OTI Online
Spring 1997

Tara And Other Lies
Margaret Mitchell And The Real Rhett Butler
by Carolyn Gage

MARGARET MITCHELL, author of Gone With the Wind, was a battered wife. She kept her first marriage a secret from the press, because the court records for the divorce contained a harrowing account of her husband's attempted rape of her. It was a graphic account wildly at odds with the famous marital rape scene that provided the dramatic climax of the romance between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler in Mitchell's famous novel. How could her readers surrender themselves to the thrill and passion of the fictionalized account after reading about the real Rhett - a jealous and violent alcoholic named Red Upshaw whose assault left Peggy Mitchell hospitalized for two weeks?

Why the discrepancy between the two accounts? Because Peggy Mitchell belonged to a society that attached more importance to myth than to reality, a society deeply invested in glossing over the horrors of its recent history of slavery for the sake of glorifying a romantic epoch that never existed. This was a society that, in 1936, had still not come to terms with Appomattox. She also belonged to a society that sacrificed its daughters religiously on the altar of Southern womanhood - fetishizing them sexually, infantilizing them socially and shunting them intellectually and artistically, all in the name of chivalry.

Peggy Mitchell, an inveterate tomboy, had not gone down without a fight. A regional outsider and a mediocre student, she had dropped out of Smith College after her freshman year, when her mother died. Her attitude, which she expressed to her brother, was, "If I can't be first, I'd rather be nothing."

Margaret Mitchell (center) meets her fantasy: Clark Cable and Vivien Leigh join her after the debut of Cone With the Wind.
Margaret Mitchell (center) meets her fantasy: Clark Cable and Vivien Leigh join her after the debut of Cone With the Wind.

Returning home to Atlanta, she attempted to carve out a niche for herself as a rebel among the city's debutante daughters. But Peggy underestimated the forces she was up against when she challenged the authority of the Debutante Club's senior committeewomen. The last straw had been her uninhibited exhibition of apache dancing at the annual charity ball. It was traditional for the debutantes at the end of the season to receive their invitations to join the Junior League, the equivalent of initiation into "high society," but when the letters went out, Peggy's name had been left off the list. As a member of one of Atlanta's oldest and most established families, with an uncle who had been both mayor and state senator, Peggy could only take this omission as the personal rejection it was meant to be.

But Peggy found that her Junior League ban had not hurt her popularity with men, a fact she enjoyed flaunting to the women who had snubbed her. She took to bobbing her hair, wearing short flapper skirts and drinking her dates under the table at the Peachtree Yacht Club, a social club that had nothing to do with boats.

Like the heroine of any good romance novel, Peggy Mitchell threw in her lot with love and adventure. Defying her father and brother and flouting social convention, she married Red Upshaw, as likely an anti-hero for her plot as any of the sons of the South. Red, a devastatingly handsome rake with a reputation for womanizing, had dropped out of college and was supporting himself by bootlegging liquor. But there had been more to Red than just the outlaw image. He was the only boyfriend of Peggy's who ever encouraged her rebelliousness, laughing at her risque jokes and never criticizing her for drinking or smoking. It was obvious to Peggy that the two of them were meant for each other.

But real life is not a novel, and as the spunky heroine of her own script, Peggy Mitchell never dreamed that her daredevil marriage would end in attempted rape, a face disfigured with cuts and bruises, a sordid divorce and a swift retreat into a safe, but suffocating second marriage. Before this second marriage, she made one more attempt to emulate the heroines of a romance novel. The winter after the assault, she booked passage for Cuba, planning to work her way to the Canal Zone, Honolulu and Tahiti. But she was totally unprepared for the sexual predation that awaits the single woman traveling alone. If chivalry was not dead in upper-class Atlanta, it certainly was in the streets of Havana, and the flirtatious charm that she had assumed as part of her personality was not a distinct liability. She aborted the trip, returned home and married John Marsh.

