If you came across Alicia Rhett’s gravestone in the cemetery of Charleston’s iconic St. Philip’s Church and didn’t know anything about her, the inscription wouldn’t give you a clue that she had acted in one of the most famous movies of all time. Under Rhett’s name, her parents’ names and the dates she lived, it reads, simply, “Portraitist.”
The story of Alicia Rhett’s rapid rise to fame – from her discovery as a young community theater actress in Charleston to being cast in one of the best-known movies of all time, Gone with the Wind – is itself worthy of a Hollywood script.
But just as quickly as she burst onto the national scene, sharing the screen with the likes of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, the closing credits rolled on Rhett’s acting career. As far as the rest of the world knew, Alicia Rhett was gone with the wind.
Truth is, Rhett had merely shifted her focus to other creative and altruistic interests by carving out a fulfilling and successful life as a sought-after portrait artist, radio personality and commercial illustrator.
Only now, following her death in 2014, can the complete story of Rhett’s remarkable life begin to be told. Stacks of dusty cardboard boxes, long hidden away in a downtown Charleston storage unit, were recently donated to the College’s Special Collections by Rhett’s estate. The voluminous archive of scrapbooks, correspondence, photos, journals, sketches and other keepsakes is a trove of 20th-century Charleston history. The collection offers a unique behind-the-scenes look into an iconic movie and a fascinating biographical record of a woman who guarded her privacy.
To those who only knew Rhett through her role as India Wilkes in the 1939 motion picture, her personal papers and effects could bring long overdue recognition to her extraordinary body of work, which includes hundreds of portraits proudly displayed in homes and institutions throughout the country, including many of Charleston’s grandest edifices – from the Battery to The Citadel.
Before her death on January 3, 2014 – just a month shy of her 99th birthday – Rhett had earned the distinction of being the oldest surviving cast member of one of the most celebrated films in cinematic history. And yet, the movie was for her little more than a footnote to a life dominated by other pursuits. By the time she had reached her mid-20s, Rhett had closed the door on what could have been a lucrative career in show business.
Harlan Greene ’74, head of Special Collections and a native Charlestonian, knew Rhett. Although he was an admirer of her portrait work, until he began exploring the materials from her estate, Greene says he had no idea how much she had accomplished after Gone with the Wind.
“It’s considered one of the best movies ever made, despite its racist overtones,” Greene says. “Some people would have peaked, and they would have traded off of that fame for the rest of their lives. She didn’t do that, and you have to admire her for that.”
Alicia Rhett was born on February 1, 1915, in Savannah, Ga., the only child of Charleston native and West Point graduate Edmund Moore Rhett and Isobel Murdoch Rhett. As a child, Rhett lived in Delaware, where her father, an engineer, worked for the DuPont Company. Following her father’s death during an outbreak of influenza in 1918, Rhett and her mother moved back to Savannah and later to Charleston, where the Rhett family roots can be traced back to the founding of the South Carolina colony.
Her great-grandfather was the ardent secessionist and S.C. Senator Robert Barnwell Rhett, whose anti-Union rhetoric and pro-slavery beliefs earned him the title “Father of Secession.” And her paternal grandfather was Alfred Moore Rhett, a colonel in the Confederate Army, the first Confederate commander at Fort Sumter and later the chief of the Charleston Police.
After arriving in Charleston in 1925, Rhett and her mother moved in with Rhett’s aunt, Alicia Middleton Rhett Mayberry, for whom the precocious young Alicia had been named.
News accounts describe Rhett’s early years in Charleston as idyllic and formative. She kept active with horseback riding, golf and tennis. As fortune would have it, the city in the 1920s was experiencing a period of artistic awakening, later dubbed the Charleston Renaissance, which led to a collegial haven for painters, playwrights, architects and others. It was during this time that Rhett learned from some of the city’s more well-known women artists, including Marguerite Miller, Minnie Mikell and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith.
Rhett also caught the acting bug at an early age, performing in plays and dance recitals at Crafts Elementary School on Legare Street and later at Memminger High School on St. Philip Street. By the mid-1930s, she had joined the Footlight Players, a community theater group founded in Charleston in 1931.
