Mary Rose Taylor, the patron saint of Margaret Mitchell’s legacy

Mary Rose Taylor’s instinct for storytelling made her a key link with Tom Wolfe’s new novel, “A Man in Full.” It’s the same instinct that has embroiled her in controversy over the Margaret Mitchell House.

0315_archive_marytaylor_cck_oneuseonlyMary Rose Taylor sits in a spare room, one floor above the small apartment where Margaret Mitchell wrote “Gone With the Wind,” with an uneaten turkey sandwich in front of her, the hour long past noon. The turkey sandwich seems merely something to fiddle with—a big edible worry bead. She draws the sandwich closer to her, opens and closes the waxed paper, then without so much as a mouse-sized bite shoves it toward the center of the table.

Her brown eyes are intense. At 53, she is blond and still attractive enough to step back into the television anchorperson chair she occupied in the late 1980s. She wears a finely tailored black-and-white checked suit, but no jewelry except a wide gold wedding band. Her voice is soft, but its tone is urgent.

“I am not a quitter,” she says, with emphasis, as if to explain how she’s invested the last 10 years of her life.

For a decade, she has served as a patron saint of Margaret Mitchell’s legacy. It hasn’t been easy. She has overseen the restoration of the renowned author’s home on Peachtree Street. She has battled to clear up myths and misconceptions about Mitchell and “Gone With the Wind.” The old home burned twice, arson suspected in both instances. She struggled with ill-health. She fought through a recent financial crisis of the Margaret Mitchell House. At times her passion for the Mitchell project, her outspo­ken frustration with Atlanta’s refusal to deal with its past, made her the target of those equally passionate about political correctness.

The task of looking at the city’s unsavory history is not easy. “It is uncomfortable. It’s raw, It’s personal,” she says. “It can be hurtful. It can enrage. It draws on all the human emo­tions that tug at your soul and your heart and your mind and your consciousness.” But Taylor is a journalist at heart and she has a reporter’s single-minded obsession with telling a story.

It was this instinct for storytelling that made her a key link for Tom Wolfe as he researched his eagerly awaited second fictional book, “A Man in Full,” due out Nov. 12. The major por­tion of the book is set in Atlanta and Georgia, and one of the reasons is Wolfe’s connection to Taylor—her journalistic instincts, her knack for locations and her estimable connections within Atlanta’s power structure.

“It probably wouldn’t have been set in Atlanta if not for her and for Mack [Taylor],” Wolfe says in an interview from his home in New York City.

Taylor and her husband, commercial real estate developer Mack Taylor, introduced the novelist to major real estate developers in the city and took him on a tour of south Georgia hunting plantations. The book’s main character is Charlie Croker, an-Atlanta real-estate devel­oper, owner of a 29,000-acre plantation, a pri­vate jet and a trophy wife, who confronts a half-empty office tower and huge debt. Thus, when the book hits the shelves next month, Mary Rose Taylor will have been a key link to two publishing phenomena.

“Gone With the Wind” was published on June 30, 1936; by December, the millionth copy had been sold. Farrar, Straus & Giroux will print 1.2 million first-run copies of “A Man in Full,” the largest print run ever far that company.

Mary Rose Taylor is a former colleague of Wolfe and a longtime friend. In 1987 they were working on a television documentary about Canada, he as narrator, she as director. During casual conversation Wolfe asked about her hus­band and, discovering that he was a developer, told her he was considering focusing his next novel on someone in that line of work.

“Why don’t you come visit us?” Mary Rose asked. “Just give me a call.”

Wolfe did call and did come visit at the Tay­lors’ Buckhead home. At dinner parties on con­secutive nights he was introduced to almost all of Atlanta’s top developers.

She also was his entree into the world of south Georgia plantations. “I was like a researcher,” Taylor says. “I knew what he was looking for, so I would kind of describe, pro­file a location. I could never write a novel, but I have some sense of the ingredients used in writing a novel, and certainly location is one of them. I thought if he was interested in Atlanta, there is also a whole world in south Georgia that no one writes about. It’s a very private kind of world, very much a part of good ole Southern boy quail shoots and dove shoots . . . a place of elaborate, amazing tradi­tion and strict protocol.”

Wolfe marvels at Taylor’s understanding of what he needed to know. “She really does have the instincts of a journalist. She keeps up with everything from high life to low life.”

Wolfe accurately summarized someone who has long been a keen observer of the South, fascinated with the region even though she was not a Southerner. She remembers its cruelties, as well as its charms. When her father, an Army plastic surgeon stationed in Denver, moved his family to a new house in Greensboro. N.C., she recalls that her promi­nent next door neighbors built a barbed-wire fence between the properties because, she says, her family was Catholic. “You didn’t know you were being discriminated against. You just thought it peculiar.”

