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BOOKS AND AUTHORS Husband Was Unseen Hand In Margaret Mitchell’s Southern Epic, Book Says

November 17, 1993

HENDERSON, Ky. (AP) _ John was solid and noble, a writer who learned virtue from working-class Kentucky parents and suffered alone as his one true love left him for Red, a feckless bootlegger who had been his friend.

Peggy, born to Atlanta’s social elite at the turn of the century, had been a winsome flirt until her ill-fated marriage to Red scandalized her family and sent her rushing back to John’s safe and loving arms.

It could be a great Southern romance novel except for one thing: It’s true.

Marianne Walker has documented the marriage that yielded the most successful Old South love story ever in a book titled ″Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story Behind ’Gone With the Wind.‴

The book includes more than 200 previously unpublished love letters between Mitchell, author of ″Gone With the Wind,″ and her husband. The letters identify Marsh as the unseen hand that guided Mitchell for years as she wrote the Civil War epic.

″That manuscript was their baby,″ said Walker, a Louisiana-born English professor at Henderson Community College. ″They never had any children, so that was it.″

Walker’s research began in October 1985, when she prepared to lecture about ″Gone With the Wind.″ She became intrigued by the book’s dedication: ″To J.R.M.″

She subsequently learned that Mitchell had dedicated her only book to her husband, a University of Kentucky graduate who had worked for newspapers in Lexington and Atlanta.

Walker and her husband, Ulvester, a Henderson lawyer, traveled to Marsh’s hometown of Maysville to learn more about him. There they found a living link to the author, Marsh’s sister-in-law, Francesca Marsh.

During the next four years, Walker often visited Francesca. Before her death at age 87, Francesca entrusted Walker with a box of memorabilia John Marsh had left upon his death in 1952. Preserved there were the love letters of John and Margaret.

″I learned about John Marsh and Margaret Mitchell from her the way we learn about our ancestors,″ Walker said. ″They became John and Peggy to me.″

Not only were the novel’s collaborators vivid characters in their own right, they also shared some traits with characters in Mitchell’s book. Marsh shared a sense of honor and duty as well as the slim build of Ashley Wilkes while Mitchell was an impetuous Georgia belle much like Scarlett.

In 1926, Mitchell was unable to find a job as a reporter at Atlanta’s newspapers and Marsh urged her to write a novel. Its first title was ″A Story of the South.″

″He would come home from work and they would enter into this fictional world and that was the way they entertained themselves in the evenings,″ said Walker, who has written articles on literature for The New York Times and The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

Marsh was her editor and business agent. She drew upon her lifelong fascination with the Civil War and the Old South.

″I spent the Sunday afternoons of my childhood sitting on the bony knees of Confederate veterans and the fat, slick laps of ladies who survived the war and Reconstruction,″ Mitchell wrote in one letter.

She sold her manuscript on a whim in April 1935. By the time it was published a year later, the title had changed and Pansy O’Hara had been renamed Scarlett. By Christmas 1936, it had sold 1 million copies. Three years later, the movie premiered in Atlanta.

Marsh was content to let his wife bask in fame. She died in 1949.

″It seems that the best way to enjoy the pleasures of being famous is to have your husband or wife, not yourself, achieve greatness. Then you can sit back and revel in the acclaim while they carry the burdens of it,″ Marsh wrote in a 1936 letter to his mother.

But without Marsh, there probably never would have been ″Gone With the Wind,″ Walker said.

″She had the story in her, but she had to have him around to push it out of her.″

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