selznick, who was conceived in one of those rooms in the August of 1935, wrote later:

'My mother's was this absolutely wonderful shade of pale green. There was an upholstered bed, with a back and headboard and footboard in embroidered pale green. With elements of white in it. Discreet little bookshelves held about six shelves of books on either side of this presentational area of her bed . . . there was an area which was six inches off the floor which was the actual bed area, and this in turn was curtained, plus it had sliding doors . . . I would call it a classic Freudian architecture.

'My father's suite was paneled pine, brown carpet, forest green upholstery with its own wonderful English-looking fireplace. Books in every direction, just massive, long bookshelves. A standing globe, for some reason . . . and this fabulous big desk.'

There was space left for a pool, but no pool yet: David could not afford one. At the end of June 1935, David and Irene were overdrawn and David had lost more than dollars 35,000 gambling. In the second half of the heady year in which he would assure investors in his new company of model economies, David lost more than dollars 94,000. The pool would have to wait.

The move to Summit House marked the end of David's first decade in Hollywood and the end of his second stint at MGM. In those two years his most successful picture had been David Copperfield, with George Cukor as director and Anna Karenina and A Tale of Two Cities were in production. But in June, as a finale to disagreements and dissatisfactions, he resigned from Metro and made his bid for freedom.

On 15 October 1935, with shareholders that included his friend Jock Whitney, his brother Myron and Jock's sister Joan Payson (David invested not a penny himself) David became president and executive producer of Selznick International Pictures. Along with his new his staff, David was delighted to rehire Kay Brown as SIP's New York story editor. She had no doubts about the new operation: 'Selznick had a marvelously impressive record of the kind of pictures I was interested in.'

By the beginning of 1936, Peggy Marsh feared a threat to her settled life. The Macmillan 'Spring Announcement' included Come with the Wind as one of five 'great novels' it would be publishing. How vexing that mistake must have been (and what a sign of the moment it is now: soon everyone in America knew the correct title). Publication was set for 21 April, but a series of postponements occurred - to 5 May, and finally to 30 June, so that Gone with the Wind could be the July main selection from the Book-of-the-Month Club.

On 20 May, two days after the birth of Daniel, Kay Brown air-mailed a synopsis and a copy of the book to the West Coast. She said it was a 'magnificent possibility for Miriam Hopkins or Margaret Sullavan' adding the warning that another company had already bid dollars 25,000 for it on a verbal recounting of the story (this proved to be Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox). Val Lewton, David's West Coast story editor, thought it 'ponderous trash'. Silvia Schulman, David's secretary, went to the home of some friends in Malibu and stayed up all night reading the book with the waves beating on the house. 'And I'm saying to myself, this is unmitigated tripe.' But she couldn't stop reading the love story. David read the synopsis and heard the others' comments. He had doubts.

On 21 May, Kay Brown was on the teletype again. 'This is an absolutely magnificent story,' she told him, 'and it belongs to us.' She now thought of Bette Davis for Scarlett and Gable or Ronald Colman as Rhett Butler. She had got another copy of the book for David's partner, Jock Whitney, and she guessed that dollars 50,000 would buy it. David responded on 25 May. He understood Kay's feelings, but who could play Scarlett? He pointed to So Red the Rose (a Civil War picture, made in 1935, with Margaret Sullavan), which had been a great flop. A day later, David admitted: 'The more I think about it, the more I feel there is an excellent picture in it. Were I with MGM, I believe I would buy it now for some such combination as Gable and Joan Crawford.'

Copies of the book were all over Hollywood. They had to be considering it at Metro - for Metro had Gable and nearly everyone who read the book thought of him as Captain Butler. In New York there were rumours of collusion. Mervyn Le Roy was interested. He had made a film from the best-seller Anthony Adverse, and he was married to Harry Warner's daughter, Doris.

By the end of May, David believed Metro was ready to do a deal. The sum of dollars 65,000 was mentioned. Earlier, David had told Kay that 'no executive (at MGM) . . has any particular interest in it', but I think it likely that David had discussed the book's prospects with his father-in-law (Louis B Mayer, at MGM) and that Metro made way for David, not necessarily out of generosity or with a future deal spelled out, but with some element of both.

A month passed. That is often overlooked in the story. For in a month in Hollywood all manner of arrangements can be made. All through June, while David was fussing over his new production of The Garden of Allah with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer, Gone With the Wind was showing every sign of becoming a best-seller. Kay Brown remained a supporter of the cause and was able to work on Jock Whitney in New York.

