Thursday, July 5, 2012

Gone With The Wind (2 of 3) - The Woman Behind The Book

"Write a book. I can't find anything at the Carnegie {public library} that you haven't read except books on the exact sciences."  - John Marsh to his wife, Margaret Mitchell, after numerous trips to the library gathering books for his invalid wife. 

To get the backstory on Gone With The Wind, I read Southern Daughter by Darden Asbury Pyron. This bio is great for those academically interested in Mitchell and her writing process but as far as casual, leisure reading? Wooooo, is it dry! Still, I did get some interesting tidbits here and there. 

"Georgia Peach" Margaret Mitchell came into the world on the day of her parents 8th wedding anniversary, November 8th, 1900. Mitchell was born into a family of book lovers, though some preferred to read only serious, non-fiction works. As a child, Margaret's mother was advised by Margaret's grandfather to focus on history and philosophy selections "to edify the mind" and "not waste your time in those little novels". Margaret pushed for more freedom in her reading choices while her mother tried to instill the same rigidity she was raised on, even trying to pay Margaret to read her classics:

"Mother used to give me a nickel for each of Shakespeare's plays, a dime for Bulwer-Lytton (and I was underpaid!), a dime for Dickens, fifteen cents for Nietzche and Kant and Darwin. Vanity Fair was in the fifteen cent class but I couldn't or wouldn't read it... I never could get past the part where Becky threw away the book."   
~~ Margaret Mitchell
Margaret didn't enjoy school as a child, preferring instead to stay home in her tomboy threads reading  novels. Margaret's mother used her child's ambivalence about education to share an important life lesson, telling Margaret "the scrupulous, the weak and cowards meet an inevitable fate. They don't deserve to survive because they don't fight, don't know how to fight." The talk seemed to make a strong impression on Margaret because she wrote similar words for Rhett Butler as he explained his disdain for Ashley Wilkes. I got the impression that Margaret's mother was quite the powerful force, being highly involved in the suffragette movement. Margaret later wrote in a letter "My mother was small and gentle, but redheaded." LOL that's funny that that just explains everything ;-)

As a child, Margaret would take horse rides with elderly Civil War vets and listen to their stories (can you imagine? How cool would that be!). On one of these rides, she was thrown from her horse. Her father sold the horse and never let her own another as a child. Wonder if this inspired the tragic scene with Bonnie Blue? I read that Mitchell often claimed that she never intentionally tried to put herself anywhere in any of the characters in GWTW, but given what I've read about her life, I feel like Scarlett and Melanie reflected different sides of Mitchell. She loved being a flirt with boys and had a very strong, determined nature, proving herself in a man's world (much like Scarlett) but she felt shy and awkward in social situations, having instead a close network of friends she remained fiercely loyal to and a husband she loved to mother (like Melanie). Other GWTW connections found in her life? See below:

 1) Margaret's mother, who was known for her charitable works in the community, lost her life in the 1918 Influenza epidemic, much like Scarlett loses her mother (also known for her charitable acts) to illness. 
2) Her father was devastated, just like Scarlett's father. 
3) Ellen O'Hara's stoicism seems inspired by May Belle Mitchell's serious nature. 
4) Margaret took over family home after mother's death just as Scarlett did. 
5) "Men adored her, and she, in turn, needed men. Males, however, exerted the most ambivalent attraction for her. While she relished male company and flaunted her collection of suitors, marriage failed to interest her. Sex repulsed her. These divergent impulses created the fiercest cross currents in her life, just as they underlined the divergent tendencies in her own character...they represented the the tangle in her life, and in the process of her affections, she tangled many an admirer's life as well." >>this is how biographer Pyron described Mitchell. Dunno though... sounds pretty Scarlett to me :-)

Mitchell's first experience with love was with young aristocrat, Lt. Clifford Henry, who was sadly killed in WWI. Teddy Roosevelt gave the eulogy at Henry's funeral. Margaret carried Henry's picture around with her for the rest of her life and sent flowers to his parents every year on the anniversary of his death. She made an idol of him, regarding him as her guardian angel, protecting and guiding her throughout her life. Henry was described as being reserved, shy, with a poetic bent ... perhaps giving Mitchell some inspiration for Ashley Wilkes? After the death of Henry, Mitchell seemed to be one major contradiction when it came to anything around love, sex and romance. She wasn't interested in having much of any of that actually in her relationships, but she had an extensive erotica library. She loved reading underground writings deemed perverse by mainstream, but with her men, she seemed to prefer more platonic or mothering arrangements. She was also fascinated with medicine and read many  books on neurology and psychology, which I'm sure helped her with character studies.

