One long ago summer, I was a college student living in Atlanta’s Windsor House apartments. When I tell people it was where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, they often ask if I saw her ghost. Not exactly but first things first.
Because rents were cheap in 1967, the place attracted the sort of picaresque Southern characters I longed to meet and later wrote about. Someone once said writers are metaphysical pickpockets, and believe me the Windsor House had very deep pockets. Half my neighbors were fellow students but there was also a man who conducted music only he could hear, a couple of gay gents and an artist’s model who grew pot on her windowsill. My favorites were a faded Southern belle and an elderly ex-madam. The first was a real-life Blanche DuBois, fluttery and feminine, who always smelled of White Shoulders and Southern Comfort. 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 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 emptying her apartment. I was told she had “gone out drinking and not come home.” That really bothered me.
The ex-madam was more interesting and certainly more of a survivor. She was well into her eighties with a robust laugh 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. A half century earlier, 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 had air conditioning and anyone who’s endured a brutal Georgia summer knows you can’t exist with closed windows. Because mine faced the restaurant kitchen’s exhaust fan my place always reeked of grease, sesame oil and MSG. It was years before I could face a plate of Chinese food.
Eleven years after I left, the house was abandoned again but preservationists came to the rescue in 1985 before it fell to the wrecker’s ball. Today the handsomely restored Margaret Mitchell House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places so now everyone can visit the room where Scarlett O’Hara and her beaux came to life.
I didn’t exactly meet Miss Mitchell’s ghost, but I did encounter what I call a “sense of being.” I later learned that it’s triggered by entering space once occupied by a historical personage or event. It’s difficult to describe, a sort of heightened sentience tinged with déjà vu. I’ve experienced it only a few other times and find it altogether appropriate that my first involved a young, aspiring writer and a world famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Below, the Margaret Mitchell House today as it faces Peachtree Street. My studio apartment was on the second floor left side, but there was no porch. If only there had been no Chinese restaurant!
Part 2 of a series on living with history.