Atlanta’s Peachtree at 10th Street had become the porno palace and whorehouse of the Southeast by 1977. Ten of the city’s 17 sex bathhouses and yellow-front massage parlors were found within two blocks of the intersection. The Male Castle featured “love wrestling.” And Lord knows what went on in the sticky, overheated confines of Wild Mary’s, The Love Machine, Madame’s Love Parlour and the Go Go Dinner Lounge.
Above the intersection’s shrieks and giggles, haggling and roaring pickup trucks full of bubbas on the make, we sat in darkness on the third floor of an abandoned Victorian mansion on Halloween night trying to conjure up the spirit of Margaret Mitchell. The six of us sat around a candle and a plaster hand from a store mannequin and sent out thought vibrations for the long dead author of Gone with the Wind to give us a sign from beyond the grave, perhaps by wiggling the fingers of the disembodied hand. Or making bumping noises. Or yelling to the whores on Peachtree to shut the hell up. Anything.
We were there because I was the last resident of Mitchell’s dark and twisty basement apartment. I’d been renting a storefront studio from Hooker Barnes, an Australian real estate firm. The studio had once been the Occult Bookshop but freelance writing and photography wasn’t bringing in enough money for rent, even with the help of my occult homies. I pled with the man with the golden kangaroo in his lapel to give me some fix up work around his properties in lieu of that month’s rent.
Tell you what, he said. At the other end of the block is an abandoned Victorian building and we need a caretaker to keep out the riffraff. You can stay there rent free until we tear it down for “The Gateway,” a four story mall and condo complex. I accepted the deal with such enthusiasm that spittle got all over his little golden kangaroo.
Only after I moved in did I discover this mansion/apartment building had been where Margaret (Peggy) Mitchell lived with her second husband between 1925 and 1932 and where she had written nearly all the manuscript of GWTW. It was in her/my apartment where she had set up a folding typing table and portable typewriter to peck out thousands of pages on yellow copy paper filched from her employer, The Atlanta Journal. Peggy had chosen the only bright room in the stygian four room apartment — the living room with three tall leaded glass windows facing the westering sun, which refracted the light into explosions of blue, yellow and red dots every day at sunset. I used the alcove for reading and sometimes set up a folding typing table and portable typewriter to write my “Citymouse” columns for Creative Loafing.
When I exited the apartment, I walked in front of a relic of the former mansion’s glory, a carved oak lion’s head anchoring the stairway leading to the upper floors. The lion’s head appears in the final pages of GWTW. A pregnant Scarlett touches it before descending the stairs to Rhett. She falls and miscarries.
So on Halloween 1977, I had turned the house over for a benefit for WRFG, Radio Free Georgia, where I had done some programs in the past. Lenny and LaBanana juggled flaming torches. Beer kegs were tapped. Princess Leia and Obi Wan Kenobi from the just released Star Wars proceeded to get cosmically smashed. Staffers from WABE, where I had just begun doing news and classical music DJ’ing, came dressed as hookers and dirty old men with bulges under their raincoats. Considering the neighborhood, it was at once a risky and wholly appropriate wardrobe choice. All things considered, it was a wonderful party.
The wind picked up and the flaming torches were prudently extinguished. Atlanta has this thing about fire. Somebody suggested we climb into the dark third floor to hold a séance for Peggy Mitchell. I scrounged up a candle and the hand and up we went. My wobbly little playmates sat in a wide circle. A solemn call went out for Peggy’s ghost to come and sit a spell. We sat in silence. And sat. About 20 minutes went by. It was now so windy outside that the sounds of decadence from Tight Squeeze were barely audible.
Then somebody started a low hum. We all picked it up. The throbbing dynamo hum had just about filled the room when CRASH! BANG! RATTLE! The racket came from the fire escape on the other side of the boarded window. We shrieked and I jumped up to look through a gap in the wood boards just in time to see a pair of naked bottoms scurrying down the steps and clothes flying every which way. Our hellish humming chorus had disrupted some furtive lovemaking at the top of the fire escape at a climactic moment.
It was then that I realized our séance for Peggy Mitchell, the practical joker, that saucy, naughty flapper rum hound spirit from the Roaring ‘20s, had indeed crossed the veil between worlds to give us Atlantans one last laugh.
Peggy, after all, had one of the best collections of dirty French postcards in the city. Her private library contained censored books, Oscar Wilde and a collection of thoroughly randy love poems. Above the bed she shared with John Marsh was a framed ad for The Memoirs of Casanova showing a bare-breasted woman climbing into the bed of a naked muscular gent. At one of her wild parties in the apartment, she handed out trays of powdered sugar and called it cocaine. At another, she portrayed a femme of ill repute luring General Sherman away from burning Atlanta
This is the spirit we summoned that Halloween night high above Atlanta’s Reeperbahn, not the prim Poster Girl of the Confederacy she was forced to become after publication of The Book and, 70 years ago this December, The Movie.
My wife Deborah (then James) had always been fascinated by Margaret Mitchell the person and in 1985, she obtained the 501 c(3) nonprofit status for what was to become the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum. The photos I took of the architectural details of the house were used to rebuild it following a series of arson fires some still feel were developer-inspired.
Peachtree at 10th is now properly corporate. A federal bank building stands across the street. High rises and upscale restaurants throng with busy, prosperous people.
Peggy’s Scarlett O’Hara, busy making a postwar fortune with convict labor and overpriced lumber for reconstruction, would look at the intersection today and be downright proud.