Google+ Georgia On My Mind: Margaret Mitchell: Reporter

Friday, September 21, 2012

Margaret Mitchell: Reporter

Even without writing THE great southern novel Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell's life was quite interesting.

At one point it was said she was engaged to at least five the same time.   She was one of Atlanta's society belles during the decadent 1920s dancing the Tango and the Apache Dance scandalizing the Old Guard.

Good for her.

Her second husband was her first husband's Best Man meaning she was smart enough to get out when she probably should have said no in the first place.   The first marriage most certainly wasn't the most ideal situation even if it was what others wanted for her.

Again....good for her.

And as far as I'm concerned Atlanta's Georgian Terrace Hotel is sacred ground since this is where Hollywood's Rudolph Valentino swept Margaret Mitchell off her feet and carried her inside from the rooftop.


Now, Margaret Mitchell didn't meet Valentino during her debutante days.   She met him while working for the Atlanta Journal - the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine to be exact - where she wrote numerous entertaining articles over her time there including an interview with the Hollywood heartthrob.  

Mitchell was in transition from one marriage to the other and needed the job, but she received no encouragement from her family, from her society friends, and didn't really have any encouragement from the folks who hired her, but she did it anyway.

I tend to really admire those who create and persevere with little if no encouragement.

Yet from 1922 to 1926 she turned out a wide variety of work that is quite interesting including articles on Confederate generals, King Tut, and one article concerned the last surviving bridesmaid at Theodore Roosevelt's mother's wedding.

This interesting online article states......[Mitchell's] titles were fairly bland, but "Hanging Over Atlanta in Borglum's Sling" took [her] high above Atlanta in a stone cutter's sling so she could get an idea what it was like on Stone Mountain......

In fact, later Mitchell discussed how she nearly fell out of that sling and was hanging just by her arms high above an Atlanta street.   

Can you imagine?   

A book titled,.Margaret Mitchell: Reporter published by Hill Street Press in Athens takes an honest look at her time with the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine and several of her articles....64 to be exact....are reprinted

The book certainly gives us insight regarding how articles were written during the 1920s and how life has certainly changed today.  I can't help but think how it would be interesting to share some of the articles with students for discussion and as an introduction - a jumping off point - for many historical topics in the classroom.

Recently a friend shared with me one article in particular....Grandma Veal Speaks Her Mind on Her 102nd Birthday.  The article is included in the book, but is also offered up as an example of the wonderful columns and articles Margaret Mitchell wrote for the magazine.

I think you might like it.

While you are reading about Grandma Veal I'm going to go and see if I can download the book on my Kindle.   If not....I'm ordering my own copy, and can't wait to get my hands on it.

The article begins:

As the old lady talked, the automobiles and wagons filled with cousins, in-laws, grandchildren and great-grandchildren continued to arrive, for despite the driving rain and the knee-deep mud the entire family wanted to make Grandma's birthday party a success.  Soon the small house was filled to overflowing, the men, crowded out, ranged themselves on benches on the porch where the rain dripped from the eaves; little boys, some barefoot and in overalls, some uncomfortable in imprisoning stiff collars, overran the wet yard despite the rain, and prowled into the barn; the women crowded the small rooms, grouped about Grandma, who presided in the semi-circle of smiling relatives like a queen on a throne; small girls, red haired, black haired, curly and bobbed, ringed around the old lady, with fingers in mouths and curious eyes wide as she talked on about old times, and old customs, pausing every now and then to stroke with a thin, yellowed hand the soft hair of some great-grandchild.

What a great picture of folks gathering for a family reunion!   Clothing and modes of transportation might have changed but this could be a description of a family reunion today.  

"The old paths are all lost." said she, her voice rising shrill above the patter of the rain on the roof.   "No one follows the old paths now, no one loves the old meetings.  I've been going to meetings all my life and they aren't like they used to be."

