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September 21, 2017

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'Gone With the Wind' still blowing them away 75 years on

ATLANTA -- Gone with the Wind is not really a book, it is a legend: Margaret Mitchell's novel — typed using just two fingers, sold for a fortune and still a global success — turned 75 on June 30.

The main character was to be named Pansy, and the book itself was to have the title Tote Your Heavy Bag, but young writer Mitchell eventually changed them to Scarlett and Gone with the Wind to seal one of the most successful novels of all time.

"I want to be famous in some way. A speaker, artist, writer, soldier, fighter, stateswoman, or anything nearly," Mitchell said when she was just 14.

At the time, World War I had just broken out in Europe, and the southern states of the United States still had vivid memories of another conflict, the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865.

Mitchell made good use of her convalescence following a riding accident.

"She wrote a book, but only one chapter after another. And she hid every chapter in an envelope in her apartment," says Joanna Arrieta, who now works where Mitchell once wrote.

"And she started with the end and worked to the beginning."

The task was arduous. The old Remington on which the author wrote using just two fingers is now at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta.

"School kids ask me often where the delete key is," Arrieta says with a smile.

The novel is about spoilt southern belle Scarlett and her egocentric suitor Rhett, who after many comings and goings in war-plagued crimes remain apart anyway.

"My dear, I don't give a damn," Rhett famously says, when Scarlett finally admits that she does want him.

Still, the novel ends on an optimistic note, with the phrase "Tomorrow is another day."

Margaret shared many aspects with Scarlett. She too arrived too late at her mother's deathbed, she too was torn between two men. For Margaret, there was her second husband John Marsh, whom she loved and supported, but also the good-looking yet fickle Berrien Upshaw, her first husband. And Upshaw had a nickname: Red.

In 1936, Gone with the Wind sold in the bookstores for US$3, the equivalent of about US$50 today. Still, some 1 million copies had been sold by Christmas, and sales have not stopped since then: for 75 years, it has been republished time and again, with every new edition following tight on the heels of its predecessor.

The book became a global bestseller, or almost: the Nazis banned it, as East Germany and some Muslim countries were to do later, arguing that it was "too American."

But even communists have enjoyed the book. When Chinese Communist Party official Zhou Qiang visited Atlanta in April 2011, the Mitchell House was his only private destination. Like him, tens of thousands of people visit the site every year for a chance to stand on Mitchell's living-room.

"We keep scripts of the film," says Arrieta.

"Everyday there are people who act out film scenes with the script, some with tears in their eyes," she notes.

Right: the film. That came three years after the book, and it was shot in color, an expensive novelty at the time.

It became a legend, and brought in almost US$400 million. While that would amount to a blockbuster even today, it is worth noting that a cinema ticket sold back then for US$0.25, far short of the current US$18.

Adjusting for inflation, Gone with the Wind would thrash the likes of Avatar, Titanic and the Spider Man films.

The governor of Georgia has acknowledged that, and made the anniversary of the film's premiere a public holiday.

Mitchell became rich, but she also spent a lot of money. And she was often sued. One claimant wanted US$6 billion because the sentence "Sherman is dead" was actually his.

The author lived in central Atlanta all her life, until she was run over by a drunk driver in August 1949. She died five days later, but since then not one day has gone by without fresh flowers on her grave.

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