A true Southerner who lived out her life in Atlanta, Georgia; Margaret Mitchell was born on November 8, 1900 into a family who was prominent in both wealth and politics. She was the daughter and youngest child of attorney Eugene Muse Mitchell and suffragist Mary Isabel “May Belle” Stephens.
Her great-grandfather, Thomas Mitchell of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, immigrated to Wilkes County, Georgia in 1777 and served in the American Revolution. His descendent, Russell Crawford Mitchell of Atlanta enlisted in the Confederate Army during July 1861 and was wounded in the Battle of Sharpsburg. Russell later made a fortune by supplying the lumber needed to rebuild Atlanta following the Civil War.
On her mother’s side, Mitchell’s great-grandfather, Philip Fitzgerald, emigrated from Ireland. He settled on a plantation near Jonesboro, Georgia where he became the husband of Elenor and father to one son and seven daughters. Daughter Annie later followed in her mother’s footsteps and also became the bride of an Irish emigrant, John Stephens. John served as a Captain in the Confederate Army, then following the war, prospered as a real estate developer. He was also one of the founders of the Gate City Street Railroad in 1881, Atlanta’s mule-drawn trolley system.
John and Annie became parents to 12 children, the seventh being May Belle Stephens, Margaret’s mother. A woman who was both vulgar and a tyrant, Annie used the money she inherited from her father to send her daughters to finishing school in the North. It was there the girls quickly learned Irish Americans were looked down upon and that it was shameful to be the daughter of an Irishman.
On November 8, 1892, May Belle married Eugene Mitchell in the Jackson Street mansion. Eugene was an attorney and served for a time as president of the Atlanta Bar Association. He was also the former president of the Atlanta Historical Society and known as a recognized authority on both Atlanta’s history and that of the state of Georgia.
Their daughter, Margaret, would spend her early childhood in a red brick Victorian home, east of downtown Atlanta on Jackson Hill. The house was within close proximity to Grandmother Stephens. Now a widow for several years, Annie had inherited the property on Jackson Street following John’s death in 1896.
When Margaret was three, her dress caught fire on an iron grate. Though she escaped unharmed, the event was rather traumatic for her mother. In an effort to prevent the incident from reoccurring, May Belle dressed Margaret in boys’ pants and her brother nicknamed her “Jimmy” after a character in a comic strip. Since Margaret had no sisters to play with, she went by the name of Jimmy until she was 14. Her brother, Stephens, later referred to her as a tomboy who played with dolls occasionally and loved to ride her Texas plains pony.
Though the geographical region known as “the South” is easily located on a map of the United States, in the mind of a writer, “the South” is a “place of the imagination”. This image found a permanent place in six-year-old Margaret’s mind when her mother took her around during a buggy ride, showing to her the brick and stone chimneys which were all that remained of the antebellum grandeur these plantations had once known, prior to General Tecumseh Sherman’s “march and torch” through Georgia. Writing would later become Margaret’s weapon of defense as these images and many more from the stories shared by her mother and other relatives continually played over in her mind.
An affluent part of Atlanta, Jackson Hill sat above an area referred to as “Darktown”. Homes and businesses belonging to the area Negroes were located here. In 1906 when Margaret was five, the Atlanta Race Riot broke out in September and lasted for four days. The local newspapers later reported a number of white women had been assaulted by numerous Negro men. As a result, upwards of 10,000 individuals flooded into the streets in the form of an angry mob.
Eugene Mitchell had retired early that night, and was later awakened by the sound of gunshots. When he rose the next morning, he learned 16 Negroes had been killed during the night and the rioters had attempted to kill every Negro in sight. Eugene did not own any guns, but at Margaret’s suggestion, stood guard with a sword. The family remained unharmed during the event; however, the terror of that night burned itself into Margaret’s memory, continuing to torment her 20 years later, as white Georgians lived in fear of the “black beast rapist”. Shortly after the riot, the Mitchell family left Jackson Hill and moved to the east side of Atlanta’s Peachtree Street. The home they left would later be destroyed during the Great Atlanta Fire in 1917.
Growing up during an era when children were to be seen and not heard, Margaret’s efforts to express her personality during Sunday afternoon family visits were severely tempered. On the occasions when she forgot her manners and took off running and screaming, Mother made quick use of a hairbrush or slipper in an effort to remind her wayward daughter of what was expected. Reminiscing later in life, Margaret said, “On Sunday afternoons when we went calling on the older generation of relatives, those who had been active in the Sixties, I sat on the bony knees of veterans and the fat slippery laps of great aunts and heard them talk.”
