Author Anne Edwards Pulls Back the Curtain on the Real Scarlett, Rhett and Ashley

updated 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The truth, dear reader, can be a painful thing, so let's get right on with it: Scarlett O'Hara was not only a sexual tease, but a sometime drunk and collector of dirty jokes and dirtier pictures. Rhett Butler was a foul-tempered wife beater and rapist who committed suicide by jumping out a window. And Ashley Wilkes was slim, fair and rather effete-looking, probably a homosexual. Even worse, he was a Yankee.

If that isn't enough to make the South rise again, nothing ever will. These shocking revelations about the models for the characters of GWTW are all contained in author Anne (The Survivors, Judy Garland) Edwards' latest book, Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell (Ticknor & Fields, $15.95). Edwards' unpeeling of the Mitchell myth comes on the heels of two previous works in which she dealt with the Gone With the Wind mania—a biography of Vivien Leigh, the unforgettable screen Scarlett, and an unpublished sequel to GWTW. Gathering material for those books in Atlanta and other Southern locales, Edwards came across the long-suppressed facts about Mitchell and her close identification with the classic novel's legendary characters.

"Wherever I went and whoever I talked to," Edwards says, "there were always Margaret Mitchell stories. When I talked to people who knew her, I soon discovered that this woman was nothing like I thought she was. Like most Americans, I believed that she was this white-gloved, flower-hatted lady, a puffy dimpled darling. I got very involved with the fact that the image was totally different. I made some notes at the time but really never gave it any further thought."

She was too busy at the time working on a GWTW sequel for film producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown. They accepted her book, Tara, a Continuation of Gone With the Wind, but it was never published. The film project was scrapped in 1980, and Edwards will not reveal what happened to Scarlett redux. After the Tara sequel was shelved, Edwards couldn't get those Mitchell stories out of her mind, and in 1980 she headed South once again from her Connecticut home to start work on the Mitchell biography.

One of the first things Edwards confirmed was that Mitchell's model for Scarlett was none other than Mitchell herself. Both were rebels, flirts, fiery-tempered, capable of outrageous behavior. They even resembled each other: dark-haired, petite (Mitchell's was a match for Scarlett's "smallest waist in three counties"). Mitchell's escapades as a post-deb flapper raised eyebrows even in the Roaring Twenties. On one occasion she and a date passed out at a party after polishing off a bottle of cognac. On another, she shocked Atlanta society by performing a daring apache dance at a charity fete. "She was a tease," says Edwards, "and absolutely naughty. But when it came right down to it, I don't think Peggy liked sex. She liked the stimulation and the titillation just before. But she didn't like sex itself."

Though much of the Mitchell lore was known to her family and friends, Edwards' research did confirm a little-known fact of Mitchell's life, her secret engagement, at 17, to Lt. Clifford West Henry, a young Army officer from Connecticut stationed near Atlanta during World War I. Mitchell was smitten by Henry's pale good looks and his intellectualism (he had just graduated from Harvard). She misread his gay inclination, Edwards says, for gentle-manliness and a poetic nature. Their engagement ended three months later when Henry was killed in France, but he remained Margaret Mitchell's romantic ideal. "Henry looked like Ashley as she describes him in the book," says Edwards, "which is why she hated Leslie Howard in the role. He looked nothing like what she had wanted Ashley to be. He was too old."

Edwards found Rhett Butler in the person of Peggy's first husband, Berrien Kinnard "Red" Upshaw, a violent man with a temperament as fiery as his hair. Their 1922 marriage lasted only three months, and her family smothered the details of its brutal ending (Edwards found them in a deposition by Mitchell from the divorce proceedings). "He demanded his connubial rights," Edwards says, "and not just demanded them. She was in the hospital for two weeks after the attack. He came in and made her go upstairs. It was obviously the basis for that great scene with Rhett Butler."

With the 1936 publication of Gone With the Wind, Mitchell assumed the role of a genteel Southern lady, and the details of her madcap past were purged. Her second husband, John Marsh, wrote GWTW's dust-jacket blurb, purposefully omitting such information as the fact that she had been an Atlanta Journal reporter. After her death at 49 when she was hit by a car on an Atlanta street, much of her correspondence was burned. And but for the dogged research of Edwards and the long memories of some Atlantans, Mitchell's fans might have remembered her as Aunt Pittipat. Now they know.

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