"Now Mamma, there's lots of good meetings now."  The old lady paused in fairness.  "Yes, I guess there are good meetings now days, but the old days and old paths seem best.  They always do - to old folks.   But it does seem to me that there's more wickedness these days than there used to be," she reflected, "but that's because there's more folks to be wicked now than when I was young."

Gee, I have to wonder what Grandma Veal would think about the wickedness going on today.

"When I was young there were mighty few folks living around here.   Of course, there weren't any railroad trains through here.  My goodness, no!  I remember when the first railroad came through this part of the country and how everybody came for miles around to see it.  I remember one old lady shouted out loud when she saw the engine coming.....'My land, the poor thing must be tired!  Just listen to how it's panting!'"

The old lady clapped her hands and laughed gleefully, her eyes sparkling as she looked at the five generations listening with breathless interest.   "Wasn't that silly of her?   But you see, she hadn't ever seen a train before.  We used to do all our traveling by mule wagon or ox cart."

Mrs. Veal's father owned a store near what is now Braselton and when he went to trade in Augusta, the nearest large town, he took his whole family and most of his household hoods with him, for the journey required some weeks.   In those days the roads were uncertain and some times there were no roads at all.   The Indians had been removed but there were still a few left on reservations and at times they were dangerous.  There were also bridgeless rivers and trackless forests, and so traveling when Grandma Veal was a child was a dangerous undertaking.

"Cherokees used to come over the mountains to trade at Pappa's store," continued Grandma Veal  "They traded moccasins and skins for food and clothes and hung around the place, in silence, watching the white folks and grunting every now and then.  The Indians around the store are about the first thing I remember - except I do remember something when I was two years old!"   

We tend to think that once the Cherokees and Creeks were removed from Georgia there were no more Native Americans around, but it's just not so.  Grandma Veal's recollection is not the first where I've read about various natives still being around.

"Why, Grandma,"  gasped a great grand child at her knee, "can you remember a hundred years ago?"   "Of course, no trouble at all,"   replied the old lady, briskly.   "I remember when I was two years old that Mamma was milking the cow and I was on the other side of the fence from her.  There was a crack in the fence and I kept slipping my little tin cup through the bucket and drinking the milk as fast as she milked it."

"I remember when the stars fell too, for I was older then." 

"Oh, Grandma, did any stars fall smack into the front yard?" eagerly questioned the six-year-old, at her knee, pressing closer for information.

"Oh, no, they didn't fall to the ground.  They just fell through the elements like the shooting stars you see.  It was before daylight that it happened.   Mamma was up stirring around early like folks did then, to get things ready for the day and her moving around woke me up.  I saw funny lights outside and peeped through a crack in the wall and saw the sky full of falling stars.  They dropped into the elements like comets.   No, I wasn't scared.  It takes a lot to scare me.  I watched them till the sun came up and faded them out."

Now maybe you are asking the same question I am.   If she told the grandchild she wasn't talking about shooting stars then what kind of stars falling to the ground did she mean?   


Grandma Veal married when she was sixteen, which was not considered too young at that time.  She made her own wedding dress, a gown of double woven imported Irish linen fashioned after the quaint style of 1838, with a basque waist unbelievably small in these days of unrestrained figures, wide hoop skirts, short puffed sleeves, and neckline off the shoulders - a graceful garment that even after eighty-six years breathes the atmosphere of an older quieter day and the charm of the spirited sixteen year old who wore it.

I love how Mitchell compares the fashions from 1838 to the time when she wrote this....the early 20s by saying "in these days of unrestrained figures" meaning women in the 20s wore no corsets, stays, or layered garment after garment.      Both Grandma Veal and Margaret Mitchell might be shocked at what we wear today.

In the years following her marriage, Virginia Elizabeth Veal saw, step by step, the complete industrial revolution of the world.  The sewing machine, the cotton gin, and the railroad impressed her as being the most remarkable inventions of all.  

