2011–The 75th Anniversary of GWTW, the book, based in part on writings from the Mitchell family scrapbook, shown above.
By Sally Tippett Rains
Seventy-five years after Gone With the Wind hit the theaters, the interest is still going strong. There are exhibits celebrating the movie and one is opening soon. (Scroll down for information on the upcoming events.) Even in death the actors who starred in the movie keep the movie alive by their legacy. Alicia Rhett, who played India Wilkes, the sister of Ashley Wilkes never made another movie, but she became a well-known citizen in her hometown.
A trip to Charleston, SC holds several Gone With the Wind memories including the life-long home of Rhett and her grave. There are also many other GWTW offerings sprinkled into the history of the town that true GWTW fans would pick up on.
Shortly after Rhett’s death, actress Olivia de Havilland called her a “charming and gifted woman who, though more widely known as India Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, was one of South Carolina’s most celebrated painters.”
Why did she call her this? Because Alicia Rhett’s paintings are displayed in prominent citizen’s homes and she was commissioned by the president of The Citadel to do some Civil War paintings for his office.
Charleston, South Carolina author and civic leader W. Thomas McQueeney, knew Alicia Rhett because she was a good friend with his mother. Rhett and Charlotte McQueeney were among those who started the Charleston Artist Guild in 1953. Tommy McQueeney wrote about her in his book, The Rise of Charleston: Conversations with Visionaries, Luminaries & Emissaries of the Holy City (SC).
McQueeney was able to get us into The Citadel’s president’s private office to show the paintings, which are very beautiful and each tells a story. If a picture tells a story about an incident, then surely they can tell us more about the artist. For years Alicia Rhett had been thought to be a “reclusive artist” who never acted in another movie. Her pictures are bold and colorful, full of detail– just as she was in her youth.
Before her death it was discovered that several Gone With the Wind fans had actually traveled to Charleston and met her, visiting her both in her home and then the retirement center. They found her to be sweet and charming and very willing to talk about her life with Gone With the Wind.
“Contrary to what has been incorrectly intimated about her (Hollywood) acting career, she cherished the relationships,” said McQueeney who also visited her on a regular basis. “She was not a recluse in any sense. She loved company. People simply loved her.”
In her conversations over the years with him she “spoke in glowing terms about Leslie Howard, Ann Rutherford, Olivia de Havilland, Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel and Clark Gable. She corresponded with de Havilland for many years.”
She told him that she was treated “exquisitely” while in California, but in the end she loved her life as an artist, away from the national spotlight. Alicia Rhett was a modest person who did not seek the fame of Hollywood. She was also an only child raised by her widowed mother who was very protective of her. Isobel Murdoch Rhett went with her daughter to California for the filming and they left shortly after her part was completed. According to those who knew her, her mother may have been an influence in her not returning for reasons known only to them. But in the end, Rhett lived a full life and was part of the community, albeit the upper crust of the community.
“It was as if she knew that her art was the destiny she was provided,” said McQueeney. “She continued acting in theater and she had a penchant for horseback riding (she would ride with my mother’s first cousin, Emily Ravenel Farrow, who died at 94 four years ago)”.
McQueeney said Alicia Rhett was such a popular and talented artist in the Charleston area that it was a status symbol to have an Alicia Rhett portrait.
“Several cousins and my aunt all had portraits done by her,” said McQueeney. “It was as essential as having an Oriental rug in the living room! She was so very gracious, humble, and proper. You wouldn’t know she was in the greatest movie ever made.”
The rich were commissioning her to do their portraits but according to TCM.com she also volunteered to paint public school children, laborers, and citizens who lived outside the inner circle of high society.
Alicia Rhett was born in Savannah, Georgia, but after her father was killed in World War I, her mother moved her to Charleston, which was where her father Edmond Rhett was raised. The Rhett family was an important family. Her great-grandfather Robert Barnwell Rhett was South Carolina attorney general and represented South Carolina in the U.S. House and Senate before the Civil War. He served in the Confederate Provisional Congress.
Her father was the son of Alfred Moore Rhett, a Harvard graduate who was a colonel in the Confederate Army and – after the Civil War – chief of police in Charleston, a South Carolina State Constable and a trial justice.
According to an article in the Times-Herald (http://www.times-herald.com/local/20140108-AliciaRhettDies) her great-uncle, R. Barnwell Rhett Jr., was one editor of the Charleston Mercury and then the New Orleans Picayune. Her great-aunt, Alice Middleton Rhett Mayberry, gained fame among gourmets for her Lady Baltimore cakes and was reported to be the inspiration for a character in Owen Wister’s 1906 novel ‘Lady Baltimore.’
One of the strangest sidenotes to this story was that in this author’s book, The Making of A Masterpiece, there is a chapter dealing with a story done by Wesley Pruden, editor of the Washington Times where he theorizes about the “real” Scarlett and Rhett. Alicia Rhett’s family might have been part of the family involved in his theory– and so, it appears might W. Thomas McQueeny’s.