Warners was in the game. On 7 July, with Annie Laurie Williams, the agent for the book, alongside her, Kay Brown teletyped Silvia from the New York office: 'She (Williams) has not heard from Warners since this previous offer . . . Nor has she heard from Metro today. Where is Mr Selznick and shall I keep her waiting here or shall I let her go over to Fox?'

David was frantic on the set of Allah: would Miss Williams wait? Kay replied to Silvia. 'She (Williams) just called her office and they told her Warner Brothers had called and left msg it was important . . . It may be very foolish of me but I don't want her to get out of this office. If she only would go downstairs and have a drink with me but I don't think she drinks.'

Silvia suggested tea - 'I bet Annie doesn't get around much. Why not take her some place grrrand and I am sure you will have word from DOS . . . at the very latest by five your time.' Kay laughed back on the teletype: it was after five in New York already.

At some time close to 2pm, Hollywood time, on 7 July 1936, David dictated a message to Silvia that she took to the machine:

'If you can close Gone With the Wind for 50,000 do so.'

At 4.30pm a woozy message came back from New York:

'. . .Hold your seat I've closed for 50,000. Marvelous. Thrilled to death. Wait till DOS hears it.'

The machines were crazed. It was late, and Kay was celebrating. She got cold feet:

'You are sure there is no mistake in my authorisation to close as I have worked my G-D-head off on this . . . I'm in such a dither I was afraid I didn't read English. Flagg (Harriet Flagg, who worked for SIP in New York) and I out to get drunk.'

Silvia knocked out the last message of the wild evening:

'Absolutely certain your authorisation. Close for 50,000. I still say Hoop La and have a drink for me.'

So David had his book. The agreement was drawn up on 30 July. By then he was on board the Lurline, bound for Honolulu. For the first time, he began to read Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and was pleased to find many other passengers doing the same thing.

Back in New York, the reviews were coming in. Donald Adams, in the New York Times, called it 'the best Civil War novel that has yet been written'; the Washington Post said it was 'the best novel that has ever come out of the South'. But the Nation and the New Republic argued that the book was deeply conservative and none too sympathetic to blacks. Margaret Mitchell was jubilant at such attacks: 'I would be upsetand mortified if the left-wingers liked the book. I'd have to do so much explaining to family and friends.'

Ten days after publication, Macmillan reported sales of 140,000. By the end of July, it had sold a million copies. David was beginning to realise he owned not just the best of properties, but the heaviest of responsibilites.

His first thought had been to get Margaret Mitchell herself to write the script: he imagined the lady from Atlanta had been bursting to get to Hollywood all along and he had heard the book's ending needed more work. But Margaret Mitchell was no help. She had been ill, she replied, worn out by the furore and the interviews, scarcely able to see: 'It will be impossible for me to go to Hollywood.'

David did not give up hope, and he never began to understand Margaret Mitchell. She could be coy, and there were surely moments when fame unhinged her - this was the creator of Scarlett, after all. But early on she found the right tone of amused, provincial complaint: 'Life has been awful since I sold the movie rights] I am deluged with letters demanding that I do not put Clark Gable in as Rhett. Strangers telephone me or grab me on the street, insisting that Katharine Hepburn will never do. It does me no good to point out sarcastically that it is Mr Selznick and not I who is producing this picture.'

Of the other writers David considered, Sidney Howard was the favourite. Howard was a playwright and a Pulitzer Prize winner. In addition, he had done screenplays of great merit and prestige. Negotiations went on in the first half of October, with Howard proposing to fit the assignment into his play-writing plans. This alarmed David: 'I have never had much success (he wrote to Kay in New York) with leaving a writer alone to do a script without almost daily collaboration with myself and usually also the director.' But Howard evaded all entanglements. He would do the work at his farm at Tyringham, Massachusetts. On 1 November he wrote to 'Dave': 'I have been re-reading GWTW and it is certainly quite a nut to crack . . . It looks as though the best time for me to do the bulk of my work would be the month of December with a good prospect of delivering by the middle of January. Oh, brother, we've got an awful lot of story.'

