Birthplace: Somers, WI
You Know As From: Author of “Anna and the King of Siam”, basis for “The King & I” (1956), starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne and “Anna and the King” (1999), starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat.
Did You Know?: Living in Thailand with her new husband after their 1926 wedding, Margaret served as Headmistress of Anakul Satru Girl’s School while husband Kenneth traveled extensively as an evangelist.
On September 7, 1903, Margaret Dorothea Mortenson was born to A.D. (Annenus Duabus) and Adele Mortensen in Somers, Wisconsin. She was one of three daughters in a devout Methodist family. The family did not stay in Southeast Wisconsin for long but moved instead to Evanston, Ill., where Margaret graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1921. She had her eye on attending college out East after high school. However, when it was time to begin applying to college, it was not Vassar or Brown that she was urged to attend, but rather Wheaton College in Illinois. She stayed in Wheaton and graduated in 1925, after which she taught school for one year. While still in school, Margaret had become engaged to schoolmate Kenneth Landon, who graduated in 1924. After graduation, he left for Princeton and achieved a Master of Theology. After her year of teaching the two married in 1926, and Margaret Mortenson became Margaret Landon.
Kenneth felt the call to evangelize after only one year of marriage, so the Landons signed up to be Presbyterian missionaries in Siam (which became known as Thailand in 1939). The Landons had five to six acres on their compound in Trang, an important port city in the southern Trang Province of Thailand where they made their home from 1927-37. Margaret gave birth to their three children over 200 miles north in the city of Bangkok. Kenneth traveled extensively as an evangelist and was able to plant six churches. Along with his church planting activities, he pastored a church in Trang for some time. Margaret read extensively about the country and its history while there and became interested in Anna Leonowens’ story when a friend recommended to her “The English Governess at the Siamese Court,” which was published in 1870. Leonowens’ story followed her life as a governess in the court of King Mongkut. In addition to raising children and educating herself on the country, Margaret also became Headmistress of Anakul Satri Girl’s School and was put in charge of the school in 1930-31.
While the family was on vacation in 1937, they decided not to return to Siam, leaving behind nearly all of their belongings. It was on this last vacation leave that Kenneth completed a Ph.D. in one year from the University of Chicago. In one busy year, Kenneth finished his coursework and exams and also wrote and defended his dissertation (later published as “Siam in Transition”). After his resignation as an evangelist and the completion of his degree, Kenneth began to look for work as a pastor. But the closest he came to this occupation was a teaching position of philosophy at Earlham College in Indiana in 1939.
During his time at Earlham in the summer of 1941, Kenneth received a call from Col. William Donovan, asking him, on behalf of President Roosevelt, to come to Washington as soon as possible to make a report about the Japanese in Indochina and for his help to understand the Thailand region. Because he came to enjoy teaching so much, Kenneth was ready to refuse this call. However, he chose to move with his family to Washington, D.C. in 1942 to join the United States Department of State as an advisor on Southeast Asia.
Still fascinated with the story of Anna Leonowens and its potential, Margaret contacted one of Anna’s grandchildren and in 1941 began to seriously research writing an updated (and more entertaining) version of the book. In the meantime, she published several articles on the same subject in 1942. After leaving Siam, Leonowens wrote two books about Siam, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court” (1870) and “The Romance of the Harem” (1872)- claiming them to be records of her true experiences. Margaret Landon rearranged and combined Leonowens’ two books into one volume called “Anna and the King of Siam,” which was published in 1944. Her novel became an instant bestseller. Over one million copies were sold and published in more than 20 languages worldwide.
Margaret Landon’s work was adapted for film by 20th Century Fox in 1946 as “Anna and the King of Siam,” starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. The exotic setting and romantic story impressed the wives of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II so much that they convinced their husbands to write a musical based on the book. Rights to this musical play was granted in 1950, and “The Kind and I” was the Academy Award-winning product of Rogers and Hammerstein II’s work. American film director Andy Tennant remade the film in 1999 as a non-musical, “Anna and the King,” starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat.
A later work, “Never Dies the Dream,” was published in 1949 by Margaret, following her own experiences in Siam- but it did not do nearly as well.
In her life, Margaret was married for 67 years to Kenneth. They had four children, Margaret Schoenherr, William, Carol Pearson and Kenneth, Jr.; 13 grandchildren, and 25 great-grandchildren. Retirement was a difficult adjustment for the two, who were people of great efforts, energy and accomplishments. When Margaret’s health failed, Kenneth had to take over the responsibilities of the home. He passed away on Aug. 26, 1993, and Margaret, the love of his life, followed soon after on Dec. 4. Both were 90 years old. The two were buried in Wheaton, Ill.
Biography by Katie Doucet