Just in time for the hoopla surrounding Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley’s windy sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, comes this headline from historian Darden Asbury Pyron: Scarlett O’Hara was a pip, but Margaret Mitchell was a piece of work.
As a child, says Pyron in his detailed, devoutly academic biography, Southern Daughter, Peggy Mitchell liked to swagger around her neighborhood disguised as a boy. Born in 1900 to wealthy Atlantans and raised as a Southern belle, she was adventurous enough to take a job as a newspaperwoman at the age of 22 (she loved to curse with the guys) but abandoned it four years later to devote her life to a series of real and imagined ailments. Along with her raging hypochondria Mitchell was injury-prone and obsessively fretful: Her skirts caught on fire. She fell in riding accidents. A broken ankle never healed. She nursed a morbid fear of breast cancer. Although she eventually learned to drive, she was phobic about automobiles.
She was also a beauty, a knockout, a man-killer. Which suited her just fine. She took pride in her repertory of attitudes: ”The baby-faced little vamp, the ingenue, the sweet young thing, versus the ‘hard proposition and an experienced flirt’: by the spring of 1919, the young woman had the parts down to an art,” writes Pyron. (Sound like any GWTW character we know?) Courted simultaneously by competing friends Berrien ”Red” Upshaw and John Marsh, she married the former, divorced him, then married the latter. Physical sex, by the way, was not much on her mind (although she liked to collect erotic literature). And motherhood was never her calling.
After the spectacular success of her novel (which she tentatively titled Tote the Weary Load, starring a heroine she called Pansy Hamilton), Mitchell’s life was upended by fame — which only increased the degree and variety of her phobias and fears. (”She hesitated long before going out. What if her dress rode up in public? Aha! the reputation of a slattern loomed.”) And she never wrote another thing, unless you count the 10,000 letters she penned in the 13 years before her death in 1949.
Oh, right, her death: She died after being hit by a car. Just as she always feared. Land sakes! Pyron’s style hasn’t a patch on Mitchell’s. But in steady academic pursuit, the biographer brings to life one hell of a fascinating neurotic. B