2011–The 75th Anniversary of GWTW, the book, based in part on writings from the Mitchell family scrapbook, shown above.
By now the word has spread about the death of Alicia Rhett, who played India Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. India Wilkes, the sister of Ashley was always at odds with Scarlett O’Hara, who was in love with Ashley.
As Gone With the Wind fans prepare to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the release of the movie by Selznick Studios in 1939, Alicia Rhett lived to ring in2014 and see the year of the anniversary of the one and only movie she ever performed in.
” She passed at about 5:00 on Friday, Jan. 3,” said her friend author, W.Thomas McQueeney. “She would have turned 99 in just a few weeks. Alicia had a very sweet disposition and always used her main calling card – a genuine smile.”
It’s difficult to find a GWTW-era photo of Rhett smiling, as her character always had a scowl or sulk on her face, but those who knew her said she was not like the character she portrayed.
“She was kind, gracious, hilarious and despite the fact that she seemed to be alone in her later years, she appeared to be one of the happiest individuals I’ve met,” said J. D. Thompson who knew her.
Back in the 1930’s GWTW producer David O. Selznick’s assistant Kay Brown located Rhett while she was doing local theater. George Cukor, the director at the time, went to Charleston to watch her and offered her a screen test. Despite being around some of the biggest stars and directors in Hollywood, acting was an interest, but not her biggest passion. It was art.
“She told me that her first love was painting and it’s all that she ever wanted to do,” said McQueeney. “Her paintings are exquisite.”
Patrisha Henson had heard about Alicia Rhett’s artwork and she asked her about it once.
“My husband Mark and I, along with a friend got to be with her one year on her birthday,” she remembered fondly. “We took her some flowers and some other Gone With the Wind presents. While we were there we talked about her artwork and I asked her what happened to the sketches I had heard she did while filming Gone With the Wind, and she told me the actors took them with them.”
While on the set of Gone With the Wind, Alicia Rhett sketched her castmates. Terry Crane Crabtree, the widow of Fred Crane who played Brent Tarleton, one of the Tarleton twins still has the picture she drew of Fred.
“The few times I spoke with Alicia Rhett, she was very sweet, jovial and soft-spoken, a gentlewoman, well-bred,” said Terry Crane Crabtree. “She sketched Fred and Ann Rutherford that I know of, and I’ve seen some others in a Gone With the Wind book.”
The character of India Wilkes was so memorable and the movie was such a success she could have gone on to a long acting career, but for various reasons she chose the life of a painter and an actor in her hometown. She never married. Over the years when Gone With the Wind events were put on people would try to get her to attend with no luck– mostly because they had no way to contact her–so there was a perception that she did not want to be associated with Gone With the Wind.
The Reuters article about her death said: “She was seen as ‘intensely private’ and uninterested in the ‘trappings of celebrity,'” quoting a biography on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) website.
In her later years, Alicia Rhett lived in the Bishop Gadsden Episcopal Retirement Community in Charleston, South Carolina where she was assigned a guardian, who took it upon herself to keep her secluded, screening visitors and phone calls. Despite that, Alicia had visitors who were able to get through to come see her and she enjoyed them very much.
To some, she was seen as somewhat of a mysterious person because of the fact that she was shielded, but those who knew her thought she was delightful.
“Alicia was a truly amazing individual,” said J. D. Thompson. “I’ve read things that claim she was rude or that she would even slam the door in people’s faces when they brought up GWTW, which I find hard to believe.”
Thompson first spoke to her in February of 2010 and and he visited her that June.
“We spent about a week and a half in Charleston and we went to see her twice,” he said. “That December, as a Christmas present, my parents took me back to visit her again. This time she took us to dinner at the restaurant within her retirement community.”
Thompson and his parents last saw her in June of 2012.
“We visited her about six times,” said J.D.’s mother Jan Thompson. “She seemed to adore J.D.”
“In between the visits I would call her on a regular basis,” he remembered. “We would never speak long, but she always laughed a lot. She was very aware of what she did in GWTW, and if you asked a specific pointed question should could answer it. She really loved the city of Charleston and liked to talk about it. She also had a great wit about her. Once, my father was speaking to her and he had a white t-shirt with a button down over it (unbuttoned). As he sat next to her, she turned to him and with a stern face said ‘You’re shirt is unbuttoned!’ then she cackled for at least a minute!'”
“The last few times we visited she had a picture of herself and J.D. on her table beside her bed,” said Jan Thompson. “She told him stories about working on Gone with the Wind, talked about her painting, living on Tradd street, attending the Mohawk Drama Festival in New York, working at Dock Street Theater. She treated us to dinner at the home where she was living. We have very happy memories of Alicia.”