At David's suggestion, Howard contacted Margaret Mitchell, who delivered her most emphatic warning yet. 'When I sold the book to the Selznick Company, I made it very plain that I would have nothing whatsoever to do with the picture, nothing about additional dialogue, nothing about advising on backgrounds, costumes, continuity. They offered me money to go to Hollywood to write additional dialogue, etc. and I refused. I sold the book on that understanding. Not more than a week ago, I wrote Miss Katherine Brown of the Selznick Company and asked her if you were familiar with my attitude and she wired me that you were.'

Howard delivered the treatment in December and was ready to come West to discuss it, but David had a Christmas planned in Idaho - some winter sports while he assessed the treatment. He was now wondering whether Errol Flynn was a possible Rhett and he asked Myron to talk to Warners about it. In Austria, at Kitzbuhel, a young actress named Vivien Leigh had also planned to ski for Christmas. But when she broke her ankle she read the book she had bought as she left London. Gone With the Wind was published there only just before Christmas. She was entranced by it.

Back from Idaho, David sent a long letter to Sidney Howard - 'Very happy indeed over your approach to the story - rough as it is'. He saw now that Wind might run two-and-a- half hours, yet he still hoped for a dollars 1.5m picture ready by Christmas 1937. Howard was too busy actually writing for a lengthy reply, and he had George Cukor with him much of the time by then, but he wrote to David: 'The book is written in a series of islands: good enough novel technique, but you have to produce a picture, not an archipelago.' It was a shrewd comment, and it bears on many of David's pictures.

By mid-February David had the script: 400 pages of it, enough for six-and-a-half hours. Of course, that was too much, even making the book as two movies. But still the script contained the eventual film in its essentials. Other things were slipping by. On 2 February, Charles Morrison from the casting department asked Kay Brown for the name of the actress who played the lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth in Alexander Korda's Fire Over England.

'No one here has seen Fire Over England,' answered Kay. 'Our guess is you mean Vivian (sic) Leigh, with whom Mr Selznick is familiar and about whom he is enthusiastic.'

How did David know about her that early? He hadn't seen the film by then, and on 3 February he had said: 'I have no enthusiasm for Vivien Leigh. Maybe I will have, but as yet I have never even seen a photograph of her.'

However, a year earlier, David's brother Myron had been in England when Fire Over England was being filmed - during the same summer that Vivien Leigh began her romance with Laurence Olivier. And Myron was Olivier's American agent.

On 8 March 1937, John Wharton (SIP's vice- president) summed up the financial state of SIP after the release of its first two films. There was no emergency yet; the company had about dollars 800,000 in hand. But it was already dependent on bank loans and a recent refinancing arrangement among SIP partners. Wharton foresaw a need for further loans, yet the rate of production was slower than had been promised - and the overhead was very large. At this rate, every picture had to be a smash.

Where did David stand? For the year 1936, his income had been dollars 93,335 - and he had lost more than dollars 55,000 of it gambling. But Irene's income had been dollars 154,862 (more than dollars 61,000 of that being the first dividends on her Twentieth Century Fox shares). David was helping support his mother (usually dollars 800 a month) and his eldest brother Howard (dollars 700 a month). He had a mortgage on Summit Drive and a loan from Myron, and he gave Irene a monthly allowance of dollars 2,800. Her money, including half of his salary, went into her separate account. Month by month, David was on the borderline, despite the huge sums and the lavish lifestyle. He could not back off without losing the confidence and admiration of both the business and the Whitneys.

The pressure came from within as well as without and David's health was showing the strain. He had, variously, a sugar problem, a thyroid deficiency, or a lack of sleep. Non- medical people said he was simply a terrible administrator who would not delegate. David responded by claiming a greater need for perfection than other people understood.

In the spring of 1937, Dr Sam Hirschfeld recommended Benzedrine so David could work into the night with his old energy. The drug frightened David once he assigned his research department to investigate it. But by December 1937, the American Medical Association had approved the pills, despite some evidence of increased blood pressure and cardiovascular disturbances. David talked to Dr Myron Prinzmetal, who had worked on Benzedrine. The pills appeared on his desk.

'I think the Benzedrine was the worst thing,' said Irene 50 years later. David used it more or less all the time from 1937 onward, until about 1950 - and in the Fifties doctors said he had a very strong constitution. They were more concerned to have him reduce his cigarette consumption, which stood in the same period at between four and five packs a day. The Benzedrine affected David's arrogance. Its use often exaggerates feelings of grandeur and self-importance, things in which David had an unfair start. It kept away doubt and the prospect of depression, as well as fatigue. He felt he could do anything and everything, and he never saw that the chemicals were putting armour-plate on his difficulty in coming to decisions.

