An Open Letter to Scarlett O'Hara: The Original Marriage Hacker

Dear Scarlett,

I’m one of your biggest fans. I’m a Yankee, of course, but ever since my grandmother forced me to sit through Gone with the Wind when I was eight, I’ve had a deep respect for your determination and general pluck. It’s possible you were even an inspiration for me being a divorce lawyer, because I think of you as the original marriage hacker. You couldn’t get divorced in old days, but you made the most of three unhappy marriages, taking what you could get and repeatedly building a new empire from the ashes of the last.

Let’s be blunt here: history wasn’t exactly on your side. Yet you managed to survive—and thrive—despite living through a war; despite losing your parents in really awful ways; despite having your entire livelihood burned to the ground; oh, yeah, and despite being tied into a corset, buried in petticoats and told to be a lady. You are not a lady, and that’s what we love about you. Had you lived in modern times, you would have been the terrifying grand dame of any of the “Real Housewives” series, without exception.

The thing about Gone with the Wind is that it everyone thinks it’s a story about love for other humans—your love for Ashley Wilkes, your love for Rhett Butler—but you’re not really a romantic, Scarlett. Women had it rough in the American South; marriage dictated that you were essentially the property of your husband. So not surprisingly, your most lasting love affair was with your house, the infamous Tara. I think the men were more or less just there to provide you and Mammy with some eye candy. Still, I think it’s worth having a look at who you married and how you marriage-hacked your way into a medium-happy ending.

Marriage #1: Charles Hamilton
Charles was your first husband, and you married him on a whim (I love when people do that). You had just found out that your crush Ashley Wilkes was marrying someone else, and as a way to make him jealous, you seduced his new brother-in-law-to-be, Charles Hamilton. You had a son together, in the book anyway, not the movie; then he went off and got himself killed in the war. This is convenient for you, and explains why you married someone right before they marched off to war. But Charles was a safe bet anyway, being super young a bit of a dummy; he would have made a good docile husband for a firecracker such as yourself. But anyway, he’s out of the way.

Marriage #2: Frank Kennedy
After Atlanta was burned in Sherman’s march through the South, tired and traumatized, you returned to Tara, your true love. Unfortunately you arrived to find the whole place had been wrecked and looted, and your mom was dead, and your dead had gone crazy. You probably would have been okay staying single at this point—you were well on your way to getting the farm functional again—until the government raised the taxed on your property. You needed to marry someone with money, and fast.

Rhett Butler, the face that makes all the grannies swoon, sadly wasn’t available, so you quickly settled for your sister’s boyfriend Frank Kennedy, who is—conveniently and thankfully—as much of a dummy as your previous husband was. But he was a dummy with a business, and he could pay the taxes on Tara, who was the only one you really loved, so it was fine. You and Frank even have a kid (in the book, not the movie). Then you get attacked, and in the skirmish that follows, in which local men try to defend your, ehm, honor, your husband Frank is killed. Marriage number two, complete.

Marriage #3: Rhett Buttler
After Frank dies, you’re actually fine. (Financially I mean, of course you were fine emotionally.) You don’t need a husband. But—and here’s where people get generally confused about the love story in Gone with the Wind—you are physically attracted to this Rhett Butler character. So, finally having the freedom to make the mistake most people make with their first marriages, you marry him for the sex. Oh, and also, he’s filthy rich, so that doesn’t hurt. But you don’t love him. You sort of sometimes think you do, but then not so much.

You have a child together (this one actually shows up in the movie) but then, when she dies tragically, so does your marriage. Rhett leaves you. And you decide to go back to Tara, your true wife.

What can be learned from this? A lot.

One big lesson is that if you can’t marry who you actually think you want to be with, the next best option is to marry someone else. Or, in your case, everyone else. Especially if they can get you out of debt and have a high chance of getting themselves killed in some manner.

Another lesson is that people can’t marry houses. Even today.

And a final lesson—and this is probably the real takeaway from this letter—is that women from the South are completely nuts. Take it from your friendly neighborhood divorce attorney: if you hear the rustle of petticoats, run.

James J. Sexton