A golden couple of the golden age of Hollywood, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall could have gotten married anywhere in the world.
But they chose a farm an hour northeast of Columbus.
Bogie’s best man, Louis Bromfield, hosted the 1945 wedding on his property, Malabar Farm, in Richland County. Now a state park, tourists travel to the site to see the bed where the couple slept that night.
Many who come each year also are interested in the location because scenes from “The Shawshank Redemption” were filmed there.
But according to Bromfield’s biographer, Stephen Heyman, people know very little about the man behind the farm.
“He soared through the first half of the 20th century and then vanished (from cultural memory),” Heyman said of Bromfield, an award-winning novelist and organic farming pioneer.
Heyman’s new book, “The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution,” released last month by W.W. Norton & Company, connects the literary and agricultural sides of Bromfield’s legacy. It is the first major biography of the author and conservationist.
“He’s a person that Ohioans should be proud of,” said Heyman, a 36-year-old journalist who lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and child. “It’s an amazing story.”
Bromfield was born in 1896 in Mansfield, but Part One of Heyman’s book opens in France, where Bromfield served as an ambulance driver for the U.S. Army during World War I. In 1925, he returned to the country, settling in Paris and then Senlis.
During the height of his literary fame, he was associated with respected writers like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. After writing “The Green Bay Tree” and “Possession,” he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his third novel, “Early Autumn,” about a wealthy family in New England.
“He had a real gift for creating character,” Heyman said. “He liked to write a lot about women, specifically independent-minded women. A lot of his books are set in Ohio mill towns and his characters are trying to break free from whatever restrictive background they come from. So there is an almost proto-feminist quality to some of his early novels.”
But by 1938, Bromfield changed course, returning to Ohio to raise his children on what he called a “real honest-to-God farm,” according to Heyman. That journey is the focus of Part Two of the book.
Having grown up working on his grandfather’s Mansfield farm, Bromfield always had a strong, mysterious connection to the earth, a concept he called being “teched,” derived from “touched,” a phrase for the slightly deranged.
He founded Malabar Farm in 1939 on 600 barren acres, which he transformed and managed using organic farming techniques he’d learned in India. Pretty soon he was producing myriad crops, raising livestock and employing practices such as contour plowing, intercropping (growing two or more crops simultaneously in the same area) and large-scale composting.
“(It was) a demonstration farm to promote cutting-edge ideas that are now the bedrock of sustainable and regenerative agriculture,” Heyman said. “All of these techniques are meant to save and enrich the soil … and they’re still used today.”
Bromfield started approaching his writing differently as a result of the farm, churning out novels and selling the movie rights to Hollywood solely to finance his undertaking. It wasn’t long before his literary reputation suffered.
“He went from being one of the best-regarded novelists in the country to be viewed as kind of a hack,” Heyman said. “So I think that’s why he fell into obscurity so quickly after his death.”
Bromfield succumbed to bone-marrow cancer in 1956. He is buried in the small cemetery at Malabar.
“(As a farmer), he was so far ahead of his time that that wasn’t fully appreciated,” Heyman said. “So he was this weird figure that no one really understood. It’s only through the benefit of distance that his significance comes into focus.”
According to Heyman, Bromfield’s nonfiction books — including “Malabar Farm,” “Pleasant Valley” and “From My Experience” — today serve as instruction manuals and sources of inspiration for farmers around the world.
“They’re treated almost like prayer books,” Heyman said.
Heyman learned of Bromfield while interviewing a farmer about sustainable agriculture for a different project. Heyman said he was intrigued by Bromfield’s professional transformation, and spent several years working on the biography.
Today, Malabar State Park is still a working farm, though it produces considerably less. And its owner, the Malabar Farm Foundation, has incorporated Bromfield’s story as part of the tourist experience.
But as people visit the site to forage for mushrooms, hunt for ghosts, watch car shows and marvel at its connection to Hollywood, Heyman sees an opportunity to highlight Bromfield’s work more explicitly.
“I would love to see Malabar become an epicenter for sustainable agriculture and environmentalism in Ohio,” he said. “And certainly, that’s what Bromfield would have wanted.”