The first few months of 1937 were the most hectic of his life so far. On a three-month run, David lost dollars 13,313, dollars 14,254, dollars 18,265 - during a period in which he should not have had time to gamble. But neither should he have had half- hours here and there to seduce typists and messenger girls.

As with nearly every woman he employed, David had made a pass at Silvia Schulman. But she and Ring Lardner Jr (later a famous screenwriter) had fallen in love, and they talked of marriage. Whereupon David and Irene became highly disturbed. Silvia was Jewish and Ring was not: David and Irene advised against it, but the pressure didn't work and the couple were married, with David and Irene in attendance. Silvia was offended, however, and she left SIP.

Silvia then wrote a novel with a friend named Jane Shore, called I Lost My Girlish Laughter. It was published by Random House under the pseudonym 'Jane Allen'. The girl of the title is secretary to a flamboyant, arrogant producer named Sidney Brand. The book went into three printings in 1938 and, despite David's strenuous efforts, Orson Welles adapted it as one of his plays on the CBS Campbell Playhouse series. It was broadcast on 27 January, 1939 - to honour the eventual start of production on Gone With the Wind.

Kay Brown had invaded the South as early as November 1936, (when Gone with the Wind was still seen as a movie for 1937). There were several objectives: to involve Margaret Mitchell in the production, to gain valuable research and atmosphere and to gather a basket of young female talent - drawling peaches, who might furnish a Scarlett or a parade of extras for party scenes. It was also a way of building public interest. But she doubted the chances of finding gold: 'My entire approach to this is that if I find a Scarlett it will be a miracle. What I hope to get are two Southern girls for secondary roles . . . and I don't intend to pay them more than fifty bucks a week . . . I plan to stop at Louisville on my way to New York because reputedly the most beautiful girls in the world live there and I am sure some of the Junior League girls will be worth looking at.'

As she met the press along the way, she felt 'that this expedition is being conducted quietly and genuinely'. But there were then mob scenes in Atlanta and even Kay was conceding 'the madhouse through which we have just gone'. The role of Scarlett was a kind of lottery for the top drawer and for deranged women from the hinterlands. In February 1938, SIP would receive a submission from Chester, Pennsylvania, which began:

'Honorable Gentlemen of Hollywood: One fine evening 12:01 I was reading the Chester Times. On our Society Page I glanced at the picture of our so-called modern Scarlett O'Hara??? Paulette Goddard] I wish to tell you all this: she is much too pretty to play the role of K S O'Hara. Katie Hepburn is too cracked. Miriam Hopkins would probably do, but I Am Katie Scarlett O'Hara]' There followed a 42-page letter, including photographs and lurid drawings and page upon page which the writer had filled with the galloping scrawl of 'I'm Scarlett O'Hara'.

On 1 October, 1937, David went to New York for six weeks with George Cukor. They bullied their way into Sidney Howard's schedule and worked hard on the script. It was not finished when David went back, but Howard wrote to Margaret Mitchell that he was inclined to return to Hollywood in January to finish it off.

While in New York, Irene persuaded David to see David Levy, a child psychiatrist. A problem was emerging with Jeffrey, who 'did not seem as gloriously happy as I wanted a child of mine to be'. Of course, Jeffrey was in California those six weeks. Irene saw Levy first and he asked to meet her husband. David was too busy at first, but at last a session was arranged. Irene wrote later: 'David came back to the Waldorf just before dinner, in the only total rage I had ever seen him in or ever would. He was beside himself, violent and profane. I couldn't make head nor tail of it. Apparently my only crime was being taken in by a fraud like that. His fury mounted until he reached the climax of the terrible things David Levy had told him. 'Can you believe it? It's incredible. He said to me that I have rejected Jeffrey. Imagine me rejecting our son] God damn him.' '

A little later, Levy told Irene that David seemed to him 'completely opposite' to the man she had described. We must not forget that while Jeffrey and Danny saw very little of their father, he did not have too much time for Irene; parts of his life were closed to her and she was beginning to feel put off by his vulgarity. Her feelings were violent and conflicted. The 'Book of Irene', for instance (an album of tributes written by friends and celebrities), she found both flattering and a source of horror. Fifty years later she had the bound volume still, yet she began tearing it to pieces in front of me.

