It is one of the most iconic moments in the history of both Broadway and the movies. After months of sparring, then slowly coming to a grudging respect, the King of Siam insistently holds out his hand for a dance with Anna, the beautiful English tutor. Reluctantly, Anna gathers her skirt, takes the strong hand and engages in a passionate dance across the mirrored floors of an impossibly beautiful palace. The moment of tentative romance in “The King And I” is unforgettable.
It is also completely false and utterly ridiculous.
King Mongkut, the scholarly former monk and deeply respected King of Thailand did employ Anna Leonowens to teach his children and his wives for a little over five years in the mid-1860s. However, almost every other detail in “The King and I” is whimsical nonsense. Much of “The King and I” is a fictional love story created by Rogers and Hammerstein based on a fictional novel by Margaret Lagdon, who used as her source a fictionalized memoir written by the real Anna – Mrs. Anna Leonowens herself!
Anna Before “The King And I”
Anna Leonowens, the brilliant, beautiful, brave and resourceful British widow who stands up to the despotic king, was a real person. Her true story is quite different than the yarn she told King Mongkut in order to bluff her way into the job. Anna Leonowens claimed to be a highborn Englishwoman whose officer/husband had been killed serving in the British Army. Specifically, she said her maiden name was Anna Crawford and that she had lived in Wales in 1834. In truth, Anna Edwards was born in India in 1834. Her biographers believe that she was of mixed race. Her husband, Thomas Leonowens, had been a minor Army clerk. They bounced from place to place across South Asia before he died of apoplexy while managing a hotel in Singapore. Anna changed her name, sent her daughter back to England, and sought a job.
So while she was an independent, resourceful woman of British descent, the real Anna Leonowens invented a new identity to secure a job with the King. Some see her as a con artist. I think that’s an unfair assessment. Anna Leonowens was clever, determined and capable, despite creating a whole new history for herself.
Anna After “The King And I”
After almost six years in Thailand, Anna Leonowens returned to England for her health. She also reunited with her daughter – a character unmentioned in any of the film or theatrical versions of the story. While she was away, King Mongkut died and was succeeded by his son, Prince Chulalongkorn. Although they exchanged amicable letters, Anna Leonowens was not invited to return to Thailand by her former pupil. (Of note: her son eventually did return to Thailand, joined the military and became a larger-than-life figure in his own right!)
Needing to support herself, Anna Leonowens moved to North America. She settled on Staten Island where she established a school for girls. At that time, she began contributing articles to the Atlantic Monthly, spinning beautiful yet fanciful stories of life in Asia. So positive was the reaction to her magazine stories that she wrote her first book.The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870). The book was a bestseller and the public acclaim led her to write a sequel, Romance of the Harem (1873).
Both Leonowens’ books present fascinating but sensationalized views of her time in Thailand. The first vastly overstates her role in abolishing slavery in Thailand, her influence on the King, and assaults the personality of a widely beloved monarch. The second book repeats an entirely false tale of Tuptim, supposedly a concubine of the King. In this lurid story, a self-indulgent, eccentric and infinitely cruel King has an innocent girl tortured and brutally executed for wanting freedom and love. In truth, King Mongkut was a scholar, a reformer, and religious man who would never have condoned such activity.
To this day, the story of “The King and I” is reviled in Thailand. For my American readers, imagine if a woman from Thailand came to America to be a governess for the children of Abraham Lincoln. After being a minor figure in Lincoln’s life, she went back to Asia and wrote best-selling books, later turned into major films, claiming Lincoln was vengeful, mean-spirited, cruel and in need of a woman from another culture to straighten him out. And then add the suggestion that they had a romantic attachment and you can see how bizarre The King And I seems in Thailand.
Anna Leonowens was a pioneering feminist, educator and voting rights champion who accomplished a lot of good in her lifetime. She settled in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she founded the superb Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. In 1897, Anna met her former pupil, now King Chulalongkorn, in London for a brief reunion. He “expressed great sorrow that she had pictured his father as a ‘wicked old man’ in her books.”
Thirty years after her death, Anna Leonowens gained new fame. Writer Margaret Landon discovered the original books and fictionalized them for a modern audience as Anna and the King of Siam. This became the source material for the Broadway, movie and TV adaptations. Each successive adaptation has retold the story for the needs of a new audience. Irene Dunne played Anna in the 1946 movie version, which became a treatise on democracy. No Asian actors were cast in a role of any importance – a white British actor, Rex Harrison, played King Mongkut of Thailand while a white American actor, Lee J. Cobb, played his Prime Minister.
The 1951 Broadway smash makes the king a more central figure but continues to emphasize the vast superiority of Western values and traditions. In creating a ludicrous romantic attachment, discounting King Mongkut’s religious background, marital status and the 27 year age difference between he and Anna, the story of the real people becomes lost. The most recent film version finally allowed an Asian actor to play the King. However, in the beautifully photographed but historically strange Jodie Foster version, the monkish, intellectual King Mongkut is is presented as a cigar chomping action hero.
Anna Leonowens truly led a fascinating life before and after her amazing time in Thailand. Recent biographers have concluded that despite her many fabrications, she deserves to be respected for her many accomplishments. Just don’t expect to learn her real story from “The King And I.”
Editor’s Note: For other entries in my “History Vs. The Movies” series, click the links below!