A couple of anniversaries are worth mentioning amidst this joyous season that has left me bewildered and many around me anything but joyous. Did you know that George Washington died 215 years ago this past Sunday at age 67? Did you know that he died of a sore throat? Everybody has to die of something, but a sore throat is a nasty way to go when you are treated by doctors who have no earthly idea what they are doing.
George Washington was a massive human, six-foot-three and most of it muscle, even at 67. He had been a natural athlete all his life and a splendid horseman. He spent five hours on horseback riding his range the day he got sick, arrived home, went to bed, and the next day was so bad off, apparently from a strep infection, that his doctor “bled” him five pints. You know how when you give blood they take one pint and then tell you to rest and eat well to replenish what you just lost? Well they stole one pint times FIVE from the ill former president, and for good measure they gave him a mercury concoction to make him better. Mercury, as in the stuff that is poison. Among the prexy’s last words were, “I die hard,” which he murmured at the end of 1799 and which may be the understatement of the entire century, uttered just under the wire. So December 14, a couple days ago, marks 215 years since we lost the Greatest American of any generation.
Seventy-five years ago yesterday, the finished version of Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta, Georgia. Movie stars imported from Hollywood began arriving two days earlier, on December 13. The picture’s producer arrived on December 14 with cast members Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland via Eastern Airlines DC-3. Later, on an American DC-3 (because he couldn’t stand Selznick), Clark Gable arrived with his bride, Carole Lombard, and the pair of them stole the show from the other VIPs and held the city spellbound for 36 hours.
Many activities took place over three crazy days, which the governor of Georgia declared a state holiday. The teeming throngs of Atlantans that clogged Peachtree Street 300,000 strong have been described in many books. Still, a few pieces of trivia astound me.
Did you know that city schools and public buildings in Atlanta were closed the day of the premiere, a Friday? Imagine any movie commanding such attention in a top-10 U.S. city today.
Did you know that there were still many Confederate Civil War veterans living at the time of the premiere, and when they trooped into the Loew’s Grand Theater from the Old Soldiers’ Home, the crowd erupted in cheers and rebel yells?
Did you know that among the non-cast members attending the Atlanta festivities were World War I fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Wimbledon tennis champ Alice Marble, and Clark Gable’s Oscar-winning It Happened One Night co-star, Claudette Colbert?
Did you know that the ticket price in the sold-out, two-thousand-seat theater was $10 but scalpers were getting $200+?
Did you know that certain cast members were barred from attending the Atlanta festivities at all because of the color of their skin? This group included Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, who would not have been permitted to socialize with the white stars in segregated Georgia. (David Selznick fought against this segregation almost to the point of threatening cancellation of the entire Atlanta experience.) McDaniel would become the first African American to win an Academy Award just a couple of months later.
Did you know that among the costumed “slaves” performing at a charity event during premiere activities was Martin Luther King, Jr., age 10, as part of the Ebenezer Baptist boys’ choir?
As noted in this column earlier, the time of Gone With the Wind has largely gone, but in an America recovering from Depression, it was the biggest thing ever, a social phenomenon like nothing seen before or since. If you lump The Graduate with the original Star Wars and pile The Godfather on top and serve Jaws as whipped cream and Titanic as the cherry, and plunk it all on a platter of Lord of the Rings pictures resting on a table of The Hunger Games, you would still not equal the pop culture earthquake that was Gone With the Wind 75 years ago yesterday.