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Author Louis Bromfield and Malabar Farm

Louis Bromfield

Louis Bromfield

Louis Bromfield

Louis Bromfield was one of the more interesting authors of the 20th century in my opinion, as the somewhat flamboyant man lived a fascinating life, leaving the United States to live in France, and then returning to the United States as World War II was quickly approaching.

During World War I Bromfield served in the American Field Service as an ambulance driver, wherein he was awarded the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre.

Bromfield, when he lived in France, interacted with some of the major writers of the day, including Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Once he moved back to the United States, his involvement with writing screenplays kept him in the Hollywood loop for some time, with many actors and actresses visiting the popular Malabar Farm, which was arguably the most well-known farm in America.

Some of Bromfield's books were also made into movies, adding to his connections in the industry.

Not one to be shy, Bromfield insisted anyone who visited the farm was required to do work, and rumor was you could bump into many stars doing a variety of jobs, including selling produce at the market located on the farm.

Writing Success of Bromfield

Consensus concerning Bromfield's writing, specifically his fiction works, was that his earlier work was far superior to his latter work.

As for his most notable fictional work, it has to be Early Autumn, for which he was awarded the 1927 Pulitzer Prize. It was released in 1926.

His first novel, The Green Bay Tree, was well received by critics, immediately boosting his reputation and setting the course for his life's work.

Bromfield had such a strong following that most, if not all of his works, were best sellers.

Even so, as the writer aged the quality of his novels was slammed by critics. The impression, and probably reality is, Bromfield needed money for his beloved Malabar Farm experiment as he aged, and he started writing novels quickly in order to raise funding for the project, which apparently resulted in inferior works.

Moving from France to Ohio

Although Louis Bromfield loved France and its people, the approaching crisis which ended up with the start of World War II, resulted in Bromfield wanting to move back to his roots in Ohio, having tired of the endless drama that is part of living in Europe.

Bromfield sent his family back first and followed not too long afterward.

Still flush with a lot of cash from royalties coming from his high-selling novels, Bromfield eventually bought several farms which totalled about 1,000 acres to root down on and perform experiments he had wanted to be involved with for years.

He named it Malabar after a place he visited a couple of times in India.

Louis Bromfield Giving A Lecture at Malabar Farm

Louis Bromfield Giving A Lecture at Malabar Farm

Malabar Farm

My first knowledge of Louis Bromfield came from reading the book Malabar Farm, as well as Pleasant Valley. Bromfield's ability to capture you into his vision and world was probably highest with these two works, and it undoubtedly worked with me.

Malabar was from the beginning an experimental farm, set up to replenish the weary and worn-out soil, while at the same time providing a living and good life for those working on it.

Bromfield set it up uniquely, financing the deal and taking the first five percent in profits from the production of the farm. He allowed his workers to live rent-free on the farm while paying them for their work. Workers were also fed for free from that which was produced on the farm.

That offered many challenges for the idealistic Bromfield, who once the book royalties started to slow down, struggled to be financially successful under those circumstances, which over the years generated significant debt.

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Characters at Malabar

Malabar Farm was an extraordinarily unique place. As mentioned earlier, you could have the regular people of the area who worked on the farm for a living, rub shoulders with Hollywood stars who visited Bromfield on a consistent basis.

The mix was interesting, and it was probably a part of the branding of the actors to be seen at the wildly popular Malabar on that day which brought them to the region.

Possibly the most colorful character on the farm was his manager George Hawkins, who was notorious for the pranks he would play on visiting guests, some of which were borderline scandalous for the day.

Hawkins loved to shock the ladies visiting the farm after their church services on Sunday, sometimes having a bathing suit on and plopping down right in the middle of them to create an uncomfortable and challenging situation for the ladies who had come to hear Bromfield speak.

He also livened things up with impromptu or planned plays and skits, which were at times notorious.

Nonetheless, it was a big blow to Bromfield when Hawkins, who was also a great friend of his, was found dead when away on travels.

George Hawkins

George Hawkins

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall Get Married at Malabar

Probably the most well-known event to happen at Malabar Farm was the marriage of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It was celebrated and broadcast all over the world as the press converged on the Farm.