"The idea of being able to separate the seeds from the cotton by machinery was hard to believe, at first," said she.   "We were so accustomed to doing it by hand.  We used to give cotton parties where everybody had refreshments first and spent the evening picking the seed out of the cotton.   I have some quilts now that are made by handpicked cotton.  My mother made them, a hundred years ago.

At this point I wish I had group of nine or ten year old students in front of me because I'd be sharing this with them since the cotton gin is something we hit heavy in 4th and 5th grade.  Cotton picking parties!   Wow!

"Of course, the railroad and the gin were about the most remarkable things that I've seen since I was a child, but because I'm born and bred a farmer, I'll say that plenty of good bread and meat and good farms now in this state are the things that have impressed me more than any of the inventions of recent years."

After Grandma Veal had talked at length on old days and old customs and had spoken her mind with some freedom and pungency on the modern days and ways, "Uncle Taylor" Cooper, twice her son-in-law, with whom she now makes her home, pushed his way through the crowd of fourth-degree cousins who were making Grandma Veal's acquaintance for the first time, and shouted above the hubbub that the dinner was ready.

The old lady, scorning any more assistance than her hand on her son-in-law's arm, walked into the kitchen and seated herself at the head of the long table.  On account of the rain, the annual out-of-door barbecue that is usually the main feature of her birthday parties, had to be foregone and an indoor feast was spread.  The table ran the full length of the long kitchen and was crowded to the edges with examples of the "southern cooking" that has made Georgia cooks famous the nation over.

Each family had brought its own lunch and each vied jealously with the others in having the most-tasty basket to spread before Grandma.  Fried chicken predominated at the repast, with roast fresh pork and roast hen running a close second.  Pies of every description crowded the table, from succulent grape pie to lemon pie with fluffy meringue billowing up lightly like tan clouds.  Grandma's own personal birthday cake, iced to snowy whiteness and studded with candles, occupied  one end of the table and marshaled beside it were cakes of every color and flavor. Pickles rubbed elbows owed by the singing of old-time songs and religious hymns, in which Mrs. Veal joined.  Later she presided at the great birthday dinner....

Love that description of the meringue......"billowing up lightly like tan clouds...."

An opening prayer was made by W.H. Mahafney, thanking the Lord that He had permitted the beloved old lady to see another birthday with her five generations of relatives around her.  Then Grandma Veal rose and asked grace, briefly and in a strong voice that carried all over the little house and did not falter as she prayed that she might be permitted to ask grace at her 103rd birthday party.  

Then the numerous little great-grandchildren who had been holding themselves politely but patiently in restraint reached the table first and began the assault, unchecked by smiling parents.  Castor oil could come there after, but Grandma's birthday happened but once a year and parents could afford to be indulgent!

Castor oil!?!   Oh, Lawsey, Lawsey, Lawsey........

When the children had retired to the wet porches, hands full of cake and pickles, mouths blissfully greased with fried chicken, the grown-ups gathered about the table, eating and getting acquainted.  Some relatives had come from afar to the reunion.  Miss Corine Roberts had traveled all the way from St. Louis, Mrs. W.C. Pirkle, from Hendrick, Oklahoma, and the Hudgins family, from Abbeyville, Alabama.

Seven southern states were represented at Grandma Veal's party and five generations of direct descendants attended, so naturally there were many questions of, "Are you cousin Will's son, or are you one of the other Coopers?"   "Are you one of the Winder family, or are you all from Flowery Branch?"   And many were the little children hauled from quiet corners where they were devouring chicken to be presented to strange cousins with the question, "Do you think he favors me, or his father?"

"I've got the best-looking kin-folks in the world," boasted Grandma Veal, with pardonable pride, as she looked around the room at the smiling faces.  "And I guess I've for the most kin-folks of anybody around here, because if the rain hadn't come there'd have been a thousand here.  Well, better luck next year."  she finished philosophically.

I'm not sure if Grandma Veal made it to her 103rd party, but Margaret Mitchell's little window into the 102nd party gives us great insight into her memories and gives us a great view of Mitchell's non-Gone With the Wind writing.

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