My Most Unforgettable Character

By Donald C. Peattie

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My Most Unforgettable Character 朗読

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Gone with the Wind

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The first time I met Margaret Mitchell she was in a setting that might have been from the famous novel she wrote many years later --- Gone With the Wind. There was the soft Southern night, the stately white-columned house and the gay sliver of a 19-year-old girl in a blue-green dress skipping down the stairs to greet her guests.

It was the spring of 1920, and I was in Atlanta visiting my sister. We were going camping with Peggy and had gone to her house on Peachtree Street to make arrangements. I had a wonderful evening. Peggy had three handsome beaux in attendance, and it was quickly apparent that she was not only a lively wit and a natural storyteller, but an intent and genuinely interested listener.

She was a tiny thing, just five feet and weighing less than 100 pounds. She would describe herself, perhaps unconsciously, on the first page of Gone With the Wind ; "Scarlett O'Hara had an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green, and above them her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin."

Through the years as our friendship ripened I found Margaret Mitchell a complex creature --- highspirited, defiant, yet compassionate. She hooted at convention. When the daughter of an unusually stuffy family was getting married, Peggy attended a tea in her honor. To the piles of lingerie in virginal white laid out for the guests to see she solemnly added her own contribution ; a nightgown of violent purple.

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She had a special feeling for people in trouble, seemed to know about their problems instinctively. Once, when I was ill in the hospital, I passed through a serious crisis about five in the morning. Half an hour later I looked up weakly to see Margaret standing by my bed, clothes thrown on, hair half done, "Are you all right?" she asked breathlessly. "I'm sure something's happened. What can I do?"

Her fierce sympathy for the underdog never flagged. "If more people knew the sad things that go on," she told me, "there'd be a darn sight less complacency. One good whiff of the police station on a hot July night would do a lot. It's not that people are coldhearted. It's just that they haven't seen. What the eye hasn't seen, the heart can't feel." Many a night she routed her brother Stephens, a lawyer, out of bed to get some man out of jail.

Although Peggy's own life appeared outwardly serene, there were heartbreaks that few knew about. Her fiancé was killed in France just before the end of World War I, and a few months later her mother died. She was in her freshman year at Smith College, but returned home to keep house for her father and brother. She wrote a few stories and plays, but failed to sell them.

Then she got a job on the Atlanta Journal Sunday magazine. There her uncanny ability to win people's confidence quickly manifested itself in colorful interviews with politicians and prizefighters, businessmen and bootleggers.

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Peggy fell in love again, with John Marsh, a tall gentle advertising man. They were married, and lived in a dilapidated little apartment they called "The Dump." As usual, Peggy shocked her friends, this time by tacking up on the front door two cards, one saying "Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell" and the other "John R. Marsh."

She stayed with the Sunday Magazine four years, until an injury put her on crutches. Confined to her home, she read voraciously. She had been an omnivorous reader since childhood, thanks to encouragement from her scholarly mother. She now read so many books that John, weary of carting them home, suggested that instead of reading books she write one.

Margaret was then 26. She decided to try to write about the War Between the States. "As a little girl I always spent Sundays with my grand-parents," she once told me, "and I was invariably scooped onto some lap and then forgotten while the oldsters fought the war. Also I often rode horseback with a fine old Confederate veteran who wore a white goatee, long hair and a jimswinger coat. We would pick up other veterans along the way, and those hot-tempered bullheads argued out each campaign. I heard everything about the war except that the Confederates lost. It came as a violent shock when I learned at the age of ten that General Lee had been licked.

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She heard her grandmother tell of salvaging her husband's sawmill business and making a success of it, and her mother saying, "Some people have gumption and guts. Those are the ones who survive. The others don't.

All this she remembered as she wrote, and the memories began to began to crystallize around a group of striking characters --- Rhett Butler, Scarlett O'Hara, Bell Watling, Melanie Wilkes. They grew in her mind until they seemed almost to spring to life. All were imaginary, but from Margaret Mitchell herself came the kindness of Melanie and the toughness and unconventionality of Scarlett, the green-eyed witch.

Margaret wrote in an unorthodox way, starting with the last chapter and then skipping about. But she insisted that every detail be right. She would go out and see exactly how a red clay road looked under a mid-summer sun, and put that in. She would go and study an old half-burned farm house. Then she would write on the Reconstruction. For the chapter on the burning of Atlanta she could draw on the stories she had heard all her life.

