Sue Turner had no idea that when her book club decided to read “Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind” that she would be reunited with a childhood friend whom she had not seen in more than 50 years.
But when Turner opened her book, the dedication caught her eye, though the author’s name Marianne Walker had not.
“For the man in my life Ulvester Walker” – that meant nothing to Turner. “And in loving memory of my parents, Joseph D. and Rose Spatafora Cascio” – now, there was the eye-opener.
Turner says she immediately went to her computer. She had a childhood friend in her hometown of Monroe, La., named Marianne Cascio. She googled the author.
There before her was the information about her long lost friend and more astounding to Turner was that Walker lived in Henderson, taught English at Henderson Community College and had been in Kentucky for the past 45 years.
“I got on the phone and immediately called her,” Turner said.
The two chums spent the next three hours in conversation.
Last week standing outside the Frankfort Country Club, Turner and her significant other, Allan Alsip, waited for the Walkers to arrive. Turner had invited her old friend to come to the Capital Ladies book club meeting and talk about her book.
“I hope I will recognize her,” Turner said, pointing to the book jacket photo of Walker.
It was only seconds before Marianne Walker appeared from a car along with her husband.
“Oh, yes,” Turner said. “She looks just like her photo.”
The reunion could have occurred almost a year ago at the Kentucky Book Fair where Turner has volunteered for many years. Walker was there talking about and autographing copies of “Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh.”
“But I never get a chance to visit with the authors during the Book Fair. I’m always doing whatever I am assigned,” Turner said.
The reunion also could have come earlier when as a gift for her services after the Book Fair; she was given a copy of the biography.
But Turner said shortly after she received the book, she was off to Florida for the winter, and the book remained at home, where it would be unread until it was suggested by a book club member.
“I was happy to have the book and planned eventually to read it,” Turner said.
But reading other designated books by the club over the months and busy with her myriad of activities, it wasn’t until the Capital Ladies readers decided it was their book for September that Turner finally picked it up.
Ironically, the thing that drew Turner to her old friend – the dedication – elicited the same intrigue for Walker when she began her investigation into Mitchell’s life.
“I had been asked to speak at a Kentucky Humanities Council meeting and was given a list of five books I could talk about,” Walker said.
“I chose ‘Gone With the Wind,’ because I had seen the movie, but had never read the book.”
The first thing that caught Walker’s eye was the book dedication – to JRM.
“Who was this person and why just the initials?”
Walker says her discovery led her to many things, including the fact that JRM was Mitchell’s husband – Kentuckian John Robert Marsh.
“But why just the initials is still somewhat elusive to me,” she said as she asked the gathered group their thoughts.
Walker told the group that this is the first time since her book was first published in 1995 that she has been asked to speak and talk about it outside of Henderson.
“This is marvelous,” Walker said. Sitting close beside was Ulvester, her attorney husband of 45 years. He came with a camera to document the occasion.
SEARCH LEADS TO UNSEEN LETTERS
“Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh” is in its fourth printing. It was reprinted last to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the movie “Gone With the Wind,” first shown in 1939. Walker’s book also has been translated into Japanese and Latvian.
Her speech to the Humanities Council was the gateway to her 8-year journey to publish the biography.
As she was preparing to speak, she read that Marsh was a Kentucky boy from Maysville and discovered he had a sister still living near Clay’s Ferry.
“That was it. I had to find her.”
However, Ulvester (pronounced like Sylvester) wasn’t as anxious as his wife to set out on a journey.
Watching a ballgame that Saturday was on his agenda.
“I told her I was not going to be running up and down the highways chasing some man and finding people we did not know.”
Off the couple went, and Ulvester was by her side every step of the way for the time it took to complete the book.
“I even carried the copy machine everywhere we went,” he laughed, explaining that in the 1980s, even though it was portable, it was a heavy piece of equipment.
Although several books have been written about Margaret Mitchell, Walker would discover 200 letters that had never been seen by the public.
Those letters were unearthed when Walker met Francesca Renick Marsh, John Marsh’s sister-in-law, then in her late 70s, at her log cabin at Clay’s Ferry.
Francesca Marsh had been an art teacher at Sayre School in Lexington until her retirement. Neither she nor her family had ever talked to the press and few knew her connection to the famous couple.
According to Walker, the private family had been hurt by the depiction of the couple in a 1983 biography that left people thinking Mitchell was an alcoholic and John had emotional problems.