And John was a good rescuer. But rescuers exact a price, and although he was neither a violent nor a passionate man, John Marsh had pressured Peggy to quit her job as a star reporter for the Atlanta journal. Childless by choice, she had enjoyed the fast pace, the challenging assignments and the social life of a journalist. But even as a staff reporter, she had not been able to escape the stigma of her gender. She was frequently required to write stories like "Should Husbands Spank Their Wives?" or "How A Perfect Lady Refuses A Proposal." The one time she had been given free rein to write a series profiling some of the strong women in Georgia's history, the paper cancelled the articles. It seems that her real-life heroines had been too "mannish," too unladylike, and too violent for the readers' tastes.

After leaving the journal, Peggy embarked on a career as a professional invalid, developing agoraphobic symptoms and a number of physical conditions, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, that were to plague her for the rest of her life. Outnumbered, wounded and badly demoralized, there was nothing to do except to sound a retreat. And so Peggy Mitchell turned inward to the world of her imagination, where she could live all the romance her heart desired through her impetuous and indomitable alter-ego, Scarlett O'Hara. And for seven years she did just that.

Peggy Mitchell reinvented herself in the pages of her historic novel. She rewrote life the way she thought it should have been, and she did it persuasively: The dashing and sexually charismatic alcoholic really was the right man after all. The attempted rape was only the natural surge of an animal passion that would sweep up both husband and wife and carry them beyond their pride and their personalities to some transcendental realm of psycho-spiritual bonding. The philandering, alcoholic bootlegger only needed the responsibilities of fatherhood to transform him into a sober and upstanding citizen. And when the heroine found herself suffering from the after-effects of the night of passion (a later miscarriage of the fetus conceived that night), her penitent husband kept watch night and day outside the door of the sickroom, racked with guilt that he should have been the cause of her pain, and waiting anxiously for word that she might forgive him.

IN REALITY, PASSION HAD HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE attempted rape. The marriage had been a disaster from the honeymoon. Possibly in a move to curb Red's violence, Peggy had insisted that they both live in her father's house. Married in September 1922, they were separated by July. Three months later, Red drove up unexpectedly to the door. Peggy spoke with him briefly and then invited him into the house. In the divorce deposition, Peggy stated that "Mr. Upshaw demanded his connubial rights after striking me with his fist upon my left arm..." She refused on the grounds that she feared he would treat her in a "cruel and inhumane manner." Her counsel stated that he "jerked her against the bed, causing her to be bruised all over her body." Peggy fought him off, screaming for help. Bessie Berry, her housekeeper, appeared in the doorway as Red was leaving the bedroom. Peggy in tears, ran after him, yelling at him to get out of the house. At that, her husband turned around and punched her full in the face.

Unlike Rhett, Red did not set up a vigil outside his wife's sickroom door. Instead of going to the hospital, Red paid a visit to his friend John Marsh, who would soon become Peggy's second husband. He asked John to serve as a go between in negotiating an agreement whereby he would not contest a divorce if she would not file criminal charges. Peggy, unlike Scarlett, did not awake the next day to the realization that she loved her husband. She woke up with two black eyes, a sense of terror she was to carry with her for the rest of her life, and a sense of profound humiliation. Far from hoping her husband would visit, she purchased a small pistol and kept it on her bedside table until receiving news of Red's death in 1949. A vagrant alcoholic, he leaped from the fifth floor of a flop-house hotel in Galveston.

Why the lies? How could Peggy Mitchell bring herself to glorify the most traumatic and degrading episode of her life? Perhaps the question is not "How could she?" but "What else could she do?"

Marital rape was not even recognized as criminal. There were no shelters, no crisis hot lines, no rape advocates, no literature on the subject, no television talk shows. Although her family had disapproved of the marriage, they considered divorce the ultimate disgrace. Peggy's friends had all warned her against Red, so she was understandably reluctant to appeal to them for support, at risk of hearing how she had "made her bed and could lie in it." Peggy and Red separated with no closure. He didn't visit the hospital, he failed to show up in court, he didn't call, he didn't write.

Writing, like all art, can be an attempt to resolve contradictions that cannot be reconciled in life. And certainly Mitchell's life was fraught with contradictions: A tomboy with a lust for adventure, she had been compelled to act out the role of dutiful daughter and southern debutante. An avid journalist, she had been sidelined on the "women's page"; the daughter of a militant suffragist, she had been shamed and abused by her mother. An enthusiastic collector of erotic writing, she expressed a profound aversion to male sexuality. Raised on stories about the glory days of the Confederacy, Peggy Mitchell could hardly reconcile these with the poverty and explosive racial tensions in the Atlanta of her girlhood.