Summer vacations were spent visiting her maternal Fitzgerald great-aunts, Mary Ellen ("Mamie") and Sarah ("Sis"). Mamie was 21-years old and Sis 13 when the Civil War began. At that time, the sisters still lived in the Jonesboro plantation home which had previously belonged to her great-grandparents.
Margaret grew up loving books and became a prolific reader. In the early years, Mother read the novels of Mary Johnston to her. Both The Long Roll and Cease Firing brought tears to the eyes of parent and child. A romance novel, Cease Firing tells the story of the courtship between a Louisiana Southern belle and her Confederate soldier beau, with numerous illustrations of the Civil War created by N. C. Wyeth to help document the story. Mother also introduced Margaret to the works of Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Her two favorite stories of all time were Five Children and It, and The Phoenix and the Carpet. Both books were written by Edith Nesbit and a copy of each remained on Margaret’s bookshelf throughout adulthood, with additional copies purchased for gifts.
The future author launched her writing career at an early age, beginning with stories about animals, then branching out to adventure stories and fairy tales. She bound the tablet pages together and illustrated them herself. When she was 11, she named her enterprise Urchin Publishing Company with future stories written in notebooks. May Belle would save her daughter’s creations in white enamel bread boxes and by the time Margaret left home to attend college, her mother had collected a sizable library.
Honor and romance were popular themes throughout Margaret’s work from the very beginning. The Knight and the Lady told the story of a good and a bad knight dueling for the hand of a fair maiden. The Arrow Brave and the Deer Maiden illustrated the need of a half-breed Indian brave to withstand pain inflicted upon him in an effort to uphold his honor and win the girl he loved. Each story she wrote helped to hone Margaret’s skill, so that in time her work reached the pinnacle of sophistication which graced Mitchell’s last known and greatest novel, Gone with the Wind, which she began in 1926.
Margaret enrolled in Atlanta’s Washington Seminary, then a “fashionable” private girls’ school whose enrollment numbered about 300. An active member of the Drama Club, Margaret played the role of several male characters in Shakespearean plays; among them Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Launcelot Goggo in The Merchant of Venice. She also played a role in one of her own creations about snobbish college girls.
Margaret joined the Literary Club and two of her stories were published in the school’s yearbook. In the story Little Sister and Sergeant Terry, the protagonist is a 10-year-old named Peggy who overheard her older sister being raped. Peggy shoots the rapist to save her sister. Coldly, dispassionately she viewed him, the chill steel of the gun giving her confidence. She must not miss now—she would not miss—and she did not.
English teacher, Mrs. Paisley, was quick to recognize Margaret’s writing talent and pushed her to strive for more. Mrs. Paisley trained her not to be careless when constructing her sentences, stressing the three important C’s – complete, concise and coherent.
Margaret graduated from Washington Seminary in June 1918. Though her father felt college was the “ruination of girls”, her mother saw things differently. Placing a high value on education, May Belle wanted her daughter’s future accomplishments to be a result of Margaret’s use of her mind. She felt the best place for her daughter to obtain this level of training would only be found in one of the northern schools and chose Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; considering it to be the best women’s college in the country.
During the early years of her adulthood, Margaret’s relationship with her grandmother became quarrelsome. At the same time, her grandmother offered her something which she would make great use of in time to come – an eye-witness account of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era in Atlanta. Her family’s “Old South” roots were so deep, Mitchell later stated she was 10 years old before she discovered Robert E. Lee was not the victor in the Civil War.
Margaret’s life was dealt a harsh blow in 1919. Beginning in 1918, millions of people the world over were dying as the result of a flu pandemic, totaling approximately 50 million individuals. On January 25, 1919, May Belle Mitchell died of pneumonia, a result of the “Spanish flu”. Margaret was away at college and returned home the day after her mother died. Knowing her time was short; May Belle had written a brief note to her daughter: “Give of yourself with both hands and overflowing heart; but give only the excess after you have lived your own life.”
Margaret was an average student through her freshman year at Smith College. Not excelling in academics, she had a low opinion of her writing skills. Her English professor felt differently and praised her work; however, Margaret felt unworthy of the praise. When her freshman year ended, she went home to Atlanta and never returned to school. In 1919, she underwent an appendectomy and during the recovery period told a friend that leaving college and giving up on her dreams of a career in journalism meant “giving up all the worthwhile things that counted for – nothing!”
