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A trail through Mohican State Park in Fall

Bogart, Bromfield And A Farm For The Stars

I have a dim memory of a visit to my grandparents in Tullahoma, Tennessee, when I was a child. In the memory, incandescent lights deepen the yellow of the pine paneling, with its knots that at times looked like the face of Jesus to my grandmother, or so she claimed. The television is on: Humphrey Bogart’s face broods in silver and shadow. I can perceive that same dry-passion of a little but powerful man in the face of my grandfather. The scene simmers-fades-flickers in my mind like a film itself. I am not even sure if it ever happened. But the essential truth of it—of men capable and answerable to the hard decisions quintessential to the fighting of world war—looms and insists with staid and immovable presence.

Another image invades. My grandfather again, this time outside in mid-spring at Morris Ferry Dock near Tullahoma, the water full of green reflection. His thin body merely makes a hanger for his coveralls and tweed fedora. He is lying on the boardwalk while my father (his son) and I fish. Radiation has made my grandfather frail. He has told me I will catch a fish so big it will drag me into the water to certain death. In the past he would have been able to save me from disaster, but not now.

To another memory, years later, my father and I at a spillway fishing. Vapor rises out of the yawning entry to the earthen dam. The stronger fish dart against the water hurtling out of that entry, and I hold the line against that flowing water trying to feel a strike. When it gets dark, my father and I make the long climb up the bulwark of the dam, and we head to the lodge on the bluff overlooking the lake where we are staying the night.

A Lake, a Farm, a Farmer, a Writer

In his classic story of the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving wrote of the area around Tarry Town, New York, that, “If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.” These are exactly my sentiments about that lake with that spillway where my father and I were fishing. It is a body of water with a name Irving would have loved: Pleasant Hill Lake. The lake lies within Mohican State Park, which features hiking trails, camping, a rustic lodge with an open fireplace, and one of the few good streams in the state for fly fishing.

Mohican State Park located in Ohio, USA.

Nearby this lake is a spot that touches deep connections and emotions in me, not just because of personal matters but because, I think, of interrelationships among living entities of whatever kind. The place is called Malabar Farm, and it rises over rich fields onto a wall of hills in a pleasing collection of barns and house that pass through the seasons in quiet stalwart constancy. It is of this farm and its builder I write.

The builder was a man named Louis Bromfield. Few remember his name today, but in the middle of the twentieth century he was well-known as a writer, speaker, and activist for sustainable agricultural and the need for pure, healthy food. He was also very well connected, counting among his friends other writers, major politicians, and Hollywood stars, including . . . Humphrey Bogart, himself. In fact, Bromfield’s house at Malabar Farm would play a role in one of Bogart’s most defining moments.

Bromfield: The Rural-Urban Paradox

Louis Bromfield was born on December 27, 1896, in Mansfield, Ohio (his name was originally spelled “Brumfield,” but he later changed it). He grew up in a rural setting, among small farms, and he loved everything connected with agricultural labor and life, traits that came from his father. But his mother was very ambitious and insisted that her son escape middle America. She fostered in him a love of literature, art, and classical music. Bromfield grew into a strange duck—a young man who loved rural life but appreciated culture.  These contradictory sets of values created conflicts in him so that part of him wanted to get away into the big world while another part remained thoroughly rooted in Ohio. When time came to go to college, interestingly, he went to Cornell to study Agriculture. He later transferred to Columbia where, like so many, he studied journalism. It seems to have been during this time that he met Bogart.

He left Columbia to go to Europe to fight in the Great War, serving in the American Field Service and receiving a Croix de Guerre and a Legion of Honor. Upon returning to New York City, he worked as a reporter and married socialite Mary Appleton Wood in 1921. While he found success as a journalist, he followed the call of creative writing and in 1924 published a novel entitled The Green Bay Tree, which met with great success. The turn to fiction—to literary art—sent his life in a new direction.

Expatriate Novelist

Bromfield moved with his family to France in 1925 and there fell in with the circle of Modernists who gathered at Gertrude Stein’s home. These were the heavy drinking, Bohemian folk that populate Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and it seems that Hemingway based one of the characters in the novel on Bromfield. Bromfield and Stein became especially close. There is a painting done during this time of him and his wife looking very early twentieth century French Bohemian indeed.

However high Bromfield might have been living in the city, he took his family to the town of Senlis, twenty-five miles north of Paris. There they moved into the Presbytère de St. Etienne, which had once been the home of Capuchin monks. The friends from Paris would visit on the weekends, including along with Stein the likes of actor Leslie Howard. While there, Bromfield found success with his fiction. His 1927 novel, Early Autumn, won a Pulitzer Prize, and his 1937 novel, The Rains Came, was made into a film of the same name starring Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power, and George Brent.

Through all this time Bromfield felt pride in having escaped rural Ohio, yet at the same time the understated rhythms of his birthplace continually stirred in his heart and memory. His 1933 novel, The Farm, is both beautifully written and a work that would foreshadow the course of his future. For while Bromfield may have imagined living in France the rest of his life (he had obtained an 80-year lease on the Presbytère), fate decided otherwise. In 1939, with the growing threat of Germany’s invasion of France, he returned to the United States with his family. He then took up his life’s greatest work.

Malabar Farm

Returning to his home in Ohio, Bromfield purchased a 1,000 acre tract of land near Mansfield and he gave it the name it now bears, inspired by his 1936 trip to the Malabar region in India. He had the main house renovated in a Provençal style. More importantly, he set about reviving the farm, building it according to the cutting edge in agricultural science, including organic farming, conservation, and avoidance of pesticides. He not only employed new farming methods, he also wrote about them for farmers, scientists, and laymen. Moreover, he became an activist, speaking at venues around the country, lobbying and doing whatever he could for the cause of upholding the importance of agriculture that was true and strong. He slept only a few hours each night.

