In Search of Rhett and Scarlett

By Marsh, Betsa | The Saturday Evening Post, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview
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In Search of Rhett and Scarlett

Marsh, Betsa, The Saturday Evening Post

Thousands are planning a pilgrimage to the Old South this fall for the 70th anniversary celebration of Gone with the Wind.

Even die most fiercely self-disciplined Southern belle is bound to have some creases and creaks as she hits 70. Yet here is a Dixie septuagenarian still smooth of cheek, bright of eye, and lithe of figure.

Of course, she's had work done - expert work. Because no one would trust Gone with the Wind to anyone but die best cinematic plastic surgeons.

The film, which catapulted Britain's Vivien Leigh to icon status as Scarlett O'Hara and immortalized Clark Gable as the only possible Rhett Buder, will celebrate its 70th birthday this December. Thousands are planning pilgrimages to Georgia, the setting for the book and scene of the premiere. Marietta, Georgia, is even restaging the three-day GWTTT gala of 1939, with spotlights criss-crossing the night sky and the remaining cast members walking die red carpet.

But what, really, is left after all this time - 73 years after Margaret Mitchell unleashed the world's best-selling novel?

Never underestimate the South's love of tradition and, especially, its tenacious stewardship of all diings GWTW.

From an original Scarlett gown to Mitchell's Remington typewriter, there's plenty to experience. Here are some of the milestones to help you map your own epic adventure.

Questing for Tara

GWTW fans - called "Windies"- long for the towering white pillars of Tara, but the mansion we love was basically a confection whipped up by producer David O. Selznick.

The native Pittsburgher, who called GWTW "the American bible," envisioned a plantation house like the antebellum mansions lining the Mississippi. Mitchell's Tara, however, was modeled after her great-grandparents' farmstead in Clayton County, a two-story frame house with a comfy porch. The family called it "Rural Home."

In a tribute to her Irish ancestry, Mitchell named her fictional estate Tara for the hill of Tara, 30 miles outside Dublin, where Ireland's first High King was declared.

"When Margaret Mitchell saw the film, she said, 'That's not the house I wrote about,'" said Ted Key, a costumed docent at Stately Oaks in Jonesboro, Clayton County.

Built in about 1831 by Mitchell's Irish ancestor Philip Fitzgerald, Rural Home is now in ruins. Instead, head down Carriage Lane to Stately Oaks, an 1839 home in the Plantation Plain style of Rural Home.

"Windies always ask, 'Is this Tara?'" Key said. "It's as close to Tara as you're going to get."

During the Civil War, the Robert McCord family lived in the house, which was moved four miles in 1972. Mrs. McCord, her six children, and the cook were hiding alone in the home when Union soldiers broke into the basement and found them.

An officer stationed a guard at the front and back doors to protect them, then asked a favor of the lady of the house. Would her cook make his officers home-cooked meals?

"That's the way the house was saved," Key said.

It was on the porch of her family farmhouse, similar to Stately Oaks, that young Mitchell heard tales of the war.

"I heard about fighting and wounds . . . how ladies nursed in the hospitals ... the way gangrene smelled __ I heard about the burning and looting of Atlanta. I heard everything in the world except that the Confederates lost the war. When I was 10 years old," Mitchell recalled, "it was a violent shock to learn that General Lee had been licked."

Hollywood may not have gotten Rural Home right, but it did create an indelible illusion beloved around the world.

In 1979 Georgia's First Lady, Betty Talmadge, bought the studio façade of Tara's doorway, now located at Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell House and Gone with the Wind Museum.

Tracking the GWTW Manuscript

Travelers would love to see the original pages of the world's best-selling novel, but Margaret Mitchell wouldn't have it.

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