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Friday, May 29, 2015

Margaret Mitchell

Margaret (Peggy) Mitchell and Vivien Leigh at roughly the same age.

The Crescent Street entrance to the Mitchell House
Museum. The porch is somewhat problematical
in design. This was once the rear of the house.
Even though I do a good bit of writing these days, unlike painting and the other fine arts, I don't consider myself to be any kind of expert on the literary arts. Thus I seldom delve into the lives, times, and work of writers. However, in the case of Margaret Mitchell, author of the immortal classic, Gone with the Wind, I'll make an exception. I'm so familiar with her life, her one literary accomplishment, the story, its background, the movie--virtually every element--that, having visited her home at 990 Peachtree Street in Atlanta (best accessed from the rear on Crescent Street), I could hardly wait to write about the experience. On our recent trip through Atlanta, the Mitchell House, where about ninety-percent of her novel was first written, was our first stop. We spent well over an hour there and, "quite frankly, my dear..."I was very pleased with what they'd done with the place. It was in the ground floor rear apartment that Margaret Mitchell became Pansy O'Hara (Scarlett's original moniker). Notice the similarities (above). David O. Selznick seems to have had Peggy Mitchell in mind when he cast Vivien Leigh as his leading lady.

The living room where the first draft of Gone with the Wind was written using
the small portable typewriter on the left.
Peggy Mitchell Marsh following the
publication of GWTW in 1936.
It's something of a miracle that Mitchell's one-time home (for seven years) still exists. First built in 1899, the original family lived in the three-story brick Tudor structure only eight years before moving on to the Atlanta suburb of Druid Hills. The neighborhood changed rapidly after the turn of the century from residential to commercial. The spacious, upper middle-class home was first moved to the back of its original lot, then in 1919, divided into ten apartments. Three brick stores (now long gone) were built on the house's original site. In 1925, Margaret Mitchell and her second husband, John Marsh, moved into the tiny Apartment Number One where they held their wedding reception, hosting some sixty guest. It must have been a rather "intimate" affair. The place has a small front porch, a modest living room, a bedroom (with a table set for two), bathroom, and a tiny kitchen. The ice box was on the back porch. The bed must have made an amusing centerpiece for the celebration.

The Peachtree Street front as seen today--probably more Neo-Classical
than when John and Peggy Marsh lived there.
The rear of the Margaret Mitchell house as
seen around 1977 before restoration.

While they lived at the Crescent Apartments, the Marshes referred to the place as "the dump." They moved on to a larger apartment a few blocks away in 1932. During the Depression years that followed, the place became even more of a dump. Though it continued to attract tenants until after WW II, the house became little more than a tenement slum, seldom more than a few months away from a date with a wrecking ball as the property changed hands numerous times, various owners went bankrupt, and the land upon which it sat grew in value almost daily. A fire in the 1980s further damaged the building which by then was starting to be seen as an historic structure. Renovation began in 1994. A short time later an arsonist struck, destroying much of the upper levels of the building but doing only minor damage to the Mitchell/Marsh apartment. Still, the house was just days short of demolition.

The Mitchell House (Crescent Apartments) after the devastating 1994 fire.
The cast: Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie,
portraits from the Atlanta premier.
Shortly after the second fire, restoration once more began and once more, in 1996, the structure was struck by fire just days before it was scheduled to open to the public. Arson was once more the cause. Apparently, someone didn't want to see the valuable property wasted on a minor tourist attraction. Again, Apartment No. 1 received only minor damage. The house as seen today opened to the public in 1997 and has since been free of fires. In addition to the Mitchell apartment, the rest of the house is a small museum and gift shop (admission is $12.00). Across an open courtyard is another small museum with artifacts and displays from the making of the movie, including a reconstruction of the front door of Tara. The massive portrait of Scarlett O'Hara from the movie (below, right) stares down from one wall with cool disdain.

Selznick International's conceptual drawing of Tara. Margaret Mitchell was upset
when she saw that, against her wishes, square columns had been added to the O'Hara home.
Scarlett O'Hara, 1939,
Helen Carlton
Gone with the Wind made Margaret Mitchell famous, but in large part, Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick made Gone with the Wind famous. Although much of the museum on the upper floors of the house in which Peggy and John Marsh lived is devoted to the book and its author, there is generous coverage devoted to the impact the film and its Atlanta premier in December, 1939 had upon Margaret Mitchell and the rest of Atlanta. Newsreel footage of the event runs continuously. There's even a painted image of Rhett and Scarlett in front of Tara (bottom) allowing visitors to poke their faces through two holes and audition for the roles in the highly unlikely event there's a remake of the epic film.

Margaret Mitchell Marsh

A William Cameron Menzies
storyboard painting suggesting
the battle scarred devastation at Tara. 
I think Rhett Butler would have looked good with a full beard and bald head.


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