Margaret's 1st marriage was to Berrien Kinnard Upshaw (known as BK or "Red" for his dark red hair). They married Sept. 2, 1922 and then honeymooned here in NC, stopping first at the famous Grove Park Inn (hotspot for many writers such as Fitzgerald  -- whom Margaret met before either of them became famous -- O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, etc), traveled through Wrightsville Beach area, and on to Raleigh to meet the new in-laws. Most of Mitchell's friends didn't really understand the match, except to think that he was someone Margaret liked to mother. Within 6 months, it was clear the two had virtually nothing in common, at least not enough to sustain a successful lifelong union. Red's employment was sporadic, so when Margaret searched for work for herself to help them out, Red became angry, feeling like a failure as a husband / provider. Desperate measures led Red to become a rum runner. She got a job working for the local paper in Atlanta. When Margaret started using her maiden name in her byline, Red took the hint and assumed the marriage was over. Ten months after their wedding day, in the summer of 1923, Margaret officially filed for divorce.

Mitchell's wedding to "Red" Upshaw - Mitchell had amorous relationships with 3 out of the 4 men in this pic. The guy on the end with the mustache was the 4th - Margaret's brother. The guy on the left looking in Margaret's direction is John Marsh, who would later be her 2nd husband... oohh the tension in that room!

In the wake of the divorce, Margaret tried to do the whole independant woman thing, traveling around the world, primarily through Hawaii, Panama and Cuba. After hanging in Cuba for awhile, she eventually got restless so she came back to Georgia to try to settle into Southern domesticity.

Marriage #2 was with Red's old roommate and a mutual friend of Red and Margaret's, John Marsh. John had had an interest in Margaret for years, Red had just beaten him to the punch. John was a quiet, bookish, somewhat socially awkward fella with a number of health issues. Again, someone for Margaret to lovingly mother without having to feel pressured about sex. While I didn't read about them having a great passionate romance, they did seem to have a loving companionship. About nine months after their marriage, a mysterious arthritis-like bone ailment struck Margaret. Doctors couldn't figure out what it was exactly, just vaguely labeling it "a toxic buildup in the body". Their course of action? They just started operating on one body part after another, hoping to find the source of the pain. She even had her appendix and tonsils removed with no improvement in her bone and joint pain. The pain built up in her ankles, causing one to break and leave her on bed rest for months. She lost most of her ability to walk, except with use of canes or walkers. Oddly though, while Margaret got weaker, John's health showed improvement. Didn't last, but for awhile he was the stronger one.

John and Margaret

This ailment is was pushed Mitchell to sit there and really hammer out GWTW. She had to take a leave of absence from her job at the paper, so she pretty much had nothing else to do except read and work on her own novel. In his bio, Pyron points out that this could have a good deal to do with GWTW's famous lengthiness. Mitchell also suffered bouts of depression, worsened by her stressing over her novel. It's said that she agonized over what she saw as the "lousiness" of her novel (though what writer doesn't have that "wow, this sucks!" moment sometimes when trying to critique their own work -- we're all our own worst critics!).

After the publication of GWTW, Mitchell was very involved in the process of putting together and casting its famous screen adaptation. After the movie was released, Mitchell and her hub-hubs had months of publicity madness, but after a time the initial fervor died down and they were allowed to settle back into their quiet lives, at least somewhat. On August 11, 1949 John and Margaret decide to step out for the evening and go see a movie in town. They park across the street from the theater and attempt to walk over when they see a car barreling down the road right at them. In the process of trying to jump out of the way, Margaret instead stepped in front of an oncoming taxicab. She was rushed to the hospital where she fell into a coma. Five days later, the swelling in her brain claims her life. Mitchell was laid to rest in Oakland Cemetery, the final resting place for many of Atlanta's elite.
John Marsh met up with his wife again in 1952.

The intense eyes of Margaret Mitchell