While a student at Washington Seminary, Margaret had adopted the nickname “Peggy”. During her year at Smith, she was known as “Peg”, short for “Pegasus”, the winged mythological horse. Peggy’s social debut occurred during the winter season of 1920 when the “gin and jazz” flapper era was all the rage. Attending a charity ball in Atlanta the following year, Peg performed an Apache (pronounced ah-PAHSH, not uh-PATCH-ee) dance with a male partner, including a kiss which shocked Atlanta’s “high society”.
Likely when Mitchell later began to piece together the personality traits of her most famous protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, she drew from her own past in the process. An “unscrupulous flirt” in her own mind, Peggy was soon engaged to five different men; however, she stated she never mislead or lied to any of them. Gossip columnist “Polly Peachtree” described Peggy’s love life in a column she wrote in 1922: “...she has in her brief life, perhaps, had more men really, truly 'dead in love' with her, more honest-to-goodness suitors than almost any other girl in Atlanta.” In April of that year, Peggy received regular visits from two different suitors on an almost daily basis – Berrien “Red” Upshaw and John R. Marsh.
Peggy met Upshaw in 1917 at a party hosted by the parents of a friend. An Atlanta boy a few months younger than her, his family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1916. In 1919, Red received an appointment to the US Naval Academy. Unsuccessful in his educational efforts, Red withdrew from the academy on two different occasions, resigning for good on September 1, 1920. With no job, he supported himself by bootlegging Georgia mountain moonshine.
Much to her family’s dismay, Peggy married Red on September 2, 1922. Their best man was John Marsh, Red’s friend and roommate. The couple moved in with Peggy’s family, but the relationship was short-lived. Three months later, Red moved out and the marriage was dissolved. Upshaw’s violent temper and alcoholism took its toll on Peggy in the form of emotional and physical abuse. John Marsh offered Upshaw a loan and Peggy agreed not to press charges against him for assault if he agreed to an uncontested divorce. Upshaw agreed and the divorce was final on October 16, 1924.
On July 4, 1925, 29-year-old John Marsh married 24-year-old Margaret Mitchell in the Unitarian Universalist Church. Making their home in Atlanta’s Crescent Apartments, they affectionately referred to their abode as “The Dump”. John later became advertising manager for the Georgia Power Company.
Prior to her divorce from Upshaw being final, Mitchell was hired by The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine to write feature articles. Neither her family, nor “society,” offered her any encouragement with respect to pursuing a journalism career; and she acquired the job with no prior newspaper experience. When Medora Field Perkerson first hired Mitchell, she stated a level of skepticism was felt by the staff at the time Peggy became a reporter. Knowing the tendency of debutantes to sleep late and not be overly thrilled with the idea of working, it would be interesting to see how this played out.
Margaret’s career in journalism lasted just under four years, with her final article published on May 9, 1926. During the time she was with the Atlanta Journal, she wrote 129 feature articles, 85 news stories and a number of book reviews.
A few months following her marriage to Marsh, Mitchell suffered an ankle injury which never healed properly, so she elected to become a stay-at-home wife and continued to write. Shortly after leaving the Atlanta Journal, she began to write a society column for the Sunday Magazine, “Elizabeth Bennet’s Gossip”. During this time, her loving husband lugged home an armload of books from the library on a regular basis to keep his wife’s mind occupied throughout her recovery.
Finally tiring of his good-natured efforts, John strongly recommended Margaret write a book instead. “For God’s sake, Peggy; can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?” A short time later, he bought her a special gift, a Remington Portable No. 3 typewriter, in an act of encouragement.
Gone With the Wind began to take form in Mitchell’s mind from stories her father shared with her and things she heard from Negro servants; in addition to that of relatives and friends. Finding it a challenge to create the story’s opening paragraphs, she began by writing the last part of the story first.
In time, Mitchell’s Atlanta apartment became awash in manuscript papers. Parts of the story were written on the back of laundry lists, others were typewritten. Papers were stored on closet shelves, in bureau drawers and some pages were used to prop up a chair with a broken leg. She shared a portion of the book with friends; however, she never showed it to a publisher. Mitchell worked for the next three years to create her Civil War-era novel with her main character named Pansy O’Hara, which was changed to “Scarlett” shortly before it was published.
During the fall of 1935, Macmillan Company Vice President, H. S. Latham, was traveling through the South in search of new authors. During a luncheon in Atlanta with Journal co-workers Margaret Mitchell and Mrs. Medora Perkerson, Latham was offered suggestions regarding writers he should visit. During the conversation, Mrs. Perkerson told him, "Peggy has written a book." Mitchell was caught off guard with the comment, waved away the suggestion and stated it was not yet completed.
