Search for Tara Draws 'Windies' to the Old South

Times Staff Writer

Many are bringing their hoop skirts, frock coats and Confederate army uniforms, and they are all carrying their dreams of reliving the moonlight-and-magnolia scenes from the one novel that, frankly, they really give a damn about.

It is the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Gone With the Wind," and Atlanta is playing host this week to thousands who are gathering for a gala celebration.

It was on June 30, 1936, that "Gone With the Wind" first hit the bookstands, capturing the fancy of a Depression-weary public with its compelling tale of a headstrong Southern belle and its uplifting theme of survival in the face of overwhelming odds.

The golden jubilee of the novel's publication has been largely ignored by the nation's literary Establishment, which tends to agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald's judgment that the book "is a good novel (but) not very original." But that hasn't discouraged "Gone With the Wind" aficionados from descending upon Atlanta and the neighboring red-clay country of Clayton County--the site of Scarlett O'Hara's fictional family plantation, Tara.

"Windies," as "Gone With the Wind" lovers are often called, are not much for scholarly papers or literary pontifications on the subject of their favorite novel, anyway.

They prefer the kind of shindig Atlanta and Clayton County have put together, which includes fancy-dress balls, barbecues and fried-chicken dinners, showings of the 1939 film, a Scarlett O'Hara-Rhett Butler look-alike contest, a "Going, Going, Gone With the Wind" auction, exhibitions of "Gone With the Wind" memorabilia, excursions aboard a vintage train and a 5-kilometer road race that promises to leave runners--well, winded.

Up to 30,000 Visitors

Planners of the commemorative celebration estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors will take part.

"This is a fantasy and dream fulfilled," said Michael Kopczynski of North Tonawanda, N.Y., who is visiting with his father and mother, his wife and their 14-year-old daughter. "My wife and daughter have their gingham gowns and I brought along a Confederate officer's uniform."

Not surprising for a book that has been translated into 27 languages and sold in 37 countries, the anniversary activities are also drawing a healthy sprinkling of overseas aficionados. Among them are Finn and Lilleba Galaas of Norway, who won a trip to Jonesboro, the heart of Taraland, as the grand prize in a "Gone With the Wind" trivia contest sponsored by a Norwegian magazine.

The book has sold more than 25 million copies and is still going strong. A special reproduction of the first edition that the Macmillan Publishing Co. of New York has put out in honor of the 50th anniversary has climbed onto the best-seller list.

All-Time Blockbuster

The film, which starred Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, is Hollywood's all-time blockbuster, having earned the equivalent of $321,603,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. That compares to $272,085,000 for No. 2 "Star Wars."

Margaret Mitchell, daughter of a prominent Atlanta family and one-time Atlanta Constitution reporter, began writing the novel in 1927 while recuperating from an ankle injury. An intensely private person, Mitchell found her personal life turned topsy-turvy by the publication of the novel.

"I am sure Scarlett O'Hara never struggled harder to get out of Atlanta or suffered more during the siege of Atlanta than I have suffered during the siege that has been on since publication day," she wrote in July of 1936.

Killed in 1949

So how would Mitchell, who was killed in 1949 when she was struck by a car while crossing a street and would have been 86 this year if she had lived, feel about all the hoopla on the book's 50th anniversary?

"I guess she would be flattered but not too enthusiastic," said Franklin Garrett, Atlanta's official historian, who knew the author personally and was a pallbearer at her father's funeral. "She was never one for a lot of fanfare."

Many of the activities are centered in Jonesboro, about 25 miles southeast of Atlanta. Stately Oaks, a restored antebellum plantation, is open for tours and demonstrations of Civil War-era crafts. There is also a "living history" Confederate army encampment, with soldiers, tents and authentic weapons.

A steam-driven excursion train is making daily trips from Atlanta to the Jonesboro train depot, the site of the terminal that Scarlett O'Hara used when visiting Tara.

Memorabilia on Display

"Gone With the Wind" memorabilia are on display at the Omni International complex, the Atlanta Historical Society and the Atlanta Public Library. The University of Georgia in Athens, which has the largest collection of Margaret Mitchell's papers, is also sponsoring an exhibit there.

Bus and walking tours of sites associated with Margaret Mitchell are also being offered. Among the stops are the Atlanta Constitution, where her tiny desk is on exhibit, and the apartment building, now boarded up, where she lived while writing the bulk of her novel--the only one she ever had published.

Of the stars of the film who are still living, Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, and Fred Crane, who played one of the Tarleton twins and had the movie's opening line, are expected to be on hand in Atlanta.

Played Miss Melly

Olivia de Havilland, who played Miss Melly, was "delighted at the events but doubtful she could come," according to Herb Bridges, a retired Sharpsburg, Ga., postman and owner of reputedly the largest private collection of "Gone With the Wind" memorabilia in the world.

"This is almost a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me," said Orlene Stiles of Anaheim, Calif., who collects "Gone With the Wind" dolls. "Hopefully, three years from now in 1989, there will be another celebration just like this for the 50th anniversary of the movie. I've already got it on my schedule."

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