This week, in 1936, the novel Gone With the Wind was published. Love it or hate it, the book boasts an impressive 1,383,000 copies sold in its first year and over 30 million copies since, more than any other book besides the Bible. It won its author, Margaret Mitchell, a Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and made her very, very wealthy. Also very miserable. When she wailed that she regretted ever having published, she meant it and she never wrote again, not so much as a grocery list.
She was a Georgia belle of the old school, an ardent flirt adhering to an inflexible set of manners that would have made Ellen O’Hara proud. It was only when Mitchell’s abusive first husband refused to work that she, to the dismay of her neighbors, walked into the offices of the Atlanta Constitution and demanded a job. She covered the city’s society page for years until she became bedridden with a rheumatic ankle. Out of boredom she began a novel that she would work on for the next ten years.
Its contents were a secret to everyone, even her second husband, but rumors got out and when a publisher came to Atlanta looking for fresh material, she forcefully denied that she was in possession of the manuscript from hell living in boxes under her bed. As the publisher was about to leave town for New York, she relented and sent him off with a trunk full of chapters. The next day she telegraphed and asked for it to be returned. It wasn’t. Her life would never be the same.
She loathed her new-found celebrity: strangers walked into her house without knocking. They touched her in the street. She was followed by the paparazzi. The situation only got worse when the movie version of Gone With the Wind came out in 1939; the frenzy surrounding it was frightening and distasteful.
“The cook is off,” she wrote in a letter, “The secretary isn’t here, the phone is going every minute, the door bell ringing and the door belching strangers who want autographs and want to see what I look like and want me to make speeches and go to parties and tell what I like for breakfast and if I wear lace on my panties and why I haven’t any children. It’s only eleven a.m. and I’ve been going since dawn and feel as though it were midnight.”
On top of this, her accountant stole from her as did countries like China and Japan who pirated the book then begged her to help with publicity. Germany banned GWTW and with every country they invaded the foreign rights that should have belonged to her became the province of the State Department.
Considering all of this maybe it isn’t hard to understand why she never wrote again. Add to it a possible psychological association – one biographer suggests that her writing while ill linked the process to intense physical pain, to say nothing of the garden variety emotional challenges that comes with the trade. Then there war work which she threw herself into with the intensity of a Melanie Wilkes. She tried to take it all in her stride like the lady she was, with as much as grace and wit as she could muster, until 1949, when while crossing the street she was struck by a drunk driver and died at the age of 47.
To read Margaret Mitchell’s obituary, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1108.html