“Death and taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them”
Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell was born on this day in Atlanta, Georgia, USA in 1900. today is the 112th anniversary of her birth.
Mitchell was the younger of two children born to an Atlanta attorney and suffragette. Her father’s family stretched back to colonial Georgia, and he had ancestors who fought in the War of Independence and the War of 1812. Her paternal grandfather was wounded twice in the head at Battle of Antietam, but he survived. After the war he made a fortune selling lumber to an Atlanta eager to rebuild. Her mother’s people were from Ireland. Her maternal grandfather, Philip Fitzgerald, came over to America and bought a plantation in Georgia. He too fought in the Civil War.
If all of that has the Tara theme of Gone With The Wind playing in your head… well, lets just say Mitchell wrote what she knew, and growing up she was fed a steady diet of Old South stories along with the collard greens and fried chicken that graced every good Georgian table.
As a child Margaret Mitchell was saturated with stories of the Civil War told to her by family members who had lived through it. They indoctrinated her so effectively that Mitchell was ten years old before she learned that the South had lost the war. [Book Rags: Encyclopedia of the World]
Her mother was strict– she was “quick with the hairbrush whenever she thought her daughter was acting spoiled or ill-mannered.”[ReoCities; Margaret Mitchell] — When Mitchell came home from her first day of school frustrated at not being able to do the math and vowing not to go back Maybelle Mitchelle beat the little girl’s bottom with a hairbrush then took her in the carriage on a tour of ruined plantations near Atlanta.
‘ “Fine and wealthy people once lived in those houses,” she told the child, slowing the horses and pointing at the shabby former plantation houses they passed. “Now they are old ruins and some of them have been that way since Sherman marched through. Some fell to pieces when the families in them fell to pieces. …Now, those folk stood as staunchly as their house did. You remember that, child — that the world those people lived in was a secure world, just like yours is now. But theirs exploded right from underneath them. Your world will do that to you one day, too, and God help you, child, if you don’t have some weapon to meet that new world. Education!…People — and especially women — might as well consider they are lost without an education, both classical and practical… You will go back to school tomorrow,” she ended harshly, “and you will conquer arithmetic.” [Ibid]
Mitchell went back to school.
She was an avid reader and story-teller. She would snatch up her older brother’s books when he was finished with them. She loved sharing time with Maybelle as her mother read Mary Johnson’s historical/romance novels to her — they especially liked the ones dealing with the Old South. And she was a life long fan of children’s contemporary fantasy author Edith Nesbit. She told stories to her brother and his friends and made up plays for her school mates. She’d write the stories down and illustrate them. She created her own “publishing company” called “Urchin Publishing Co.” By 13 she’d written a 237 page book of Civil War stories.
When the First World War broke out Mitchell’s older brother joined up. She volunteered at refuge center. Toward the end of the war she met Lieutenant Clifford West Henry. He could
… quote poetry and passages from Shakespeare. Some of Margaret’s friends thought that he was of weak personality, strongly contrasting to Margaret’s, and was unmanly. But Margaret was quite taken by him. Clifford soon gave her a heavy gold family ring. In August, however, Clifford was told he was to be transferred overseas, and that night, he and Margaret secretly got engaged. [Ibid]
Mitchell went off to Smith College and Clifford went to war. At first she didn’t like Smith, which she called ‘a crusty old place,’ but soon enough she grew accustomed to it and the chic, sophisticated, northern fellow students. They thought ‘Peggy’ cut a very romantic figure with her southern accent and her letters from an overseas lover. Sadly in October Clifford died from shrapnel wounds he received from air bomb.
Mabelle was sick too, but the news was kept from Mitchell. Her mother died in January from the influenza epidemic and Mitchell returned home to take care of the household.
