Published 90 years ago: Louis Bromfield’s “The Green Bay Tree”

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Louis Bromfield and one of his beloved boxers.

Louis Bromfield and one of his beloved boxers.

The distinguished novelist and conservationist Louis Bromfield published his first novel, The Green Bay Tree, ninety years ago on March 18, 1924. It was the first in a tetralogy (a collection of four works) examining the lives of people, principally women, as they strive to find some kind of steady ground on which to stand in a world of materialism, corruption, and shoddy values. They also concern the conflicts between people concerning tradition, and the traditions of the places where they live, and the opportunities provided by modern life. Bromfield followed The Green Bay Tree with Possession (1925), treating the life of one of the characters from The Green Bay Tree, a pianist; Early Autumn (1926), and A Good Woman (1927).

Bromfield was born near Mansfield, Ohio on December 27, 1896. He was educated in local schools and later attended Cornell. He served during the First World War as a U.S. Army ambulance driver, then worked in publishing and as a book reviewer before the release of The Green Bay Tree. Later in the 1920s Bromfield moved his family to France and continued writing novels, some of which were adapted for the screen.

With the threat of war looming, Bromfield returned to the U.S. and purchased several worn-out adjoining farms in his native Richland County and began work restoring the land. His farm became known as Malabar Farm, and he wrote a number of books about the life and operations of the farm, becoming as well known as a spokesman for agrarian life and values as he was a novelist. Celebrities often visited the farm, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married there in May of 1945. The farm is now Malabar Farm State Park.

Malabar Farm

Malabar Farm (Photo courtesy of Touring Ohio.com)

The Green Bay Tree concerns a mysterious house on a hill called “Shane’s Castle” and the women who live there: Julia, the widow of John Shane, who became wealthy selling land for the factories that now surround the castle; Lily, a daughter who will leave the town for a more uninhibited life in Paris; and Lily’s sister Irene, who turns to religious asceticism in response to the events around her. Another important character is a cousin named Ellen Tolliver, a talented pianist who becomes the subject, as noted above, of Bromfield’s second novel, Possession.

There is tension between the Shane women and people in town. Julia Shane refuses to sell a piece of property for a railroad station, and is treated with hostility in town for what she feels if her adherence to older values (although the Shane wealth is built on earlier, similar transactions). Lily seduces the state’s governor at a party and becomes pregnant, fleeing to Paris for a life free of the town and its culture, although she will eventually return home and understand there is no escaping the forces of the modern world.

The Green Bay Tree (image courtesy of Goodreads).

The Green Bay Tree (image courtesy of Goodreads).

I don’t want to say too much as I hope this blog and anniversary-related posts such as these might inspire readers to pursue these books. But it’s safe to say there’s a complicated train of events in the novel highlighting Bromfield’s theme of tradition versus the forces of modern life, and the challenge of accommodating change in ways that respect human dignity and values. It’s a theme that echoed in Bromfield’s life as well—he sought in Malabar Farm a way of life that was in accordance with the rhythms of nature and grounded in humane values, an existence that stood in contrast to the chaos of the twentieth century.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Green Bay Tree by Louis Bromfield. Reprinted by The Wooster Book Company, Wooster, Ohio, 2002.

Louis Bromfield by David D. Anderson. Twayne’s Publishers, Inc., New York, 1963.

 

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May 21, 1945: Bogie and Bacall marry at Malabar Farm.

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Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

On May 21, 1945, one of the most famous weddings in Hollywood history occurred, and it didn’t happen in Monaco, New York, London, or Paris. It happened in the beautiful rolling hills of rural Ohio when Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married at writer Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm. The wedding, occurring just a couple of weeks after the Allies declared victory in Europe, was an entertainment reporter’s dream. It was springtime, and the war was drawing to an end—a great time to celebrate the nuptials of a fascinating new Hollywood couple.

The best account I’ve found of this event comes from the bride herself—Lauren Bacall. In her first autobiography, Lauren Bacall By Myself—which I’ve found to be an impressive and interesting book–she tells the story of how the wedding was a hurried event to accommodate their movie schedules, and how she managed to keep it together despite the intense scrutiny. The public was fascinated with the sultry young beauty marrying the classic Hollywood tough guy twenty-five years her senior.

Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall

Bacall had been seeing Bogie since 1944. He was in a disintegrating marriage to Mayo Methot, his third wife. The two fell in love on the set of To Have and Have Not, a famous Howard Hawks film loosely based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel. One fascinating element of Lauren Bacall’s book is her very candid description of how callow she felt in Hollywood society. Born in the Bronx as Betty Joan Perske, she started her career as a model and lived with her mother until married to Bogart. Once she was cast in To Have and Have Not, her world soon became a fascinating whirl of Hollywood actors, directors, and other show business people, many of them with strong personalities, such as director Howard Hawks, who was not thrilled when Bogie and the young starlet became romantically involved on his movie set. Bogie gave her some insight on how to deal with Hawks, describing him as a jealous man who liked to be in control. Eventually Bogart separated from his wife and the relationship was public.

Bogie and Bacall on their wedding day.

Bogie and Bacall on their wedding day.

Louis Bromfield was an old friend of Bogart’s. Both men had strong political views. Although a Democrat, Bromfield was more conservative and was critical of much of FDR’s New Deal, while Bogart was a passionate liberal. The two traded good-natured political jibes with one another. Bacall writes the following:

“Bogie and Louis’ political philosophies were diametrically opposed, but that did not interfere with their friendship. Bogie felt that Louis worked his farm, cared about farmers, understood about them—and that his politics were the result of intelligent thought. Based on that, they must be respected. Louis was a very tall man of enormous charm and good humor. We got on well immediately. It was odd to see Bogie in the company of such a man—it made his past life much clearer to me. I could comprehend, in part at least, why Bogie always said the Twenties were the ‘good old days’—much more fun than the Forties.”

Louis Bromfield with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on their wedding day.

Louis Bromfield with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on their wedding day.

Bromfield had purchased several rundown Ohio farms in the late 1930s and combined them into one. He had grown up close to nearby Mansfield, Ohio and had lived for many years as an expatriate in France. His mission became restoring the worn-out land and educating the public about conservation. There was always a steady stream of visitors to the farm, including Hollywood celebrities like Humphrey Bogart.

Louis Bromfield back at his writing desk.

Louis Bromfield back at his writing desk.

The decision to marry at Malabar resulted from an earlier trip the couple made to Bromfield’s property. Bacall traveled there with her mother and Bogart in the winter of 1945. In her autobiography she writes affectionately of the Bromfield clan, which included not only Louis, his wife, his mother and three daughters, but also “seven boxer dogs and one cocker spaniel.” Despite wartime rationing there were “fresh eggs and great slabs of butter.” She was impressed with how Bromfield had restored the land and writes of how much she enjoyed being there, of the card games and banter between Bogart and Bromfield, the “dog fights under the table and boxers breaking wind at all times.” She witnessed a calf’s birth in one of the barns. Bromfield and George Hawkins, his friend and business manager, suggested the couple marry at Malabar, an idea Bacall eagerly embraced–she found Malabar an oasis from the world of Hollywood pressure and publicity.

louisandboxer

Bogie and Bacall left Pasadena for Ohio on May 18, 1945. Louis Bromfield and George Hawkins met them at the train station.

Local police worked to keep intruders off the property as the couple went through the required blood tests and trip to the local courthouse to get their marriage license. Finally the big moment arrived, although Bromfield’s daughter Hope had to re-start her rendition of The Wedding March as Lauren Bacall had nervously run off to the bathroom one last time. George Hawkins gave Lauren away as her father was an absent figure in her life. For those of us who have grown up seeing Lauren Bacall as an older woman with a formidable presence, it is startling and endearing to read how she was a nervous bride just like so many other young women.

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“My knees were knocking together, my cheek was twitching—would any sound come out when I had to say ‘I do?’ We turned the corner. When I reached Bogie, he took my hand—the enormous, beautiful white orchids were shaking themselves to pieces; as I stood there, there wasn’t a particle of me that wasn’t shaking visibly.”

A local judge married the couple. The ceremony, like many weddings, was emotional. Bacall writes that Bogart had “tears streaming down his face.” Once the ceremony ended the press cameramen began snapping photos. Bacall wrote that Bromfield had to get out of his confining suit and “changed into his dirty, old man of the soil corduroys—and newsreel cameras followed us around the farm.”

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The couple savored the day: “We eked out every last drop of Midwestern air and sky—of farm and cooking smells—boxer dogs.” Bromfield gave them a puppy and one acre of Malabar land. They left the next day.

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“We hated having to leave, but the following day, after profuse thanks to family and staff and one last look, with a promise to return soon, we left for our train. There was so much ahead that it was probably the only time in my life I was able to leave a place that housed people I loved without a wrenching pain. So the newlyweds headed back to California united at last and ready to live happily ever after.”