For two summers in the early 1930s, Rhett attended the Mohawk Drama Festival in Schenectady, N.Y., where she was fascinated to encounter one of her fellow actors backstage, drawing sketches of other actors in their costumes. She would begin doing similar off-stage sketches after resuming her work with the Footlight Players.
Rhett thrived in the Footlight Players under the direction of College alumnus Emmett Robinson ’35, who was just one year older. They formed a close personal and professional relationship that resulted in a number of successful collaborations. One example was the reopening of the historic Dock Street Theatre.
Already well known in Charleston for her artistry in designing and painting theatrical scenery, Rhett was tapped to supervise the decoration of the Dock Street Theatre’s auditorium during its Depression-era restoration under a New Deal program known as the Federal Art Project.
The theater’s opening on November 26, 1937, was a grand, invitation-only affair. Charleston Mayor Burnet Rhett Maybank, who had helped secure the federal grant that funded the theater’s restoration, was on hand to greet the city’s elite. A 1919 graduate of the College, Maybank was one of Rhett’s cousins.
To celebrate the special occasion, Robinson staged an elaborate production of The Recruiting Officer, the same play that had been performed 200 years earlier for the opening of the original Dock Street Theatre. As he often did, Robinson cast Rhett in the play – this time in the leading role.
It’s been widely reported over the years that it was this play in which Rhett was first discovered by original Gone with the Wind director George Cukor. But that appears to just be a myth, as Rhett had already secured an undetermined role in the film by this point. Additionally, Cukor’s visit to Charleston took place several months before the play premiered, according to correspondence available in the Gone with the Wind collection at the University of Texas.
News that Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gone with the Wind would be made into a movie swept the nation in 1936 and generated enormous speculation and anticipation regarding the film’s casting. Everyone had their own ideas about which of the era’s best actors should play the coveted parts of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara.
The scuttlebutt went into overdrive when producer David O. Selznick announced a Southern tour aimed at discovering unknown actors to play roles in the movie. Charleston, which is said to have inspired Mitchell’s choice of a first name for Rhett Butler, would be one of the locations.
When Katherine “Kay” Brown, a talent scout and trusted agent for Selznick International Pictures, arrived at the Fort Sumter Hotel in Charleston to conduct tryouts for the film, she found an ambitious cadre of young actresses vying for parts and a community fascinated by the casting process. About 25 actors from Charleston auditioned, according to a December 1936 article in Charleston’s News and Courier, with Rhett and Robinson among them.
Correspondence from the Emmett Robinson Papers in Special Collections offers insight into the casting process: Not only did Robinson play host to the studio’s scouting party during their Charleston stop, but he also received written assurances from Brown that Rhett was a front-runner for a role in the film.
Even Selznick, who had grown frustrated with what he perceived to be a lack of talent identified on the Southern tour, believed Rhett had great potential. In a memo to Brown dated March 20, 1937, Selznick said of the Southern actresses that “none of them bowled me over … but of them Alecia [sic] Rhett seemed to have the most charm and pictorial possibilities.”
Following a 10-day trip to New York in May 1937 for another round of auditions, Rhett told a reporter for the News and Courier that she had signed a contract for “a” role in the film.
Ultimately, the Southern tour, which some at the time had dismissed as a publicity stunt by the movie studio to make the film seem more authentic, led to the signing of three women. Alicia Rhett would star as India Wilkes, sister of Ashley Wilkes, the man with whom the fiery Scarlett O’Hara is obsessed. The most sought-after female leading role in motion picture history would be played by 25-year-old British actress Vivien Leigh.
As she prepared to make the trip to Hollywood, Rhett dashed off a note on February 9, 1939, to her dear friend Robinson: “Just a hurried line hoping you may be interested to hear that I am really leaving on the seventeenth via Atlanta and New Orleans for Los Angeles!!!!”
Filming lasted several months, and Rhett’s mother, ever protective of her only child, stayed with her daughter in California throughout shooting. Family and friends back home in Charleston were eager to hear updates of Rhett’s experiences in Hollywood.
“It was a revelation to her,” says Alice L. Patrick, a close friend of Rhett’s who helped conduct the professional appraisal of her estate in 2014. “She said she never realized that filmmaking was such a laborious task with shoot after shoot.”