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Years passed, and thick Manila envelopes accumulated in the closets. When friends asked what she was writing, she would laugh : "The great American novel, of course." She never showed it to anyone but John. "It's no good," she used to snort, "but I've got to do something with my time."

For nine years the envelopes piled up. Once, when two of them were serving to prop up her back as she lay on the couch, a friend asked, "Why don't you use a pillow and show someone your manuscript?" She only smiled and said, "This suits me fine."

Then in 1935 Harold S. Latham, a vice president of the Macmillan Publishing Company, came to Atlanta looking for new authors. Several of Margaret's friends, including Lois Cole of Macmillan, who knew that she had been working on a book for years, suggested that Latham get in touch with her. Twice she refused to let him see her manuscript. Then one evening she called at his hotel. "I'm down in the lobby," she told him. "If you want my manuscript, come and get it quick before I change my mind!"

He found the tiny figure sitting all but hidden between two mountains of dirty folders. He was leaving for San Francisco, so he crammed the huge manuscript into a suitcase. No sooner had he departed than Margaret fired a frantic wire after him : "I've changed my mind. Send it back." Instead, Latham read it with growing enthusiasm. The manuscript was a mess, the title was Tomorrow Is Another Day and the heroine's name was Pansy --- not Scarlett --- but its merit was unmistakable. One day Margaret got a check from the publisher.

"Five hundred dollars!" she squealed. "Let me die down!" John took a closer look at the check. "Move over," he said, "It's five thousand!"

The success of her book was instant and overwhelming. Three weeks after its publication, 176.000 copies were in print ; within six months, a million copies had been sold. From it, David O. Selznick made history's most profitable motion picture, one that is still being shown.

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Yet Margaret stubbornly continued to live quietly with her husband, very much as they had before the novel was published. Offered an enormous sum to advise on the motion picture, she snorted, "What do I know about making movies?" and turned it down flat, as she did all offers for endorsements or testimonials.

She really meant her little speech at the world premiere of the movie in Atlanta. "Some people think the time you need friend is when you're in trouble," she said. "But I want to say that when you've had an incredible success --- that's when you need all the help your friends can give."

Fame brought Margaret Mitchell little pleasure, but it did enable her to use her time and money to help others. This gave her great satisfaction, though she would never talk about her private benefactions. She faithfully answered the letters she received from all over the world. Letters from people in trouble always touching her deeply, and she did her best to help. "When people feel they are not alone," she told me, "and that some disinterested person understands and is anxious to help, it makes a great difference.

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Two years after the publication of Gone With the Wind, Lois Cole urged her to write another book.. Peggy said she was still too busy. Then she added, "You know, I always preferred the book I wrote before Gone With the Wind." "How nice," Miss Cole said, as matter-of-factly as she could. "Where is the manuscript now?" "Oh, I burned it up when it was finished," Margaret said. "I just wrote it for fun."

In August 1949, Peggy was struck down by a reckless cabdriver on the Peachtree Street she had made famous. For five days she lay in the hospital unconscious. The flood of calls about her so overwhelmed the hospital staff that 19 of her friends --- I among them --- manned a special switchboard. We took messages from everywhere --- from President Truman, from Georgia's governor, from prisoners at Atlanta Penitentiary who called to offer their blood.

When Margaret Mitchell died on August 16 the widespread dismay was not only over the death of a fine writer. To thousands of people who had never met her this woman was a friend who had given them something of value, "I have often wondered what people find in the book," she once said. "Perhaps it is that it is a story of courage. People react to courage in a book. It strikes fire to the courage in their own hearts. And so long as there is courage, the world isn't going to hell in a handbasket.

In death Peggy sought the anonymity she had lost in life. She had a horror of memorials and made her brother promise that their old family mansion would be torn down when he no longer wanted to live in it. A few years ago this was done. And shortly before John Marsh died he carried out her wish that all her papers be destroyed. Only part of the original manuscript of her books was preserved, with her handwritten corrections --- enough to prove her authorship if it should ever be challenged.

Nothing remains to remind the world of Margaret Mitchell except the lasting monument of her book and --- something that Peggy would probably have appreciated more --- the vivid memories of the many like myself whose lives she touched and made warmer.

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