Even today, whenever you hear of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, there is almost always a reference to their being married at Malabar.


Bromfield Built His Own Life

I've read a large number of the books written by Bromfield, and have found through his more autobiographical works, that he appears to have had a vision of what he wished life would be like, and he proceeded to create it at Malabar, and secondarily, through his writings.

This vision was a strength and weakness for Bromfield, who at times found it difficult to adapt and change when circumstances demanded it. My thoughts are he was so passionate about his vision and interaction with it, that it possibly blinded him at times in regard to practical matters on Malabar which caused so much financial hardship in the latter years.

Nonetheless, Bromfield did live his life the way he wanted it, and Malabar was more than just a farm to him, but a world he created and inserted himself into to create a little bit of heaven on earth for him and his family.

Bromfield's Personality

Bromfield, while extremely knowledgeable in a number of areas of life, wasn't that complicated in himself. According to his daughter Ellen, he was either loud and abrasive, or quiet and withdrawn; both of which he didn't show to the general public, but was evident and demonstrative among his family and closest circle of friends.

He was also interesting in that he could get into a brutal argument with someone, and a minute after the emotional experience was over, he would forget about it; not taking anything personally. For those surrounding him, it wasn't as easy, which caused some sad, and at times, humorous events at the Farm.

For example, one family friend that visited him off and on over the years, and who was involved in the entertainment industry, cooked a meal one time which when Bromfield started to eat, publicly demeaned the food, which got her blood boiling.

Outraged, she took the pot of food and dumped it over Bromfield's head. The room suddenly hushed, and you could have heard a pin drop. After a period of tense quiet with everyone's eyes on Bromfield, his shoulders started to move; he was laughing hysterically over the situation, which not only eased the tension but got everyone else involved in what became a part of the legend and lore of Malabar Farm.

Bromfield and Politics

Being such an outspoken and fearless man, it was impossible that Bromfield, who considered Thomas Jefferson the greatest American that ever lived, to speak his mind on government and politics.

Since Bromfield was very detailed and complex over numerous related issues, we won't get into specifics. What it did do though, was possibly make his legacy less robust than it might have been, as he seemed to never quite understand in certain areas of life why someone could take something he considered freely open for discussion and debate too seriously. That may have cost him a lot, as he has become somewhat lost in history in comparison to his contemporaries, although he could write with the best of them.

As for his thoughts on war, Bromfield was especially critical at the time of the emerging Cold War, which he considered the wrong direction to take, and which couldn't have endeared him to a lot of people who were fearful of and hated the communist countries.

Bromfield and His Family

In 1921, Bromfield married prominent socialite Mary Appleton Wood. Eventually, the couple had three daughters, Ann, Hope and Ellen.

Because Bromfield simply couldn't be anything but who he was, his personality filtered into family life, as it did in all of those he had relationships or connections with.

As Ellen, who is an author in her own right, said in Heritage, a book about her famous father and what she sees as the heritage she and the world received from him, he would be contradictory in his actions.

At one time he could, what would be considered by most as demeaning Mary, in front of guests and the children, and then turn around and chastise the children for repeating his words and treatment they saw him perform upon their mother.

Mary, while enjoying the bustling life centered around the big farmhouse, never was able to embrace it the way Louis was.

Their daughter Ann was born with emotional and mental problems, while Hope and Ellen, once they grew up, knew they couldn't live close to and under the shadow of their flamboyant and overwhelming dad.

Ellen eventually moved to Brazil with her husband to start a Brazilian version of Malabar, while Hope moved to Wyoming to work with animals.

Mary passed away in 1952.

Mary Bromfield

Mary Bromfield

Louis Bromfield and Animals

Louis Bromfield loved animals, and there is no doubt bulldogs were his absolute favorite. There were always a number of them, and other dogs, running around the farm. Whichever dog was the favorite at the time would accompany him as he made his rounds at the farm; whether in a vehicle or when walking.

Some of the abilities and events Bromfield attributed to his various boxers was one of releasing a car handbrake which resulted in it ending up in the pond. They figured out how to work the French handles on the doors at Malabar, which allowed them to get into all types of mischief.