Pruden wrote a story about a couple in history whose life story could have provided the basis for the star-crossed lovers, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. While it can’t be proven that Mitchell even knew about it, there is some very interesting information found when tracking down descendants of those mentioned. Here is part of what Pruden wrote in an editorial in the Washington Times, on Sept. 25, 1991:
“Rhett’s real name was Rhett Turnipseed. The Turnipseeds, like the Rhetts and Ravenals and Pinckneys and Middletons, were and are a fine old South Carolina family, with many tributaries that flow in strange ways to many interesting places. He was a brevet colonel in Hampton’s South Carolina Legion, which, for a time, was attached to Hood’s Texas Brigade.”
He also wrote: “I remember seeing a Rhett Turnipseed while browsing various sites for the Turnipseed connections.” The great-great grandson of this man, B. Rhett Turnipseed, IV was located and his family knew of this story. He shared information, and the whole story is in the book, but this author found it interesting that B. Rhett Turnipseed’s full name was Barnwell Rhett Turnipseed.
So what was Alicia Rhett’s life like in Charleston? As the daughter of Edmond Rhett, she and her mother enjoyed a certain status in the community, which would serve her in later years as an artist.
She lived in a yellow house at 59 Tradd Street before going to the Bishop Gadsden retirement home. The yard had flowers and the shutters and window boxes were there when she lived there. The house is well-preserved and looks much like it did when she lived there. As a young lady she was attractive and had friends.
“Alicia walked everywhere and the things that were important to her were right there close to her,” said McQueeney as he drove us around, showing the close proximity that 59 Tradd Street had to the Dock Street Theatre where she had been discovered years ago by the GWTW production team scouring the South for actresses.
She and her mother attended St. Philip’s Church which is just up from the Dock Street Theatre.
According to writer Mary McShane as well as TCM.com, Rhett graduated from Memminger High School, (which does not appear to still be in operation today). It was an all-girls high school – proper for post-Victorian times. She joined the Footlight Players, a local playhouse company, performing at the Dock Street Theatre. It was here that GWTW producer (at the time) George Cukor saw her acting, and convinced her to try out for the part of Melanie, but in the end she got India Wilkes.
While in Hollywood doing Gone With the Wind, Rhett would spend extra time sketching some of the actors. After she returned home several were said to have been included in an article in the Charleston News & Courier.
Once back in Charleston she became an accent coach for aspiring actors, and she also got a job at a radio station, WTMA, but painting was her passion.
“She had been known to the blue-blooded Charleston circles as the finest portrait artist of the generation,” said McQueeney.
Playing a Civil War plantation owner’s daughter was not a complete stretch for Rhett whose house was amidst other historic houses. In walking distance were Civil War-era homes as well as Colonial-era homes.
And with her last name being Rhett she already knew of the Civil War history as her family was involved in it. Perhaps her family’s name is why Margaret Mitchell chose “The Holy City” as it sometimes called for the hometown of Rhett Butler, and also the adult home of Ellen O’Hara’s sisters, Eulalie and Pauline Robillard.
Though many thought the character Rhett Butler was patterned in part after Margaret Mitchell’s first husband Berrien “Red” Upshaw, he could have been a blockade runner based on the real-life person George Trenholm of Charleston. Dr. E. Lee Spence’s research resulted in his theory that Mitchell must have known about Trenholm– a shipping and banking magnate–who became the Treasurer of the Confederacy during the last year of the Civil War provided the basis for Rhett Butler.
“In one of her letters Margaret Mitchell noted making Rhett a resident of Charleston because of his blockading activities, which precluded him coming from Savannah,” said Kathleen Marcaccio, a historian who often lectures about Margaret Mitchell.
In an opinion piece in the Charleston Post & Courier, Phil Noble wrote that on Bull Street there is a modest two-story home where Trenholm, who he referred to as a blockade runner, lived for a time.
“Supposedly he stayed in this plain little house a few months each year to show his solidarity with the post-war suffering of his fellow Charlestonians, while the rest of the year he lived like a king in the opulent splendor of his mansions in Liverpool and London,” wrote Noble.
Mitchell references Charleston several times other than as Rhett Butler’s home town.
“After Charles’ death, Scarlett went to Savannah first to visit O’Hara and Robillard relatives,” said Marcaccio. “Then she went to Charleston to visit Ellen’s sisters Pauline and Eulalie, before finally ending up in Atlanta with Aunt Pittypat.”
Charleston is mentioned in GWTW as the site of the convent that Ellen Robillard threatened to join if her father didn’t allow her marriage to Phillippe Robillard. It is also the home of the convent that Careen entered later. The real-life convent which opened in the 1830’s and is in operation today is Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. It is right down the street from the Dock Street Theatre.