Irene was, in 1937, a forbidding beauty of 30, suspicious of others' intrigues yet devoutly given to her own. She took herself very seriously - and liked to laugh at others. She was deliberately mysterious and seductive, yet unavailable; both repressed and repressive, a flirt, an actress, sometimes a drunk and a talker on the telephone by the hour. She was the centre of her own play, a character idiosyncratic and so very smart it remained odd that she understood herself so little. She had moved up in the social world and exulted the company of the aristocratic Whitneys. 'Having' the Whitneys was a trump in her lifelong contest with her elder sister Edie - a feud that seemed to Katharine Hepburn 'horrible, disgusting - they neither of them knew how spoiled they were or how they expected everything just so'.

David's friendship with Jock, meanwhile, amounted to a kind of hero-worship. As Joseph Mankiewicz saw it, 'David just wanted to be Jock Whitney - his money, his style, his entree'. For Jock was American royalty and David's films were steadfastly royalist. Of all the Wasps David could like, Jock was one of the most modest. He personified David's idea of the well-born, gentle man.

In 1937, David's earnings amounted to dollars 103,127, and in the 10 months for which figures survive he lost more than dollars 52,000. But Irene's income was dollars 177,443, thanks to Twentieth Century dividends of more than dollars 74,000. The gap in their net worth was growing wider. At the end of the year, David's personal account was dollars 1,855 overdrawn. These were the dealings of a man on the borderline of debt, who every year lost more than he had paid for the rights to Gone With the Wind.

DAVID FELT that he must begin shooting on 1 June, 1938, but he was still without a distributor. Then, on 27 May, 1938, Louis B Mayer made a personal call to David. He wondered whether SIP would consider selling Gone with the Wind - with its script and David's services - as a package to MGM. SIP could expect a cut on the profits. David passed this news on to Jock Whitney immediately. In fact, Jock was actively arranging for more money for Selznick International Pictures - and by then he was the only stockholder brave enough to offer it.

David was agonising but, emotionally, he had decided to make the picture at - or with - MGM. Another huge memo went to Whitney early in June. The analysis showed that SIP by then had dollars 394,000 invested in Wind, and Metro was offering dollars 900,000 for the package. On paper, Cukor as director was part of the deal, but MGM preferred Woody Van Dyke. David would be paid dollars 100,000 as producer.

'It breaks my heart to have the company sell the property,' David told Jock. He believed other financing was possible, what with the bank loan Jock was trying for (dollars 1m) and a cash advance being talked about from United Artists. Above all, David still didn't know how the picture would fare. 'If the picture is a financial success, we might make dollars 500,000 or dollars 2,500,000 - who knows? It is dependent upon the quality of the picture, conditions at the time of its release, whether the public interest in it is still hot or has cooled off, whether a war starts in Europe, and any other number of factors . It is anybody's guess .. Most of all, I want to avoid even the slightest suspicion that I have sold out to my father-in-law. Let them face the fact now that he is my father-in-law, and forever hold their peace.'

In the six weeks that followed, MGM and Warners were pitted against each other. A chart was drawn up of the terms the two studios offered. Warners had three players and pounds 850,000 more than Metro to put up. Its distribution fee was lower; other items were less tough. Only in the matter of profits - and with Gable - was it less appealing. On 20 July, David talked to Nick Schenck (the head of MGM in New York); he and O'Shea went over to Metro for lunch on the following day. The final deal memorandum - with Metro - was signed on 9 August. But talks with Jack Warner and Errol Flynn went on until the end.

When the formal announcement was made, it came from Jock: 'It has been obvious from the day Mr Selznick bought Gone With the Wind that the public has felt an enormous concern in the bringing of this great book to the screen. As a company, we have been through a trying and difficult time involving unusual delay in order to satisfy this genuine interest. Mr Selznick has felt all along that Clark Gable was the one and only 'people's choice' to play the part of Rhett Butler, and only through an arrangement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to whom he is exclusively under contract, would he have been able to make Gone With the Wind as the world wants to see it.'

The contract was signed on 25 August. By the terms of Gable's limited availability, the picture had to start no later than January 1939.

