Living with History

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In the summer of 1967, I was a college student in Atlanta looking for a summer rental before heading off to Navy boot camp. A classmate steered me to a place called the Windsor House near the corner of Peachtree and Tenth Streets. Thoroughly no-frills, it was nowhere near as grand as its name, but it fit my meager budget just fine. What pleased me most, however, was a jackpot provenance in a city with a dearth of historic sites. A small plaque by the front door proclaimed that this building was where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind!  I didn’t exactly meet her ghost, but it could hardly have been more colorful than my new neighbors.

Windsor House turned out to be more like a rooming house than an apartment building, attracting the sort of picaresque Southern characters I later wrote about as an author. Someone once said writers are metaphysical pickpockets, and, believe me, this place had very deep pockets. Half my neighbors were fellow students but there was also a man who conducted music only he could hear, two gay brothers who owned the building and an artist’s model who grew pot on her windowsill. My favorites were a faded Southern belle named Nancy, and an elderly ex-madam whose name I’ve long forgotten. Nancy was a real-life Blanche DuBois, fluttery and feminine, who always smelled of White Shoulders and Jim Beam. She said she didn’t work because “true ladies weren’t supposed to.” That didn’t keep her from leaving every day at five on the dot, dressed to kill in hat, gloves, hose and heels, confiding that she was meeting friends for cocktails somewhere on Peachtree Street. Eventually I decided she “depended on the kindness of strangers,” as Tennessee Williams so eloquently put it. One morning I saw the landlords clearing out her apartment. I was told Nancy had “gone out drinking and not come home.” Her unknown fate bothers me to this day.

The ex-madam was even more interesting and certainly more of a survivor. She was well into her eighties with a lusty laugh, courtesy of years of smoking unfiltered Old Golds, and more stories than Scheherazade. I suspected the landlords let her live rent-free because she never had a cent and Georgia Power was always cutting her off. The other tenants took turns letting her snake extension cords to our apartments until she got electricity again. She paid me back by sharing a life story so bittersweet I made her a character in my first historical novel, Twelfth Night.

Another legacy from my short stay at Windsor House was distaste for Chinese food. Some years earlier, after Mitchell moved out, the house had been set back and the vacant space along Peachtree Street filled with retail establishments. Bad luck decreed that my second floor apartment overlooked a Chinese restaurant called House of Eng. Only the landlords’ apartments had air conditioning, and anyone who’s endured a brutal Georgia summer knows you can’t exist with closed windows. Because my little studio faced the restaurant kitchen’s exhaust fan, it always reeked of grease, sesame oil and MSG. It was years before I could face a plate of Chinese food.

The apartment building was abandoned by 1980.

The apartment building was abandoned by 1980.

Eleven years after I moved out, the house was abandoned, but preservationists rallied to the rescue in 1985 before it fell to the wrecker’s ball. It survived two arson attacks before becoming the handsomely restored Margaret Mitchell House listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now the public can visit the room where Scarlett O’Hara and her beaux were born. It was not the room I lived in, but the house came to life for me in other ways. Several times during that long ago summer, I experienced a peculiar “sense of being.” I later learned that it’s a phenomenon triggered by entering space once occupied by a historic personage or event. It’s difficult to describe, but think of a heightened sentience tinged with déjà vu. I’ve experienced it on a few other occasions, but never as strongly as that first time. Perhaps it was because I felt kinship with another young, aspiring Southern writer. Perhaps I merely willed it to fill in for those absentee ghosts. Whatever it was, like my ill-fated Blanche DuBois, it haunts me still.

Gone with the Wind, of course, has long been controversial for its sugar-coated depiction of slavery and the author’s perceived racism. Few know, however, that, in the Jim Crow ’40s, Mitchell and Benjamin E. Mays, President of Morehouse College, carried on a secret correspondence enabling Mitchell to fund the educations of dozens of black students. Letters have also emerged between the notoriously private Mitchell and actress Hattie McDaniel, whose portrayal of Mammy in the film version of the book won a first Oscar for African-Americans. Their correspondence shows a deep, mutually affectionate friendship. Certainly this doesn’t alter the content of Mitchell’s book, but I was pleased to know that she reached across the color line when few dared to do so. It’s not hard to conclude that Mitchell’s quiet courage infused her audacious heroine Scarlett. Like them or not, the women had guts.

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