HENRY ANGEL JR. IS NO CONNOISSEUR of literary artifacts. So in 1952, when his stepgrandfather presented him with an envelope full of old pictures, letters and notebooks—some of which, he was told, concerned Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell—Angel, an electronics salesman, didn’t sit up all night sifting through it. “My grandfather said it was stuff that had belonged to my father that might someday be valuable,” remembers Angel, now 71 and retired. “The envelope was nearly rotted—the paper had rotted so I put it in a plastic pouch and stuck it in a chest of drawers. Didn’t give it much thought.”
Until 1994, that is. When he heard that a Mitchell museum had opened in Atlanta, Angel, who lives in Snellville, Ga., dug out the stash, presented it to the museum’s proprietor—and made history. The packet, it turned out, contained an unknown Mitchell novella called Lost Laysen, 57 photos of the author and friends, and 15 letters she had written to Angel’s father, Henry Love Angel, who died in 1945. Published as a book this week to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the publication of Gone with the Wind, the trove (housed in Atlanta’s Road to Tara Museum) proves that Mitchell was not just a one-book wonder, as had been believed. It reveals also that she and the older Angel, cited in biographies only as one of her many casual beaux, were close enough for him to propose marriage.
“I don’t know why my father never mentioned her,” says Angel, who knew only that his family and Mitchell’s were acquainted. “Heck, if I’d known, don’t you think I’d have asked him to get passes for the Gone with the Wind premiere [in 1939]? Everybody in Atlanta wanted to go. I guess maybe he thought their relationship was private.”
Mitchell would no doubt have agreed. Gone with the Wind, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1937 and now one of the best-selling novels in history, brought Mitchell a fame she abhorred. She voiced second thoughts about having allowed the book to be published, and after her death in 1949 at age 48—she was struck by a taxi while crossing an Atlanta street—her husband complied with her wishes and had her personal papers burned.
The Angel letters and photos, along with explanatory text written by historian Debra Freer, provide a glimpse of the flirtatious, carefree girl Mitchell had been before she became a celebrity. Henry Sr. met Margaret in 1912, when their families moved to Atlanta’s genteel Peachtree Street. They and another neighbor, Courtenay Ross, became pals, joining a boys’ baseball team and putting on plays, which Margaret wrote. Henry “would have been known as a hippie now,” Ross, 96, told Freer in the course of her research for the book. “So we dubbed ourselves The Dirty Three.”
Mitchell wrote Lost Laysen, the story of a South Sea island missionary and the sailor who loves but can’t win her, at 15, and the novella prefigures both GWTW’s Scarlet-and-Rhett romance and Angel’s doomed courtship. The letters he kept date from 1920 to 1922, when Angel, a World War I vet and sometime pharmacist’s assistant, lived on a friend’s estate outside Atlanta. At the time, “Peg,” having dropped out of Smith College to care for her newly widowed father, was a petite, effervescent presence on the Atlanta debutante scene. Though she calls Henry “Mon Cher,” his feelings were obviously more intense. “Henry, for God’s sake, if I ever say I care about you—or feel just the same toward you except that I can’t marry you, please take my word for it,” Mitchell wrote in 1922. “I do love you, old-timer, and feel you are my boy as long as you want to be my boy.”
Not long afterward, Mitchell went to stay with another beau, plantation owner Winston “Red” Withers, but she attempted to hold onto Henry’s affections. “Do you think that my love for Red has changed me in any degree toward you?” she wrote him in June 1922. “I hate to think of there being a barrier between us.” She married another Red—Red Upshaw—that fall, but the union was short-lived: By 1924 she was divorced, working as a reporter at the Atlanta Journal and involved with newspaperman John Marsh, whom she eventually wed. Henry, for his part, had married a telephone operator named Grace Rayfield just three months after Margaret’s first wedding.
Over the years the friendship between Margaret and Henry, who worked at a variety of trades, faded. But he seems to have left his mark. Some time after Henry died of lung disease at age 44, his son paid the author a visit. “I decided I’d like to meet her,” recalls Henry Jr. “So I went over there, and we ate some kind of hard crumpet thing and talked. She just kept looking at me—staring—and finally she said, ‘You look just like your daddy’ ” It would be nearly 50 years before he understood the depth of her interest.
For Henry Jr., finding the Mitchell treasures has been a mixed blessing. Hoping to build a Florida retirement home, he sold the material to Patsy Wiggins, proprietor of the Road to Tara Museum, for a reported $60,000 after Debra Freer pronounced the collection authentic—only to see Scribner pay them and the Mitchell estate some $1 million for the publishing rights. “If I’d known,” says Angel, “I’d have gone up to New York and auctioned it off.” (Wiggins and Freer, who will also receive royalties on Lost Laysen, point out that research was needed to put Angel’s material in context and that he will receive 7 percent of Wiggins’s share of the royalties.)
Yet if Angel—like his father, perhaps, before him—feels ill-used, his disappointment is hardly uppermost. “When I look at those pictures, I feel like I was part of it, like I could get right in my daddy’s shoes,” he says. “I can tell you, without any doubt, that this has been a highlight in my life.”
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Atlanta