Storied Land

Hollywood celebrates the legacy of Mansfield's Louis Bromfield.

For two Hollywood legends, happily ever after began in Mansfield on a sunny spring day 67 years ago. The bride wore a pale-pink wool suit and carried a bouquet of white orchids. Her groom donned gray flannel for the occasion and sported a grin from ear to ear.

In her 1978 autobiography, By Myself, sultry screen siren Lauren Bacall looks back with fondness on May 21, 1945 — the day she married Humphrey Bogart, Tinseltown’s most famous tough guy.

“I felt as though I owned the world, and I did,” wrote Bacall. “My every dream and hope, and far beyond, were to be realized.”

But the Bogarts weren’t the only ones who experienced paradise in this north-central Ohio agricultural community. The couple’s best man, Louis Bromfield, also discovered his calling here: The celebrated writer traded an illustrious literary career that brought fame and fortune for the chance to return to the land he loved. Bromfield would devote the rest of his life to creating innovative systems of soil conservation and crop rotation that remain in place around the world.

Although Mansfield’s most famous son died of bone cancer in 1956 at age 59, his legacy continues. Each year, more than 350,000 visitors pass through the gates of his former home, Malabar Farm, to see the flourishing results of Bromfield’s ingenuity: hills replete with rows of corn, wheat, oats and hay; scenic trails filled with wildflowers; pastures that feed resident herds of cattle and goats. And, of course, the opulent 32-room Big House, where Bromfield entertained celebrities and hosted Bogie and Bacall’s nuptials.

“Louis was a great friend of my father’s,” recalls film producer Stephen Bogart, 63, by phone from his home in Naples, Florida. “It’s clear from looking at photos from back then that my parents were truly happy. As the song says, ‘They had it all.’

“And,” he adds, “Bromfield’s residence was, and still is, something special.”

Next month, Bogart and actor Tyrone Power Jr. will commemorate the achievements of Louis Bromfield by hosting a three-day fund-raiser to support the farm, which is now a state park. The celebration includes a cocktail reception, lunches and dinners, film screenings, autograph sessions and displays of movie memorabilia.

It’s a fete Tyrone Power Jr. is clearly looking forward to. His family’s connection to the Buckeye State is strong: Power’s father, the romantic swashbuckler who starred in “The Mark of Zorro,” was born in Cincinnati. The gifted performer also portrayed the Indian doctor smitten with Englishwoman Myrna Loy in “The Rains Came.” The 1939 film, which received an Academy Award for Special Effects, was based on Bromfield’s novel of the same name.

“I love Ohio,” enthuses the younger Power, as he reminisces about a summer he spent doing theater with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward at Kenyon College in Gambier.

“We toured the countryside by day,” Power, 53, recalls, “stopping in Amish County for baskets of fried chicken and biscuits. At night, we’d present these wonderful plays.

“It was sheer bliss,” he adds. “I can’t wait to return.”

Louis Bromfield’s fondness for farming began in boyhood. He and his father, Charles, would while away summer afternoons exploring the hills and valleys of their hometown. The elder Bromfield was constantly on the lookout for farms he could purchase and restore. But it wasn’t a lucrative endeavor. The Industrial Age had come to Ohio, and the effects were being felt in the heartland. Farmers struggled to eke out a living wage as effluence from factories polluted streams and leached nutrients from soil. In 1914, after graduating from Mansfield Senior High School, Bromfield enrolled at Cornell University with the intention of earning a degree in scientific agriculture. But his plans changed the following year: Economic necessity forced him to return home in order to help salvage his grandfather’s farm. The youth quickly discovered that no matter how much he revered the land, becoming a farmer was not a viable career option. Bromfield returned to college, only this time, he pursued a degree in journalism at Columbia University.

“As much as he loved working the soil, Bromfield was also passionate about literature. He had a desire to see the world and write about it,” explains David Weaver, the former executive  director of the Malabar Farm Foundation, who’s now the development director of the Ohioana Library Association. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohioana is dedicated to preserving books by our state’s writers, which includes an impressive collection of Bromfield’s manuscripts and letters.

