MOVIES : The Case of the Missing Mansion : OK, OK, ‘Gone With the Wind’ fans, we know Twelve Oaks is a memory, but Tara’s in Georgia, in pieces--we think
“The first thing they ask is, ‘Where are Tara and Twelve Oaks?’ I just tell them, ‘They never existed except in the author’s mind.’ ” --Franklin Garrett, Atlanta’s official historian
Betty Talmadge recalls the day in 1979 that she glimpsed Tara, Scarlett O’Hara’s antebellum mansion in the film “Gone With the Wind.”
Talmadge had taken a drive north out of Atlanta with a businessman named Julian Foster, who had offered to sell her the famous movie facade for $375,000. Talmadge, the former wife of ex-Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), thought a restored Tara would make a fine tourist attraction to complement her plantation-style house in Lovejoy, Ga., where she hosted private parties.
She didn’t pay much attention to the route they took that day, but did notice that Foster had turned off the 400 Highway at the Alpharetta exit and “for the next 15 or 20 or 30 minutes we were on country roads.”
Foster eventually pulled to a stop in front of a hog barn, swung open the barn door, and there it was--a “terrible looking pile” of lumber, old doors and papier-mache brick that time had just about eaten away.
“This is Tara,” Foster said.
To this day, people unfamiliar with its history often wonder whatever happened to Tara.
Mention Tara in print here in Los Angeles and you’re likely to still get phone calls from readers saying Scarlett’s house can be seen along Highway 138 as you drive toward Lancaster from Lebec. Or, it’s this big house in Glendale they seem to think was once used in “Flamingo Road.” Or, they hazily recall hearing somewhere that it burned to the ground long ago--not unlike Atlanta itself.
Even MGM itself spread legends.
Former tour guide David Bowen recalled that MGM guides were trained to say that a Southern mansion that existed for years on the old MGM backlot was Twelve Oaks--the Ashley Wilkes homestead from “Gone With the Wind,” even though Twelve Oaks never really existed.
“I think they just did it for the tourists,” Bowen said. “They wanted to have something interesting to show them.”
The legend continued after The Times recently published an old photograph of that Southern mansion being bulldozed, using information given years ago that identified the movie facade as Twelve Oaks. That prompted several readers to note that the mansion in the photograph was, in all likelihood, one seen in the 1962 film “Sweet Bird of Youth.”
MGM officials, after conducting several days of research, concluded that the mansion in fact never appeared in “Gone With the Wind.”
“It’s definitely not Twelve Oaks or Tara,” said an MGM spokeswoman. “Twelve Oaks was a false-front facade on the sound stage on the old Selznick lot (it was also shown, in a long shot, as a matte painting). Therefore, this was definitely not Twelve Oaks. Tara was a separate set on the Selznick lot. We think this is one of the sets on Lot 2 on the MGM lot.”
As any Hollywood historian knows, the remains of Tara left Hollywood 35 years ago and wound up in Georgia.
They were trucked there in 1959 with all the hoopla the Peach State could muster. Gathered on the steps of the state capitol that day, the governor spoke, a band wearing Confederate uniforms played “Dixie,” women stood in hoop skirts and someone read a letter from Vivien Leigh. Even the moving-van drivers got into the act, receiving as partial payment a kiss apiece from the reigning Miss Atlanta.
Julian Foster had brought the disassembled movie set to Georgia with plans to erect a Tara Plantation on a 300-acre site 15 miles south of Atlanta. As he envisioned it, Tara would be a re-creation of a bygone way of life, “absolutely devoid of any carnival atmosphere” and aimed to appeal to students of antebellum Georgia life.
But more than three decades later, his dream has yet to be fulfilled. Although “Gone With the Wind” remains a big part of Atlanta’s allure, there is nothing really to see when it comes to the settings and characters made famous in Margaret Mitchell’s novel.
“When people go West, they are looking for cowboys,” Talmadge said. “When they go to Atlanta, they are looking for Tara and Scarlett and Rhett.”
But what they find isn’t much.
The front doorpiece of Tara--carefully restored in 1989 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the movie’s release--is now at the Atlanta History Center.
“It’s dismantled in storage,” said Tommy Jones, director of restoration for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, who worked on the restoration. “I could have it back up in a couple days, but it ruined my back taking it down the last time.”
The bricks that made up Tara’s columns are said to be owned by an anonymous Los Angeles collector. The rest of the facade is owned by two women--Talmadge, who has some pieces on her property, and Carolyn Ashworth, who owns an upstairs window and two shutters.
“I’m reluctant to say where it is because it has become so valuable,” said Ashworth, who operates a tour of antebellum homes in Newnan, Ga., called Mansions & Magnolias. “It had to go underground. I bring it out if I have a party or big tour, but it’s very difficult to haul around. It takes two men to carry it. It’s said that this is the window that Hattie McDaniel stuck her head out of, but I can’t prove that.”
How these women came to own Tara is a story in itself.
“Betty, I’ll tell you what,” Foster said that day in 1979 when he pulled up by the hog barn. “This man (who owns the farm) is going to sell this property and I’ve got to move this thing. I’ll sell this to you for . . . $175,000.” Talmadge begged off.
The next morning, her phone rang. It was Foster. He said he desperately had to move Tara. What would she give him?
