Most people know Margaret Mitchell as the author of the epic Civil War novel Gone with the Wind. What you might not realize is that Margaret Mitchell was a woman ahead of her time, a Southern debutante who broke the rules and worked hard despite expectations that she would live life in the domestic sphere.
Despite her affluent background, Mitchell came of age in the face of tragedy: She lost her fiancé to World War I, and her mother to a flu epidemic. After an unfortunate marriage to an abusive husband, she went out and got a job so she could afford to make her own living at a time when women did not work, and certainly not as writers. Even after Gone with the Wind was accepted by publishers, Mitchell worked tirelessly fact-checking the novel for historical accuracy. The book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1936, and of course, was adapted into one of the most beloved films of all time.
In honor of Mitchell’s birthday this Sunday, here are just 10 inspiring facts—just the tip of the iceberg—about this incredible author.
1. As a child, Mitchell was an avid reader and precocious writer.
Mitchell and her mother May Belle were big fans of Edward Stratemeyer’s Rover Boys series, and Mitchell’s favorite books were Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet, both by Edith Nesbit. She also loved to read Dickens, Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott. Later discovered juvenilia reveals Mitchell wrote fairy tales and animal stories as early as age nine, and 11 years old, she even founded her own imprint, which she called the Urchin Publishing company.
2. While in college, she endured two major tragedies.
While attending Smith College, Mitchell’s fiancé Clifford West Henry was killed in WWI in France. Shortly afterwards her mother died of the flu in the epidemic of 1918. Mitchell went home to Atlanta to help her father run the household and never returned to college. Knowing she would die, May Belle wrote to her daughter, “Give of yourself with both hands and overflowing heart, but give only the excess after you have lived your own life.”
3. Mitchell’s two husbands were friends and roommates.
She married the first, Barrien “Red” Upshaw, in 1922, but the marriage was doomed due to Upshaw’s alcoholism and abuse. John Marsh, Upshaw’s best man at the wedding, became Mitchell’s second husband in 1925. Mitchell always used her maiden name professionally.
4. Despite being a “debutante” she landed a job as a reporter at The Atlanta Journal (now Constitution) with almost no experience.
While still married to Upshaw, Mitchell needed to earn an income of her own. She applied to the Atlanta Journal and was hired as a society reporter. While there she wrote 129 features, 85 news stories, and several book reviews.
5. She collected erotica.
In her early 20s, Mitchell developed a love for erotica and became a collector of the genre. Apparently, she and her friends were interested in “all forms of sexual expression.” Her favorite books were Fanny Hill and Aphrodite.
6. Before Gone with the Wind, Mitchell had written three novels, two in adolescence.
Mitchell wrote a romance novel, Lost Laysen, when she was 15 and gave it to a boyfriend. The manuscript was not discovered until 1994. It was published in 1996, 80 years after it was written, and became a New York Times Bestseller.
In earlier correspondence, Mitchell discusses another novel, The Big Four, about four friends in boarding school, but a full manuscript was never discovered. In her 20s she wrote ‘Ropa Carmagin, a short novel about a woman who falls in love with a biracial man. She submitted ‘Ropa Carmagin alongside the manuscript for Gone with the Wind in 1935, but Macmillan publishers felt it too short for publication.
7. Immobilized after an ankle injury, Mitchell began to research the Civil War.
Apparently Mitchell’s ankle injury was so severe she was forced to quit her job as a reporter and stay at home to recuperate. An avid reader, she drove her husband crazy by asking him to make multiple trips to the library so that she could read. One day he brought home a typewriter and exclaimed, “For God’s sake Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousand’s of them?” And Gone with the Wind was born.
8. Mitchell began work on GWTW when she was 25; it took her a decade to write, and no one knew she was working on a novel.
Writing GWTW was an arduous process that took Mitchell a decade to complete. (The novel is, after, 1,037 pages long.) According to Mental Floss, she didn’t want any of her friends to know she was working on a book, and “went to extreme lengths to hide her work from friends and family, including hurriedly throwing a rug over pages scattered on her living room floor once when company showed up unexpectedly.” In the original draft, Scarlett was originally called Pansy. When her publisher requested a name change, Mitchell replied, “We could call her ‘Garbage O’Hara’ for all I care, I just want to finish this damn thing.”
9. During WWII, she volunteered for the Red Cross.
Inspired to help the soldiers during WWII, Mitchell sold bonds and wrote letters to American men overseas. She also sponsored an anti-aircraft ship which she christened the USS Atlanta, named for her hometown, but it sank during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1944. A second sponsored ship, also called the USS Atlanta, sank during an explosive test in 1970.
10. She was killed by a taxi outside her home in Atlanta.
Mitchell was crossing the street with her husband on August 11, 1949, on their way to see a movie and was struck by a taxi. She died five days later at Grady Hospital. Her home, The Margaret Mitchell House, is now a museum.