Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 8, 1900. Her father was a lawyer and president of the Atlanta Historical Society, and her mother advocated for women's rights, including the right to vote. Both parents came from a very large family of mostly Irish ancestry who had become well-off and prominent in Atlanta's social life. As a child Mitchell loved to make up stories and wrote hundreds of them; she also heard many stories about the Civil War, often from elderly aunts who lived through it.
In the summer of 1918 Mitchell graduated from Washington Seminary and met Clifford Henry at a dance for World War I servicemen stationed in the area. The two got engaged before Henry was sent overseas to fight in France; he was killed soon after as he led his men in heroic battles. For the rest of her life, Mitchell considered him to be her great lost love, though not in a particularly passionate sense. He is often thought of as the model for Ashley Wilkes in the novel. Meanwhile, Mitchell began attending Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; four months later her mother became a victim of the worldwide influenza epidemic, one day before Mitchell could get to her bedside. Mitchell finished her freshman year of college and then returned home, where she participated in debutante season—a series of social events to introduce young women into society. During this period she met Berrien Kinnard Upshaw, who was from a well-to-do family in North Carolina, and they married in 1922. However, Upshaw was reportedly a violent alcoholic and left for the Midwest four months after their wedding, never returning; the marriage was annulled two months later.
That same year Mitchell got a job as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine; she wrote more than 100 political and social articles for the paper during her time on staff. In 1925 she married John Robert Marsh, who had been best man at her first wedding. Things were going well both personally and professionally until the following year, when Mitchell broke her ankle; complications from the accident forced her to leave her newspaper job and take extended bed rest. At the urging of her husband, who brought her a typewriter, Mitchell had time to start work on what she described as "the great American novel," which would become Gone with the Wind. She began by writing the last chapter and then went on to write others at random. She finished most of the book by 1929; it was published in 1936 after she agreed to a few of the publisher's requested changes, such as reordering some chapters and changing the main character's name from Pansy Hamilton—her name through the novel's first eight drafts—to Scarlett O'Hara.
Within a year the novel sold more than a million copies, and Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937. A movie adaptation premiered in Atlanta in 1939; it starred Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler—roles with which they would be forever associated. For her role as Mammy, Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar awarded to an African American. The film also won the Best Picture Oscar, and it remains one of the most popular movies of all time.
After Gone with the Wind, Mitchell never had time to write another novel. During World War II (1939–45) she served actively in the American Red Cross; on August 11, 1949, she was hit by a car as she crossed a street, and she died five days later. She was buried in Atlanta and remains one of the city's most famous figures.