Another hilarious story Bromfield mentions is that of a 'domesticated' duck not liking to hang around with the visiting and wild counterparts arriving to evidently interfere with his lifestyle there.

Bromfield wrote a book called Animals and Other People shortly before his death.

Louis Bromfield and Beloved Boxers

Louis Bromfield and Beloved Boxers

Louis Bromfield and His Work

While I've read many of the fictional and non-fiction works of Bromfield, I prefer his non-fiction works; although I like both.

One problem surrounding Bromfield is how much liberty he has taken in what is thought to be his non-fiction works and embellished it with a little bit of fiction.

For example, one of my favorite of Bromfield's books was named Pleasant Valley. Recently I heard from one of those working for the Ohio state-run Malabar that the entirety of the work was actually fiction. I'm still not 100 percent convinced that's true, but it did make me pause.

If it is indeed entirely fictional, then Bromfield wrote in a most unusual manner, as he inserted himself in some of the stories, including my favorite chapter in the book, and my favorite of all of Bromfield's writings: My Ninety Acres.

Assuming it is fictional, it does open up other possibilities, which would possibly mean Bromfield had created in the major character of the story, who was a farmer, what he would have considered the ideal farmer.

Basically, it's the story of a farmer who lost his wife at a young age and ultimately took that love he had for her and expressed it into the farm over the years, making him the most productive farmer in the area.

But Bromfield even talks of interacting with the farmer who lived close by, making it an even more interesting twist.

Another possibility is Bromfield could have been saying his desire and demand was he wanted to talk to farmers who loved the land as this man did.

Either way, the story is a great one with many lessons to be learned. Whether it's fiction or non-fiction doesn't matter to me, and it's quite possible Bromfield was projecting who he considered himself to be as a farmer into the character.


Bromfield the Romantic and Idealist

At the beginning of Pleasant Valley, Bromfield does in fact say the book is a romantic one, suggesting it's something deep within him that is being expressed.

When Bromfield gave talks or wrote about farming and the land, he was wildly passionate and didn't suffer fools for long. He believed poor farming practices had devastated the rich soil of the country, and that the focus needed to be on building up the soil again to regain our rich, rural, and national heritage.

Bromfield was trying to prove farmers could once again make a living off the land and live a rich life. The problem is he wouldn't hear of buying some of the things which were less expensive than the farm could raise, causing growing financial strains over the years.

It was also probably a negative that he chose to use his royalties in regard to an experimental farm, as it could over the short-term, make it look like something may be working, although the stated purpose was to help expand the findings so farming, in general, could be improved across the United States, and around the world.

Buying it wasn't a bad idea, but underwriting it for years probably was.

Bromfield and Doris Duke

Billionaire heiress Doris Duke entered into a romantic relationship of some sort with Bromfield in his latter years, and ultimately rescued Malabar by making a significant contribution to help acquire it.

Eventually, Malabar became a state park in Ohio, with much of the original buildings and furniture remaining.

Doris Duke

Doris Duke

Bromfield's Chosen Life

Louis Bromfield is a complex man to write about because he has so many significant experiences and changes during his lifetime, which deserve a lot of attention.

For example, the years he spent in France were a world of its own, with strong ties and friendships, and the loss of those in the war through death, whom he was never able to connect with in this lifetime.

Of course, you have Bromfield the writer in his fiction and non-fiction works, as well as the early and latter part of his career.

Add to that the passion Bromfield had for farming and overall agriculture and sustainable farming, and you can see the richness, depth, and extraordinary details of his life.

When all is said about Louis Bromfield, I do believe after reading much about the man, that he in fact lived the life he wanted to, projecting into Malabar Farm his own ideals, while retaining a touch of Hollywood to satisfy his cultural and entertainment sides.

Louis Bromfield created the exact environment he wanted to live in, and robustly inserted himself, along with his family and friends, into it.

Even though in the end he discovered his experiment wasn't sustainable financially, I don't believe he would have traded the journey for anything. I believe he died a happy, fulfilled man.

Comments on March 03, 2020:

I enjoyed your well written article on Louis Bromfield. I live close to Malabar Farm and visit it annually. His story is inspiring for any conservationist or writer, Thank You, Jim

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