Gone With the Wind: The legend lives on

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind still makes news
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind still makes news. A musical of the novel hit the West End recently

WHEN Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind to pass time during an illness, she could never have foreseen its amazing popularity. As a musical of the novel hit the West End recently, Liz Thomson traces the life story of its reclusive author.

It’s more than 70 years since the Pulitzer Prize committee bestowed its laurels on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, yet the novel still makes news. Another sequel, Rhett Butler’s People, hit the bookshops last year. And now Gone With the Wind: The Musical, which opened in the West End under the auspices of Trevor Nunn. Nunn is apparently something of an American Civil War anorak.

From the outset, Gone With the Wind, Mitchell’s only full-length novel, set records. Within a year of its first publication, on June 30, 1936, the author had earned more than $500,000 in royalties and another $50,000 for the film rights. Mitchell, a one-time reporter on The Atlanta Journal, had become a celebrity and didn’t like it much. She undertook just one formal signing (around 3,500 autographed copies are thought to exist), and gave just one interview. She liked to say that "in a weak moment, I have written a book" and, had it not been for a riding injury that forced her to quit work and convalesce at home, she might never have done so.

It was Selznick’s celebrated screen version, released in December 1939, that made a legend out of the bestseller. It’s estimated that at least 90 per cent of the Americans have seen the movie. It had then cost a record-breaking $4.25m to make (Clark Gable, as Rhett, received $120,000, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett $30,000; the rest of the cast was a bargain at just $10,000). But its profits since, adjusted for inflation, make it the highest grossing film ever. The search for Scarlett took a year and Leigh’s was in the end a chance casting – the role was still undecided when she turned up to watch the first night’s shooting as Selznick torched the Culver City lot to recreate the burning of Atlanta. Mitchell herself had favoured Bette Davis for the role.

Gone With the Wind remains the biggest-selling book of all times, after the Bible. If asked in a pub quiz who wrote it, most Britons could answer correctly. But who exactly was Margaret Mitchell?

A visit to the Margaret Mitchell House, an unprepossessing building in downtown Atlanta, tells her remarkable story – through letters, photos and the journalism on which she cut her writing teeth. Today, its four rooms are kept much as they would have been when Mitchell lived there, with an old Remington on a table by the window. Carved on the banister in the hallway outside the front door is a lion’s head, which Mitchell rubbed for good luck every morning – as Scarlett does.

Mitchell was herself a debutante, born in Atlanta in 1900 to a lawyer of French-Huguenot descent and an Irish-Catholic mother. On childhood visits to her grandfather’s plantation house near Jonesboro, south of the city, young Margaret first heard stories of the Civil War. Less than 40 years earlier, General Sherman’s troops had gone "marching through Georgia." Gone With the Wind in the years following World War II was seen as glorifying the antebellum South and thus as inherently racist by many. But Mitchell held altogether quite enlightened views.

By arrangement with The Independent