The Author Who Used Her Pulitzer Money To Secretly Help Her Haters
You don't do the right thing for approval. You do it because it's the right thing.
Otis Smith had to drop out of medical school. No choice. He was a poor black man in Georgia. Paid his way into college delivering newspapers and picking tobacco. But it was only second semester and his money had run out. So he told the president of the college he had to quit.
Couple of days later, the president of the college called him back. Said an anonymous benefactor came forward and paid his entire tuition.
He was stunned. Who? Who would do that for him?
So Otis finished medical college and became the first licensed black pediatrician in Georgia and president of the Atlanta NAACP.
It would be 35 years before he learned who his benefactor was.
No one would have believed it. No one.
They were too busy calling her a racist. Because of her book.
It all started when her husband said “For God’s sake, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?”
Margaret Mitchell was stuck in bed, bored out of her mind.
4'11" and barely 100 pounds, she regularly gave fits to “polite” society in the 1920s. Performed on stage with a Native American man for a charity benefit and kissed him at the end of the performance. A white girl!
Married at 22 and kicked her husband out after four months because he beat her once too often. Marched into the newspaper office and got herself a job as one of the first women journalists in the South. Such audacity.
Got married a second time and refused to take her husband’s name. Made a name for herself writing and she was keeping it, thank you very much.
Three years she’d been a journalist.
Wrote hundreds of hard hitting news stories. And then the accident happened. Shattered her ankle so bad she was ordered to bed.
Her husband brought home armfuls of books from the library. She’d devour them and he’d go back for more.
One day he brought home a Remington Portable No 3 typewriter instead of more books. He said “For God’s sakes, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?”
She was scared to publish until a friend mocked her
Ray Bradbury once said the way he writes is just to chase behind the characters and get the story down. That’s pretty much what she did.
She wrote the last chapter first. Then she wrote random chapters. Shoved each one in a manila envelope when it was done. No more fiddling.
1000 pages later, she was terrified to publish. So she spent 10 years interviewing people to make sure her book was historically accurate. She was a journalist at heart. Didn’t want to mess up the details.
In April, 1935, Harold Latham knocked at her door. He was an editor at Macmillan Publishing in New York, touring the south for manuscripts. A little bird told him an ex-journalist in Atlanta had one. She denied it. Said no, she doesn’t have a book. Sorry.
The night before Latham was leaving Atlanta, Margaret was visiting a friend. Told her about the editor and her friend laughed. As if “she” could write a book, her friend laughed. She’s not “serious enough” to write a book, her friend snorted.
It made her mad. Today we call those frenemies.
So she brought all the envelopes to Latham’s hotel. The next morning he boarded the train to New Orleans and started reading. 3 months later, she held a contract in her hand. $500 cash and 10% of royalties.
Her $500 advance was the equivalent of a $10,000 today.
Money and fame and awards, oh my!
Gone With The Wind was published in 1936 and life got stupid really fast. The book was selling 50,000 copies a day. Over a million in the first six months. During the great depression.
Then movie mogul David Selznick showed up at her door and offered her $50,000 for the movie rights. It was the most money ever paid for film rights. Equal to about 1.1 million today.
Instead of writing for the papers, she was plastered all over them.
A year later, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
The crazy wasn’t nearly done.
Academy Awards and racial tension…
In 1940, Gone With The Wind won 10 Academy Awards. One went to Hattie McDaniel. Best supporting actress for her portrayal of Mammy. She would go on to become the first African American to win an Oscar.
When the movie premiered in Atlanta, Hattie wasn’t allowed to attend the premiere. None of the black actors were. Because, segregation.
If that’s not bad enough, when she won the Academy Award, she wasn’t allowed to receive her award with the white actors. Because, segregation.
When Margaret heard about it, she was outraged. Livid. She reached out to Hattie and the two women became lifelong friends.
Racial tensions were running hot in Atlanta. Politicians had been playing the race card to get votes for years but now the segregation of the movie cast was all over the press.
The black community in Atlanta was outraged by how Mitchell portrayed black people in her book. Called her a racist. Confederate. Said she’s promoting white supremacy.
Let’s go to a show honey, but not mine.
A year after the Academy Award segregation fiasco WWII started.
She volunteered for the Red Cross. Spend her days repairing service uniforms, fund-raising and sending personal letters to service men and their families. Whatever the Red Cross needed her to do, she did.
After the war, she spent most of her time quietly at home replying to fan letters and fighting to protect the international rights to her book.
On a warm August night, Margaret and her husband decided to go to the Peachtree Theatre, just up the street. A Canterbury Tale was playing.
As they were crossing the street, a car came screaming up the hill like a bat out of hell. Margaret leaped backwards. Her husband, forward. The driver hit the brakes, tires screeching as he ploughed her down.
She died 5 days later. Never regained consciousness. The driver got eleven months for involuntary manslaughter. She was 49 years old.
The boy at the back of the theatre…
Sometimes, life weaves itself together in funny ways.
Otis Smith was already long retired from medicine and the NAACP when he finally learned the story of his secret benefactor.
Margaret Mitchell had lost her mother at just 18. A casualty of the 1918 pandemic. She’d been away to college in Massachusetts when the telegram came in. Mother dying. Hurry. She didn’t get there in time.
Her mother left a note to her only daughter, scrawled from her deathbed.
“Give of yourself with both hands and overflowing heart, but give only the excess after you have lived your own life.” (source, Wikipedia)
She fell into the arms of Carrie Holbrook, sobbing. Officially, Carrie was their maid. But not really. She was family. Margaret loved her like a mother, a sister and a best friend all rolled into one.
The year the book came out, Carrie was dying of cancer.
Margaret went to every hospital begging for help. Please. Please help her so she can die in peace, without pain. Please. They turned her away.
Because, segregation. Carrie was black.
At the end, they found one hospital that would admit her in return for an obscenely large cash donation. Not like everyone hadn’t heard of the book success. Carrie’s last 3 days were without pain.
She never forgot that. Vowed to do something about it.
None of that was a surprise to Otis…
He’d already known Margaret’s life story.
When Gone With The Wind premiered back in ‘39, he’d sneaked into the theatre. Crouching in the back, craning his neck to see Scarlett and Rhett. Then he ran home and started a scrapbook. Collected all the stories about the author of that book. Didn’t even rightly know why.
He had no idea that she’d one day pay for his entire education.
Not just his, but as many as 80 students at Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male college. Every donation was made the exact same way.
From Margaret Mitchell, in loving memory of Carrie Holbrook.
Her only request was that her name be kept hidden until her death.
I love that she helped out 80 or so students with the same note. Thanks for sharing this story.
Another enlightening story. Thank you for educating me!