RALEIGH — Seventy-one years after the Civil War ended, a force would once again invade the South and spread across the nation.
In 1936, 10 years after a Remington Portable No. 3 typewriter first slammed the words “Gone with the Wind” onto paper, Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era novel was released to the public.
That was a decade before Jim Tumblin, the owner of the largest private collection of “Gone with the Wind” memorabilia, was born, ensuring that the legacy of the book that had sold 1 million copies within six months of being published would be anything but gone with the wind.
Inside Tumblin’s collection are insights into the love story that audiences still can’t get enough of, and into the life of the author who started it all.
“Margaret Mitchell was asked to speak at an amateur writing club in Akin, Ga., a month before the book was released,” Tumblin said of the author who was previously a journalist. “They wanted her to type out a short autobiography. So, she had her husband write it.
“He wrote: I don’t know if any of the enclosed will be of interest, because up until now my wife’s literary career has been uneventful.”
Tumblin, in his warm, energetic way, laughed at the irony.
“A month later,” he said, “the book was published.”
Since then, the book has been translated into more than 40 languages and is one of the best-selling novels of all time.
One hundred and twenty items from Tumblin’s collections will be on display at the Museum of History in Raleigh until Jan. 13 in an exhibition called Reel to Real, the Making of “Gone with the Wind.”
Tumblin, whose love affair began with the film when he was 7 years old, remembers exactly how it happened.
“My mom sent me downtown with 50 cents and told me to see the movie. She said, ‘You are going to see the most beautiful movie ever filmed.’
“I returned home and said, ‘It starts out and everyone goes to a party and then it ends with a lady eating dirt.’”
But a “lady eating dirt” is not how the movie ends. Tumblin left halfway through the 238-minute film during a 15-minute intermission, when Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, leaves Atlanta and returns home during the Civil War. The scene shows the tenacious Scarlett, whose name was changed from Pansy just before the book’s publication, vowing that neither her, nor her “kin,” will “ever go hungry again.”
“My mom sent me back with another 50 cents and said, ‘Stay until you see the end,’” Tumblin said.
Film producer David O. Selznick bought the movie rights for $50,000 — the highest figure a studio had paid for the rights to an author’s first novel at the time. It was a good buy: The movie would become one of the most profitable films of all time.
It was Selznick’s name that stopped Tumblin in his tracks one day at Universal Studios, where he was the head of the makeup and hair department — a position he gained because he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“The only thing I had going for me was that I was so naive I didn’t recognize rejection,” Tumblin said. “Universal had an apprentice program for young actors. One day a young man showed up named Clint Eastwood, and they rejected him because they didn’t like his Adam’s apple.”
Tumblin became a floor-sweeper, working his way up to hair and makeup after combing Debbie Reynold’s wig to her liking. As head of the makeup and hair department, he discovered a small discarded dress on the floor with a tag that read “David O. Selznick International Pictures — Scarlett.”
“I picked it up. A docent walked by and said I didn’t have to worry about it because they were going to throw it out.
“I asked if I could buy it, so the docent went to ask and came back and said, ‘They will sell you not only that but everything else on the rack for $20.’”
The dress was the beginning of a collection that would go on to include costumes, screen tests, props, a script and the Academy Award for Best Actress that Vivien Leigh won in 1939 for her role as Scarlett.
Tumblin added to the collection over his years in the business, during which he met stars like Clark Gable, who played Scarlett’s love-interest Rhett Butler.
“I worked with Clark Gable on his last picture called ‘The Misfit.’ … I don’t mean to sound like a cliche, but he was a man’s man,” Tumblin said. “He was also a lady’s man. He could charm the tulips, just lovely. He could charm a rose off the vine, but he was also very humble and quite amazed at all the fuss that would take place when he would walk into a room.”
The ability to “charm the rose off the vine” was one of Butler’s traits in the film, which might be why Gable was an early favorite for the role.
In the movie, Rhett charms Scarlett up until the last moment, which is when she realizes that she loves him too. But it’s too late. In the last scene, Rhett leaves Scarlett as she pleads with him to stay. When she asks what will become of her, Gable recites one of the most famous lines in Hollywood history — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Seventy-three years after its release, “Gone with the Wind” remains one of Hollywood’s most popular films, haunting audiences with the question of what became of Rhett and Scarlett.
Mitchell, who was struck dead by a taxi in 1949, took the answer to her grave. But clues remain in the personal items belonging to Mitchell, in props and costumes that brought the book to life and in Tumblin’s collection, which began a lot like Scarlett’s story — with a little tenacity and a dress.