Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Real Scarlett

It’s always inspiring to learn about the lives of famous writers and how their books came to be. When I heard the name Margaret Mitchell, I always pictured the author of Gone with the Wind sitting by her typewriter—proper and collected—while she threw a confident smile at the camera. But this was the textbook version of her.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit her Atlanta home, where she penned her famous novel. Was I in for a big surprise! It turns out Peggy was closer to Scarlett, her famous creation, than the refined black & white portrait that circulates around the web.

Margaret in her dancing days
Did you know that…?

1. Peggy was a flapper. Growing up in the 1920’s, she often visited speakeasies until the late hours of the night. In fact, her second husband John Marsh (more about him later) first spotted her dancing on a table.

2. Peggy was a proficient dancer and horrified the Atlanta society—including her own grandmother—when she kissed a dance partner during a performance.

3. Her first love was a young army lieutenant who died during World War I,  much like Charles Hamilton, Scarlett’s first husband. Whereas Margaret was devastated by her loss and allegedly never fully recovered from it, her heroine Scarlett couldn’t find a more convenient way to get close to her beloved Ashley than widowhood.

4. Peggy married the wrong man. Much like the famous Scarlett, Peggy knew she was making a mistake when she said “I do” to fiancé  Berrien “Red” Upshaw and her true love (John) was standing by Red’s side—as his best man.

5. Against all traditions, she carried a bouquet of red roses to the altar (back when brides were expected to only carry white flowers) in honor of her husband-to-be (“Red”).

6. Like Rhett Butler in GWTW, Peggy’s first husband “Red” was a bootlegger.

7. Like Ashley Wilkes in GWTW, Peggy’s second husband John was an intellectual.

8. Peggy continued to horrify Atlanta society by divorcing Red after a year and a half of marriage and later on, getting a job as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine.

An early photo of Margaret Mitchell during her reporter days surrounded by
a group of Georgia Tech students. Who does this remind you of?

9. After marrying John Marsh, she suffered an ankle injury and spent her days at home reading books from the library. Tired of stopping by the library every day, John brought her a typewriter and suggested that she wrote her own novel.

10. Accustomed to writing as a reporter, Peggy started her famous novel by penning the last chapter first and then building up the story in disorder.

11. It took her nine years to finish Gone with the Wind (originally titled Tomorrow is Another Day) and according to the tour guide at the Peachtree Street house, she wrote the first chapter 60 times!

12. In the original version, Scarlett’s name was Pansy O’Hara.

13. When Peggy met an editor from Macmillan, who went to Atlanta to scout Southern writers, she denied she’d written a novel. She eventually changed her mind and brought him the manuscript.

When Margaret had visitors, she covered her manuscript with a towel.

14. Living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment suited her fine since she didn’t like overnight guests.

15. She never wrote another novel as she said that being the author of Gone with the Wind was a full time job. However, in 1994 an early manuscript she’d written for a teenage boyfriend was discovered and published.

16. She was hit by a drunk driver a few blocks from her house and died at age 48. Here is her obituary.

In examining her life, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the writing life then and now. Imagine what it would be like to type a 400,000-word manuscript (and subsequent revisions) without the help of a computer and its handy friends Copy, Paste and Delete? Or to have the opportunity to go see an editor in person and hand him your manuscript? In some ways things might have been easier then (less competition to publish) but would you take that over the convenience of a word processor/internet? How much of yourself do you put in your characters?


  1. Que lindo post! I loved this, L.

  2. Pansy! Eek. That was one beneficial edit, at least! What an interesting post about an interesting woman. I've never read GWTW, but you seem so strongly influenced by it, which sure makes me want to give it a try.

    1. Did you see the movie? The novel is a little bit different (especially when it comes to secondary characters). I'd be curious to know what you'd think of it.

      I agree, Pansy was an awful name!

  3. Great research! You surely spent well your Atlanta days. Three more tidbits about Gone with the Wind. Like Scarlett, the author was a victim of marital rape. Peggy´s grandfather was an Irish immigrant; she took him as inspiration for Gerald O’Hara. Melanie was inspired by Sister Mary Melanie a very pious nun of Atlanta. In civil life, the nun was called Mattie Holliday and she was the cousin and the true love of my favorite outlaw “John “Doc” Holliday. Sister Mary Melanie was Peggy´s older cousin. The writer asked her permission to name a character after her, and the true Melanie just said “make her a good person”. Peggy did and made her marry her cousin, something poor Mattie couldn´t do in real life.

    1. Wow, I had no idea about the marital rape (I assume it was Red?) but in her novel it seemed like a happy event, judging by Scarlett's smile the next morning! They did mention her grandfather. BTW, I forgot to mention that she grew up hearing his stories about the war and didn't know the South had lost until she was ten!! I like the story of the nun and her cousin. It would make a great novel!

  4. I've always admired Margaret Mitchell. Now I admire her even more. I tweeted some of the very interesting details. Fascinating. So there was a real Scarlett! Go Margaret! Yes, fancy penning 400,000 words (no doubt many more with 60 rewrites of chapter one!) without a computer. Boyoboy!
    Thanks for a fascinating post. I love visiting author's houses. So far Victor Hugo's has been my favourite with all his paraphenalia still in evidence.

    1. Where's Victor Hugo's house? I'd never been to an author's house before (only kings/queens/historical figures) and I loved it. I know as a fact I couldn't be a writer without a computer. First the spell check, second I'm CONSTANTLY moving stuff around and deleting. I don't think I would have the patience if I had to do it all with a typewriter!

      Thanks for the tweets, Denise! It's always nice to read you. :)

  5. I think I would've liked Margaret with her flapper ways! I love all these little tidbits you mention. Why has a movie never been made on her life? I think it would be absolutely fascinating to watch! I'm trying to think if I've ever visited an author's house, but I don't think I have. The closest I've come to it is seeing Hans Christian Andersen's top apartment from the harbor cruise I took in Copenhagen.

    I think I would have a hard time without a computer, too, so don't feel bad!

    1. There is a movie about her life (with Shannen Doherty). I've been wanting to see it for a long time!


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