Landon, Margaret (1903–1993)

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Landon, Margaret (1903–1993)

American author who wrote Anna and the King of Siam. Born Margaret Dorothea Mortenson on September 7, 1903, in Somers, Wisconsin; died on December 4, 1993, in Alexandria, Virginia; daughter of Annenus Duabus Mortenson and Adelle Johanne (Estburg) Mortenson; Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, B.A., 1925; studied journalism at Northwestern University, 1937–38; married Kenneth Perry Landon (a missionary who became the associate dean of area and language studies at the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Institute), in 1926; children: Margaret Dorothea Landon (who married Charles W. Schoenherr); William Bradley II; Carol Elizabeth Landon (who married Lennart Pearson); Kenneth Perry, Jr.

Taught English and Latin (1925–26); lived in Siam (1927–37); worked there as principal, Trang Girls' School; published Anna and the King of Siam, based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens (1944); published novel Never Dies the Dream (1949).

The daughter of Adelle Mortenson and Annenus Mortenson, who worked in the business department of the Saturday Evening Post, Margaret Landon was born in Somers, Wisconsin, in 1903. After receiving her B.A. from Wheaton College, Illinois, in 1925, Landon tried her hand at teaching English and Latin at a school in Bear Lake, Wisconsin. She later characterized this as "an agonizing year" and concluded she was not cut out for the teaching profession. However, she soon found herself teaching again after marrying Presbyterian missionary Kenneth Perry Landon, with whom she traveled to Siam (now Thailand) in 1927. After a year in Bangkok studying Siamese ("I never lost my American accent or learned to speak it perfectly," Landon later confessed), the Landons moved to Nakon Sritamarat and, in 1928, moved to Trang. There Landon was principal of the girls' school for five years.

At the home of Dr. Edwin Bruce McDaniel, a friend in Nakon Sritamarat, Landon first encountered the works of Anna Leonowens , a young English widow employed in the 1860s as governess to the court of Mongkut, the fourth king of the Chakri Dynasty of Siam. Landon, a fellow white woman living in isolation in Siam, was immediately hooked by Leonowens' compelling, exotic memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem: "Outside … automobiles honked continuously. There was the jingle of horse-drawn gharries and bicycle bells. An occasional elephant padded by in ponderous majesty. But as I read all of this dropped away."

On her return to the States in 1937, Landon was encouraged by her friend Muriel Fuller to introduce Leonowens to modern readers by combining and rewriting the two books, omitting the lengthy descriptions of Siam and refining the chronology of events. Landon undertook considerable research in the Library of Congress and the National Archives to augment and verify the events depicted by Leonowens. She was also introduced to Lizzie Avice Moore , who, as a young girl in Enniscorthy, Ireland, met Anna Leonowens in 1867, after the latter's sojourn in Siam had ended. Through the Moore family, Landon met Leonowens' granddaughter Avis Fyshe , who shared letters, diaries and other family materials with Landon. She began work on the book in the fall of 1939 in Richmond, Indiana, where her husband was teaching. She soon found it impossible to simply piece together Leonowens' existing narratives and decided to make her book a third-person narrative that was "seventy-five percent fact, and twenty-five percent fiction based on fact." In 1944, Anna and the King of Siam was published, dedicated by Landon to her late sister, Evangeline Mortenson Welsh . An accessible, romantic and sometimes melodramatic account of Leonowens' life in Siam, the book was an instant success.

Despite its popularity as a book, Anna and the King of Siam found enduring fame as material for a succession of stage and screen adaptations. It was made into a popular film of the same name in 1946, adapted by Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson , and starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. Although the movie won an Academy Award for photography, film critic Pauline Kael dismissed it as "pitifully unauthentic" but conceded that "the story itself holds considerable interest." It was subsequently adapted into The King and I, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, which made its Broadway debut in 1951, directed by playwright John van Druten. An instant hit, the musical was released on the big screen in 1956, with Yul Brynner reprising his stage role as the king and English-born actress Deborah Kerr starring as Anna. Directed by Walter Lang, this sumptuously staged film version was both a popular and critical success. Ted Sennett calls it "the best of the Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptations. … [The narrative] forms a solid base that never crumbles under the weight of the pageantry. … The score is one of the treasures of the musical theater." The film won Academy Awards for best actor, art direction, costume design and music scoring.

The popular film versions were not popular, however, in Thailand, where Landon's book was seen as a derogatory portrait of King Mongkut, adding spuriously romantic episodes to the already disputed memoirs upon which it was based. Popular opinion in modern-day Thailand maintains that Leonowens' recollections were both false and self-aggrandizing; in a country where criticism of the monarchy remains a punishable crime, screenings of all movie versions of the Anna Leonowens story are banned.

In 1999, another version of the book was released as a movie. Anna and the King was positioned as not just another lavish dramatic rendition of the story—this time starring Jodie Foster and Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat—but as a more historically accurate interpretation of the memoirs than Landon's book. Despite additional research and drastic script rewrites, the film had to be shot in Malaysia when the Thai Film Board refused the producers permission to shoot in Thailand, labeling the story an insult to King Mongkut and reigniting the controversy.

Margaret Landon was not able to repeat the success of Anna and the King of Siam. After a bout of rheumatic fever in 1946, she wrote little for a while. Her novel Never Dies the Dream was published in 1949, drawing on Landon's mission-teaching experiences in Bangkok and noteworthy mainly for its depiction of Siamese life in the 1930s. She spent a large part of her life working on a history of Southeast Asia during the colonial period, but it was never published. Margaret Landon died in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1993.


Landon, Margaret. Anna and the King of Siam. Preface. NY: John Day, 1944.

related media:

Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, 20th Century-Fox, 1999.

Anna and the King of Siam, starring Irene Dunne, Linda Darnell , and Rex Harrison, screenplay by Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson, 20th Century-Fox, 1946.

The King and I, musical starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, opened on Broadway at the St. James' Theater, 1951.

The King and I (133 min. film), starring Deborah Kerr, Rita Moreno , and Yul Brynner, directed by Walter Lang, screenplay by Ernest Lehman, 20th Century-Fox, 1956.

Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York