Alicia Rhett a painter at heart
Though best-known for her role as India Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind," Alicia Rhett of Charleston, who died Friday at 98, was also a portrait painter, radio personality and community theater stalwart.
"When she was trying out for 'Gone With the Wind,' one reason they chose her was because her name was Rhett," recalled cousin Libby M. Guerard Wright, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Burnet Rhett Maybank. "But she was very talented, which everyone realized, and a very kind person. Her mother was English, and Alicia had a lot of little English things about her personality - though she loved baseball.
"I lived next door to her for a long time at 61 Tradd St., and if my kids were ever sick, ice cream arrived in short order."
Born in Savannah, though descended from one of Charleston's oldest families, Rhett was a long-time resident of 59 Tradd St., where her studio was on the top floor. She was living at Bishop Gadsden at the time of her death.
Rhett studied at the Carolina Art Association school and was noted for her work on stage and behind the scenes with the Footlight Players. Mentored by Emmett Robinson, she enjoyed leading roles in such productions as "The Recruiting Officer" (for the 1937 reopening of the Dock Street Theatre), "Seventh Heaven," "Twelfth Night," "Lady Windemere's Fan" and numerous others, while also spending two summers on scholarship at the Mohawk Drama Festival in Schenectady, N.Y., under the direction of veteran character actor Charles Coburn.
Rhett also was known in her youth for the inventive costumes she designed for Gibbes Museum of Art balls.
Sketching from early childhood, Rhett studied painting under Marguerite Miller, Minnie Mikell and Faith Murray and also benefited from the guidance of the watercolorist Alice R. Huger Smith. She also studied ballroom dancing, music, horseback riding, golf and tennis before her graduation from Memminger High School.
In March of 1938, then one of the brightest young stars in Charleston community theater, she was spotted by a talent scout for Selznick International Studios and she auditioned for the role Melanie Hamilton - for director George Cukor. A month later, she won the role of India Wilkes, sister of Ashley Wilkes (played by Leslie Howard). Rhett did not leave for Hollywood and the long process of shooting "Gone With the Wind" until February 1939.
During filming, it is said she became a special favorite of author Margaret Mitchell, while also developing considerable respect for the professionalism of Clark Gable. It would be the only motion picture she ever made.
Not one to squander an opportunity, Rhett also found time during this period in California to study at the Otis Art Institute.
"She contemplated staying in California, but very wisely decided to return home," said cousin Burnet Maybank of Charleston. "Painting would be where she made her mark."
Upon her return to Charleston, and following a round of glitzy "GWTW" premieres, Rhett was for many years the emcee for a program called "Scrapbook" on WTMA Radio. She likewise hosted two other programs for the station, "Hollywood Headlines" and the child-centered "Let's Spin a Dream." After her work in radio, Rhett took a post with the art department of the Bradham Advertising Agency.
For a year in the late 1930s, Rhett served as supervisor of the WPA workers on the Federal Art Project here. During World War II she sketched an estimated 1,600 U.S. servicemen. And by 1967, having painted steadily for decades, art finally won out over all other pursuits. Rhett became one of the region's foremost portraitists, widely commissioned. Her work hangs in private homes, offices and public buildings from New York to California.
"She was a very honest and enjoyable person to be around," said cousin J. Stewart Walker of Charleston. "I would think she would be remembered for her painting most of all, but as far as Charleston is concerned, I believe she was also the most outstanding performing artist of the last century here. I can't think of anyone who has accomplished more."
Rhett, who never married, enjoyed a rich lineage as a member of the Rhett family, which traces its history in the area to 1690. Her great-grandfather, Robert Barnwell Rhett, was a U.S. senator, while her grandfather, Col. Alfred Rhett, commanded Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the Civil War. Her father, Edmund Rhett was a civil engineer and West Point graduate. When he died of influenza in 1918, the family moved from Wilmington, Del., back to Savannah and ultimately to Charleston.
Rhett's mother was the former Isobel Murdich of Savannah, whose father was editor of the Savannah Morning News.
She was described by friends as the polar opposite of her bigoted character in "GWTW."
"She was very gentle person, though private," Walker said, "growing up with a strict mother who never seemed to approve of any of the boys who asked her for a date. My family had a place up in Flat Rock, N.C., and she and her mother would come stay with us for a month in the summers.
"She was 16 or 17 then, about six years older than me, and when my grandmother and mother would go out, Alicia would mind us, and she could be just as strict as her mother. But she also loved games, and always loved to paint."