In 1922 she married Berrien Kinnard “Red” Upshaw, “an ex-football player and bootlegger.” [Margaret Mitchell House] He was “broad-shouldered, six feet and two inches, had brick-red hair, green eyes, and a cleft chin.”[ReoCities; Margaret Mitchell] so he towered over Mitchell, who was just 5 feet tall. Red was also violent and unpredictable. He physically and verbally abused Mitchell and marriage only lasted a few months.
Finances were not good. Her father had suffered financial setbacks. So, in 1922, Mitchell took a job as a features writer for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine for $25 a week.
In 1925 she found true love with John Marsh. “Marsh was soft-spoken, not as tall as Red, and not extremely attractive. He was stoop-shouldered, wore glasses over his grey brown eyes, and had sandy hair which was receding and flecked with grey.” [Ibid] He’d long been Red and Mitchell’s friend, and was the best man at their wedding. Whenever Red went too far Marsh was the first phone call Mitchell made. When things finally fell apart he was there to pick up the pieces, and Margaret Mitchell, finally, saw who the “best man” in the scenario really was.
When Mitchell injured her ankle in a car accident in May of 1926 she was bedridden for several weeks. Marsh dutifully stopped at the library to pick up stacks of novels for her to read. By the time she was able to hobble about on crutches she’d read her way through the library. Mitchell folk-lore has it that the next time he came home it was with a Remington Portable No. 3 typewriter. He gave it to her saying that she could write a better book than the thousands he’d been lugging back and forth.
She had no outline, but her authentic background gave her guidelines and structure. The story would commence with the war and end with Reconstruction, and it would be the story of Atlanta during that time as much as it would be the story of the characters she created. She did not come to the typewriter cold. She knew the story would involve four major characters, two men and two women, and that one of the men would be a romantic dreamer like Clifford Henry; and the other, a charming bounder like Red Upshaw…[Ibid]
For the women she would choose a paragon of Southern virtue for one character and some one who was strong, hot-headed and “a bit of a hussy.” [Ibid] In other words some one vaguely like her maternal grandmother and herself. At first her heroine was named Pansy O’Hara.
She wrote ferociously 6 to eight hours a day “She kept index-card files for the characters, no matter how minor they were.” [Ibid] but the novel took years to complete.
Gone With the Wind was published in June 1936. Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her sweeping novel the following May.[Margaret Mitchell House]
It was a Book of the Month main selection. Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937 and the book sold eight million copies by the time of her death. Selznick-International purchased the movie rights for $50,000 shortly after its publication.
It was made into an equally famous motion picture starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. The movie had its world premiere at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta December 15, 1939. [Ibid]
The film won 10 Academy Awards.
Mitchell “spent the rest of her life shepherding her book through many foreign editions, protecting her financial and copyright interests, and answering her extensive fan mail.” [Book Rags: Encyclopedia of the World]
Margaret Mitchell was killed by a drunk driver while crossing an Atlanta street in August 1949.
- Reading ‘Gone with the Wind’ in Pyongyang (miamiherald.com)
- ‘Gone with the Wind’ a phenomenon in North Korea (onlineathens.com)
- Atlanta Travels (tylatimes.com)
- North Koreans love Gone With the Wind (pastinthepresent.wordpress.com)
- Behind the Scenes Photos of “Gone with the Wind” (vintag.es)
November 9th, 2012 at 4:16 pm
Forgot to add two things… We visited the Mitchell House in Atlanta about a dozen years ago. If you are ever in Atlanta don’t miss it. The tour was terrific and the staff was terrific.
and … if you haven’t read the bioBlog on Vivien Leigh here’s the quick link…. http://wp.me/p2sm4g-JV
November 9th, 2012 at 4:28 pm
Great piece, Rita. Did she graduate from Smith?
November 9th, 2012 at 10:28 pm
Thanks, I’m glad you liked the bio. My mom is a big GWTW fan so I couldn’t resist. No Margaret Mitchell did not graduate from Smith. She only went there for a year before her mother died of the flu.
November 13th, 2012 at 6:54 pm
I had a college professor who still is a GWTW fan. Margaret Mitchell was definitely a lady ahead of the times.