After serving as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, Bromfield settled in Manhattan. He worked as a reporter for the Associated Press, served as music critic for Time magazine and hobnobbed with pals that included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Bromfield also began penning stories centered on greedy industrialists and the havoc they wreak. His third novel, Early Autumn, a poignant account of one woman’s struggle to come to grips with societal changes, won a 1927 Pulitzer Prize.

“I wouldn’t say [my father] was a person who was against progress,” explains Ellen Bromfield Geld in “The Man Who Had Everything,” a 1998 documentary produced by WOSU Public Media. “What he was really against was the manner in which [industry] ignored the life of the farmer and the importance of people’s connection with the land.”

The critics heaped praise on the budding writer, heralding him as America’s answer to Charles Dickens. A devotee of the French countryside since he’d served there during the war, Bromfield moved his wife, Mary, and their daughters to Senlis, an ancient village north of Paris. There, he tended his magnificent garden filled with sweet corn, lima beans and 400 varieties of flowers. Never at a loss for words, the author traveled the world, writing best-seller after best-seller based on his sojourns.
On the surface, life seemed idyllic. But it wasn’t. Bromfield was homesick. He wanted nothing more than to return to the town that lay claim to his heart and work the land his ancestors had toiled on.

In the 1947 autobiographical book, Pleasant Valley, Bromfield described his feelings of longing: “I found myself spending more and more of my sleeping hours in the country where I was born and always what I dreamed of was Ohio and my own county.”

As World War II clouds darkened the skies over France in 1939, the Bromfields made the move to Mansfield. The author purchased four adjoining farms comprising 600 acres. He named the spread Malabar, after the Malabar Coast in India that served as a pivotal setting in several of his novels.

It didn’t take long for the fledgling farmer to realize he had work to do: Since the land he bought had been abandoned, more than 60 percent of the topsoil was gone and the parcels were filled with a network of ravines deep enough to swallow a tractor. Bromfield and his farm manager, Max Drake, set about to restore ecological balance: Instead of attempting to raise crops on steep hillsides, the duo planted grass to create pastures. Flat land at the base was tilled in a way that followed the curve of the hillside — a system of contour farming that made every inch useful. Crops were then planted in strips, with corn or wheat on top, followed by grass below. During storms, the grass absorbed water while abating soil runoff.

As the photographs filling the Big House attest, Malabar Farm was a showplace. It quickly became a mecca for the brightest stars of the day.

“Bromfield had a rule that everyone had to follow, no matter who you were,” Weaver explains. “If you stayed at his house, you had to work.
“And if you refused,” he adds with a grin, “you’d be driven to a hotel.”

Which is why it was not unusual for  startled passersby to find James Cagney selling produce at the farm’s roadside stand or catch a glimpse of Kay Francis scurrying to the barn to assist with the birth of a calf.

As his agricultural expertise increased, the author began writing nonfiction books about the subject he loved best.

“He put romance into farming,” Weaver muses. “Bromfield could make the description of cleaning out a pig sty sound captivating.

“It’s easy to see why he became the most famous farmer in the world.”

Bromfield’s 19 novels, seven short-story collections, 10 nonfiction works and two plays were published around the globe. Since 1997, The Wooster Book Company has sparked new interest by reissuing 13 of those titles.

“Bromfield was a classic fiction writer,” reflects David Wiesenberg, who, along with his wife, Carol A. Rueger, owns the publishing company. “And through his nonfiction, he conveyed a sense of place that retains a literary experience for all who visit.

“There’s a viability and vibrancy at Malabar Farm,” the publisher adds, “that remains unmatched.”

Hollywood Returns to Malabar Farm State Park, June 1-3

Malabar Farm State Park, 4050 Bromfield Rd., Lucas 44843

• For a schedule of events and ticket prices, call Malabar Farm or visit the website.