- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

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 Ireland, 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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