Walker thinks Francesca became comfortable with her because she was also a teacher who was planning a talk.
But it was when Francesca Marsh later brought out a cardboard box filled with news clippings about the couple and a small bundle of letters that Walker knew she was on a longer journey. More letters would come when Francesca made introductions for Walker to other family members.
The privacy of the family had been with Mitchell’s own direction, also given to brother Stephens and husband John to burn everything at her death about her book – the original manuscript and all notes.
That act was carried out by Marsh in 1949 when Mitchell died an untimely death, the result of a car crash, at the age of 48.
“She guarded her very public name that consumed her after the book and the movie came out,” Walker said.
So private was Mitchell that she and John only attended two events associated with Atlanta’s weeklong celebration of the film’s debut – a small reception at the Piedmont Driving Club across from their apartment and the actual premiere.
Such an unknown face that one reporter asked for her help to get him into the reception to take a picture of Mitchell. She declined. Later, he would realize the opportunity he had missed.
Mitchell even directed her only sibling, Stephens, to burn their family home upon his inability to live there. Stephens honored that request as well.
“‘Gone With the Wind’ had been her baby for most of her life, both writing it and then having her name out there after she published the book. The movie only made her fame grow,” Walker said.
“She hated the publicity and constant recognition it brought her. She even refused to go to Hollywood when producer David Selznick wanted her there to shepherd the film and provide publicity for the studio. She sent a newswoman who was a close friend to fill in for her.”
BIOGRAPHY IS A PAGE-TURNER
Walker’s biography is a page-turner, just as “Gone With the Wind” has been to the millions who have read it.
“I couldn’t put your book down,” book club member Debbie Kimbrough told Walker.
She says she even read the end notes once she finished the book.
Other members wanted to know about Marsh’s time spent in Lexington working both for the Lexington Herald and Lexington Leader newspapers, which eventually merged into the Herald-Leader in 1983.
Walker explained that Marsh lived at 120 East Maxwell while teaching two graduate courses at the University of Kentucky after his graduation. His actual journalistic career began at the two newspapers, earning money for school.
He later turned down an offer from the Herald to return from Atlanta after he met Peggy. Walker found a letter from Marsh explaining that decision.
The college professor told the members that while Mitchell of course used her formal name Margaret as the author, those who knew her as an adult called her Peggy.
It was almost a culture shock for many who had read the book to know that the more formal name was not the one everyone used.
“Depending on what they called her, you could tell who knew Mitchell when,” Walker said.
According to the biographer, one only has to read the story of Peggy and John to see the parallels and descriptions to know that much of “Gone with the Wind” is drawn from their lives, particularly Mitchell’s. She was rooted in upper Georgia society, had family who fought legendary battles and had family with Irish names, like Scarlett O’Hara.
Mitchell writes, “I spent the Sunday afternoons of my childhood sitting on the bony knees of Confederate veterans and the fat slick laps of old ladies who survived the war and Reconstruction.”
As for Rhett Butler, Walker believes his image was drawn from Mitchell’s devotion to Marsh.
“Look at the description in my book on pages 82 to 84,” she encouraged.
“Only a Southerner could have written this book about this couple,” Turner told her old friend.
As for that dedication of JRM in the novel that took Walker on her journey, one only has to read her book to know that as John Marsh protected Peggy’s privacy even in death, his wife chose to protect the man who stood by her.
“They were writer and editor, but more importantly, they were husband and wife, and Peggy wanted that relationship protected at all costs,” Walker said.
Walker has currently submitted another book to the University of Kentucky Press – “Cuba Versus Kentucky.”
“It’s a long arduous process, and who knows if they will accept it,” she said of the book that tells the story of a small-town Kentucky basketball team.
Walker’s visit to Frankfort also gave her the opportunity to do research on an article she is writing for the Kentucky Humanities Council on Kentucky Gov. William Goebel.
“The Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History is an amazing resource. You are so lucky to have it here,” she said.
Her research also included an appointment with Frankfort historian Russ Hatter. That meeting rushed her downtown.
But before her departure, Ulvester asked the group of Turner, Kimbrough, Huffman, Carol Wilson, Vicki Weller, Carol Banks, Cheryl Smith and Elaine Barton to pose for a picture with his wife. Member Sandra Allison had departed minutes before.
“I’ll send you all a copy,” she promised. “This has been such great fun for me. I’ll be happy to come back.”
The Capital Ladies Book Club took that as a promise as well.