Friday, January 31, 2014

The Real Tara

I discovered an article about the house upon which Margaret Mitchell based "Tara" in Gone with the Wind. It was the plantation house of her great-grandfather Philip Fitzgerald, who had emigrated from Ireland. The house was called "Rural Home" in Clayton County, Georgia; it was not the neoclassical pillared mansion of the famous film. Mr. Fitzgerald's road to success reminds me of that of my own great-grandfather Daniel O'Connor, about whom I am writing a novel. Although they both came to North America around the same time, built a successful life, married and had a houseful of daughters, Daniel settled in Canada and so did not keep slaves. As the article says:
"Rural Home,” as Philip Fitzgerald’s house was known to his descendants, evolved from a simple, two-story, four-room house that was built in the early 1830s and acquired by Fitzgerald in 1836. Growing up in Atlanta in the early twentieth century, Margaret Mitchell and her brother, Stephens, often enjoyed visits with their great-aunts who had inherited and continued to operate the place when Fitzgerald died in 1880. Mitchell’s memories of the place and the stories that she heard from her great-aunts who had lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, were a significant part of the lore that she mined in creating her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, Gone With the Wind.

Before it was destroyed in 2005, the Fitzgerald House was an excellent example of the plantation-plain style, a type of residence that was widely built across the South throughout the nineteenth century. In 1873, Fitzgerald built a large, two-story, Italianate addition to the house, and it was the resulting rambling farm house that Margaret Mitchell first visited as a child some thirty years later. Last occupied in the 1970s, the house sat vacant for several years until 1982 when the owners decided to have all of the buildings cleared from the site. Moved to what was to have been a temporary site near Lovejoy, Georgia, in 1982, the house was demolished after being damaged in a storm in 2005....

Philip Fitzgerald was born in 1798, among the younger of at least nine children of James and Margaret O’Donnell Fitzgerald.[4] Family tradition, which is documented in a variety of sources, including a hand-written family history that Margaret Mitchell’s father appears to have begun in 1917, is sometimes muddled in restating Philip Fitzgerald’s birthplace in County Tipperary, Ireland, but it appears that he was born in or near Fethard, a walled town in southeast Tipperary.[5] As reported by Stephens Mitchell, the house in which Philip Fitzgerald was born was built in the mid-eighteenth century, perhaps by Philip’s grandfather John Fitzgerald (1719-1798), and was still standing in the mid-twentieth century.[6]


There is a family tradition that the Fitzgerald house was not built by Philip Fitzgerald. As Stephens Mitchell wrote, "The story or tradition, as I heard it, was that Philip Fitzgerald purchased land with a house on it. The home was a 2-story house and contained a dining room and bedroom and kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms above it. It had been built in the 1820s or 1830s.”[20] Since this is not contradicted by the physical evidence in the house itself, it suggests that the house was built by John Chambers sometime between 1831 and February of 1836 when he sold LL 145 to Philip Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald paid Chambers $200 for an entire land lot and what would have been considered one of the better houses in western Georgia. Whether or not this reflected the true value of the property at the time is unclear, since it is possible that family tradition is incorrect and that Philip Fitzgerald himself built the house sometime after 1836.

Some have suggested that there were special circumstances surrounding the property’s sale. One of these traditions is that Fitzgerald won the property in a poker game, but that may simply be the reiteration of Mitchell’s description of the fictional origins of Tara in Gone With the Wind.[21]There is also a family tradition that Fitzgerald bought the property at a sheriff’s sale and that the widow of the former owner cursed him for it. As Stephens Mitchell related the story, "The woman whose home it had been stood by with her children around her. She looked at Philip and her eyes were hard on his as she laid a curse on the land. ‘You’ll never raise a man child on it,’ she said and spat."[22]

On several occasions, Fitzgerald did buy property that was being auctioned because the owner was unable to pay taxes or debts on the property or, as in the case of the nearby McElroy plantation that he bought in the 1850s, because the estate was being liquidated after an owner’s death.[23] And while it may be true that the Fitzgeralds’ only son did not live past infancy, there is no indication in the recorded deed that Chambers’ sale of LL 145 in 1835 was forced.

It is not clear how Philip Fitzgerald met his future wife, Eleanor Avaline McGhan (1818-1893), but both were from Catholic families in a part of the state in which Baptists and Methodists formed a large majority. The McGhans were among a group of Maryland Catholics who came to eastern Georgia in the 1790s and settled at Locust Grove in what is now Taliaferro County. Eleanor herself was born near Madison in Morgan County, Georgia, but appears to have grown up in Harris County, some twenty-five miles northwest of Columbus.

Eleanor McGhan and Philip Fitzgerald were married on 18 December 1838, probably at her mother’s plantation in Harris County.[24] According to family tradition, the young couple began their married life at their house on LL 145, where all of their ten children were born.[25]  Three of the children died as infants, but there were seven daughters who grew up on the Fitzgerald plantation along the Flint River. The eldest was Mary Ellen or “Mamie” (1840-1926), followed by Margaret Mitchell’s grandmother Ann Elizabeth (1844-1926). Agnes Bridget (1846-c. 1930), Sarah or “Sis” (1848-1928), Isabelle (1851-1932), Katherine (1858-1894), and Adele or “Della,” 1860-1943) rounded out the family. (Read more.)

And HERE is an article about the casting of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara. To quote:
Leigh became Scarlett 75 years ago. Before casting her in the role, producer David O. Selznick's team interviewed close to 1,400 women and screen-tested 31 of them. Convinced he could find a better Scarlett, Selznick began filming his epic without casting the role.

He and George Cukor—the film's first director who Selznick fired over creative differences—met Leigh on December 10, 1938, while shooting the Burning of Atlanta. In 1973, Cukor told The Atlantic that he knew immediately Leigh was perfect for the role: she was "charged with electricity" and "possessed of the devil." She learned she had won the role on Christmas Day. Selznick made the official announcement on January 13, 1939.
It's only recently struck me what an outrageous choice Leigh was for the role. Not only was she not a Southerner, she wasn't even an American.

Many in Hollywood were put off by Leigh's British-ness. "Mr. Selznick was two years deciding on his Scarlett," sniped gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. "And out of millions of American women couldn't find one to suit him." She predicted that Americans would stay home in protest.

But Leigh threw herself into the role, perfecting a speech cadence which passed as Southern and captured Scarlett's wit and sass. When the movie debuted in December 1939, it became the highest-earning film to that point.

While Leigh's Scarlett was part of the movie's success, its release was also well-timed. It embodied the struggles of mid-20th century America. (Read more.)
Here is a fascinating documentary about the life of Margaret Mitchell and how she used the money she made from Gone with the Wind to educate African American doctors. Share


Diane Costanza Studio said...

What a fascinating article, both on Tara and on Vivian Leigh as Scarlett. I read GWTW in high school and was transfixed. you make me want to go back and read it again. Thank you!

Diane C.

Nancy Reyes said...

and Melanie was based on Doc Holliday's lost love, who became a nun.<a href=">link</a>

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Diane! And thank you, Boinky. Yes, they were related to the Hollidays.

The North Coast said...

Gone With the Wind is an eminently re-readable novel, a true classic with many nuances, in which you discover something new with ever re-read.

I always though that Leigh, with her sprightliness and vulnerability, was a perfect choice for the role of Scarlett, but I really feel that Selznick made the wrong choice for Rhett in passing over the actor who legend says was Margaret Mitchell's own choice, the tall, handsome, aristocratic Basil Rathbone, who would have been my choice hands down.