The people of Charleston embrace their history—real and fictional—and like Atlanta, they have “Gone With the Wind Tours” which boast: “Experience the finest that historic Charleston, South Carolina has to offer: Rhett Butler’s Old South”
The other connection to GWTW is the name “Ashley.” While the character Ashley may have been patterned at least in part after her husband John Marsh, she might have chosen the name if she did ever come to Charleston. There is the Ashley River named after Anthony Ashley Cooper one of the first to colonize in Charleston.
According to McQueeney, “Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper was one of the ‘8 Lord’s Proprietors.’ They were gifted the entire Carolinas by King Charles II of England circa 1667 (Charleston founded 1670).
The name Ashley is on many things including Ashley Ave. and the Ashley Inn, now a Bed and Breakfast was built in 1832.
There is also the Ashley Hall School, the prestigious school attended by First Lady Barbara Bush and author Alexandra Ripley.
Ripley, a native Charlestonian wrote the authorized GWTW sequel “Scarlett” in 1991. She was born and raised in Charleston and used it as the setting for some of the novel since it was Rhett Butler’s childhood home.
So as Alicia Rhett was reading her first copy of Gone With the Wind in like everyone else at the time it came out, she saw her hometown play a small role, but she could never have realized that one day she would be one of the actors in the movie– and 75 years later she would still be remembered for her role in that movie.
Upcoming GWTW Exhibits
With 2014 being the 75th Anniversary there have been an extra amount of GWTW events this year.
August 16 – November 30, 2014: GONE WITH THE WIND: REEL TO REAL EXHIBIT AT ORANGE COUNTY HISTORY CENTER, ORLANDO, FL
Features original gowns, costume, scripts, screen tests, scene props, and more from Gone With the Wind, from GWTW collector James L. Tumblin.
Schedule for this exhibit:
*August 16, 2014: Public Opening—10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $15; seniors (60+), students, and military with I.D. $13; and children ages 5-12 $12. Members and children ages 4 and under are free. Call 407-836-7010 to register.
*August 17, 2014: Sunday at the Museum –Doors open Early (This Sunday Only) at 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.– Admission: $15; seniors (60+), students, and military with I.D. $13; and children ages 5-12 $12. Members and children ages 4 and under are free. Call 407-836-7010 to register.
*September 10, 2014: Windy Wednesday Trivia Night 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Price is $5.
*September 13, 2014: Straight Talk – A Reel to Real Discussion about Gone With the Wind and Its Influence on Pop Culture 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Join moderator Dr. Robert Casanello (UCF) and panelists Julian Chambliss (Rollins College), Barbara Thompson (UCF Diversity Initiative), Maylen Dominguez (Full Sail University), and others for a discussion about the stereotypes portrayed in the 1939 “Gone With the Wind” film, and how popular culture continues to affect our impression of different types of people and cultures. Call 407-836-7010 to register
*September 27, 2014: Smithsonian Day–Doors open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Everybody loves a freebie! Join us Saturday, September 27 for Smithsonian Magazine’s Museum Day Live! Anyone holding a Museum Day Live ticket will enjoy free admission for themselves and one other person to participating museums across the country, including the History Center. Tickets will be available to print August 1. For more information, go to www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday.
*October 15, 2014: Windy Wednesday Date Night – Movie Screening of The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Price: $15. Call 407-836-7010.
*November 2, 2014: Casting of Scarlett O’Hara Film Brunch 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Enjoy brunch while viewing “The Scarlett O’Hara War,” which goes behind the scenes of the casting of Vivien Leigh. Price: $10 for members, $25 for non-members. Call 407-836-7010 to register
*November 9, 2014: At the Movies – Gone With the Wind 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Other Events in August: (Compiled with help from Kathleen Marcaccio)
August 12 – Kathleen Marcaccio: Margaret Mitchell and Gone With The Wind: From Bestseller to Blockbuster – Morton Township Library, Mecosta, MI
August 14 – Happy 75th Birthday to Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz – Hudson Library & Historical Society, Hudson, OH
August 15 – Discussion: The Fall of Atlanta in Gone With The Wind: History or Fiction? – Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA
August 20 – Kathleen Marcaccio: Margaret Mitchell and Gone With The Wind: From Bestseller to Blockbuster – Alvah N. Belding Memorial Library, Belding, MI
August 25 – Doug Tattershall: Belle Brezing: From the Wrong Side of the Tracks to the Silver Screen – Clark County Public Library, Winchester, KY
August 30-31 – Victoria Wilcox: Gone West & Inheritance (Doc Holliday Trilogy) – Atlanta/AJC Book Festival, Decatur, GA
August 23 – Opening Reception: Margaret Mitchell Collection Gone With The Wind 75th Anniversary Exhibit – Hargett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia at Athens, Athens, GA
Sally Tippett Rains is the author of The Making of a Masterpiece, The True Story of Gone With the Wind.
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