BY THE late 1930s the renown of the uncast screen Scarlett rivalled that of any actress. Astrologers offered their advice to David Selznick. Unknowns turned up at 1050 Summit Drive, and on the other side of America they sought the approval of Margaret Mitchell. The novel made clear in its first words that 'Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful'. But what did that matter if 'men seldom realised it when caught by her charm'? Fans wrote in with suggestions and SIP kept the score carefully. By the end of July 1938, there were 300 votes for Ann Sheridan, 228 for Miriam Hopkins, 58 for Joan Crawford and 61 for Katharine Hepburn - not one of whom ever tested for the part.

Thirty-five actresses, celebrities or curiosities, gave it a shot, and the tests on the whole film cost somewhere around dollars 100,000. But few established stars were willing to risk being turned down. David had often said he wanted a newcomer, and so most of those tested were little-known and inexperienced. Only one unequivocal star tested - Jean Arthur - and then not until 17 December, 1938.

In the spring of that year, Katharine Hepburn had called in at the studio and there were serious overtures from both sides, no matter that David had decided to test her 'only if we are stuck'. The actress had said that if she could play Scarlett, she was prepared to commit herself to other films - it was David's intention always to get future pictures from the winning actress. Decades later, Hepburn said she had offered herself if David couldn't get anyone else. He reckoned in 1938 he could get her for dollars 80,000 - but 'I am frankly not very excited by the prospect'.

In the autumn, a contract was actually drawn up, with Hepburn taking advice from Leland Hayward (her agent) and Howard Hughes. SIP would have an option on Hepburn for Scarlett: 15 weeks' work at dollars 1,500 a week. But whenever David talked to her, he got 'a swift pain . . . The more I see her, the colder I get on her.' There was always talk of Hepburn doing a test, with David insisting on scenes 'that require the most sex'. By the end of November, the hesitant deal was broken off. Fifty-two years later, Hepburn said: 'I could have done it, but I would have been acting. I was too strong for it. George said I was too noble.' (The fact remains that she had delayed the stage opening of The Philadelphia Story in case Scarlett came her way.)

By the end of the year, the panic was building and with it David's desperate confidence that he could do more and more. As the mania increased, so did David's horniness. Scrutinising young women for Scarlett was not a single-minded pursuit. The producer was always ready to make a pass and have a clumsy 20-minute seduction in the office; it surely helped that so many of the women were outsiders and novices. How often did this occur? Evelyn Keyes, who got the part of Scarlett's younger sister, Suellen, was chased around the office once 'in a rather obligatory fashion'. It was not the frequency of screwing that inspired him, but the power that might command it.

Bring on new girls] he ordered Marcella Rabwin (Silvia's replacement). On 12 November, fresh from Bermuda, he wrote: 'While it is almost too late, I think that for the remaining time Mr Cukor should set aside an hour daily during which he will interview applicants personally. Actually, if the thing were organised properly, as many as 50 girls could be in and out of his office in an hour . . . I feel that our failure to find a new girl for Scarlett is the greatest failure of my entire career.'

WHAT DID Irene know? What did she allow herself to notice or be seen noticing? Ignorance was a shaky defence of dignity with a man as accident-prone as David or as determined to confess. The year 1938 was a bad one for the marriage. There had been rumours and incidents, like the night at a party when David accosted Loretta Young - who, he said, was a Scarlett candidate, too. Loretta said later: 'He had had a bit to drink and he said, 'Give me a kiss good night, Loretta.' And I said, 'No thanks, David, I know all about you.' Anyway, David was strong and he pulled me by the shoulders and pushed me against the wall and said, 'Give me a kiss, right now]' I said, 'David, for God's sake, don't be an idiot.' And Irene appears and says, 'Oh, honey, give him a kiss. It's not going to hurt you. Give David a kiss.' It took the silliness out of it.'

In Europe, another actress was plotting her way toward David. When Ed Sullivan took David to task, in the New York Daily News, for messing up Gone with the Wind with delays and false starts, David replied that the film had to start when Gable was done with Idiot's Delight. 'And the best Scarlett that shows up by that time will play the role willy-nilly.' It was a gambler's attitude (David lost close to another dollars 60,000 in 1938). He was banking on the thing gamblers take for granted, even if they seldom encounter it - true luck. But that does not mean there was no intrigue: the lady had a plan, a vision and an agent. She was also very like Scarlett: conniving and ruthless.


From 'Showman, The Life of David O Selznick', by David Thomson, published by Andre Deutch on 11 February, 20 pounds

(Photographs omitted)