She also witnessed the discrimination others endured. One day a woman in her father’s wait­ing room stormed into his office and said, “I won’t do it. I won’t do it.” Her dad tried to calm the woman, asking what was wrong. “I won’t sit in the waiting room with niggers,” she said. Her father replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but that’s the way we do it here.”

She arrived as a student at the University of North Carolina in 1963 ready to fight the status quo, joining in the civil rights movement and becoming a leader in student government.

It was at the University of North Carolina that she first met Tom Wolfe. She was helping organize a symposium called “The Man, the Mind, the Myth,” and Wolfe, who had just pub­lished the first of the witty, distinctive, first-per­son books that were to make him a celebrated New Journalist, was a featured speaker. It was also at the University of North Carolina that, as a sophomore, she met and fell in love with a young Duke University student named Charlie Rose, whom she married in 1968, accompany­ing him to New York.

Rose took a banking job (before becoming a stalwart on PBS with “The Charlie Rose Show”), and she tried to land a position as a journalist. Eventually she inter­viewed for a job as a researcher with “60 Minutes” and “CBS Reports.”60 Min­utes” executive producer Don Hewitt looked up at this young blonde who seemed the quintessential Southern girl and asked, “Are you Scarlett? Or are you Melanie?”

She bristled, but bit her tongue. A Southern stereotype had caught her in its lasso. What was born was a desire to untangle the truth about a region whose culture, tradition, history fascinated—and sometimes—repelled her. “My desire that people got the South right was as important as my desire that people got me right,” she says. “My identity was very much caught up in the South.”

She landed the job with “60 Minutes” and continued in broadcast journalism. In 1974-75, she produced the award-winning PBS documentary “World Hungerwith Bill Moyers, who became a friend and who subsequently hired Charlie Rose, launching his career. When she and Rose separated in 1980, she moved to Atlanta as an investigative reporter for Channel 11; her series on suburban corruption led to an investigation that resulted in the convic­tion of a Henry County sheriff and a promotion to anchorwoman for the evening news.

Three years later, she met and roamed Mack Taylor and retired from broadcasting. “I thought about looking back on my life and what would mean the most to me—an intimate personal rela­tionship or a fulfilling professional life? I don’t think I could have the second-without the first,” she said in an interview with “South.” “The trick was to redefine myself. The first few years were very, very anguishing . . . I couldn’t have children. I really felt I needed to do something that had socially redeeming value.”

She struggled with the loss of journalism as a prestigious venue; she joined civic boards. She chaired a ball. She pushed innovative school projects. She worked with Shirley Miller, wife of Gov. Zell Miller, on a literacy project; Shirley mentioned her capabilities to her husband, who appointed Taylor to the Georgia World Congress Center Authority board. Mayor Maynard Jackson named her to the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, widening her influence.

Mary Rose Taylor had first seen the movie “Gone With the Wind” when she was 16, but she didn’t read the book until five years ago. In 1987 she had begun research on the Margaret Mitchell House “out of journalistic curiosity.” Eventually, she became intrigued with the paradoxes of Mar­garet Mitchell’s life and convinced that the house could be a premier tourist attraction.

As a member of the Atlanta History Center board, she never understood why the city was reluctant to embrace all its Southern culture. “We were so focused on becoming a city to be reck­oned with in banking and business circles that we wanted to disassociate ourselves from our history. Therefore, the whole focus was on the New South. The Uncle Remus stories, Margaret Mitchell, the Civil War—all of those were perceived to be politically incorrect to talk about.”

The story of Margaret Mitchell intrigued Taylor: the writer’s Catholic upbringing, her feminist mother, her journalistic exploits and Bohemian adventures, her Herculean struggles with The Book, and the charitable acts of her middle age. Most of all, Taylor wanted to use the writer’s biography to tell a slice of Atlanta’s history, namely the years of segregation from 1900 to 1949.

“We mislead people when we say we are about . . . racial harmony,” says Taylor.

Yet civil rights activists opposed her, on calling the house “an insult of monumental pro­portions to African-American people.” No one at the Atlanta Chamber supported her early efforts. Members of her Buckhead social group cautioned, You ought to spend your time raising money for the symphony instead of wasting effort on stupid projects like the Margaret Mitchell House. Business and civic leaders were disdainful. Mary, you’re too intelligent and talented to be wasting your time on the Margaret Mitchell House.

