Cammie King Conlon (above, second from left), who as just plain Cammie King played Rhett Butler's beloved daughter Bonnie Blue in "Gone With the Wind," embraced the special fame she won from appearing in Hollywood's most popular and enduring blockbuster with grace, gratitude and enthusiasm. It was a personal shock for me to learn that she died of lung cancer on September 1. I got to know her only through phone calls, e-mails and one joint appearance, but she was a woman who summoned instant affection and respect. I want to share my memories of her immediately; I'll be back from vacation with regular blog posts next week.
All the acting veterans of GWTW have been amazing troupers; the picture above shows them gathering in Beverly Hills in 2006 to salute the Hattie McDaniel postage stamp. From left, you see Ann Rutherford, who played Carreen, next to Conlon; then Patrick Curtis, the newborn Beau Wilkes, next to Mickey Kuhn, who played Beau as a boy; then Screen Actors Guild officer Ann-Marie Johnson and the late Fred Crane, who played Brent Tarleton. GWTW zealots can't get enough anecdotes from any performer who appeared in it, even as an infant or a child. Cammie responded to their passion with her own exuberance.
A year ago last May, we sat next to each other at the Clark Gable Foundation's annual celebration in Cadiz, Ohio, while she signed copies of her 2009 book, "Bonnie Blue Butler: A Gone With the Wind Memoir," and I signed copies of my biography of the film's director, "Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master." When Cammie wrote her memoir, she was following in the footsteps of her mother, charm coach Eleanore King, who wrote a daily column for The Los Angeles Examiner and put together three books. (Eleanore King married Technicolor co-founder Herbert Kalmus in 1949.)
Cammie's charm was genuine, not learned. When she autographed her memoir, she never lost her Bonnie Blue smile. And she was always thinking of the GWTW legacy, not of herself. She wondered if I knew anyone at "CBS Sunday Morning" who could report on the movie's lasting phenomenon and publicize the Gable Foundation. (Weeks later, I assured Cammie that I'd tried, but no dice.)
When I first interviewed Cammie in 2003, she had long been holding "Teas With Bonnie Blue Butler" for adoring fans. (She thanks the GWTW followers known as "the Windies," as well as a host of GWTW collectors, historians, and museum-keepers, at the end of her memoir.) Seven years ago, for me, with freshness and avidity, she related the following stories her mother had told her about "GWTW," as if telling them for the first time.
Fleming's first reaction to seeing Cammie King:
Why Bonnie Blue's curls go out of shape:
"Every day, I'm told, Mother and I would report to the set and go to my place -- that was my little trailer -- and she would do my hair and teach me lines for the day. I had stick-straight hair and she had to curl it. Selznick said he wanted her to continue to do my hair, and they weren't perfect Shirley Temple corkscrew curls. So watching the movie you can see where the curl is going out."
How Cammie learned to behave on the set:
"This particular day, I have a snapshot memory of quiet and embarrassment and shame because I blew my lines and mother said I was being a brat. I wasn't paying attention, I was just being bratty. It got very quiet on the set. And Victor came over and knelt in front of me, right at my level, and in a tone of voice measured, fatherly, not scolding, said, 'Cammie, I have a little girl your age. And that's why I come to the studio and work, so I can take care of my little girl. And you see all these men on the set? They have little girls and little boys, too. And when you don't know your lines, we can't do our work and we won't be able to take care of our little boys and little girls.' After that, [I] was line-perfect. [If you're] Irish-Catholic — born guilty -- that's all you need at the age of 5."