And there were long periods of waiting between takes and breaks in shooting. In the down time, Rhett focused on keeping her drawing and painting skills sharp. She attended the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and busied herself between scenes by drawing sketches of her fellow cast members.
Like many archivists and historians, Greene had long heard rumors about these impromptu portrait sessions, but was not aware of anyone having ever actually seen them: “We had always heard that she had done sketches on the set. People had been after these papers for years.”
Filming for Gone with the Wind wrapped in June 1939. One of the first major Hollywood movies to be entirely shot in Technicolor, the film racked up a staggering production cost of $4.5 million.
The official premiere of the movie was held at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta on December 15, 1939. Throngs of Charlestonians turned out for the local premiere on January 29, 1940, at the Gloria Theatre on King Street (now, the College’s Sottile Theatre). Rhett, by then a celebrity, was on hand for the big night.
The sweeping Civil War saga was an overnight success. All of the criticism and second-guessing over the book’s adaptation for the screen, the use of non-Southern actors in the leading roles, and frequent feuds between the producers and directors melted away amid the film’s red-hot reception.
A reviewer for the News and Courier gave Rhett positive reviews for “a splendid bit of acting as India Wilkes. She created the inhibited, neurotic role of Ashley’s sister with sure confidence and intelligent restraint.”
Eventually, the hoopla subsided, and Rhett had a decision to make. Flooded with other film offers, she could have ridden the wave of success generated by the movie. Instead, she opted to return to Charleston and venture away from acting.
Patrick believes at least part of Rhett’s decision was influenced by a strong sense of duty to her mother.
“She would have loved to have stayed in the acting world, as far as my interpretation of our conversations,” says Patrick. “She could have done anything on stage that she wanted to do and would have really been the Hepburn of her time. But she made it very clear she was coming home to stay with her mother.”
Whatever her motivations for remaining in Charleston, Rhett didn’t sit idle for long. She started a career in radio with local station WTMA, where she directed and hosted several so-called women’s programs.
Her workdays filled with radio responsibilities, Rhett began devoting her weekends to drawing and painting portraits in her home studio at 9 Weims Court. She also volunteered her drawing talents to entertain and support troops during World War II. Through organizations such as the Junior League of Charleston and the USO, Rhett is said to have drawn and painted the portraits of more than 1,500 service members.
Following her stint with WTMA, Rhett went to work in the art department of Bradham Advertising Agency, creating brochures and artwork for commercial clients. Some of her designs from this period are among the boxes of materials from her estate.
Rhett did not begin painting full time until 1967, the same year her mother died. By then, she was living at 59 Tradd Street, doing most of her artwork in an upstairs studio.
She received numerous public commissions to produce portraits. She painted or reproduced portraits of President Franklin Roosevelt, General William Moultrie and the Swamp Fox (Francis Marion) as well many other historical figures, dignitaries, politicians and military elite. The Citadel commissioned her to create a series of paintings featuring former presidents and scenes of cadets.
But it was her depictions of everyday Charlestonians, especially children, which placed her work in such high demand. She often had a waiting list. For many locals, having “a Rhett” hanging in their homes was a status symbol.
Patrick and her business partner, Elizabeth Garrett Ryan ’98, have conducted numerous estate appraisals together. But valuing Rhett’s estate was a special assignment, as both knew the artist during her life and counted themselves among the hundreds of Charlestonians for whom she had painted portraits.
An adjunct professor in the College’s historic preservation graduate program, Ryan got to use the lessons she learned studying anthropology and archaeology at the College to delve into the life of someone she knew.
“You really get to know someone when you go piece by piece through their letters, their scrapbooks, their furniture, their clothing,” she says.
Growing up in Charleston, Ryan knew Rhett had been an actress, but that wasn’t what she was known for: “People in Charleston didn’t really talk about her being in Gone with the Wind. She was the portrait painter.”
“Dear Miss Rhett”
Despite her well-earned reputation as an artist, Rhett could never completely escape her association with Gone with the Wind. Patrick says Rhett didn’t understand why people made a fuss over something she had done so long ago.
