This article originally appeared in our December 2010 issue.
Sometime after midnight, in the early morning of December 16, 1939—more than five hours after settling into their seats—the city’s elite flowed out of Loew’s Grand Theatre, overjoyed at the spectacle they’d just witnessed.
Margaret Mitchell emerged, enormously relieved. Hollywood had not destroyed her story after all. In fact, to her great surprise, Gone with the Wind was a cinematic masterpiece. The sense of dread she’d been carrying for the long months before seeing the movie had vanished, and the mood all around was celebratory.
Except something else was nagging at her now.
So the notoriously private author took pencil to paper and scribbled a quick note: “The premiere audience loved you and so did I,” she began.
Despite the lateness of the hour, thousands of Atlantans crowded Peachtree Street, eager to catch a glimpse of stars such as Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Many of Hollywood’s biggest names were there, but not the actress who was on Mitchell’s mind at that moment.
To the eternal shame of Atlanta, black cast members of Gone with the Wind had been excluded from the gala event—including Hattie McDaniel, whose portrayal of Mammy later would make her the first African American to win an Academy Award.
Gable himself was so enraged by the disgraceful treatment of his costars, he threatened to boycott the premiere—agreeing, finally, to make the trip to Atlanta only because McDaniel herself pleaded with him not to ruin the occasion.
Proving himself a great actor, Gable appeared delighted that night. As spotlights swept the sky above Loew’s Grand, the star who forever would be remembered as Rhett Butler grinned widely at newsreel cameras and shouted, “This is Margaret Mitchell’s night and the people of Atlanta’s night!”
His sarcasm would not have been lost on Mitchell, who is said to have been keenly sensitive to criticism.
The institutionalized discrimination in her hometown was “an embarrassment to her,” says Andrew Young, civil rights leader, U.S. congressman, United Nations ambassador, mayor of Atlanta, and filmmaker. Young’s most recent documentary, Change in the Wind, confirms the long-suspected existence of a friendship between Mitchell and McDaniel, and speculates it influenced Mitchell’s extraordinary—and often unrecognized—financial support of traditionally black Morehouse College.
At first, eloquent pleas for help from Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse, went unanswered by Mitchell and instead were politely rebuffed by her husband, John Marsh. However, as the famous author struggled, often unsuccessfully, to find adequate healthcare for beloved family servants Annie Rector, Carrie Holbrook, and Bessie Jordan, she became indignant over racial disparities in medical treatment and other basic services. Eventually, she developed an affectionate correspondence with the legendary Mays and became one of the college’s most generous patrons—anonymously funding the medical educations of dozens of Morehouse graduates.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not impartial on this subject. Change in the Wind is the latest in a series of Emmy Award–winning TV specials I have directed, working closely with Young. His groundbreaking film work dates to the 1950s and proved invaluable when he advised Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on media strategy. In February, at a special dinner in New York, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will present Young with an Emmy for lifetime achievement in television.
Although letters confirming Mitchell’s unlikely and potentially dangerous friendship with Mays were made public several years ago, Young wanted to understand and tell the story in greater detail. We uncovered fascinating pieces of “lost” history—including the simple yet extraordinary document Mitchell composed in haste on one of the most stressful and exciting nights of her life. The handwritten note was a telegram, finally sent at 5 a.m., delivered to the home of Hattie McDaniel in Los Angeles. On the morning after the premiere of Gone with the Wind, the California actress read, “The Mayor of Atlanta called for a hand for our Hattie McDaniel and I wish you could have heard the cheers.”
We also found dozens of other letters on the subject of race—unseen for decades—among Mitchell’s papers in an enormous, restricted collection at the University of Georgia.