A Novel Idea — “Gone with the Wind’s” Greenwich Village Roots
Margaret Mitchell’s classic but controversial novel, Gone with the Wind, remains one of our country’s most popular pieces of literature, with over 30 million copies printed worldwide. In a 2014 Harris poll, only the Bible fared more popular in the eyes of American readers. While many are familiar with the novel’s story depicting the misadventures of southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, most people don’t know that the first editions of the book were published right here in Greenwich Village.
Now known as the Forbes Building, 60-62 Fifth Avenue was the first home to the British publishing house, the Macmillan Company. Opening its American branch in 1869, Macmillan was one of the first foreign publishers to locate a branch in the United States, reflecting the growing importance of the American market. During its time at 60 Fifth Avenue, Macmillan grew to become the largest publisher in the United States. While the Depression years were challenging for Macmillan, they nevertheless prospered, in no small part due to the success of their American operation, headquartered here, and their publication during this time of Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind in 1936.
The story, which takes place in and around Atlanta, Georgia, during and after the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era, dramatically shaped cultural perceptions of this historic period. The book was highly popular when it was published, earning its author the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. It also received (and continues to receive) harsh criticism for its historical inaccuracies, casual treatment of slavery, its one-dimensional and demeaning portrayal of African Americans, and its romanticization of the slave-holding antebellum South.
A feature editor for the Atlanta Journal, Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone With the Wind in 1926 to pass the time while recovering from an automobile crash. In April 1935, Harold Latham, an editor at Macmillan searching for new fiction writers, found her manuscript. Seeing that it could be a bestseller, Latham passed it to Macmillan’s president George Platt Brett, who purchased the rights to publish the novel. In June of 1936, Gone with the Wind was then shipped to booksellers with, at the time, an unprecedentedly high list price of $3.00 (roughly $63 in value today) which Mitchell feared would tank the novel’s success. Her fears never materialized, and the book became a national bestseller within weeks, selling nearly 100,000 copies within a month of distribution. Its success in the 1930s led to 18% bonuses for all Macmillan’s employees and established the publishing house as a literary force within America’s publishing industry.
Seeking to capitalize on the book’s newfound fame, Macmillan’s President Brett quickly started to explore adapting the novel’s plot into a screenplay. Back in the 1930s, books were not commonly adapted into motion pictures, and Brett was one of the first to introduce marketing a book and movie at the same time. As you can imagine, his plan was a wild success. Within months of its publication, Brett sold the novel’s filming rights to David Selznick and his company Selznick International Pictures for $50,000 (roughly equivalent to $1 million in 2022’s dollar value). Selznick then partnered with his father-in-law, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer to produce and distribute the film. As history has well documented, the film was a smashing success, garnering 10 Academy Awards and becoming the highest-earning film made up to that point.
Following their success with Gone with the Wind, Macmillan used their new novel-to-film strategy to publish and promote other well-known stories, such as Rachael Field’s All This and Heaven Too, Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, and multiple stories by famed authors C.S. Lewis and Marianne Moore. This was far from the only connection between this neighborhood South of Union Square and the film industry, which was also once like the publishing industry centered here, but it is one of the most prominent.
The publisher remained at 60-62 Fifth Avenue until 1962, when the building was sold to Forbes Inc. If you’d like to learn more about this neighborhood South of Union Square’s connections to literary heritage or Civil War history, then we encourage you to check out our wide variety of tours leading you through Greenwich Village and the East Village South of Union Square. We’ve documented hundreds of historic sites within over 30 differently themed tours, and Village Preservation is leading landmark and zoning protections for this historically rich and architecturally eclectic neighborhood. Please consider joining our effort to save this history.
Further learning and action: