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Alexandra Ripley, 71; Wrote ‘Gone With the Wind’ Sequel

Times Staff Writer

Alexandra Ripley, author of Southern historical romance novels who was tapped to write what became the best-selling but controversial sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” has died. She was 71.

Ripley died Jan. 10 at her Richmond, Va., home of natural causes, said her daughter Elizabeth Lyon Ripley.

“This one will never be mine,” Ripley had presciently told news media when she was selected for the sequel project, saying she took the assignment for financial independence.

“I am trying to prepare myself for a universal hatred of what I’m going to do. Yes, Margaret Mitchell writes better than I do -- but she’s dead.”

Ripley did indeed reap wide disdain, but her work also was regarded as a highly successful marketing effort and, with her 15% of the profits, she quickly became a millionaire.

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Mitchell’s inimitable 1,000-page “Gone With the Wind,” published in 1936, won a Pulitzer Prize, was translated into 27 languages and has sold more than 28 million copies, second in overall sales only to the Bible. The 1939 motion picture version, with Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, earned 10 Academy Awards and grossed $24 million, unprecedented for its day.

As for Ripley’s project, her 823-page book, “Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” published in 1991 was translated into 18 languages and sold well more than 1 million copies. It topped the bestseller list for 15 weeks, even though reviewers -- as the author anticipated -- trashed it.

Mitchell, who died in an automobile crash in 1949, never wanted her novel of the Civil War South to have a sequel. With Rhett walking out the door, leaving Scarlett with the immortal line “My dear, I don’t give a damn,” (Hollywood added “frankly”), Mitchell believed she had written “a natural and proper ending” to her story.

But her heirs thought differently, pursuing an income-producing sequel -- movie, book or both -- before the estate’s copyright on the characters expired in 2011.

In 1975, the estate contracted with producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to create a sequel motion picture. In addition to various screenplays, one writer they hired, novelist/biographer Anne Edwards, actually wrote a 750-page manuscript novel, “Tara: The Continuation of Gone With the Wind.” The movie became bogged down in litigation and has never been made.

In 1984, the Mitchell estate -- by then two nephews -- switched agents and tactics, deciding to authorize a novel rather than the movie sequel. They approved Ripley as the author.

When her book was published -- after Ripley went on strike for four months over what she considered errant editing by her publisher -- reviewers frothed at their keyboards.

“As Scarlett herself might say, the critics have jumped on this book like ducks on a June bug,” Suanne Kelman wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail. “They blasted it for being bloated, sloppy, meandering, boring and execrably written. It deserves all this abuse and more.”

Prior to Ripley’s stint as what Kelman branded “the contracted laborer” for the sequel, Ripley had published four novels. She would go on to write two more, “From Fields of Gold” in 1994, again set in the post-Civil War South, and “A Love Divine” in 1996, a saga of Joseph of Arimathea who aided Jesus Christ.

In approving Ripley to write “Scarlett,” the Mitchell estate had been impressed by her three previous Southern historical novels -- “Charleston” in 1981, “On Leaving Charleston” in 1984 and “The New Orleans Legacy” in 1987.

Those contracts had seemed Ripley’s birthright, even though she was close to 50 when the first was published.

Born Alexandra Braid in Charleston, Ripley had earned a United Daughters of the Confederacy scholarship to Vassar College where she majored in Russian.

She wrote her first book as a student, but tore it up, and worked at New York publishing houses, writing catalog and book jacket blurbs.

She penned other manuscripts, including “Who’s That Lady Sleeping in the President’s Bed?” about a woman president, but couldn’t sell them.

Living in Virginia (where cigarettes were cheaper) and earning minimum wage working at a bookstore, she visited New York and had a drink with a former editor. The editor was looking for a big Southern historical novel, and Ripley jumped -- raising her Charleston background like a Confederate flag.

Ripley took out a loan to pay her rent while writing “Charleston,” and dedicated the book to the banker who lent her the money.

Fueled with the success of “Charleston” and “On Leaving Charleston,” she set a third novel in Europe -- “The Time Returns,” published in 1985, before setting her fourth in New Orleans.

Ripley’s first marriage to Leonard Ripley in 1958 ended in divorce in 1963, and she was separated from her second husband, John Graham, whom she married in 1981. She is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth Lyon Ripley and Merrill Ripley Geier; and one granddaughter, all of Richmond, Va.


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