Tupelo native pens book about making of film, Raintree County

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor

Noted Tupelo author, Terry Swindol, has created another page-turner with The Making of Raintree County: Dreams, Fireflies and Raintrees.

Raintree County is a 1957 American epic historical romance film adapted from the 1948 novel by Ross Lockridge Jr. The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The story is set in 1859, with idealist John Wickliff Shawnessey (Montgomery Clift), a resident of Raintree County, Indiana, distracted from his high school sweetheart Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint) by Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor), a rich New Orleans girl.

He has a brief and passionate affair with Susanna while she is visiting. Following her return to the South, she comes back to Indiana to tell Shawnessey she is pregnant with his child. John marries her out of honor and duty, leaving Nell heartbroken.

“I first saw Raintree County at the Ritz Theater in West Point, I was about 10-years-old and loved movies about the Civil War. I remember the battle scenes especially made an impression on me but as years went by and I became an adult I saw the movie on television and found a deeper meaning from the film,” Swindol said.

Raintree County was shot at various locations, including Dunleith and Elms Court antebellum mansions, Windsor Ruins, in Natchez, Mississippi; Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee near the Kentucky border; and two locations in Kentucky, the Liberty Hall Historic Site on Wilkinson Street in Frankfort and settings in and near Danville.

The author dives into all of the reasons the filming stopped and stalled and drove both directors and actors crazy, from a suicide to injuries.

“Montgomery Clift was dining with Elizabeth (Taylor) in her home. The two were very close friends. Clift had a few too many drinks and upon leaving her home he crashed his car into a pole. It has been told Elizabeth climbed into the wreckage to find Clift pointing to his bloody face and gagging for breath,” Swindol said. “She pulled out a tooth that had been knocked into the back of his throat so he could breathe. He was fortunate to survive. However, his face was disfigured and even after several operations he would never look quite the same again. Half of his face was paralyzed. That famous broad smile was gone. Now it was more of a half smile.”

On Oct. 2, 1957 about 5,000 attendees arrived in Louisville, Kentucky for the film's world premiere at the Brown Theatre. It was the climax of two days of festivities which included a parade of limousines featuring stars from the film, receptions, and a costume ball held at the Freedom Hall Coliseum.

Much later, Swindol would meet and become friends with some who brought this epic to life.

“I met the three major stand-ins and they have become very dear friends. Most of this book centers on their stories,” the author said.

One of those was Liz Kernen, the stand-in for Elizabeth Taylor. She passed away in 2020.

“She provided so much information for this endeavor. This woman had been an inspiration to me as she lived life to it’s fullest,” Swindol said. “If you were around her even for a short time, you would hear laughter. She knew how to tell a story and loved sharing her experiences. She was always full of energy and never failed to give joy to all around her.”

He also became friends with Virginia Baumann and Ron Chilton.

Publisher’s note: Terry and I have become good friends over the years. If you’d like a book, call him at (662) 321-7263. — Jim Clark, publisher

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