By Melissa Moniz
It’s questionable what’s more impressive, owning the world’s largest Gone with the Wind collection with an estimated value of $66 million or having worked with Hollywood greats such as Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo and Debbie Reynolds.
The tale of how these two fascinating items are related begins in 1961, when a young hair sweeper at Universal Studios named Jim Tumblin stumbled across a dress lying on the floor at work one day.
“I was always taught by my mother to respect other people’s property, so when I saw this dress I picked it up. And about that time someone told me, don’t bother we’re throwing it away,” says Tumblin. “I held it out at arm’s length and the little jacket fell out, and there was a little label that read “Selznick International Scarlett,” and I realized I was holding a costume that was used in Gone With The Wind.”
The eager hair sweeper asked around if they would sell it to him, and after approval he bought it for $20. The dress is now valued at a quarter of a million dollars.
That’s how it all began. Today, 44 years later, a retired Tumblin retells the story from his humble Kaneohe home.
“I was so excited about owning this dress and I was telling everyone, and word sort of spread throughout the studio. And I would get notes in my box saying they had articles from Gone With The Wind asking if I would like to buy it, and that’s how the collection started,” says Tumblin. “It doesn’t seem that it’s been that long, and it sort of just keeps growing to such outrageous numbers.”
Tumblin’s collection now includes more than 300,000 authentic Gone with the Wind memorabilia, including three Oscars won by cast members.
The Oscars won by Vivien Leigh for her performance as Scarlet O’Hara, James Newcom for Best Editing and Arthur Arling as camera operator are all on Oahu — and kept in a safe at a local bank.
Reason? The Oscar won by Vivien Leigh is valued at about $2.5 million. A nice investment since Tumblin bought the piece for $500,000 years back.
When Tumblin was 9 years old his mother gave him a quarter to go and see Gone with the Wind , and that was the only recollection he has of the movie until stumbling upon the dress.
“When I first saw it I thought it was nice, but it wasn’t my favorite movie,” says Tumblin. “And to be very honest, now, after seeing it a number of times, I don’t think that Gone with the Wind is the best film of all time like it’s regarded to be,” says Tumblin. “It’s only after I saw that dress on the floor that I realized that it was worn in a film and couldn’t be thrown away. So that’s where the love grew out of preservation.”
When Tumblin ran away from home at just 16 years old, he had big plans to become an actor in Hollywood.
Destiny had its own plans.
“The only thing that I had going for me is that I was so stupid that I couldn’t recognize rejection, so when they told me ‘not today’ I would go back because they didn’t say ‘not tomorrow,’” says Tumblin. “So finally they gave me a job sweeping hair, and I would stay late every night after everyone left and comb out the wigs.”
Call it fate, luck or mere determination, but Tumblin’s decision to comb the wigs changed everything for him forever. The wig he combed belonged to actress Debbie Reynolds — and she loved it.
“I was asked to her house to do her hair,” says Tumblin. “At that time I was making $76.60 a week. I combed her hair for her and it took me 45 minutes and she gave me $200.”
Long story short, Tumblin became a much-sought-after makeup artist moonlighting for stars like the Gabor sisters, Cary Grant and Doris Day. He was easily making more money away from the studio than he was at the studio, so he eventually made the decision to resign as hair sweeper.
His exit interview with the head of production at Universal went well, to say the least. His explanation to resign because he was making more money combing hair than sweeping it led to a job doing hair and makeup for Universal Studios.
When Tumblin retired from Universal Studios in 1982, he was head of the hair and makeup department and had worked with the A-list of stars.
“Marilyn Monroe was my favorite,” says Tumblin. “I used to go over to her home and do her hair. She was very lonely and like a little child playing dress up. Nobody enjoyed the process of getting made up more than she did. The process took about six hours. You would start with this little pug-nosed girl with bad posture and by the time you were through she was magnificent. She would call me very early to go shopping at the farmer’s market, and no one recognized her. She was very ordinary, with very thin skin and little fuzzy peach hair. But that worked in her favor because when we would do powder, the powder would catch on the hair and she would just radiate. She was extremely insecure and was treated very badly earlier in her career, by some who are still living who claim to be her best friend.
“Katharine Hepburn, I just completely admired her. She was such an individual, spunky. I worked on a picture with her and John Wayne and she would always nag at me about my posture. But you would never argue with Katharine.”
Tumblin was also called upon to work on Madonna for her Material Girl video shoot. His job was to transform Madonna into Marilyn Monroe.
Throughout Tumblin’s career of washing, cutting, combing and styling, he continued collecting Gone with the Wind memorabilia as a mere hobby.
“I don’t think it’s an obsession,” says Tumblin. “It’s just a fun, and the fun of it is being able to share it with people.”
Currently Tumblin is in negotiations with a major studio in Hollywood to do a permanent exhibit there. Previously the exhibit showed in Marietta, Ga., and before that it was in Stone Mountain Park, Opryland and Nashville.
“It’s just phenomenal the love and interest that people have for this movie,” says Tumblin. “Then about 10 years ago my collection was recognized as the world’s largest, which is kind of fun, but a lot of responsibility comes with this because now I have to take care of it. I’m really just the custodian of these things.”
Through reading, lots of research and a gifted eye for the real deal, Tumblin has evolved into an expert in authenticating Gone with the Wind collectibles.
“I’ve been asked to authenticate Gone with the Wind items by every major auction house in the world,” he says. “I get calls and e-mails all the time saying I have this from Gone with the Wind and I then authenticate it.” Or not.
A wonderful story worth mentioning involves an elderly woman who called Tumblin with a heart-wrenching story of how she needed to sell a dress used in Gone with the Wind to keep the house that her husband had built.
“She called mentioning that she had a costume that Vivien Leigh wore in Gone with the Wind and she wanted $25,000 for it to pay off the mortgage of her house, which was about to be taken away,” says Tumblin. “I talked to her and it was such a tragic story that I agreed to pay off her mortgage without seeing the dress, and I just told her to mail it to me. Come to find out that she had sewed the dress for the film and it was given to her as a retirement gift when she left the studio. So what I did was also set up a trust fund for her and I send her a check every month.”
So what does Tumblin have planned for this multimillion-dollar collection? He says it will be passed down and kept all together. He has no desire to sell and will probably hand it down to his son, Josh.
“I’ve been very lucky,” says the hair sweeper turned Hollywood great.
“For every 10 bad things that have happened to me, one good thing has happened and that’s what keeps you going. It makes you want to share and make you a better person.”
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