Turning to writing for the closure she needed, one of the first orders of business was to exorcise her guilt at the failure of the marriage. In the novel, Rhett is not blamed for the rape. He is depicted as being driven to it by Scarlett's provocations, and by her not-so-secret love for Ashley Wilkes, a married man. In reality, Peggy had been notorious for playing multiple boyfriends off against each other, and she was known to brag about her ability to tease her dates into a frenzy of sexual frustration. Also, like Scarlett, she fancied herself in love with a man she could never have. Clifford Henry had been a friend of Peggy's brother, a lieutenant and a recent Harvard graduate. He was a gentle, philosophical man, and it was their shared love of literature that formed the bond between him and Peggy. Before going overseas, Clifford had given Peggy his ring. At Smith, Peggy's romance with an "older man" at the front was a subject of envy. The friendship was a sincere one, and when she received news that he had been killed at the front, Peggy had been genuinely grieved.

Four years later, at the time of her marriage to Red, Peggy apparently came to the realization that Clifford Henry had been the one true love of her life. It is not known why she shared this insight with her new husband, but it may have provided Red with an excuse for his violence. But Peggy's "one true love" had been even more inaccessible than Scarlett's. Not only was Clifford dead, but one biographer suggests that he might have been gay.

Margaret Mitchell reading congratulatory notes in her Atlanta, QA home following the announcement that her novel had won the Pulitzer Prize, May 1937. Below, John P. Marsh, Mitchell's second husband.

In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett is scapegoated and punished ruthlessly, both for her flirting and for her infidelity. For Margaret Mitchell to have justified compulsive flirting as a learned response to a social milieu that systematically stripped women of the power to direct their lives, she would have needed a feminist perspective which was still 50 years in the future. For her to know that the battering was not her fault, she would have needed to hear the voices of other battered women. For her to receive validation for the criminality of rape by her husband, she would have needed the legislative reform spurred by activists against domestic violence. And for her to understand her attraction to dispassionate men and platonic affairs, she would have needed the critique of compulsory heterosexuality which could only emerge from a visible and vocal lesbian culture.

But Margaret Mitchell did not have these things. She had a typewriter and a desperate need for closure. Battered women have powerful stories to tell; when there are no appropriate outlets, they tell them any way they can.

SOME TELL THE STORY IN THEIR BODIES, WITH CHRONIC ILLness or injuries. Some tell their stories through chronic exhaustion or mental debilitation. Other women keep telling the story with their lives, pitifully seeking closure in abusive relationship after abusive relationship. And some women tell their strongest stories with their lies, with their denial. These are the women who stand in the subways, one hand on the strap and the other clutching a romance novel. These are the women who spend the whole afternoon watching soap operas - the women who buy Regency novels by the gross, reading one after another.

It doesn't matter that the plots are indistinguishable, that the main characters are all the same - in fact, that's the point. These novels and soap operas, if read or viewed frequently enough, provide a pseudo-reality, a closure of sorts - as long as they never end. What lies behind the romance addiction - the compulsion to hear over and over the stories of love at first sight, of Sleeping Beauty being awakened with a kiss? The answer is horror, the horror of lifetimes - hundreds of thousands of women's lives - wasted, destroyed, sold into slavery by lies and lies and lies passed down from grandmother to mother, from mother to daughter. Romance literature is Western mind-binding, female emotional castration.

Romance is the legacy of our colonization as women, which we pass on to each other in the blind belief that it will ease our bondage. Instead, it perpetuates it, because the woman invested in romantic fantasy will interpret her degradation as the result of a personal failing, instead of a deliberate goal of a male dominant culture. Scarlett O'Hara could afford to put off reality; she could always think about it tomorrow. But for real women, today is all we have.

CAROLYN GAGE is a lesbian-feminist author and playwright. She is the author of Like There's No Tomorrow: Meditations for Women Leaving Patriarchy (Common Courage Press, 1997.)

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