Then the fires struck, one in 1994. Daimler-­Benz had donated $5 million for the restoration of the house and the exhibits when another fire struck in 1996, just days before the house was due to open to the public. Only Mitchell’s first floor apartment was left unscathed. Taylor vowed to continue, but the funds for permanent exhibits were rechanneled to the house and visi­tor’s center.

When the Margaret Mitchell House offi­cially opened in 1997, Taylor persuaded Tom Wolfe to make the inaugural address. He had read the book for the first time the previous spring. “It is one of the great tours de force in literary history,” Wolfe proclaimed, praising Mitchell for showing the horror of war through noncombatants. “The horror of war in “Gone With the Wind” is expressed as powerfully as by any writer, including Stephen Crane, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and, yes, even “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy.”

Wolfe also declared Atlanta prime literary territory. “I don’t understand why there aren’t 20 novels set in Atlanta.”

Ten years before giving his proclamations on “Gone Wind the Wind,” Wolfe used Taylor as a source for his first novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” interviewing her on the mechanics of a television live feed. “She told me things about how daily television coverage works,” says Wolfe, “and provided the framework for an entire chapter on coverage of a demonstration at a housing project.”

When Bonfire was published, they corre­sponded; his letter-writing is marked by colored Magic Marker scribbling intermixed with beau­tiful penmanship, she says—much as his books are distinguished by caps and exclama­tion points. (“AW, I KNOW, NICK! YOU ONLY WORK HERE! YOU’RE SO F—IN’ PATHETIC! YOU KNOW THAT? SO WHYN’T YOU F—IN’ GO GET LOST!” ­—from an excerpt of “A Man in Full” published ear­lier this year in “Rolling Stone.”)

She’d fax him background for his book, sending pages to a New York City version of Kinko’s because Wolfe had no fax machine. He picked up Atlanta idioms. When Norman Mail­er slammed Wolfe, and the “New York Post” sought a rebuttal, Wolfe retorted with a truism à la Atlanta real estate tycoon John Portman, the victim of his share of criticism: “The lead dog always gets bitten in the ass,” said Wolfe to the “Post,” borrowing a favorite Portman saying.

Taylor not only helped Wolfe gain entree to the world of south Georgia plantations but also connected him with Leon Eplan, former city planning director, who took Wolfe on a tour of housing projects; she set up interviews at the Atlanta History Center. Wolfe covered the city; he studied Buford Highway, fascinated with the influx of immigrants from northern Laos, Viet­nam, Korea and Thailand. “That intrigued me,” says Wolfe, who set a chapter of “A Man in Full” on Buford Highway.

When “Bonfire” was initially published in the 1980s, Wolfe met with criticism for concen­tration on racial and ethnic antagonism. “There were some harsh criticisms by white intellectuals who seemed to feel there is an etiquette in dealing with race,” he recalls. “[The attitude was] it is perfectly all right as long as, in the end, there is some all-knowing figure from the streets, somebody from the low order, rising up to show us the error of [our] ways after which everyone goes off wiser and humbled by the experience.

“That unfortunately is not the way it works in real life,” he says.

Still, he did not shy from racial issues in “A Man in Full.” “It is very difficult to deal with contemporary American life without dealing with the subject of race,” says Wolfe. “I don’t think you should duck it because there are hazards.”

In “A Man in Full,” race plays a role “in an odd way,” he says. As the business troubles of the main character Charlie Croker grow, the city experiences a racial crisis when Fareek Fanon, a young man who clawed his way out of the slums to become a college football star, is accused of raping the daughter of a socially prominent Atlantan. “The book doesn’t dwell on racial harmony in Atlanta or lack of racial harmony so much as the way this particular case [the rape case] is used for political advantage or not,” he says. “I don’t presume to give a picture of black and white in Atlanta.”

Wolfe’s and Taylor’s journalistic forays into the city and countryside were in sync with his theories on contemporary fiction. For fiction to reclaim a vital role, Wolfe says, novelists must engage in reporting: “the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions.” Novelists must “head out into this wild, bizarre, stomping, Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.”

This fall, Tom Wolfe will appear in Atlanta to promote “A Man in Full;” the events on November 18 and 19 will be cosponsored by the Atlanta History Center and the Margaret Mitchell House. Wolfe is on the board of trustees of the Margaret Mitchell House and a major contributor.

As Wolfe was putting finishing touches on his novel, Mary Rose Taylor was completing one of her roughest years with the Margaret Mitchell House. The crisis, she says, was worse than both fires put together. In September 1997 approximately $13,000 was allegedly fraudulently withdrawn from the Margaret Mitchell House account at First Union Bank by individuals who used bank counter checks and forged her signature, she says; when the Margaret Mitchell House notified the bank, Taylor says, the money was replaced.

