Being There

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.

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The “GWTW House” was abandoned by 1980.

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!

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Part 2 of a series on living with history.

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History Lessons

Writers of historical fiction love old buildings, especially houses, and I well remember the first one I visited. I grew up in Fountain City, Tennessee and when I was ten I went on a school trip to Blount Mansion (1796) in nearby Knoxville. It’s a handsome but simple structure, its claim to fame being that it was home to Southwest Territorial Governor William Blount and is one of the first frame houses built west of the Allegheny Mountains.

The Governor William Blount Mansion, West Hill Avenue Knoxville

A lot of kids were disappointed because it wasn’t a real mansion, but I was enthralled. We were told not to touch anything, but when nobody was looking I stroked the banister. It felt different somehow, maybe because I wanted it to or maybe because I thought I was touching history. What I recall even more were the smells of must and age. I decided it must be the scent of time. A couple of years later my father took me to Nashville to see my first real mansion, Andrew Jackson’s plantation home, The Hermitage (1835).

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With six Doric columns, pure Greek Revival style and period furnishings it was antebellum architecture at its best, but what moved me more were the graves of Jackson and his beloved wife Rachel. I knew from  studying Tennessee history that she died right after he was elected President and that he blamed her death on the terrible slander of his campaign. When I saw them peacefully together for all eternity I realized that it was more than buildings and furnishings that imparted a sense of history. There was emotional impact as well.

In 1967 while a student at Georgia StateUniversity in Atlanta, I needed a summer rental before heading off to Navy boot camp in Memphis. Someone told me about Windsor House (1899) on Crescent Avenue in midtown. The three-story structure was owned by brothers Leon and George Cabero who had apartments on the ground floor. It had been renovated many times and definitely seen better days, but it was fine for a college student. I happily moved into my little furnished studio on the second floor but soon sensed that there was something topsy-turvy about the place. George explained that it was originally a one-family home facing Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s most famous thoroughfare, and that in 1914 it was set back to make room for commercial buildings on Peachtree and divided into ten apartments. What bothered me was that the front of the house was now the back. It was derelict when the brothers bought and renovated it three years earlier, but George insisted their rescue wasn’t just about financial gain.  “This is one of the most important historic sites in Atlanta,” he said. “Do you know what famous local writer lived in the apartment below yours?” I knew only one famous Atlanta writer and the back of my neck burned when I realized what was coming. “Yes indeed, young man,” George beamed. “This is where Margaret Mitchell wrote the book!”

But that’s a whole other blog.

Part 1 of a series on living with history.

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Cover Story: Lost & Found

As the author of fourteen published novels, I can honestly say that none of my covers pleased me as much as the one for my latest book Creole Son: A Novel of Degas in New Orleans. The art director tracked down one of the few Degas paintings done in New Orleans that was in the public domain and deftly incorporated title and by-line without compromising the integrity of the artwork. It’s also a breath of fresh air with the current, inexplicably awful trend to feature headless heroines on the covers of books.

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There were other reasons I was delighted by the choice of this portrait of Degas’s cousin Mathilde Bell, part of the extended family occupying the Esplanade Avenue house where he lived and worked during his 1872-3 visit to New   Orleans. That Degas chose to pose Mathilde on the front gallery was a fortunate quirk of fate no one could have foreseen. Because his Uncle Michel Musson, Mathilde’s father, rented the house and the record of tenancy was later lost, no one knew exactly where Degas had stayed. Making the search even more difficult was the peculiar fact that the house had been split into two separate structures and physically moved apart. It had also been extensively remodeled that it so differed from the original structure that it may as well have been hiding behind a gigantic Mardi Gras mask. Luckily someone noted the grillwork painted behind Mathilde’s left shoulder and went exploring along Esplanade Avenue until they spotted a house with an identical railing. The Degas House is now a handsome B&B and museum and thanks to a historical marker out front it’s unlikely to be lost again.

Check out the book at www.waterstreetpressbooks.com

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On the Road Again

I was barely settled in my new home in California’s glorious Sonoma County, still unpacking in fact, when my publisher called with the earthshaking (usually not a welcome word in this part of the country!) news that my latest historical novel, Creole Son, is finally rolling off the press. It’s a project I began researching ten years ago while living in the French Quarter, one that has ridden the usual publishing roller coaster of rejection, rewrites and revival before finally finding a home at Water Street Press in nearby Healdsburg. The story follows French painter Edgar Degas in 1872-3 when he visited the New Orleans branch of his family and found them, along with his career and the city itself, deep in crisis. Degas is the only French Impressionist to work in America and his professional achievements, despite terrible odds, were breath-taking. The more I dug the more amazing facts I uncovered, but I don’t want to reveal too much here. For a more detailed description of Creole Son, visit www.waterstreetpressbooks.com and see for yourself.

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