Last month, Ross Lockridge, Jr.’s 1948 best-selling novel Raintree County and Larry Lockridge’s award-winning biography of his father, Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., were honored in Henry County, Indiana.
New Castle, Indiana, Mayor Greg York declared May 23, 2015, “Ross Lockridge, Jr. Day” at a plaque installation ceremony on the lawn of the Henry County Courthouse. The plaque, written by Larry Lockridge, was the culmination of efforts by Mark Orr, Henry County photographer and historian, to make public and permanent the connection between the real 19th-century Henry County and Ross Lockridge’s mythical “Raintree County.”
In his keynote address, Larry Lockridge noted that his father was deeply invested in his mother Elsie Shockley Lockridge’s Henry County girlhood and visited with her the sites of her youth in gearing up to write what he hoped would be a novel of epic scope that would embody the culture of a people. He unabashedly aspired to write the Great American Novel.
“In his first sketches of the map that would appear in the front matter of his novel, my father did not even change place names. He drew Straughn, which would become the Waycross of the novel; he drew New Castle, which would become the Freehaven of the novel, with its Victorian courthouse,” Lockridge said.
He was especially fascinated by his maternal grandfather, Hoosier schoolmaster John Wesley Shockley, who would become his novel’s hero, John Wickliff Shawnessy. Larry Lockridge wondered what small-town “John Shockley would have thought had he known that he would someday become a local American hero played by a famous actor, Montgomery Clift!”
The ceremony was all the more distinctive for the presence of the three original stand-ins for the leads of the 1957 MGM adaptation: Elizabeth Kernen for Elizabeth Taylor, Virginia Baumann for Eva Marie Saint, and Ron Chilton for Montgomery Clift. At a news conference after the ceremony, the three reminisced about their adventures with the stars. Chilton remembered that on one occasion Elizabeth Taylor was coming toward him. “She stands about six inches from me and for a moment in time, I was nose-to-nose with the most beautiful creature that ever graced this planet.” Larry Lockridge remembered that back in 1956, during the shooting of a river scene in which Clift was pursuing a squealing Taylor, his younger brother Ross III had screamed at the top of his lungs, “Mom, is that acting?”, which prompted director Edward Dymtryk to cry, “Cut!”
The Henry County Community Band played a Civil War medley and music from John Green’s Raintree County score, there were remarks from local historians and politicians, and finally Mayor York unveiled the Raintree marker. All in all, it was a spirited enactment of what Ross Lockridge, Jr. termed “a Grand Patriotic Program.”