Letters would arrive regularly from fans of the movie, the most devoted of which are known as “Windies.” They wrote requesting her autograph and often included publicity photos from the movie and self-addressed return envelopes.
“Dear Miss Rhett, My name is Doreen and I’m a very great fan of you for a long time …,” reads one such request from New Jersey.
Hundreds just like it, filling entire boxes, are among the papers donated to the College. Rhett appears to have opened most of the letters before scribbling “GWTW” on the envelopes and filing them away. There is no indication that she ever answered a single one.
“She thought that was nonsense,” recalls Patrick. “‘Why should I do that? I don’t know them.’ She would give the typical Charleston expression: ‘Who are they?’”
Some fans got creative in order to secure a piece of cinema history. In 1994, one enterprising autograph-seeker sent a letter to Rhett via certified mail. The confirmation receipt signed by Rhett recently sold on eBay for $650.
Ignoring letters was one thing, but avoiding adoring fans and tourists who boldly called on her at home was another. Intensely private, Rhett was said to have cringed when strangers knocked on her door. Worse were the horse-drawn carriage tours that rolled slowly past her home, their drivers announcing proudly that the home belonged to the “real Rhett” of the historic movie. Patrick says Rhett sometimes felt like she couldn’t leave her home.
Still, those who knew her and saw her regularly say Rhett was always gracious, kind, caring and good-humored. She had treasured her experience with the movie but wanted it left in the past.
“I think that’s one reason that she never replied – because she didn’t want to be known for that,” says Greene. “That was five minutes of her life. I think she didn’t like being summed up.”
Among the items sold were pieces of period furniture, some silver and miscellaneous bits of Gone with the Wind memorabilia, including two used tickets from the Atlanta premiere.
Throughout the painstaking process, Patrick had held out hope that they would find one item in particular. In 1968, Rhett had painted a portrait of Patrick’s mother. The painting now hangs prominently in her home on Beaufain Street. The portrait was based on a photograph, and Patrick hoped it might be stashed away in Rhett’s files.
When Ryan later located the photograph, Patrick says simply, “I was settled then.”
As they dug deeper, they realized it wasn’t at all surprising that Rhett had safeguarded the photo. They came across an indexed file box containing details on hundreds of Rhett’s portraits, including the names and ages of subjects and the dates they sat. Most surprising of all, Rhett had saved photographs of all her completed portraits.
“There are thousands of photographs of portraits of all these 20th-century Charlestonians,” says Ryan. “It’s this great visual history of everyone who grew up in that time. It’s almost a complete representation of the portraiture work that she did as an artist.”
For Greene, the opportunity to add Rhett’s papers to the College’s collection is an important step in providing a more complete picture of the contributions of Charleston women.
“We made a determined effort to start collecting women’s papers – such as those of Ashley Hall girls school, Emily Farrow and Gertrude Legendre,” Greene observes. “For years we had been thinking about Alicia Rhett, knowing that she was a significant woman who came from Charleston. We were interested in her long before she died.”
When Greene learned of Rhett’s passing, he reached out to the attorney handling the estate to make it known that the College would be very interested in acquiring Rhett’s papers for its Special Collections. Patrick and Ryan, who have worked with Greene on other collections, also put in a good word for the College.
Greene was overjoyed when he learned that the College would be entrusted with the collection. But he just had to know: had Rhett’s original sketches of cast members from the set of Gone with the Wind survived?
The answer came as he was sifting through the newly arrived materials. He discovered tucked away inside one of the boxes, safely preserved for the better part of 75 years, a piece of Hollywood lore that had only been rumored to exist. Those rare sketches, along with other unique and historic items from Rhett’s life, are now proudly housed at the College.
Now the real work begins, and the job of cataloging the entire collection will be enormous. Greene is hopeful that a campaign can be organized to solicit gifts for the years-long task ahead.
If there is a letter, interview or journal entry in which Rhett herself definitively explains why she turned away from acting and seemed to shun her connection to the movie, it hasn’t turned up yet. But given Rhett’s meticulous record-keeping, there’s a chance an answer is in one of those boxes.
“We don’t know what else is in there,” Greene says of the collection. “It’s a mystery.”