Margaret Mitchell Born, 1900

When Harold Lathem visited Atlanta in 1935, he told Margaret Mitchell that he had heard she had a manuscript. Mitchell had never let anyone — other than her husband — see the novel she had been working on for the past eight years, and she wasn’t about to show to anyone now. She told him she had nothing available. A few days later a friend of hers remarked that “Peggy” couldn’t have written a book — she wasn’t the type. That was enough for Mitchell. That night she bundled up her manuscript and took it to Lathem’s hotel, catching him just as he was leaving. When he began reading it on the train ride home, he knew she’d written a winner.

Lathem was an editor for MacMillan Publishing, and he was in Atlanta to find new writers. Mitchell had been assigned to show him around town and make introductions. The book was — or would become, for it wasn’t titled yet — Gone With the Wind.

Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1900. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother a feminist and a suffragette. Many of her older relatives had lived through the Civil War, and the men had fought in it. It seemed that every family gathering ended up with the relatives spiritedly refighting the war. Margaret claimed that she was 10 years old before she learned that the South hadn’t won.

Margaret’s mother had impressed upon her the value of a good education, and at the age of 17 she entered Smith College in Massachusetts. She was a young girl with the world ahead of her. She was in love, too. She had met a young lieutenant named Clifford Henry that summer, and the two were engaged to be married. That October, Henry was killed in action during World War I.

Her mother died the following January. She went home for the funeral and then returned to Smith, where she finished out the school year. After that, she returned home to take care of the family household. It was the end of Mitchell’s formal education.

In 1922, Mitchell married Berrien “Red” Upshaw, although both her father and her brother disapproved. They were right, as it turned out. Upshaw was a bootlegger, and a violent and abusive man. After four months, Upshaw left Atlanta and moved to the Midwest, never to return. About two years later, the marriage was quietly annulled.

Mitchell needed to make a living somehow, and at the end of 1922, she got a job with the Atlanta Sunday Journal. She worked there for four years, writing 129 articles as well as proofreading for the paper, doing book reviews, and sometimes substituting for the advice columnist. In 1925 she married again, this time to John Marsh, an editor and a friend of Mitchell’s ex-husband. In fact, Marsh had been best man at Mitchell’s first wedding.

In 1926 she was forced to leave the paper, due to a broken ankle that kept her laid up for some time. She was bored. She read virtually all the books in the local library, until her husband joked that if she wanted to read anything else, she was going to have to write it.

She wrote the last chapter first, and other chapters in no particular order, stuffing each chapter in a manila envelope when she had finished it. When company came to call, she threw a towel over her work to keep it secret. Soon she had 70 chapters, stashed in envelopes in various places all over the apartment.

It was April 1935 when Harold Lathem came to Atlanta looking for writers. He had heard from another editor that Mitchell might be writing a book, and hoped to see it. Still, he had nearly forgotten about it when she came to his hotel room with her manuscript. She warned him that she didn’t have an opening chapter yet, and that it hadn’t been edited. He needed to buy an extra suitcase it carry it back with him.

By July McMillan offered a contract, paying her a $500 advance, and 10% of the royalties. Then the revisions began, serious work, as she had to rearrange chapters, confirm historical details, and write the first chapter. She changed the name of her main character — from Pansy to Scarlett. The title gave her a lot of trouble. too. She considered Tomorrow is Another Day, Milestones, Tote the Weary Load, Bugles Sang True, and Ba! Ba! Blacksheep. The title she chose came from a line of poetry by Ernest Dowson:

“I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,

Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng.”

The book, of course, was an enormous success. It was released on June 30, 1936, and received rave reviews right from the start. David O. Selznick bought the movie rights for $50,000, which at the time was the highest amount that had ever been paid for such rights. Later, when Selznick realized what a hit he had, he paid Mitchell an additional $50,000.

But there’s a down side to fame, and Mitchell suffered for her renown. Her doorbell and telephone were constantly ringing, and fan letters poured in every day. Mitchell tried to answer them all, sometimes writing several pages in reply. She also had to spend considerable effort in protecting her copyright abroad; international copyright laws were not all they should have been at the time. It’s no wonder that she never had the time or the energy to write another book.

On August 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband were crossing a street on their way to see a movie when Mitchell was hit by a car driven by an off-duty taxi driver. According to her husband, when they saw the speeding car he kept on going, but Margaret panicked and tried to go back to the curb. She died five days later without having ever regained consciousness. The driver, it turned out, was drunk and had 23 previous citations for various traffic violations. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in jail.

It is known that Margaret Mitchell had written other works during her lifetime, but all were destroyed, either by Mitchell herself or by her husband on her instructions. Only one other work has survived, a South Pacific romance called Lost Laysen that was written when she was 15 years old. The novel was written in two notebooks and given to a suitor named Henry Love Angel. It was discovered by his son in the 1990’s, and has since been published.

Sources: “Margaret Mitchell”, Wikipedia; “Miss Mitchell, 49, Dead of Injuries”, New York Times, August 17, 1949; “Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949)” New Georgia Encyclopedia; Christina Lewis, “Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind”, Literary Traveler website.

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