When researching the book The Making of A Masterpiece, The True Story of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, this writer had heard the stories that Alicia Rhett was a “recluse” and did not want to talk about Gone With the Wind. She contacted McQueeney,who had written the book The Rise of Charleston: Conversations With Visionaries, Luminaries & Emissaries of the Holy City (History Press) and hadknown Rhett for many years.
“She’s definitely not a ‘recluse’” he said. “A recluse is someone who hides away but Alicia Rhett has always been in the community.”
McQueeney’s book has a chapter on Alicia Rhett in it and a picture of Rhett with his mother.
McQueeney was interviewing her about her painting but at one point they got off topic.
“She said Clark Gable was charming and Leslie Howard was delightful,” McQueeney said. “Olivia de Havilland stayed in touch for years, and Vivien Leigh was just as pretty off the set as she was on.”
She talked about Gone With the Wind to him and had pleasant memories of it. He knew her personally because his mother is an artist and they got to know each other through their mutual love for art. Rhett and McQueeney’s mother’s cousin were best friends. From this family connection he has learned a lot about Alicia Rhett’s life over the years and visited her regularly.
“Alicia’s mother was, I understand from others, very protective,” said McQueeney. “Alicia never married, though she was quite attractive in her day as you may find in her photos.”
As a child, Rhett’s mother encouraged her to pursue her talents, which were painting and acting. Rhett and McQueeney’s mother were two of the seven artists who started the Charleston Artist’s Guild in 1953.
Rhett’s mother had accompanied her to Hollywood for the screen tes for Gone With the Wind; and once she was cast as India Wilkes, they went out together for the production. Rhett told McQueeney that she really enjoyed working on the film but was homesick and they returned to Charleston after filming. She was reportedly offered other roles but turned them down because her mother felt none of them were right for her and she resumed her worked in local theater.
In March 2010, the Rev. Nicholas Inman, the organizer of the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival in Marshfield, Mo. contacted Alicia Rhett along with other surviving GWTW cast members as he wanted to honor them at Marshfield’s annual festival.
“I called her up and had a real nice conversation with her,” said Inman, who added how happy she was to be receiving the honor for her work on Gone With The Wind.
The Rev. Inman chatted with Rhett who told him that because of her age, she could not come to the event but would cooperate in any way she could. Inman arranged to have this writer travel to Charleston to present the award to her in person and take her picture, but in the middle of the trip the director of the senior facility where she lived, put the kibosh on it. McQueeny graciously delivered the medal to her and took a picture of Alicia Rhett proudly holding her Cherry Blossom Hubble Medal.
Besides continuing to perform in live theater in Charleston when she was young, Alicia Rhett became an important painter in South Carolina. Her paintings are hung in private residences, The Citadel and other public places. She later became an accent coach working with aspiring actors and a radio announcer at station WTMA in Charleston.
“Alicia Rhett worked at WTMA during the 1940s and possibly the early 1950s,” said John Quincy, a former announcer for WTMA who is working on a history of the radio station. “She hosted shows geared towards housewives.”
She was an illustrator for several books, including South Carolina Indians (1965) written by Beth Causey and Leila Darby.
“She also had a true love of animals,” said J. D. Thompson. ” In her room was charcoal drawing that she had completed in her earlier life, of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. With each visit we would bring her a stuffed dog and she would be delighted. We would also show her pictures of our pets and that would always make her laugh.”
“Alicia Rhett has had a great life,” said McQueeney who continued to visit her often in her late life. “She was always smiling. She had a wonderful grin that warmed up the room.”
“She was so friendly,” said Patrisha Henson when she recalled the birthday celebration she and her husband and a friend got to share with Rhett.
“We visited for a while, then she asked us to stay for dinner, which we did,” said Henson. “Since it was her birthday we told the staff, and they brought out a cupcake with a candle in it. Alicia was so excited and happy, and we got our picture taken with her. It was just wonderful.
“If a person wanted to have a memory of a visit with someone special, that was it. I don’t think we could have had a better visit. To have actually sat and talked with Alicia Rhett, it was amazing.”
Memorials may be made to the Alicia Rhett Art Fund at the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina, Inc., 635 Rutledge Avenue, Charleston, SC 29403 or to the Bishop Gadsden Residence Assistance Fund, One Bishop Gadsden Way, Charleston, SC 29412.
Arrangements by J. HENRY STUHR, INC., DOWNTOWN CHAPEL.
For the local Charleston, SC stories and her obituary:
Sally Tippett Rains is the author of The Making of a Masterpiece, The True Story of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. GWTWbook.com She is content manager for StLSportsPage.com If you are a St. Louis sports fan, please “like” their Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/stlsportspage and follow @StLSportsPage on Twitter. If you are a Gone With the Wind fan, subscribe to this blog and “like” us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/GWTWbookcom/394926172974