Modern Atlanta Museums Play Up City's `Gone With the Wind' Roots

ATLANTA, the host of the '96 Centennial Olympics and the premier city of the New South, is dominated by gleaming office towers, sleek hotels - and nonstop boosterism.

But even as the bustling commercial center and transportation hub sells itself as ``the world's next great international city,'' it cannot forget its past. For many, the city Gen. William T. Sherman torched in 1864 is characterized by the best-selling novel of all time, Margaret Mitchell's ``Gone With the Wind.''

``One of the most frequently asked questions we get,'' says Darryl Toor, a spokesman for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, ``is `Where was ``Gone With the Wind'' filmed?' and `Where is Tara?' ''

Until recently, traces of the novel have been as rare as Confederate veterans. The sprawling farmhouse described in the book existed only in the author's imagination. And the elaborate mansion seen in David Selznick's legendary movie existed only on a Hollywood back lot.

Two new exhibits trace the making of the Oscar-winning film and challenge the stereotypes associated with the Old South.

Road to Tara, a museum named for the early title of Mrs. Mitchell's book, is housed in the Georgian Terrace, the luxurious apartment high-rise that hosted the celebrities attending the film's 1939 premiere. The exhibit, made up of several private collections, features an autographed first edition, posters and photos from the film, and an invitation to Mitchell's funeral in 1949.

The museum also showcases an autographed script and reproductions of several costumes worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, including her mourning dress and veil from the bazaar scene and the paisley dressing gown trimmed with fur from the scene where she fell down the stairs.

But even more interesting than the movie memorabilia are the personal items: the little Remington typewriter that the petite writer used to pound out her epic and her letters. Though Mitchell, an indefatigable letter-writer, asked her husband to burn her manuscript and personal papers after her death, some of her correspondence remains.

The second exhibit, ``Disputed Territories: `Gone With the Wind' and Southern Myths,'' debunks many of the stereotypes associated with plantation life and the antebellum South. Deborah Ellis, the exhibit coordinator, says, `` `Gone With the Wind' has created its own reality. Many fans accept the story as gospel. We hope visitors can look beyond the movie and take away an appreciation of what life was really life in the Old South.''

Mitchell, proud of her painstaking research and historical accuracy, objected to Hollywood's sentimentalized view of the South and Tara. In a 1936 letter to poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she wrote, ``It's hard to make people understand that north Georgia wasn't all white columns and singing darkies and magnolias.''

Visitors can see a watercolor of Hollywood's Tara as well as a detailed sketch of the O'Hara plantation done by Wilbur Kurtz, a technical adviser for the movie. Visitors also can inspect early photos of Atlanta-area antebellum homes - mostly small, modest residences - and contrast them with Mitchell's Tara.

Another section of the exhibit, ``Was Scarlett a Lady?,'' looks at women's roles and opportunities in the mid-1800s as well as the complex codes of behavior and dress. The final section of the exhibit, and the most difficult to document, focuses on the question, ``How true to life were the slaves in `Gone with the Wind'?'' Diaries of a slave owner who beat slaves for impudence suggest many people were not as kind as Scarlett was to Mammy and Prissy.

Rick Beard, director of the Atlanta History Center, says, ``We want visitors to understand that there are different ways of looking at the Old South and draw their own conclusions.''

* Road to Tara is located at 659 Peachtree Street, Suite 600. For more information, call (404) 897-1939. `Disputed Territories' is a series of exhibits: ` ``Gone With the Wind'' and Southern Myths' will be on display through Dec. 31 at the Atlanta History Museum, 130 West Paces Ferry Road. For more information, call (404) 814-4000. Other Atlanta attractions

* Big Shanty Museum houses The General, the locomotive stolen by Union Maj. James Andrews and his band of raiders in 1862. The museum is north of Atlanta on I-75.

* The Cyclorama at the Civil War Museum has a simulated 3-D, 360-degree painting of the Battle of Atlanta with sound and light effects.

* Heritage Row traces Atlanta's history from the cotton-producing mid-1800s through Reconstruction to the present.

* Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park includes well-preserved earthworks from the Battle of Kennesaw and a view of battlefields, plus exhibits and a slide program.

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