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were married just a little under twelve years and had two children.Bogart died at the age of fifty-seven on January 14, 1957 of esophageal cancer. Lauren Bacall would later marry Jason Robards, Jr. They divorced in 1969.

By the early 1950s, Bromfield’s wife and his business manager were both dead, and his daughters were beginning their own adult lives. Malabar became increasingly expensive to run, and Bromfield was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1955, dying in March 1956 in a Columbus hospital.

Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not.

Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not.

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But Malabar eventually passed into state ownership, becoming a wonderful state park promoting Bromfield’s legacy of  sustainable agriculture and educating people about Bromfield’s life and mission. I have only been there once, and the “Big House” where Bogie and Bacall were married was closed for restoration work. But I look forward to going back. I was able to walk the land that was so precious to Bromfield, and to Lauren Bacall as well. Visitors can see the land the Bromfield family treasured, where in the waning months of a war two stars were married and people looked forward to a better world to come.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

Lauren Bacall By Myself. Ballantine Books, 1978.

Wikipedia: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Howard Hawks.

http://www.malabarfarm.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louis Bromfield: The Land and The Man Were One

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December 27 marks the birthday of Louis Bromfield, renowned Ohio author and conservationist. Louis Bromfield was born near Mansfield, Ohio on December 27, 1896. In his life he was not only a successful novelist, but also an agrarian spokesman who owned Malabar Farm, an experimental farm in Richland County now part of the Ohio park system. His influential writings about the farm and his philosophy of sustainable agriculture were widely read and remain in print along with some of his novels. Long before today’s green movement, Bromfield espoused an agrarian ethos in support of sustainable farming.

Bromfield’s family had lived and farmed in the Mansfield region for nearly a century by the time he was born. During his childhood and youth his family struggled financially, and at age sixteen he went to live on his grandfather’s farm. However, his mother wanted Louis and his brother to pursue a different life, and she encouraged their literary and academic interests. Bromfield eventually left to study agriculture at Cornell, returned briefly to work on the family farm, and then left for Columbia University. In 1917, Bromfield enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Ambulance Service and served with several different units of the French army during World War One. He saw action as an ambulance driver in seven battles and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After the war Bromfield returned to America and worked as a reporter, editor, book and theater reviewer and an advertising manager for G.P. Putnam. He married Mary Appleton Wood on October 16, 1921. Bromfield had been writing in his spare time, and in 1924 he published The Green Bay Tree (1924), the first volume in the “Escape” tetralogy. This novel was followed by Possession (1925), Early Autumn (1926, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize), and A Good Woman (1927).

louis-bromfield

After the publication of his first novel, Bromfield and his wife visited Senlis, France, intending only a visit of two months. The vacation turned into a stay of thirteen years, during which time Bromfield continued to publish novels and short stories and see some of his works made into films, including a bestseller in 1937-38 entitled The Rains Came, set in India. During this time overseas, Bromfield had come to enjoy the life of a prosperous expatriate artist, but there was a growing dissatisfaction with his life and its round of pleasures. He longed to feel more deeply rooted in the world and connected to the land, and had begun considering a return to Ohio as early as 1933. It was during the years in Senlis that Bromfield wrote The Farm, one of his finest and most personal works of fiction.

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With the prospect of another European war in sight, Bromfield relocated his family, which by now consisted of three daughters, back to the U.S. He purchased three adjoining farms near Mansfield and named the property Malabar Farm. Bromfield purchased these farms during the winter, and during a thaw he was shocked to see how worn out the land was from poor farming. He set out to restore the earth and root himself and his family on the property.

Bromfield also wanted an expansive house to live in, and he worked with an architect to build onto an existing farmhouse on the property, incorporating a number of architectural motifs found in Ohio. Malabar Farm soon became known as a relentless hive of activity. Bromfield himself was busy with his managers and farm workers when not writing the novels and screenplays financing the farm, and there was a steady stream of visitors, ranging from other farmers and the merely curious to Hollywood celebrities. These celebrities included Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who were married at Malabar Farm on May 21, 1945.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

From the mid 1940s on, Bromfield’s writing became more focused on agriculture and ecology (although he continued to write novels), and he also wrote a syndicated newspaper column and hosted a Saturday morning radio show. Sunday afternoons were given over to leading large groups on tours of the farm—sometimes of 100 or more people–and expounding his agrarian philosophy. Bromfield and his workers were successful in restoring the soil, and the farm eventually developed into a livestock and dairy farm where livestock were grass-fed—exactly the kind of healthy, sustainable operation a lot of people today are choosing to support.

