"If the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under...? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality 'gumption.' So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn't."
-- Margaret Mitchell, 1936
Author of the bestselling novel of all time, Margaret Mitchell was born Nov. 8, 1900 in Atlanta to a family with ancestry not unlike the O'Hara's in Gone With the Wind. Her mother, Mary Isabelle "Maybelle" Stephens, was of Irish-Catholic ancestry. Her father, Eugene Muse Mitchell, an Atlanta attorney, descended from Scotch-Irish and French Huguenots. The family included many soldiers -- members of the family had fought in the American Revolution, Irish uprisings and rebellions and the Civil War.
The imaginative child was fascinated with stories of the Civil War that she heard first from her parents and great aunts, who lived at the family's Jonesboro rural home, and later, from grizzled (and sometimes profane) Confederate veterans who regaled the girl with battlefield stories as Margaret, astride her pony, rode through the countryside around Atlanta with the men.
"She was a great friend of my cousin," recalled Atlanta resident Mrs. Colquitt Carter. "My cousin always said that when Peggy would spend the night, she would get up in the middle of the night and write things. She was always obsessed with expressing herself."
The family lived in a series of homes, including a stately home on Peachtree Street beginning in 1912. Young Margaret attended private school, but was not an exceptional student. When, on one memorable day, she announced to her mother that she could not understand mathematics and would not return to school, Maybelle dragged her daughter to a rural road where plantation houses had fallen into ruin.
"It's happened before and it will happen again," Maybelle sternly lectured the girl. "And when it does happen, everyone loses everything and everyone is equal. They all start again with nothing at all except the cunning of their brain and the strength of their hands."
Chastened, Margaret Mitchell returned to school, eventually entering Smith College in the fall of 1918, not long after the United States entered World War I. Her fiancé, Clifford Henry, was killed in action in France. In January 1919, Maybelle Mitchell died during a flu epidemic and Margaret Mitchell left college to take charge of the Atlanta household of her father and her older brother, Stephens.
Although she made her society debut in 1920, Margaret was far too free-spirited and intellectual to be content with the life of a debutante. She quarreled with her fellow debs over the proper distribution of the money they had raised for charity, and she scandalized Atlanta society with a provocative dance that she performed at the debutante ball with a male student from Georgia Tech.
By 1922, Margaret Mitchell was a headstrong "flapper" pursued by two men, an ex-football player and bootlegger, Berrien "Red" Upshaw, and a lanky newspaperman, John R. Marsh. She chose Upshaw, and the two were married in September. Upshaw's irregular income led her to seek a job, at a salary of $25 per week, as a writer for The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine where Marsh was an editor and her mentor.
"There was an excitement in newspapering in the 1920's, famed editor Ralph McGill recalled. Margaret Mitchell, he said, "was a vibrant, vital person -– excited, always, and seeking excitement. And this excitement, I think, was a sort of a hallmark of the 20's."
The Upshaw marriage was stormy and short lived. They divorced in October 1924, and less than a year later, she married Marsh. The two held their wedding reception at their new ground-floor apartment at 979 Crescent Avenue -– a house which Margaret affectionately nicknamed "The Dump."
Only months after their marriage, Margaret left her job at the Journal to convalesce from a series of injuries. It was during this period that she began writing the book that would make her world famous.
Gone With The Wind was published in June 1936. Margaret Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her sweeping novel in May 1937. The novel was made into an equally famous motion picture starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. The movie had its world premiere at the Loew's Grand Theater in Atlanta Dec. 15, 1939 with Margaret Mitchell and all of the stars in attendance.
On Aug. 11, 1949, while crossing the intersection of Peachtree and 13th -– only three blocks from "The Dump", Margaret Mitchell was struck by a speeding taxi. She died five days later and is buried in Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery with other members of her family.
Author biography courtesy of The Margaret Mitchell House and Museum.
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