So where's Tara?

Is it somewhere down a red clay strip called Tara Boulevard that slices the heart of Clayton County 25 miles to the south with used-car lots, fast food and bars like O'Hara's, as in the beguiling Miss Scarlett?

Or is it, perhaps, over near the Flint River, where honeysuckle tickles the nose and dogwoods bloom white as snow about the gently rolling landscape where Margaret Mitchell picked cotton as a child, bounced on the bony knees of Civil War veterans and soaked up heroic sagas from her great-grandparents?

Does it, or did it ever, exist? And does it really matter as "Gone With the Wind" buffs flock to this booming New South capital of glass and steel this week to search out and celebrate the white-columned mansion of myth?

Or is it simply enough that Tara lives for more than 25 million readers in 37 countries who have bought the book since it was published a half century back on June 30, 1936, millions more who saw the film and a cast of 700 would-be Rhetts and Scarletts who paid $45 a head Saturday night to don period dress and flirt and swoon here at the Tara Ball?

It's a debate that has swirled about the macho-and-magnolia heartland ever since Margaret Mitchell put it on the map, and it shows no signs of abating. Two rival groups are claiming Tara as theirs, each with plans to build a version for tourists and invite y'all to come on down.

"People around the world who read the book and see the movie know where Tara is located -- near Jonesboro, Georgia, in Clayton County," huffed Richard Chatham, president of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, as belles in taffeta gowns and their beaux in Confederate dress gray boogied nearby at Saturday's benefit ball.

Then, as network cameras rolled, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable look-alikes, winners of an earlier shopping mall contest, drew door prize winners, and Chatham took the stage to unveil plans for a $15 million Gone With the Wind Historical Center, just off, where else, Tara Boulevard. The plans promised: a working plantation on land where Mitchell collected memories "she would later weave into the novel"; a replica of MGM's Tara; and an exhibit hall a la Twelve Oaks, the fictional home of Ashley Wilkes. It could open Dec. 15, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta movie premiere, if money can be secured.

Over in Coweta County, supporters of a 64-acre private park called Dunaway Gardens, armed with their own feasibility study, aim to put up their own Tara, restore the gardens to bygone splendor and court the almighty tourist dollar as well. Touting literary ambiguity, backers such as historian Franklin Garrett trot out a letter from Margaret Mitchell decrying the attempt to put Tara on any real map.

"She jumped all over me when I tried to identify houses in the book," says Garrett, a friend of the late author, who died after she was hit by a drunk taxi driver here in 1949 while crossing the street. "She claimed she mixed up geography on purpose. She got very touchy and told newspapers over and over there were no specific locations."

Yet she sets Tara in Clayton in Chapter 1 of her novel, and confirmed that in a July 3, 1936, radio interview. As for Twelve Oaks, well, she wrote to poet Stephen Vincent Bene't that she had to "ride Clayton County pretty thoroughly before I even found one white columned house in which to put the Wilkes family."

Then the book skyrocketed to best-sellerdom, second only to the Bible. An initial Macmillan Co. printing of 10,000 jumped to 330,000 within eight weeks, with two printing plants cranking in three eight-hour shifts. The price was a steep $3 in post-Depression America, but romance-hungry readers snapped up the saga of survival.

Mail began arriving in bushel sacks, and the once-retiring writer who told friends she would be happy to sell only 1,000 copies grew weary defending copyright infringements and efforts to pinpoint Tara on a map. Exasperated, one day she drove the county, polling locals, according to various accounts.

"Where's Tara?" she asked one after another. All had directions -- until she challenged one good old boy. "I wrote the book," she said. "It's not anywhere."

Now, five decades later, nostalgia pilgrims are at it again. But only Betty Talmadge, the ex-senator's ex-wife who hires out her plantation for "magnolia suppers," can claim to have cornered the market on Tara. She bought the junky remains of the movie fac,ade -- the only Tara that ever existed -- for $5,000 a few years back.

"When people go west," she says, "they want to see cowboys. When they come south, they want to see Tara."

" 'Where's Tara?' That's what they all ask," says Jack New, tour director for Gray Line buses, who tries to let them down easy. "Had a gentleman the other day. Someone had given him directions to Tara. Had to tell him there was no such place . . . Lots of people like him. They are crushed to some extent."

As it stands now, all he has to offer is a popular trek through "Gone With the Wind Country," a tour of antebellum homes around Madison, Ga., that "General Sherman refused to burn."

So what if there suddenly was a Tara, maybe even two? "I could fill some buses," he says.

bat16 For years, assorted schemes to exploit the red-clay locale of book and movie fame have foundered, including sequels. Mitchell always said the story ended when it ended, with a bittersweet parting and Scarlett vowing to "think of it all tomorrow." She spurned Hollywood requests for a sappy update, deputizing her brother Stephens Mitchell to carry on a scrappy defense. He died three years back at 85 -- but not before he had a change of heart.