Then three months later, Taylor says, counterfeit checks carrying the Margaret Mitchell House name were used to withdraw approxi­mately $43,000 from the nonprofit organiza­tion’s account; her signature had been scanned into a computer and scanned onto the checks. Within a month, about $47,000 was fraudulently withdrawn from the account, once again on bank counter checks, cashed at five or six branch banks over a six-day period, she says. Eventually the bank replaced all the money, Taylor says.

One of the suspects was arrested in May by the Gwinnett County Police Department and charged with six counts of first degree forgery for allegedly passing fraudulent checks drawn on the Margaret Mitchell House operations account at six different First Union branches in Gwinnett County; the checks totaled over $3,800.

“It was a living nightmare,” Taylor says of the entire experience. “It was so devastating that I wanted to throw in the towel.”

First Union declined to comment based on its fiduciary responsibility to protect its cus­tomers’ privacy.

The ordeal rook its toll, Taylor says, but she has now begun to move on—“I am having fun again,” she says. The board has contracted with the Cox, Curry Associates fund-raising organi­zation to complete a $2.5 million major gifts campaign to raise the money needed for permanent exhibits on the “Gone With the Wind” phenomenon and Margaret Mitchell’s life. A million dollar donation allowed the house to purchase additional land for parking. After a year of daily tours, over 50,000 visitors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and over 70 foreign countries have come through the doors, leaving in the guest book positive reviews . . . “Fabulous.”. . . “Enjoyed it.” . . . ”Too bad they didn’t start this years earlier.”

Mary Rose Taylor continues to wage a pri­vate battle against lupus, an autoimmune dis­ease which attacks connective tissue. If she fails to pace herself, the affliction wears her down, eating into her normal reserves, forcing her to run on pure adrenaline. Or depleting her energy. “It sometimes is hard to put one foot in front of the other.”

Still, she is encouraged by her gradual progress with the house; support among the business, civic and promotional community has grown. Mayor Bill Campbell has backed her efforts, as did former Mayor Maynard Jackson. Her board is biracial. She brags on her staff of 10 full-time employees. Yet nothing is certain. The decade-long experience of sav­ing the Margaret Mitchell House has been “like an evolving news story,” says the former journalist. “I still don’t know how it is going to turn out.”

What’s in a name?
Tom Wolfe considered naming his upcoming novel Stoic’s Game and Chocolate City before he selected “A Man in Full,” taking the new title from a Georgia folk song: “Uncle Bud was a man in full/He had a back like a Jersey bull/He didn’t like taters/He didn’t like pears/He’s got a gal that’s go no hairs.

“I went through many titles,” Wolfe says. “The only mistake I made was telling people what the titles were before finally settling on one.” The title “A Man in Full” does not refer to one particular character. “At first you think it does,” the author notes. “By the end of the book you are supposed to wonder.”

“Chocolate City” was already in use in at least six other instances, including the title of the George Clinton-led funk band Parliament’s 1975 album and song, an African-American organization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and two different sites on the World Wide Web—one for gay African-Americans and the other, a “virtual community” for blacks.
– Nicole Chip

Gone with the statistics

  • By September 1936, with 370,000 copies in print, “Gone With the Wind” was declared the fastest-selling book in history.
  • Mitchell sold her book without a first chapter, which she eventually rewrote many times.
  • “Gone With the Wind” ranks as the best-selling novel in the United States except for the Bible. It still grosses more than a quarter of a million dollars per year.
    – Nicole Chip

By the book

  • Tom Wolfe has been working on “A Man in Full” for more than 10 years; Margaret Mitchell took nine to write “Gone With the Wind.”
  • “Gone With the Wind” was published June 30, 1936 when Mitchell was 35 years old. Wolfe is 67.
  • Wolfe’s publisher expects “A Man in Full” to be around 700-800 pages. “Gone With the Wind” is more than 1,000 pages.
  • On July 30, 1936, David O. Selznick bought the movie rights for “Gone With the Wind” for $50,000, the highest price ever paid for a first novel. The move rights to “A Man in Full” had not yet been sold at press time.

Emma Edmunds’ favorite Gone With the Wind experience was watching the movie long ago at The Fox Theatre and listening to the Southerners in the audience boo the Yankees, and the Northerners boo the Rebels.

This article originally appeared in our October 1998 issue under the headline “There’s Something About Mary.”