There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
The 1937 Pulitzer Prize winning book and subsequent Oscar winning movie were set in Clayton and Atlanta, both in Georgia, during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era. It depicts the struggles of young Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do plantation owner, who must use every means at her disposal to claw her way out of poverty following Sherman‘s destructive March to the sea.
The author of Gone with the Wind was Margaret Mitchell. While Margaret Mitchell’s Irish heritage is well known, most of the focus has centered on her maternal great-grandfather, Philip Fitzgerald. It’s believed Philip emigrated from the Fethard area of Tipperary and eventually settled on a plantation near Jonesboro, Georgia; where he had one son and seven daughters with his wife, Elenor McGahan, who was from an Irish Catholic family.
The lesser-known Irish born relative of Margaret’s was her grandfather, John Stephens, from Lusmagh in County Offaly. John Stephens was baptized in Lusmagh on August 17th, 1833. His parents were John Stephens, Sr and Esther Kane. At the age of seventeen, during the famine years, he emigrated the America to join his brothers in Tennessee. He was educated at one of the leading colleges of Tennessee. After graduating with honors, he went to Augusta, GA, where he started a business for himself. He proved to be one of the most successful people that had ever been in business in Augusta and soon began to acquire a great deal of wealth.
In 1861, the war between the states broke out and the men of the South were called to fight. John Stephens was one of the first to give up his business and go to the front. He was made a captain in the first company of Georgia’s troops that went to the war. Approximately two hundred thousand Irish born men fought in the American civil war with the majority around one hundred eighty thousand fighting for the Northern Union Army and twenty thousand fighting for the Southern Confederate Army.
In 1863, while home on leave, he married Miss Annie Fitzgerald, who is believed to be the inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara. After the war, Mr. Stephens with his wife moved to Atlanta where he started in the wholesale grain and commission business under the firm name of Stephens, Flynn, and Co.
Mr. and Mrs. Stevens had nine children including Margaret Mitchell’s mother, Marybelle Stephens Mitchell. Marybelle Stephens Mitchell is best remembered as the mother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margaret Mitchell. But this brilliant woman lived a life all her own – as a suffragist, club woman and a progressive voice in her community.
Born Mary Isabel Stephens on January 13, 1872, Maybelle Stephens was the seventh child of John Stephens and Annie Fitzgerald. Young Maybelle attended finishing school at Villa Maria Convent in Quebec and graduated from the Atlanta Female Seminary. She married Eugene Muse Mitchell, an Atlanta lawyer and passionate historian, in 1893. The couple had three children; Russell who was born 1894, Stephens who was born in 1896 and Margaret who was born 1900.
Margaret attended the Woodbury School and the Washington Seminary. At the Washington Seminary, she developed her writing skills as the literary editor of the yearbook and the president of the literary society. Margaret was accepted to Smith College in Massachusetts. During Margaret’s first year at Smith College, her mother Marybelle contracted Spanish influenza and her illness developed into pneumonia. Margaret traveled home to visit her ailing mother but arrived too late. Maybelle Stephens Mitchell died on January 25, 1919. Her illness and tragic death may have inspired part of the Gone with the Wind narrative. In the novel, Scarlett O’Hara escapes the Atlanta siege and returns home to Tara only to find out that her beloved mother, Ellen, died from typhoid the previous day.
Many in Atlanta society mourned Marybelle Stephens Mitchell. Her obituary in The Atlanta Constitution read:
“A woman of splendid education and of brilliant qualities of mind, as well as of a most lovable personality; she was always popular and always welcome in all efforts in which women were interested…. her sudden death will be a source of grief in many Atlanta homes.”
In 1926, feeling restless as the result of confinement due to an ankle injury, Margaret Mitchell started work on scattered chapters of a novel about the Civil War.
It is believed that her own family history, which includes her grandfather from Offaly was the inspiration for some of the story. Although Margaret never met her grandfather, John Stephens. He died in 1896, four years before she was born. She grew up hearing the old Civil War stories of her grandfather and her great grandfather Philip Fitzgerald.
Nine years after Margaret Mitchell started work on the novel, the still unfinished manuscript was moldering in envelopes when a Macmillan editor, who happened to be visiting Atlanta, heard about it through a mutual friend and asked the author to show him what she had written.
She reluctantly gave the manuscript to the editor. He read it on the train back to New York and made an immediate offer to publish it. Macmillan planned to print 10,000 copies of the book for publication in May 1936, but word of the novel’s scope and drama had already reached a clamoring public and publication was delayed for two months while the press run was boosted to 50,000 copies.
On publication, “Gone with the Wind” was hailed as a masterpiece. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937 and within a year sold more than a million copies.
David O. Selznick bought the movie rights for $50,000—surely one of Hollywood’s greatest bargains.
Sadly, Margaret Mitchell was struck by a speeding motorist as she crossed Peachtree Street at 13th Street in Atlanta with her husband, John Marsh, while on her way to see the movie A Canterbury Tale on the evening of August 11, 1949. She died at age 48 at Grady Hospital, five days later on August 16.
“Gone With the Wind” is the highest-grossing movie of all time, earning approximately one billion, eight hundred million dollars. The movie was released in 1939 and earned 390 million dollars worldwide in its first release…an astounding success at the time. More than thirty million copies of the book have been printed worldwide.
There is no doubt the lives of John Stephens and his daughter Marybelle influenced some of the storyline in Margaret Mitchells book. So in the future if you read the book or watch the movie remember there is a little bit of Lusmagh wrapped up in there.
Our thanks to Danny Leavy for this piece. If you would like to contribute an article email us [email protected]. Our blogs are now in excess of 500 and have reached over 500,000 since 2016, and 68,000 since January 2023.