Ross Lockridge, Jr., a thirty-three year-old professor at Indiana University, had just launched the literary equivalent of a walk-off World Series home run.
His epic, thousand-page novel Raintree County was sitting on top of the best seller list. It was a Book-of-the-Month club selection and MGM had paid lavishly for the film rights.
For Lockridge, his wife and four children, it should have been the best of times. Instead, it was the worst.
On Saturday, March 6, 1948, he left his Bloomington, Indiana home to mail some letters and catch a basketball game with his father. Instead, he mailed the letters and then took his own life.
The Washington Evening Star wrote: “The death, apparently by suicide, of Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of Raintree County, has stirred a wave of shocked speculation among his countrymen. What more, they wonder, could a man ask of life than had been granted this writer, whose first book, an unabashed attempt at the great American novel, brought him wealth and fame and recognition…he seems to have gained the whole world and then to have wondered what it profited a man. We can only pity the desolation and confusion of his going.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Raintree County continued to sell at a brisk pace, totaling more than 400,000 copies.
But the film project at MGM faltered. Lockridge’s suicide unsettled the studio’s brass; finding a suitable script was also an obstacle. Finally, Millard Kaufman, an Oscar nominee and co-creator of the cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, was selected to write the screenplay. The veteran Edward Dmytryk was tabbed to direct: he made a name for himself in film noir work, and later became even more famous for being an informer in the Hollywood Ten era.
Both were bad choices. Kaufman heavily pruned County, especially Lockridge’s poetic dialogue, and delivered a final product that was pure sophomoric soap opera. Dmytryk, who claimed he had not read the “rambling” novel, turned Kaufman’s writing into a dull, pedestrian film.
When it premiered in October of 1957, Raintree County, MGM’s highest budgeted domestic film, laid a financial and critical egg. Not even the star power of Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint, and Lee Marvin could overcome the mediocre material. Most agree with Clift’s assessment — “it’s a monumental bore.”
With the failure of the big screen adaptation, Raintree County drifted out of the public purview. Ross Lockridge, Jr. was occasionally remembered, but usually as a one-hit-wonder whose suicide supplanted his eloquent novel as the lead item of interest.
In 1994, Larry Lockridge, one of Ross’ sons, wrote the most insightful work yet produced about the events leading up to and following March 6, 1948. Titled Shade of the Raintree–The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., the book was a searing account: no feelings were spared and the devastation a suicide visits upon the surviving family members was vividly portrayed.
Mental health experts understand the ramifications of suicide much more so today than a half a century ago. Professionals now know that children go through “traumatic grieving” when a parent commits suicide. The emotionally complicated process of fear, avoidance, shame, anger, and guilt is no longer a mystery.
Larry Lockridge experienced the convoluted grief process at an early age. He was five when he was told of his father’s death. Six years later, Larry learned the death was a suicide — asphyxiation in a car located in the family garage, just yards from where he and his older brother slept. It wasn’t until 1988, when he was in his forties, that he discovered the whole truth: family members had tried to arrange the evidence to make the death appear to be accidental. This did not fool the coroner, who ruled it a suicide.
Shade of the Raintree was undertaken to tell the whole story of his father’s life “from dawn to darkness.” Larry wrote: “His was an American life of great aspiration, a life of prodigious labors ending in a sense of dead enormous failure even before the applause began.”
The passages which reveal how the family came to terms with the suicide were particularly affecting. “We never morally blamed him for killing himself,” Larry explained. “We felt the motives and circumstances must have been compelling…we sensed it wasn’t a petulant, small-minded, or selfish exit, and hoped he had silently said goodbye to us in his suffering. Oddly, the suicide seemed to teach us sympathy.”
As to the cause of the suicide, Larry was quite specific. For his father, the arduous content battles with the publisher, fear of what Hollywood would do with his writing (justifiable as it turned out), his anonymous psychiatric hospitalization and electroconvulsive therapy treatments for depression before the novel’s publication, all were part of a mosaic of torment. But these circumstances related to the root cause: “I haven’t changed my mind that in a real sense he died for a book,” Larry underscored.
For more information, check out http://www.raintreecounty.com/