In June 1936, a blockbuster of a book was published; it gave the world a sense of the Old South, an unforgettable heroine and (in the movie version) the phrase "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind sold one million copies in its first six months, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and brought an explosion of unexpected, unwished for celebrity to its author.
In Mitchell's hometown of Atlanta, Ga., a lovely old apartment building on South Prado Street bears a big, brass plaque. It reads:
In memory of Margaret Mitchell who lived in this building from 1939 until 1949. The manuscript of "Gone With The Wind" was burned in the boiler room by her secretary and the building custodian the day after her death.
Intriguing! ... but true? Partially, says John Wiley, co-author of the new biography, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Yes, the book was burned, but "the evidence generally points to that it was burned in a wire basket," Wiley explains. A little trash basket outside — not in the boiler room. As for whether it happened on the day after her death? Well, that detail makes for a good story and a good plaque.
There are hundreds of stories about Mitchell and the 19th century epic she wrote. The story of how the Civil War affected her strong, vivid, sly, manipulative, mesmerizing Southern heroine Scarlett O'Hara.
Lines like — I'll never be hungry again!! — were written, first, in a ground-floor apartment off Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Mitchell and her husband John Marsh moved in on their wedding day, July 4, 1925. The place is tiny — just a parlor and a bedroom. The bedroom closet was converted to a kitchen.
"She called it the dump," says Joanna Arietta, director of historic houses for the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House. Apartment No. 1 was a real comedown for Mitchell — she grew up in a mansion just down the street — but the young bride was happy, full of life and spunk.
"She was quite the little spitfire," Arietta says, "She loved going to jazz clubs and speakeasies during Prohibition. She was definitely a little bit of a rebel."
The dancing and clubbing — not to mention her busy career as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal — came to a halt when Mitchell hurt her ankle in 1926. Arthritis set in, and she wasn't sure if she would walk again. "So she starts to read a lot," Arietta says.
Mitchell read her way through whole sections of Atlanta's Carnegie Library. Her husband carted books back and forth for her on the trolley. One day, Arietta explains, John Marsh walked in and told his wife: "You have read everything but the maths and sciences. So here is a typewriter. Here is some copypaper. Write your own book to amuse yourself."
And so she did. Gone With The Wind was written on a wooden desk, angled in a corner of her parlor. Her second-hand 1923 Remington typewriter is on display at the Atlanta Fulton county Central Library. And the desk (there's quite a Mitchell cottage industry in town) is at the Atlanta History Center.
"I think must people are surprised by how small and plain and unimportant this little folding desk is," says Michael Rose, executive vice president of the Atlanta History center.
Mitchell herself was small — just 4-foot-11 — and so was "The Dump," so everything fit nicely, albeit tightly. It was there, in that un-preposessing atmosphere, that thousands of pages were typed, tucked into manila envelopes, and stacked on the floor all over the apartment. (When visitors came, Mitchell would cover these piles with towels or hid them under the bed.) Arietta says as chapters occurred to her, Mitchell wrote them down. She took care of connecting them later. And she wrote the last chapter first.
"She knew at the very beginning that Rhett wasn't going to care that much," Arietta says, "And that Scarlett was going to live for another day." (Scarlett wasn't always Scarlett though. When Mitchell was writing in 1926, her heroine was named "Pansy.")
Every page of that last chapter — chapter 63 — is on display now at the Atlanta History Center. The typed pages are remarkably clean. There are very few strike-outs, but when Mitchel axes a sentence, she really axes it.
"She really could black out a line like no one else," Arietta says. "She could work for the Freedom of Information Act! We have tried everything to see what that original line read, and you cannot read it at all."
Despite the fiery fate of most of the manuscript, some pages were not burned. The last four chapters resurfaced recently at the Pequot Library in Southport, Conn., among the papers of Mitchell's publisher. There were also typescript pages that her husband saved after Mitchell was fatally struck by a car in Atlanta, at the age of 48.
"He created a packet that contained a number of different items," Rose says. "A few pages of the manuscript, some of the chronology of the book — who was pregnant and when, who got married, who died — and he put those in a packet and those are in a bank vault in downtown Atlanta."
It was the Citizens and Southern National Bank on Marietta Street. The bank's name has changed over the years, but the sealed packet remains in its safety deposit box. A codicil to Marsh's will states that the papers should never be seen unless there is a serious question of authorship. Should the vault ever be opened, the papers will be turned over to the Atlanta History Center.
Why the secrecy? Why the agreement that if Mitchell died first, Marsh would destroy the manuscript? In the glare of publicity from Gone With the Wind, Mitchell became fiercely private. She refused to get involved in the movie version. She said no to would-be biographers and didn't give autographs. She did not want her working papers to be examined.
"She really didn't believe that any author should be judged by unpublished work," Arietta explains. It seems ironic, that Mitchell, who was so careful about historical accuracy in her novel seemed uninterested in the curiosity of scholars, students, and fans clamoring to learn the history of how she created her American classic. Still, the very last pages (the first she wrote and then re-wrote) can be seen, in frames along a wall of the Atlanta History Center.
"I'll think of it all tomorrow at Tara," Mitchell wrote. "I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get back at him. After all ... tomorrow is another day."
And then, she wrote, "The end."