His first book on farming for the general public was Pleasant Valley (1945), a romantic meditation on the idea of going home again and on his newfound commitment to agriculture. A few years later he wrote Malabar Farm (1948), a series of essays that discuss everything from the cycle of a fish pond to the farming of grass. Both of these books captured the beauty of rural Ohio while making a passionate case for agricultural life and labor. Driven by a deep love of that place and his activity in it, these books are entrancing, the work of a man who awoke early each morning to employ his hands fixing tractor parts, handling plants, tending cattle all through the day only to retire to his office to write way into the night articles, stories, novels, books to generate funding for his farm and to spark the energy of the nation and the world to see to its agriculture.

Farm of the Stars

Bromfield and his family did not simply hole up in the heartland—he brought the world to that place. His farmhouse was filled with art and relics of the theater in New York. Each room had speakers hooked into a central record player that constantly played classical music.

Malabar Farm became a hang-out and haven for stars. There was plenty of carousing in the evenings when they came, and it must have been spirited indeed between the many people and the herd of boxers Bromfield kept. These dogs tore through the house, leaving deep scratches on the doors that remain as loving preservations of the marks of everyday life. It was not all just play there, however, as Bromfield put the stars to work farming and selling produce at the vegetable stand on the road. Local customers would have the surprising experience of handing their dollars over to the likes of James Cagney, a staunch proponent of organic farming, for their tomatoes.

A Famous Marriage

In 1944, Humphrey Bogart was in a knock-down-drag-out marriage with Mayo Methot, and their fighting grew so intense the media dubbed them “The Battling Bogarts.” In the midst of this carrying on, Bogart met and fell in love with the nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall on the set of To Have and Have Not, based on a book by Hemingway. Bogart and Methot divorced on December 3, 1944, and Bogart wanted to marry Bacall. They wanted to have the ceremony out of the spotlight, far from media attention. Bromfield offered his farm house, and there in the entry between a split staircase the two were married.

21st May 1945: Married American actors Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957) cut the cake at their wedding. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The date was May 21, 1945, and it was one month after Adolph Hitler committed suicide and Benito Mussolini was executed. Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich had been liberated and its horrors made known to the world. My grandfather was heading to Alaska to continue the fight against the Japanese after having served in the Army Corps of Engineers in Europe throughout the war. I wonder if he ever saw Bogart on one of the actor’s United Services Organizations or War Bond tours. I doubt it. I am not aware of my grandfather ever being in Casablanca. But it could have been he there as Rick just easily as Bogart in the film of that name. They were interchangeable: people who, like many men and women of that moment, believed in something bigger than themselves and did the hard work of duty even when they hated it, even when it broke their hearts into a million pieces.

And Bromfield

Bromfield was one of these people. He had himself passed the age of active duty. But just as Hemingway was finding ways to fight, so this writer did his part. For example, he had his French publisher give all his royalties to the underground resistance in France. But Bromfield was fighting not just for the Allies and not even for humanity alone but for the entire organic network of the earth. Courage, duty, honor: not everybody of the moment was a saint anymore than they are of any moment. However, ethos is a very real thing that exists and means much, much—maybe everything.

Bromfield’s final book was From My Experience (1955), and it offers a measured assessment of the successes but also the failures of Bromfield’s Malabar Farm efforts in Ohio as well as in Brazil, where he established Malabar-do-Brasil, which was administered by his daughter. There is a bittersweet quality to this book, and the writing is fine.

A heavy drinker and smoker, Bromfield died on March 18, 1956, at the age of fifty-nine. His efforts in agricultural advancement would continue to be recognized in the Ohio Agricultural Hall of Fame, in the continuing work of Malabar Farm (which is now a center for study as well as an attraction), and among farmers-writers-activists committed to sustainable practices, including Joel Salatin. Sadly, Bromfield’s name is not generally known to literary critics in our time. It is difficult to make an argument that his fiction rates among the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and others, but his agricultural writing bears far more attention than it gets, especially among ecocritics, who often are unaware of Bromfield.

Conclusion

Everyone has places that serve as touchstones in life. Certain parks, pathways, fields, street corners, houses, hotels, and cities bear the weight, light or heavy, of our memories, desires, disappointments, hopes. Malabar Farm and Pleasant Hill Lake have become touchstones for me. As much as I love warm, green Florida winter evenings, I strangely find myself envisioning Malabar Farm’s white house and barns bluing with the snow into the gloaming. I imagine it as a place my grandfather, who never saw it, would identify with in his practical, honest, tough way. In that film-flicker space of memory I can even envision him there with Bromfield, Bogart, and Bacall, all of them innocent of coming conflicts, politics, decades, and a century likely not imaginable to them in 1945.

But deeper than all those people and ultimately enveloping them lay the fields, the ponds, the cattle. It is cliché to talk of the circles and cycles of life from consumption to waste, but cliché does not diminish the fact of it all. And when I read Bromfield’s writing, the loud world I know and live in silences and grows still, no matter where I am, so completely I worry that Malaba Farm itself might disappoint me if I return.

But I have returned. My father and I have gone before dawn to fish for saugeye, brim, and catfish at that spillway. We have driven from the lake to the farm, passing that produce stand still remaining there on the narrow roadside, and we have parked by the old brick house restaurant that serves meat and vegetables fresh from the farm. And whether there in reality, memory, or imagination everyone is alive and healthy in my world, and time means nothing at all.