I first read Louis Bromfield when I was 19 years old and soon after began collecting and reading nearly everything he has written. From his early novels, which I loved so much because of his strong-willed women, I moved on to his later books, with exotic settings in India and war-time Europe, and then to his books on sustainable agriculture, conservation, and rural life in Ohio at Malabar Farm. This summer, when Ron and I set out on a book scouting journey through the Midwest, I made a visit to Malabar Farm our primary goal, and it truly was the highlight of our trip.
Following the long winding roads leading away from I-71 through Pleasant Valley, the rolling fields
and peaceful ponds looked every bit as lovely as they had looked in my mind's eye while reading
Pleasant Valley, Malabar Farm, From My Experience, and Out of the Earth. Everything was as it should have been - and even better than I had imagined. The 32-room farm house with its terraced gardens is maintained just as it was when Bromfield lived there with his family and boxer dogs, entertaining friends from around the world. His hat rests on the grand piano in the foyer, his clothes are in the closet, his books are in their wall cases (in every room!), and the furniture, paintings, decorations and lamps are all the original items used by the Bromfield family. His Underwood typewriter rests near his desk; even his fine music collection remains intact. His Jeep is still in the shed. It's almost as if he could walk in the door and resume his life at any moment.
Over 350,000 people visit
Malabar Farm each year, and it has been an Ohio State Historic Site since 1976.
When we arrived for the 4 p.m. tour, 35 people were gathered. We were very fortunate to be led
through "The Big House" by
Mark Jordan. Not only is he a superlative tour guide with extensive knowledge of Bromfield, the Bromfield family and the history of the area, but he is a writer himself. His plays about Malabar Farm and the folklore of the surrounding area are regularly presented at the site. He generously stayed after hours to give us a private tour of the house and the beautiful land.
As the Cushman cart wheeled to a stop on a hillside meadow, I asked, "Where is Louis Bromfield buried?"
"Look behind you," Mark replied. There, in a simple old cemetery plot enclosed by a white picket fence, lies Louis Bromfield - at rest in the place he loved best, among departed family members and a few long-time valley residents from a much earlier generation.
Just beyond towers Mt. Jeez, the hill where people from around the world came to hear his talks on sustainable agriculture.
Malabar Farm is so named because the setting for Bromfield's novel The Rains Came was the
Malabar region of India. It was a hugely successful book and in 1939 was made into an equally successful
movie starring Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power (and remade in 1955 as The Rains of Ranchipur.) The resulting revenue enabled Bromfield to acquire the land and build the big house at Malabar; he wanted to acknowledge the book and the setting which made it possible. Ironically, the word "Malabar" roughly translates to "pleasant valley".
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were married here on May 21, 1945, in the great entrance hall of the house between the open staircases. They had planned to be married on the terrace, but according to our tour guide, the local telephone operator had eavesdropped on the phone arrangements and spread the news across the valley. When about a thousand uninvited guests showed up outside the house, the nuptials were moved indoors. Bogart and Bromfield had become friends in their early days while living in New York City, long before either had achieved fame. The friendship lasted throughout their lifetimes. Their honeymoon suite at Malabar:
The family brought over most of the furniture in the house from France, after years spent living in
Senlis just north of Paris. Beautiful paintings grace the walls, including two original oils given
to Bromfield by Grandma Moses in thanks for his writing an introduction to her autobiography
(Grandma Moses: American Primitive, Doubleday, 1947). But the house is far from ostentatious. The furnishings are beautiful in a classically comfortable way; the house was well enjoyed by Bromfield, his wife Mary, three daughters, a parrot, and a rollicking bunch of boxer dogs, not to mention a constant stream of houseguests.
The small bed in Bromfield's office is the only piece of furniture which is a replica (and it is built on a slightly smaller scale than the original). Like the original, it has a pull-out bed at one end for his favorite dog, Prince.