Monday, 8 April 2013

Whatever Happened to...Margaret Mitchell?

 She wrote one of the greatest love stories of all time - Gone With The Wind - and never wrote another book. But who was Margaret Mitchell and what became of her?

On November 8th 1900, in Atlanta, Georgia, the free spirited and unconventional Margaret Mitchell was born to a well-to-do family. Her father was a historian and her mother a suffragist. Growing up in the deep south, Peggy, as she was called, loved to hear stories of the Civil War from the lips of Confederate survivors. She had a creative and inquiring mind and, from an early age, wrote plays in which she cast her schoolfriends, who performed in front of an audience comprised of neighbours, who would come to watch the performances on her front porch.

At the age of fifteen, she gave a fascinating insight into her tomboyish personality when she wrote, "If I were a boy, I would try for West Point, if I could make it, or well I'd be a prize fighter - anything for the thrills."

Her education benefited from forward thinking parents and Peggy entered Smith College in 1918 to study medicine but, sadly, a string of tragedies meant she was never to complete this. Firstly, her fiance, Clifford Henry, was killed in action towards the end of the First World War and then, in January of 1919, her mother died during the flu pandemic. So, Peggy left college to take charge of her father's household, but her free spirit remained intact, despite these setbacks.

At a debutante ball, having embraced the flapper's lifestyle and risque attitudes, she managed to scandalise Atlanta society by performing a provocative dance.

Two years later, she married Berrien 'Red' Upshaw - a decision she soon lived to regret. It was a brutal and violent union. He beat her frequently - and the violence continued even after the marriage was annulled in 1924.

Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh
Fortunately, her next marriage in 1925 - to John Marsh, editor of the Atlanta Journal Sunday, where Mitchell worked - was a much happier partnership, and her life moved into calmer, gentler waters. All her life, she would battle illness and depression, but never would she deign to conform to the normally accepted ideal of a woman of her generation.

She loved jazz clubs and dancing but, following an ankle injury in 1925, she had to give that up. Arthritis set in and, for a time, there were doubts as to whether she would ever walk again. Fortunately she did, but it was at this difficult time she started reading in earnest.
Margaret Mitchell lived in Apt 1

In 1926, she began writing Gone With The Wind on a small folding desk in the tiny apartment she shared with her husband on Peachtree Street. Used to the mansion where she grew up, she called this home 'the Dump'. It was so small that a closet had to be refitted as a kitchen!

On and on she wrote, thousands of pages, typed and stored neatly in manila envelopes all over the little apartment.

Her epic novel wasn't published until 1936 - and even then might not even have seen the light of day, but for an argument. Very much against her will, she was persuaded to let the vice president of Macmillan publishers - Harold Latham - read it. He loved it and it was published in June of that year. In the following May, Peggy won the Pulitzer Prize. 

Then, in December 1939, following the most famous 'leading lady' search in cinema history, Vivien Leigh lit up the screens as the rebellious and wayward Scarlett O'Hara. Many people note the physical resemblance between Leigh's O'Hara and the character's creator. There is little doubt, however, that the resemblance is more than skin deep. No one could ever describe Margaret Mitchell as conventional and, as for Scarlett's attitude towards society's restrictions, well..."fiddlededee".

Faced with the sudden onslaught of fame, created by the multi million selling book, Peggy refused to add to the furore by having anything to do with the film. She also hated the unwanted intrusion into her personal life and refused all offers to write her biography.

But the worldwide success of both the book and the film meant that Peggy was able to put her wealth to philanthropic use. She supported numerous social service organisations in Atlanta, along with medical scholarships for students of Morehouse College. 

Following the sinking of the U.S.S. Atlanta during the Second World War, she raised $65 million in war bonds within just 60 days and in February 1944, she christened the new U.S.S. Atlanta.

Although she never (as far as we know) wrote another book, there is one other extant work - a novella called Lost Laysen. She wrote it when she was just sixteen and it was finally published in 1997.

Margaret Mitchell enjoyed 24 happy years with John Marsh but, tragically, was never to grow old - either gracefully or disgracefully - with him. On August 11th, 1949, she was crossing the street with her husband, at the intersection of Peachtree and 13th streets in Atlanta, when she was hit by an off-duty cab driver. She was rushed to hospital but doctors couldn't save her and she died five days later. Her grave is in Oakland Cemetery.

She had hated the thought of people picking over her papers, and ordered that the original manuscript of Gone With The Wind be burned after her death. This was duly carried out - with the exception of the last four chapters.

Last year, PBS produced a programme in their American Masters series, called Margaret Mitchell: An American Rebel. Here's the trailer:

Would she have written a sequel? We'll never know, although one was penned by another author - Alexandra Ripley. Scarlett was first published in1991 and later made into a TV movie starring Joanne Whalley as Scarlett.

For now though, let's leave the last words to the feistiest of all heroines. Margaret's alter ego, Scarlett O'Hara:


  1. I absolutely love this Antonia! I am a HUGH Margaret Mitchell fan and have (I believe) every book and biography ever written on her! I've been to "The Dump" 3 times in Atlanta and was even offered a job there on one of my visits because at the end of the tour you're invited to ask questions and I knew the answers to some of the questions that even the tour guide didn't know! But, alas, I live in NJ, not Atlanta, so I have to be content with just visiting!

    1. Thanks Marie. Hope I got my facts right then!