Kay Brown Barrett: The First Victim of "Scarlett Fever"
I recently processed the papers of talent scout and agent Kay Brown Barrett, known professionally as Kay Brown, or Katherine Brown. In her capacity as a scout for Selznick International Pictures, she was instrumental in some of the studio's biggest coups. She put Selznick onto the Daphne du Maurier novel, Rebecca, which would be Alfred Hitchcock's first American picture, and coaxed him and star Laurence Olivier to sign their first American contracts! She also convinced Ingrid Bergman to leave Sweden for Hollywood.
But she is most remembered for seeing the potential in a novel she read in galley form, and convincing her studio to option the property for film adaptaion before the book came out in 1936. This novel, that Brown fell in love with, was, of course Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. The importance of Brown's prompt action cannot be denied. Selznick was distinguished, among impresarios, for a rare appreciation of literature, and had produces a string of faithful adaptations of classic novels like David Copperfield (1935), Anna Karenina (1935), and A Tale of Two Cities (1935). Gone with the Wind's success as a film depended on having a producer who would make an adaptation faithful enough to Mitchell's novel to satisfy the millions who'd loved it. Selznick was that man.
Kay Brown, like millions of American women who've read the novel or seen the film over the past nearly 80 years, responded strongly to Mitchell's heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine) the impetuous, stubborn, charming, selfish, manipulative, ambitious, ruthless, pragmatic, and essentially American, Scarlett O'Hara, the ultimate survivor. In a 1986 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Carrie Rickey described it so well, that I've stolen her perfect phrase for the title of this blog post: "You could call Kay Brown the first victim of 'Scarlett Fever.'"
Since I'm one of those millions of American women who've subsequently come down with "Scarlett Fever," I was fascinated to learn more about Brown as I processed her papers. She was born Derek Granger Katherine Brown in Hastings on Hudson New York in 1902, to a wealthy and prominent family, listed in the New York Social Register.
After majoring in English at Wellesley, Brown got a job teaching at the Mary Arden Theatre School, which was owned by Guy Currier and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. During a visit to the school, Currier and Kennedy were impressed by Brown, and when they bought a movie studio, FBO, they gave her a job there, as Eastern Story Editor. FBO was eventually absorbed into RKO, where she first worked with David O. Selznick. When he left RKO to form his own company, Brown went with him.
During WWII, Selznick closed his studio to focus on helping the war effort, and Brown returned to New York to become a theatrical agent and stayed there for the rest of her life, representing some high profile clients like Ingrid Bergman, Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Fredric March, Montgomery Clift, Lillian Hellman, Isak Dinesen, and Arthur Miller. But she never got over "Scarlett Fever."
Through Brown's papers, we can trace the history of Gone With the Wind as it's been adapted to nearly every medium. Though the novel and the film were both unprecedented successes, none of the many stage versions that have been attempted over the years have achieved anything like that level of acclaim or popularity. One of Japan's major impresarios, Kazuo Kikuta, wrote and staged a 9-hour, two-part play version in 1966, at Tokyo's Imperial Theatre. This incarnation was actually a hit and Kikuta decided to turn it into a musical.
For the musical, they imported a team of Broadway veterans, including composer/lyricist Harold Rome, to write the score; playwright Horton Foote to do the English version of Kikuta's book; and director/choreographer Joe Layton, to stage the show. This version of the show—now trimmed to a mere four hours—opened in Tokyo in 1970, and in London in 1972. From 1973 to 1976, the musical hit various US cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami, and Kansas City, but never made it to New York.
Another exciting find in the Kay Brown Barrett papers was a 1972 proposal for a Gone with the Wind theme park, from a company called RecreActions, Inc. Today there is a Margaret Mitchell Museum in Atlanta and you can go on a Gone with the Wind tour, but imagine traipsing around a "structure that reproduces Tara as it appeared in the exterior shots of the motion picture"! As you walked around "Tara" there would be various scenes recreated by wax figures. (Ok, that part sounds a little odd...) There was also going to be a theatre, with a lobby and exterior that reproduced the Macon and Western Railroad Depot. The auditorium would be a recreation of an ante-bellum theatre, where educational presentations on the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction would take place.
But the largest part of the park was to be "Old Atlanta Town," which was not a replica of Atlanta at any one particular date, but a composite giving the impression of Atlanta's commercial center from 1857-1864. There would be actual businesses—stores, restaurants and saloons—for visitors to patronize. A reproduction of Atlanta City Hall in 1860 was to house the Margaret Mitchell Museum. I wish this proposal included some visual projections, but unfortunately we'll just have to use our imaginations!
Various Gone with the Wind theme parks have been proposed and announced over the years, but until one is built, we'll all have to continue indulging our "Scarlett Fever" by re-reading Mitchell's novel, and watching David O. Selznick's iconic film adaptation. And be sure you remember Kay Brown, the woman who made that film happen. To learn more about her, check out the Kay Brown Barrett Papers at the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library.