Escaping Prissy

THE LINE THAT WOULD COME TO haunt Butterfly McQueen turns up halfway through 1939’s Gone with the Wind. As Atlanta burns and a wan Melanie Wilkes writhes in labor, Scarlett O’Hara turns for help to her maid Prissy (McQueen), who had earlier boasted of her skills as a midwife. “Lawdy, Miss Scarlett,” Prissy confesses in a shrill wail, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!”

The moment made McQueen’s career—and severely limited it. When she died on Dec. 22 at 84 of burns suffered when a kerosene heater ignited in her one-bedroom cottage near Augusta, Ga., she was far from the glamor of Hollywood but still in Prissy’s shadow. “The part was so backward,” McQueen told PEOPLE in 1986. “I hated it.”

In real life, Thelma McQueen was nobody’s docile housemaid. The only child of a Tampa stevedore and his wife, a domestic worker, McQueen took her stage name after dancing the role of a butterfly in a 1935 New York City ballet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two years later, producer George Abbott cast her as a ditzy maid in the Broadway play Brown Sugar, and that led to her big-screen break in GWTW. It also doomed her to years of typecasting in films (in 1945’s Mildred Pierce) and on TV (in ABC’s Beulah from 1950 to ’52). “Today they call me an Uncle Tomasina,” McQueen said in 1970.

But her soft, spacey manner concealed a strong will. On the set of GWTW she refused to do a scene that called for her to eat watermelon and spit out the seeds. And years later, at 64, she earned a B.A. in Spanish from New York’s City College. Her later work included an Emmy-winning role in the 1979 ABC special The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody and a part in 1986’s The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford. Offscreen, she was a community activist who spoke out against street crime and daily swept the sidewalk outside her Harlem home. “She was fastidious,” says a longtime friend, historian Herb Boyd.

In 1989, McQueen retired to Augusta, where she rented out two houses she had bought, often giving partial rebates to low-income tenants. She herself lived alone on her property, with a menagerie of stray dogs, in the modest home she felt kept her hidden from the world. After more than a half century of being Prissy, she said, “I like to have my privacy.”

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