Landon, Margaret Dorothea Mortenson
Landon, Margaret Dorothea Mortenson
(b. 7 September 1903 in Somers, Wisconsin; d. 4 December 1993 in Alexandria, Virginia), author best remembered for her novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944), which inspired a variety of adaptations including the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I.
Landon was the eldest of three daughters born to Annenus Duabus and Adelle Johanne Estberg. Her father worked at the Curtis Publishing Company in Chicago as an office manager and also, for a time, in the business department of the Saturday Evening Post. Her mother was a home-maker. Landon spent most of her childhood in suburban Evanston, Illinois. Her English teacher at Evanston Township High School once told her, “You have the gift of words. Do something with it!” Although she was always interested in writing, she was also drawn to sports as a child and pursued this interest through her college years as the captain of the women’s baseball, basketball, and tennis teams at Wheaton College, where she earned her B.A. degree in 1925.
Upon graduation she taught English and Latin in Bear Lake, Michigan, but soon realized she disliked teaching and gave it up after what she called “an agonizing year.” She married Kenneth Perry Landon, whom she had met at Wheaton College, on 16 June 1926. Following their wedding Kenneth was assigned as a missionary by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions to serve in Siam (now Thailand). After a year in Bangkok learning Siamese, they spent most of the next ten years in Trang, where Margaret served as the principal of the Trang Girls’ School. She found very little time to write anything other than a mission newsletter and correspondence. The Landons took a break from mission work in 1931 while Kenneth earned his master’s degree at the University of Chicago, but they returned in 1932 and remained in Trang until 1937. Three of their four children were born in Siam.
While abroad, Landon became fascinated by the story of Anna Leonowens, a widowed Welsh woman who went to Siam in 1862 to teach King Mongkut’s many children and his favorite concubines. For the next five years Leon-owens taught them English and indoctrinated them with Western ideals of democracy. One of her pupils, Prince Chulalongkorn, demonstrated the influence of her teaching when he became king by abolishing the custom of prostration before superiors and by freeing his slaves. Leonowens wrote two books based on her experiences: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1872), both of which were banned by the Siamese government after an unsuccessful attempt to prevent their publication. Even Dr. Edwin Bruce McDaniel, a friend of Landon’s in Siam who had introduced her to the story of Anna, kept his copies hidden. After returning to the United States, Landon remarkably found copies of both obscure books while browsing through used bookstores in Chicago.
When the Landons returned to the United States in 1937 Landon took up her writing more seriously, enrolling in night school classes at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. One of her assignments evolved into her first published magazine article, “Hollywood Invades Siam,” for which she was paid $15.
Landon became increasingly interested in writing about Anna Leonowens. Muriel Fuller, a former college roommate who worked in publishing, suggested that Landon combine the autobiographical elements of both of Leon-owens’s books and omit the dull descriptions. Landon also relied on personal letters, diaries, and interviews with Leon-owens’s granddaughter Avis S. Fyshe. The result was a work that Landon described as “seventy-five percent fact, and twenty-five percent fiction based on fact.” She began writing Anna and the King of Siam in 1939 in Richmond, Indiana, where her family lived through 1941. In 1942 the Landons moved to Washington, D.C., where Kenneth went to work for the State Department. Margaret finished her book in July 1943 only hours before her youngest child was born.
The manuscript was rejected by two publishers and was almost rejected by the eventual publisher, John Day, because an editor dismissed it as “Sunday school stuff” that no one would want to read. But another editor (a friend of Landon’s) sold the chief editor on the book’s merits. Anna and the King of Siam was published in 1944 and became a best-seller. It was dedicated to Landon’s sister Evangeline, who was tragically killed in a car crash in 1941.
Anna and the King of Siam inspired a number of adaptations. A film version, Anna and the King, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison, was produced by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946. On 29 March 1951 the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I opened on Broadway, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. A film version of the musical followed in 1956 (Twentieth Century-Fox) with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. In 1999 Walt Disney released an animated version The King and I. Although another version of Anna and the King appeared in 1999 starring Jodie Foster, the screenwriters claimed that their story was based more closely on Leonowens’s books than on Landon’s novel.
Landon went on to write a less successful second novel,Never Dies the Dream (1949), about a missionary who runs a school in Bangkok in the 1930s. She worked for many years on a textbook for high school students on Southeast Asian history entitled Pageant of Malayan History, but the manuscript remained unfinished.
Landon cited poor health and family responsibilities as reasons for not writing more. She suffered from rheumatic fever for two years after the publication of her first book. Only a few months after her husband’s death, she died of a stroke at a retirement home in Alexandria. She is buried next to her husband in Wheaton Cemetery in Wheaton, Illinois.
Margaret Landon was critical of her own work and often lacked confidence in her writing ability. A perfectionist, she rewrote some sections of her books as many as twenty times and was also a meticulous researcher. Had it not been for her work, the life of Anna Leonowens would likely have faded into obscurity. Instead, the Welsh schoolteacher was immortalized, not only in Landon’s book but also in one of the most beloved musicals of the twentieth century as well as numerous film adaptations. As a result, the Western world gained a better understanding of Eastern culture and society.
A collection of personal papers, correspondence, and manuscripts of both Margaret and Kenneth Landon as well as secondary source material is in the Special Collections Department of Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. The original manuscript of Anna and the King of Siam and related material is in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Biographical information is in Contemporary Authors (vols. 13-14) and Current Biography 1945. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (5 Dec. 1993) and the New York Times (6 Dec. 1993).
Arlene R. Quaratiello