Friday, February 16, 2007

King's Row

I am guessing that most of you reading this have not heard of Fulton, Missouri. For a city its size, however, Fulton does have a few claims to fame. People from Missouri know it as the location of the Fulton State Hospital, which was the first mental institution west of the Mississippi. Sports fans may know it as the home of Olympic champion Helen Stephens, AKA "the Fulton Flash," who won the women's 100 metre final at the 1936 Olympics. Even more people might know it as the city in which Winston Churchill made his famous "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminister College. Besides that speech, however, Fulton's most famous claim to fame may be as the city that served as the basis for the fictional town of King's Row in the novel of the same name by Henry Bellamann and the 1942 movie based on the novel (upon which a short lived 1955 TV series was also based.

Author Henry Bellamann was born and raised in Fulton. He started out as a music teacher, and eventually became a teacher at Julliard and Vassar. He published several volumes of poetry before writing his first novel, Petenera's Daughter, about the Amish in Missouri. King's Row was his fifth novel and would also be his most famous. And in his hometown of Fulton it would also become his most notorious. Many natives of Fulton at the time thought that many of the characters were based on actual people in the town and many of the incidents in the novel based on actual events that happened in Fulton. To say that they weren't happy would be a bit of an understatement.

As it is, they may have had reason to be a bit unhappy with Bellamann for King's Row. While I am not privy to the various individuals and events from Fulton's history that may have served as a basis for much of the novel, I am aware of resemblances between the fictional town of King's Row and the real life city of Fulton that are more than superficial. Indeed, even the town's name, "King's Row," seems to be drawn from Fulton's history. Fulton is the county seat of and largest city in Callaway County, often referred to as the "Kingdom of Callaway." The county received its nickname from an incident which took place during the American Civil War. In 1861 Union troops were nearing Callaway County. Colonel Jefferson F. Jones then assembled troops to defend the county and pulled off one enormous bluff. He had tree logs erected to resemble artillery and thus deterred the Union troops. It is unclear whether the citizens themselves called their county "the Kingdom of Callaway" after this incident or if the Union Army gave it this name, but either way the name stuck. It then seems to me more than coincidental that a native of Fulton, the county seat of the Kingdom of Callaway, would write a novel about a town called "King's Row."

The resemblances don't stop there. Anyone familiar with the layout of Fulton and the layout of King's Row will notice that they are virtually the same. There are even streets in King's Row with the same name as streets in Fulton! More importantly, it must be noted that there is a mental hospital in King's Row, which plays an important part in both the novel and the 1942 movie based on the novel. And as I noted above, Fulton is the location of the Fulton State Hospital, the state mental hospital in Missouri.

The book King's Row would go out of print in the Sixties, although it would eventually see print again (in the Eighties, I believe) and has been in print ever since. Of course, the 1942 movie based on the book is probably even more famous than the book. Much of the material in the book didn't make it into the movie because of the Hays Office (such as one plot involving a closeted homosexual), but the film still captures much of the book's impact. The movie starred Robert Cummings (a native Missourian, although he was from Joplin in south Missouri rather than Fulton in mid-Missouri) and Ronald Reagan as Drake McHugh. The role would give Reagan would have his most famous line. After his amputation, he asks, "Where's the rest of me...?" Although the novel initially caused a bit of a furore in Fulton, the town has since taken the novel and the movie to heart. To wit, the suit Reagan wore in the film is now on display at the Kingdom of Callaway Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Centre.

At any rate, Fulton is a place any fan of the book or the movie King's Row must see. For that matter, it is simply a nice place for anyone to visit. Among its attractions are Winston Churchill Memorial and Library (on the campus of Westminster College), Crane's Museum (complete with a re-created White Eagle gas station), the Auto World Museum, and the Helen Stephens Olympic Display (at the sports complex at the college), among other things. Whether it is actually King's Row or not, Fulton is a very special place.


NoirGirl said...

Ronnie's suit is in Fulton! I MUST come visit this place one day! :D

Great post, you've got me convinced to make a pilgrimage there. You've even piqued my interest in reading the book.

Starstruck 123 said...

I wish I knew what Dr. Tower said to Paris - something about "epigrammatic centigency" or something.