With his blessing, agent Katharine Brown, once go-between for "Gone With the Wind" producer David O. Selznick and the author, got producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to do the unthinkable: to think about tomorrow and bring Rhett and Scarlett back together again.

Zanuck-Brown hired Anne Edwards, the Connecticut author who later wrote "Road to Tara," to do the novelization and screen writer James Goldman to do the script. But MGM vetoed it, and the option ran out in 1979. "The story covered eight years after the film," says Brown. "We got them together again -- and apart."

MGM claimed sequel rights, prompting a lawsuit by the estate in 1981. But a federal appeals court last year ruled in favor of Stephens Mitchell's two sons, Eugene, a retired government economist living in Michigan, and Joseph, an Atlanta resident, both in their fifties. Three Atlanta lawyers represent the estate, which is said to be close to signing the William Morris Agency to market the property. "We're examining the marketplace to see what makes the most sense," says Paul Anderson Sr., one of the troika.

One idea is to find a writer to pen a sequel, a tall order, do "GWTW, Part 2" as a feature, then take it to TV -- a package one insider estimates could be worth "several million dollars" to the estate. As for pumping up ratings with sex and violence, that will never do. "If it's in bad taste by contemporary standards, we would never approve it," says Anderson.

bat16 On the home front, a nonprofit Atlanta group trying to hit up corporate and city officials to sponsor the 50th-anniversary festival found that, frankly, no one was willing to give a dime. Some plead poverty from heavy corporate giving in a city that is two-thirds black. Others hinted that a racially moderate image could be tarnished by plugging a saga set in slave days.

"There are a lot of other things that I'd rather spend my time promoting," says Mayor Andrew Young. "No one in the black community is really excited about the Statue of Liberty, either. We came here on slave ships, not via Ellis Island. Historically, it was just not our bag."

Yet he braved the Tara Ball with his wife, Jean, the only black couple there. Gushed one guest: "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could return to this era again?"

"Let's not return to quite all of it," Jean laughed as her husband played diplomat.

" 'Gone With the Wind' is part of Atlanta's history, just like Martin Luther King Jr.," says Young. "There's not going to be one rebel flag," says J.D. Coleman, organizer of Clayton County's celebration. This is the New, New, New South, he asserts, citing the themes of survival against incredible odds and the bouncing back from hard times as the story of "Gone With the Wind."

So Clayton County will bask in network lights, sending citified promoters into mourning. "Other than New York with the Statute of Liberty, no other American city in 1986 has the opportunity to command the public's attention like Atlanta can with 'Gone With the Wind,' " sighs chief Atlanta fundraiser Quinn Hudson. "But I'm afraid we're not going to be able to pull it off as we'd hoped."

Broadcast magnate Ted Turner, a Civil War buff with a son named Rhett, donated free exhibit space to the Atlanta group. "Among Ted Turner's favorite loves of all time are the Civil War and 'Gone With the Wind,' " says spokesman Steven Funk. But it was too little, too late for an extravaganza.

Organizer Herb Bridges, a retired mail carrier with a large "GWTW" memorabilia collection, wound up dispatching flyers on his own, working up a julep-sipping schedule for hundreds of fans expected to swarm into the city today. On the makeshift agenda are walking tours to the dumpy apartment where Margaret Mitchell wrote most of her novel, trips to historic Jonesboro, a barbecue, lectures, a screening of the movie and a ceremony by postal officials who will honor the author with her own stamp.

bat16 Among the hottest hoopla: a Rhett and Scarlett look-alike contest at Southlake Mall, where nine would-be rascals and 35 lash-batting belles sashayed on stage to the applause of shoppers and their kids.

Ron Robinson, 46, a retired police officer in a blue tuxedo, chewed on a cheroot. "About seven years ago, I arrested a man for public intoxication who told me I looked like Clark Gable," he said. So there he was, single and "looking for Scarlett."

"We'll see if you win that $250 gift certificate and then we'll talk," winked Kathleen McCook, 25, a graphic artist who won it at last year's kickoff competition. She practiced her lines, sultry in a green velvet gown similar to the curtains worn by Vivien Leigh in the movie. "She always gets what she wants, and so do I."

Judges peppered the Scarletts with questions. "What makes up southern hospitality?"

"A southern belle takes care of her manor and her man," drawled one sweet young thing who lifted her skirt and paraded about in white pantaloons.

The Rhetts were quizzed about their favorite pastimes. Said one: "Sitting around and drinking in the beauty" of such belles.

Barbara Meeks, 37, a software specialist with two sons in tow, gaped with 1,500 shoppers. She'd seen the film "18 times since Christmas" and holds Scarlett up as a woman for the '80s. "She doesn't let anything stand in her way." Was she perhaps grooming two Rhetts? "I wish they had the charm." It had been a long day at the mall.