In 1945 Bromfield published the first of his agrarian works that are an essential part of his legacy: Pleasant Valley, a work detailing Bromfield’s return to Ohio and reasons for establishing the farm. This was followed by a collection of essays and journal excerpts entitled Malabar Farm in 1948. These were followed in turn by Out of the Earth (1950), From My Experience (1955) and Animals and Other People in the same year.
Bromfield’s ideas were influential, leading to the establishment of a Texan version of Malabar Farm and also Malabar-do-Brasil, an experimental farm in Brazil owned by a group of Brazilian businessmen. For a while Bromfield’s daughter Ellen Bromfield Geld and her husband managed Malabar-do-Brasil until purchasing their own farm in that country. Ellen Bromfield Geld and her husband still run that farm, and she is also a novelist, newspaper columnist and memoirist who wrote a memoir entitled The Heritage: A Daughter’s Memories of Louis Bromfield (1962).

By 1951, Bromfield had published his last novel and had only five years left to live. His longtime friend and business manager George Hawkins had died in the late 1940s, and Bromfield’s wife Mary died in 1951. His daughters Hope and Ellen married in 1950. During the early fifties, Bromfield also became embroiled in litigation regarding the Malabar Texas experiment, and running Malabar Farm had become increasingly costly. He was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1955 and had to sell his watershed timber rights to pay his hospital bill. After his death, a family friend named Doris Duke purchased those rights and donated them back to the family.

louisprofile

His daughters sold the farm two years after his death. It eventually passed into state ownership in 1976 after previous possession by two different foundations. Now visitors can tour the farm and “Big House” and learn about Louis Bromfield and life at the farm, and the park also serves as a research center for sustainable farming. There is still a working farm on the property, but on a much smaller scale than Bromfield’s time. Most critics seem to regard Bromfield’s earliest novels as his best. By the early 1930s Bromfield was under critical attack, some suspecting he was writing with an eye towards Hollywood.

He also drew another kind of criticism. Although a Democrat and supporter of the New Deal in its earlier forms, Bromfield became critical of New Deal policies later on, seeing in them support for the kind of industrial society and government centralization he opposed as a supporter of Jeffersonian democracy. He was not alone in his position. Similar concerns came from some members of the Southern Agrarians and Robert Frost, but in the political climate of the 1930s such views were not popular with critics, reviewers and others in writing and publishing who leaned to the left, whether in support of FDR or towards more radical positions.

Bromfield’s nonfiction works didn’t focus solely on agricultural and environmental issues. In 1939 he published a book entitled England, A Dying Oligarchy, which attacked the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain and his administration. He later published works concerned with economics, international relations, and social planning and organization. These include A Few Brass Tacks (1946), and A New Pattern For A Tired World (1954).

Like many writers, Bromfield was preoccupied with the pressing question of how one should live in the world, and was concerned in particular with living in harmony with the land, with nature, and with other human beings. Although it might be tempting to see Bromfield as having two literary careers—one as fiction writer and the other as agrarian commentator—both strands of writing serve a vision.

louisandboxer

Particularly in his earlier novels, such as the “Escape” tetralogy, Bromfield writes of people who are thwarted in some way, whether by oppressive social or family relationships or pressures, and lack the kind of social support or structure that allows the release of creative energy. This search for rootedness and fulfillment by his characters is sometimes contrasted with a vigorous bygone world that was overrun by modern industrialized society. Bromfield himself sought a rich and meaningful life connected to the land and creation, similar to that of his ancestors in Ohio and the yeoman farmers Jefferson believed were the stewards of democracy. He might have run into the realities of the modern world, but we are the richer for his writings and example. The state of American agriculture is as important an issue of our times as it was for his.
Bromfield’s papers are held at both Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio and in the Munroe Archives of the Ohio Historical Society.

Louis Bromfield died on March 18, 1956 at University Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Patrick Kerin

(This entry has been modified slightly. It was originally posted on Buckeyemuse on January 27, 2014).

Here’s a link to Malabar Farm:

http://www.malabarfarm.org/

Sources:

Louis Bromfield by David D. Anderson. Twayne Publishers, Inc. New York, 1963.

Ohio Authors and Their Books 1796-1950 edited by William Coyle. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1962.

“Louis Bromfield: Ohio and Self-Discovery by James M. Hughes. The State Library of Ohio, Columbus, 1979 (one of a series of monographs on Ohio writers).