More bad news for Scar­lett O’Hara

The Washington Times Weekly - - National -

Poor Rhett and Scar­lett. Their bones lie moul­der­ing in the grave, but the lawyers and other op­por­tunists in the book trade just won’t leave them alone.

Still an­other se­quel to “Gone With the Wind” is to be loosed upon us. This one is mostly about Rhett, his ori­gins in haughty Charleston, his block­ade run­ning, and even naughty ad­ven­tures with Belle Watling, the bor­dello madam with an un­likely heart of gold.

Some things are meant to be un­touched. But when ha­rass­ment of ghosts is ac­com­pa­nied by mil­lions of Yan­kee dol­lars, who could ex­pect lawyers and pub­lish­ers to care? Mar­garet Mitchell, the At­lanta news­pa­per colum­nist who sprang Rhett, Scar­lett and their friends on an ador­ing pub­lic 71 years ago, was never tempted to write a se­quel. You can’t go home again, and you can’t re­write Romeo and Juliet, Hansel and Gre­tel, Jack and Jill, or “Gone With the Wind.” Lit­tle girls (and some big ones, too) have been ar­gu­ing for years over whether Rhett and Scar­lett ever got it on again. Who would ruin a ro­mance like that?

Fif­teen years ago, a se­quel was com­mis­sioned by the Mitchell es­tate to Alexandra Ri­p­ley, who pro­duced a story about Scar­lett wind­ing up in Ire- land, which crit­ics hated and read­ers rel­ished. It was a mish­mash of stunted imag­i­na­tion, and Mar­garet Mitchell’s fam­ily, count­ing the mil­lions, com­mis­sioned still an­other se­quel to re­deem the story, and when the au­thor turned in a 600-page man­u­script, it was so bad that St. Martin’s Press locked it up and went to court to for­bid the au­thor from try­ing to in­ter­est an­other pub­lisher. The pro­hi­bi­tion was ap­par­ently not dif­fi­cult to en­force. This au­thor, Emma Ten­nant, had ear­lier writ­ten a “well-re­garded” se­quel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prej­u­dice,” but she was still not to be trusted with semi-holy writ.

St. Martin’s tried to find other sus­pects. Pat Conroy, a South­erner who wrote “The Prince of Tides,” was ap­proached but knew bet­ter. He told the New York Times that the es­tate’s lawyers were de­ter­mined to pre­vent any hint of in­ter­ra­cial ro­mance and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, and he couldn’t kill Scar­lett. Like any writer, he didn’t want lawyers edit­ing his work. (Edi­tors are pests enough.) Mr. Conroy joked that left alone, he would open his se­quel this way: “Af­ter they made love, Rhett turned to Ash­ley and said, ‘Ash­ley, have I ever told you that my grand­mother was black?’ ’

The latest at­tempt, “Rhett But­ler’s Peo­ple,” is com­ing in Novem­ber, the work of a Vir­ginia au­thor and sheep farmer. (There may be a sheep joke here, but I’m not go­ing there.) Douglas McCaig prom­ises to tell the ro­mance from Rhett’s per­spec­tive, which may be in­ter­est­ing, but teenage girls may find it less than ro­man­tic. Or not.

Mr. McCaig, an ac­com­plished au­thor of Civil War books, prob­a­bly only thinks he knows what hap­pens to writ­ers, even colum­nists, who go near “Gone With the Wind.” Fif­teen years ago, I wrote a spec­u­la­tion of the ori­gins of the most fa­mous Amer­i­can love story, hav­ing been told a tale by a voodoo queen in a dark al­ley off Bour­bon Street in New Or­leans.

Rhett and Scar­lett were ac­tu­ally Rhett Turnipseed, from a South Carolina fam­ily fully as dis­tin­guished as the Middletons or the Pinck­neys, and Eme­lyn Louise Han­non, whose name was meant to be Eve­lyn, but the doc­tor scrawled it il­leg­i­bly in the fam­ily Bi­ble. Af­ter the war, Rhett went to New Or­leans, where he ran a float­ing crap game and even­tu­ally wound up one rainy night in Nashville and wan­dered into a re­vival meet­ing at the Ry­man Au­di­to­rium (which would later be the home of the Grand Ole Opry). He was con­verted and be­came a Methodist cir­cuit rider, and circa 1878 rode into St. Louis to re­trieve a young wo­man of his flock and found her work­ing in an Olive Street sem­i­nary for young ladies. The madam turned out to be Eme­lyn Louise Han­non, aka Scar­lett O’Hara. When she re­fused to give up the girl, Rhett chal­lenged her to a game of cards, with his recipe for a bar­be­cue sauce as his stake. He drew a royal straight flush. This story has a good end. Scar­lett, too, got re­li­gion and opened a home for foundlings in the Chero­kee na­tion, and is buried in a Methodist ceme­tery in Tahle­quah. I don’t know whether the story is true, but a lot of preach­ers have been telling it just this way since.

Wesley Pruden is ed­i­tor in chief of The Times.

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