A hush fell over the crowd. Chip Boling, 31, a Clayton County farm agent, was picked as the Clark Gable look-alike. "My mother's favorite movie star," he said, looking dashing in a gray morning coat, white silk cravat and pencil-thin mustache.

Then Melly Meadows of Morrow, a 17-year-old high school senior in green velvet, was crowned Scarlett. She'd read the book at 15 and watched the movie 15 times. She could relate. "My bratty attitude," she said.

"I love your outfit, but you forgot the two chicken feet in your hair," gushed Irene Sladewski, a Cleveland housewife who piled into her blue Cadillac Seville with husband Erwin, a plant superintendent, to drive down and soak up the South. He was busy snapping photos, as his wife detailed her 27 viewings of the movie and her rapture over the theme music. "I want it played at my funeral."

Three of Meadows' boyfriends flitted about backstage, none apparently aware of the other, according to her mother. "See the guy in the yellow shirt? He's going to the Air Force Academy on full scholarship," she whispered. "The one in the red shirt, over there, is home from West Point." A young man approached, camera about his neck. He'd been snapping away. "Shhhhhh," she said.

"Have those pictures for you real soon, ma'am," he said, walking off.

"She's known him since childhood, but she's not in love with anyone," she went on. Just like Scarlett.

bat16 She drew raves then and she draws them now. A 60,000 hard-cover printing of a 50th-anniversary edition for a bargain $9.95 not only made the best-seller lists last week but is sold out, reports Macmillan publicity director Susan Ostrov. "It was our gift to the public," she said.

It came into Macmillan's hands only after a reluctant Margaret Mitchell Marsh kept an appointment with editor Harold Latham in an Atlanta hotel lobby. It was April 1935, and she was toting stacks of envelopes bulging with the unfinished novel she'd started writing nine years back.

"Take the thing before I change my mind," she said, wiring Latham hours later in New Orleans to "Send the Manuscript Back. I've Changed My Mind." Too late. He'd started digesting what he called a "tattered, untitled, unfinished novel" on the train. He was hooked.

"It's difficult to imagine the impact it had," recalls Elliott Graham, 80, now a publicity consultant for E.P. Dutton, who broke in as a salesman in the impoverished South. "Most people couldn't afford it. So you'd get groups of girls getting together to share a copy. Bookstores were setting up sawhorses and selling them right on the sidewalk."

Suddenly, Mitchell impostors began showing up in stores around the South to autograph copies, cash bad checks and disappear into the night. "Every publisher wanted a southern woman writer," Graham says. "Southerners were buying books for the first time. It changed the way the publishing industry looked at the South."

bat16 Save for a street sign, an elementary school and her former desk -- on display at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she wrote features for four years before starting the novel -- there is little evidence of Margaret Mitchell hereabouts.

"Not capitalizing on 'Gone With the Wind' has been a huge mistake," asserts Ted Sprague, director of Atlanta's Convention and Visitors Bureau. A Norwegian magazine sponsored a "GWTW" trivia contest that sparked thousands to vie for a free trip to this week's celebration. And Japanese tourists are forever asking to pose beside mansions such as Betty Talmadge's. She named it Twelve Oaks, claiming it to be Mitchell's inspiration for the Wilkes home.

Ever hip to such clues, Talmadge read in 1979 that the Tara movie fac,ade was gathering dust in an Atlanta warehouse. A local real estate man had parked it there after saving it from the trash heap at Desilu Studios back in 1959. The asking price: $175,000. She asked the owner to "come down and talk. It doesn't cost anything to dream." He loved the setting, and lowered his price to $75,000. Still too much. She wanted a restoration architect to see it. The owner said fine, and off they drove to find the barn where he'd had it moved. He later phoned to say he had to move it again because the farmer was selling his place.

"I'll give you $5,000," Talmadge said.

"I'll take it."

Then he died. His wife had no idea where it was stored, and Talmadge had failed to jot down directions. She flew over the area in a small plane, drove back roads with a friendly deputy. Nothing. Then the widow found a canceled check to the farmer, and Talmadge was on.

Soon she would pay $1,000 for the home of Mitchell's grandparents, sweet-talk a friend to move it to her place and start dreaming big.

"If Tara can be restored, it will add a little romance to this reality," she says. Hosting NBC weatherman Willard Scott for a down-home breakfast Tuesday, she's hearing out all suitors -- and biding her time with Billy T. Sherman, a pet goat, and Rabbit E. Lee. "I've got to go with someone who can pull it off. It will cost millions to do it right. You've got to park cars, promote it, give em at least a half day's entertainment, feed, em. People want to see Confederate soldiers, liquor stills, a battle scene . . . "