“All I can afford on it is $5,000,” she said, “and only if a restoration architect says he can do something with it.”
“I’ll take it,” Foster replied.
But then Foster died suddenly and Talmadge learned from Foster’s widow that he had never confided to anyone--even to her--where he kept Tara’s remains. The widow wondered if Talmadge could remember where he had driven her that day.
“She said I was probably the only living person who knew where it was,” Talmadge recalled recently. “But I hadn’t paid any attention to how we got there.”
Talmadge decided to contact a policeman she knew and ask if he could help her retrace the drive she took the day near Alpharetta, Ga., when she came upon the hog barn and the lumber pile that was Tara.
“He said, ‘I don’t want you to go get arrested for looking in people’s barns,’ ” Talmadge recalled.
“We picked up a map and we drove from sunup to sundown for four days,” Talmadge said. “We couldn’t find anything. So, I came home and I hired an airplane and flew over Alpharetta for a full day. But everything looked different from up there. I came home that night and called Mrs. Foster and I told her what the problem was. I said, ‘I can’t spend the rest of my life looking for Tara.’ ”
Then, as Talmadge was about to leave her house for a final day of traversing country roads, the telephone rang. It was Mrs. Foster. She had found a canceled check and believed it identified the owner of the farm.
“It turned out we had been within three miles of it,” Talmadge said. “After I found it, I took the policeman with me to haul it away. He had a horse trailer, but you couldn’t pile a third of it in there, so we had to get an 18-wheeler.”
Talmadge took Tara back to her own house--a white-columned, plantation-type mansion in Lovejoy, Ga., built in 1836--that she says is supposed to have been the inspiration for Twelve Oaks in Margaret Mitchell’s novel. As Talmadge tells it, a woman named Arie Crawford, who lived in the house until dying in 1935, spoke of her grandmother shooting a Yankee soldier dead on the front steps. (“But I heard she killed two Yankees instead of one,” Talmadge said.)
Talmadge also has the ancestral home of Margaret Mitchell’s grandparents, the Fitzgeralds, standing in a cow pasture on her property. She said the house was supposed to have been the inspiration for Tara.
But the author’s nephew, Joseph Mitchell, said there never was a historical Tara south of Atlanta.
“The Fitzgeralds lived in that area and their home might have played some general imaginative spark (for the novel), but nothing down there looks like Tara or Twelve Oaks,” he said.
Franklin Garrett, Atlanta’s official historian (“It doesn’t pay anything, but I still am”), said years ago that he received a letter from Mitchell herself asking him not to identify any houses around Atlanta as being inspirations for Tara or Twelve Oaks.
“She said they were figments of her imagination,” Garrett recalled.
What is not in dispute is the movie facade itself.
Don Rooney, head of exhibits at the Atlanta History Center, recalls going to Talmadge’s house in 1989 to begin restoring Tara for the half-century re-release of the film.
Rooney said Talmadge had stored both the Fitzgerald house and Tara inside a barn. “We had to fish through pieces of the Fitzgerald home along with pieces of the Hollywood movie set,” he said. “They were all in a barn covered with cobwebs and dirt. It was sometimes confusing.”
It cost $8,000 to restore the front entrance.
“The whole thing will never be reconstructed, in my mind, because the set was not made of durable materials,” Rooney said. “What Betty has really are the bones. There is some framing timber that was part of the corners, I think, but I think the fenestration of the house is what Betty has. Doors and windows. Openings. Shutters.”
Talmadge said she had everything appraised in 1992 and was dumbfounded at what she was told.
“Guess what he appraised it at?” she said. “One-point-two million dollars. I said, ‘You’re crazy!’ He said, ‘No, Mrs. Talmadge, it is the most famous movie facade in the world.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
Ashworth said that if Talmadge’s pieces are worth $1.2 million, her window and shutters could be worth $200,000.
Ashworth, in fact, once had possession of all of Tara when she was involved with a nonprofit corporation that wanted to build a “Gone With the Wind” theme park. When money for the project fell through, however, Betty Talmadge repossessed the pieces.
In the process, though, Ashworth came to own the window and shutters. She had telephoned a real estate salesman “on a whim” looking for financial backing and mentioned that she had all the pieces to Tara except for a window and two shutters.
“He started laughing and he said he knew where it was,” Ashworth recalled. “He said he had them.
“What had happened, I think--I really don’t know the whole story--but Julian Foster let somebody borrow this window probably in 1960 for promotional purposes,” Ashworth said. “I think it was passed around from person to person. It never was returned. Of course, Julian Foster was dead by that time.” As part of her tour of Southern mansions, Ashworth now offers tourists the opportunity to have their pictures taken from the window and shutters from the facade.
As for the front entrance of Tara, Ashworth doesn’t consider it very authentic.
“In my opinion, it has been totally destroyed,” she said. “It’s a brand-new door. Before, it was rotting in places, but it had the look, the nostalgia that people wanted to see. . . . I have pictures she (Talmadge) doesn’t know I have--the way it looked prior to the restoration and the way it looks now--and it now looks like a brand-new door.”
Ashworth said she has no papers to verify that what she has is really Tara.
“There are no papers,” she said. “But all anybody would have to do is look at the wood (and know it was Tara).”
But she added: “We do have the documentation from when it left Hollywood.”