Later that evening Mitchell had a change of heart. She went to the hotel to meet with Latham, manuscript in hand. He literally had to purchase a new suit case to carry it in. A few days later, Latham sent Mitchell a wire stating Macmillan Company would agree to publish the book, provided some revisions were made. Over the next six months, Mitchell diligently rewrote and edited along the guidelines given to her by the publisher as she pulled the story together.
Gone With the Wind debuted in bookstores on June 30, 1936. Having originally submitted her manuscript on a dare, Mitchell now dreamed her novel would sell 5,000 copies. Much to her utter amazement, it sold one million copies within the first six months. One summer day alone, it sold 50,000 copies. This was astonishing; due to the fact the country was in the grips of the Great Depression at the time.
In May 1937, Margaret Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize. Gone With the Wind was later translated into 47 languages and to date remains one of the best-selling novels of all time, with over 30 millions copies having been sold in 38 countries. That number continues to grow by approximately 250,000 copies each year; a best-selling book of all time, outranked only by the Bible. Margaret dedicated the book to her husband.
Prior to the novel’s publication and amazing success, movie producer David O. Selznick secured the screen rights to the story, paying Mitchell’s asking price of $50,000 ($800,846.96 in 2013); the highest price ever been paid for an author’s first novel. When the film’s world premiere of Gone With the Wind, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, occurred on December 15, 1939 at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, it broke box office records during its first run. Nominated for 13 Oscars, the movie won 10, among which were Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actress. The film also won the award for Best Supporting Actress which went to Hattie McDaniel who played “Mammy”, making Hattie the first African-American to win an Academy Award.
The royalty income Mitchell received from both the book and the movie allowed her to support a number of philanthropic interests. Among them were social service organizations in Atlanta and medical scholarships for students at Morehouse College. When the USS Atlanta was sunk in Guadalcanal during World War II, Mitchell began to lead war bond drives. Within 60 days, she had helped to raise $65 million dollars. In February 1944, Mitchell was on hand to christen the new USS Atlanta.
Two years following the release of the book, New York reporters were granted their first interview by Margaret Mitchell. During the dialogue, one of the reporters asked Mitchell if she was creating a new work, or would she be doing so. Mitchell told the reporter she had been so busy answering the phone and doorbell, in addition to responding to her fan mail, there was no time.
Some have speculated the reason Mitchell never wrote another novel is because after completing Gone With the Wind, she spent most of her time working with her husband and brother to protect her book’s copyright abroad. At the time Gone With the Wind was released, international copyright laws varied from country to country.
Another reason could have been her response to the fame which came with her book. Within four years, Mitchell earned an estimated $1,000,000 in book royalties, movie payments and other allied returns ($16,016,939.20 in 2013). Due to the manner in which it disrupted her way of living, Mitchell left for her mountain hideway to escape the barrage of telegrams, phone calls and in-person visits. In a fit of exasperation, she made up her mind she would never write another word as long as she lived.
On the evening of August 11, 1949, Margaret Mitchell and her husband, John Marsh, were on their way to see A Canterbury Tale at The Peachtree Art Theatre. In the process of crossing Peachtree Street at 13th Street, Margaret was struck by a speeding automobile. She was transported to Grady Hospital following the accident and died five days later, never having fully regained consciousness. During infrequent intervals, Margaret responded incoherently to spoken questions.
Shortly after Margaret died, 29 year old Hugh D. Gravitt, the driver of the car which struck Mitchell, voluntarily surrendered to police. At the time of the accident, Gravitt had been released from jail on a bond of $5,450; his arrest a result of an accident in which he was charged with drunk driving, driving on the wrong side of the street and speeding. Gravitt’s police record indicated 23 previous violations.
Governor Herman Talmadge ordered the flag flying over the Georgia State Capitol to be lowered to half-mast until after her funeral. He also announced immediate strengthening of the regulations involved in licensing taxi drivers.
Whatever posterity may decide as to the merits of the novel Gone With the Wind, the Civil War story has become the most extraordinary best seller ever written by an unknown author as his/her first novel.
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"My time is not my own. It has not been my own since 'Gone With the Wind' was published. The very fact that since 1936, I have never had the time to sit down to my typewriter and write--or try to write--another book will give you some indication of what I mean." Margaret Mitchell