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A PRICELESS STORY WAS ALMOST GONE WITH THE WIND DUE TO MITCHELL’S MODESTY

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Millions of Americans this month are focusing considerable attention upon the 50th anniversary of the all-time most popular movie, "Gone With the Wind." Celebrations center in Atlanta, where it premiered, for that was the home of Margaret Mitchell, author of the novel on which the movie was based.

After more than 50 years - the novel was published in 1936 - Mitchell's Civil War romance continues to sell fantastically well. Among all works of fiction, it is No. 1 in total sales, though exactly how many millions of copies is impossible to determine.While countless numbers of readers and movie viewers know the story of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, what very few know is that Mitchell's masterpiece came close to lying in oblivion, a manuscript unpublished.

When I was in graduate studies at the University of Oregon School of Journalism in Eugene years ago, I became acquainted with Harold S. Latham, senior vice president of the Macmillan book publishing company of New York City, which published the novel. We had a long and interesting visit in which he told me the story of his discovery of the Mitchell manuscript. To the best of his recollection, the chronology went something like this:

In the spring of 1935 Latham was on a literary scouting trip, and one of his stops was in Atlanta, where Margaret Mitchell was a newspaper reporter.

He attended a luncheon given in his honor by a local representative of the Macmillan company, Lois Cole. Among the several newspaper

her married name was Marsh and she went by Peggy Marsh. Mitchell was her maiden name.

At the luncheon one of the other reporters said to him, "If you're looking for a novel about the South, you ought to talk to Peggy Marsh."

"Oh, have you written a novel?" he asked Marsh.

"Oh no, not really," said Peggy Marsh. "Nothing for publication. I just write for my own amusement."

Next day at a meeting of the Georgia Federation of Authors, Harold Latham again heard rumors that Marsh was writing a Civil War novel. Later that day he met her at a tea and again asked her about it, and again she denied that she had anything to show him.

That evening Latham was guest of some friends on a tour to nearby Stone Mountain. Several newspaper people and historians, including Marsh, were in the party. After returning to Atlanta, Latham for a third time asked Marsh about her manuscript. "You really haven't any novel for me to look at?"

"No, Mr. Latham, I really haven't. I'm sorry."

Margaret "Peggy" Mitchell Marsh from childhood had a keen interest in Civil War history. Her lawyer father had been president of the Atlanta Historical Society, and as a little girl she would sometimes go with him to the society meetings - where she gained the impression that the South had won the Civil War!

That night after the tour to Stone Mountain and her farewell to Latham, who was leaving Atlanta early next morning, Peggy Marsh obviously didn't do much sleeping. Probably didn't sleep at all.

For the next day as he was about to board a train, headed for Los Angeles, Latham told me, "Here comes this little tiny lady (Margaret Mitchell Marsh) lugging two huge suitcases of manuscript. She said, `Well, if you really want to see it, here it is, but it's not finished.'

"When I saw the bulkiness of it I wasn't sure that I did want to see it, especially if there was still more to come. But of course I took it, and having nothing else to do on the long train trip to L.A., I began reading it and soon realized that I had found a real treasure."

For the Macmillan Co. as well as for Peggy Marsh and her invalid husband, John, publication of "Gone With the Wind" was indeed a treasure, resulting in millions of dollars of profit for each.

Years earlier Macmillan had made a fortune publishing Jack London's books - it bought his "Call of the Wild" for a paltry $2,000. But the Mitchell property proved a bonanza far beyond what the publisher had reaped from London's genius. However, it made one financial blunder: selling the movie rights to David O. Selznick for a mere $50,000.

Selznick spent another $3,850,000 producing the movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. The movie has made a profit of several hundred million dollars, and the end is not yet.

Margaret Mitchell never wrote another novel, perhaps because anything else would have been anticlimactic after the sensational success of "Gone With the Wind." Or perhaps she was just too busy answering the thousands of letters from fans.

Ten years after the movie premiered in Atlanta, Mitchell,who had become the South's greatest heroine, was struck and killed by a careless cab driver - who barely missed being lynched.

It was largely Peggy Marsh's natural reticence that caused her to nearly miss offering her manuscript for publication. But, Latham later learned, there was a second reason for her reluctance.

Peggy had a second hobby: sewing. She was quite an accomplished seamstress. But one of the legs of her sewing machine had gotten broken and she had been using the bulky manuscript in place of the broken leg.