On May 21, 1945, one of the greatest celebrity weddings of all time took place not in a castle in Europe or a ballroom in Hollywood but on an experimental farm in rural Ohio. The marriage of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart came as a breath of fresh air during a tense, hopeful moment in American history. The Allied victory in Europe was just two weeks old. A rationed, exhausted nation was then digging in for a final confrontation with Japan while looking forward to a time when normal life would resume again.
Louis Bromfield, the host of the wedding, was then at the height of his popularity. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and bon vivant, Bromfield, 49, had spent the interwar years living it up outside Paris, entertaining starving artists and aristocrats in a magnificent riverside garden that he built with his own hands. His best-selling novels (many of which were adapted by Hollywood) made him rich and famous, yet Bromfield’s greatest passion was the soil. He grew up on an Ohio dairy farm and in 1933 wrote a popular novel, The Farm, that glorified the agrarian life of his grandparents.
So when the Nazis finally pushed him out of Europe, Bromfield decided, like some Cincinnatus of the Lost Generation, to come back home and till the earth. Horrified by the Dust Bowl, the rise of factory farms, and the spread of new chemicals, he planned to devote the rest of his life to reinventing American agriculture. In 1938, he bought 600 badly eroded acres near Mansfield and transformed them into a thriving cooperative called Malabar, complete with an elaborate 19-room Greek Revival farmhouse. From his rural seat, Bromfield would eventually inspire America’s organic food movement and popularize the tenets of environmentalism years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Publicity was key to Bromfield’s mission. It wasn’t long before Malabar, which is now an Ohio state park, became a national curiosity. E.B. White wrote an ode to the farm in The New Yorker. Sinclair Lewis mocked it in Esquire as “the Cliveden of Central Ohio.” Celebrity visits were routine. Over the years, Joan Fontaine, Kay Francis, Ina Claire, and James Cagney took turns riding tractors, milking cows, and manning the roadside vegetable stand.
Yet no movie star came to Malabar as regularly as Humphrey Bogart. In March 1942, a visiting newspaper reporter described him, wearing a heavy cardigan and fedora, “warily” offering to feed the cattle while listening “with an attempt at serious interest as Bromfield pointed out his crops.” The New York City-bred Bogart may have had no rural leanings himself, but he was amused by how much pleasure the squire of Malabar got out of his fields. Once asked about his taste in friends, Bogart said that he hated Hollywood “phonies” and preferred spending his time with real “characters” —“wonderful guys,” he said, “like Louis Bromfield.”
In the early years of the war, Bogart often visited Malabar with his third wife, the actress Mayo Methot. They had a famously combative relationship, complicated by the fact that both of them were drunks. When angry, Methot liked to throw various domestic objects at her husband, especially phonograph records, which, she once told a reporter, made “such a satisfactory crash.” At Malabar, Methot had to make do with whatever happened to be lying around. Bromfield’s daughter Ellen recalled a typical incident during one of the couple’s visits: “One of my mother’s favorite Venetian lamps went whizzing past Bogie’s ear, and in an instant the entire room exploded into a cyclone of books, ashtrays [and] whiskey bottles.”
Methot’s relationship with Bogart effectively ended in 1944, when he was cast as the lead in the Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not. The reason for the breakup was Bogie’s costar: twenty-year-old Lauren Bacall, a tall, cat-eyed actress described in the press like a man-eating serpent. She was “slithery,” “sulfurous,” “languorous.” She was also deeply in love. “There was no way Bogie and I could be in the same room without reaching for one another, and it wasn’t just physical,” she wrote in her memoir, By Myself. “It was everything—heads, hearts, bodies, everything going at the same time.” As Bogart’s affair with Bacall heated up, Methot desperately tried to hold on to her marriage. Bogart felt trapped, so he started drinking more, sometimes calling Bacall late at night when he was deep in his cups to say that he missed her.
Methot was not the only thing keeping them apart. “Baby,” as Bogart called Bacall, was twenty-five years his junior. “I could be your father,” he told her. In a confessional letter to Bromfield (whom he jokingly addressed as “Dear Father Bromberg”), Bogart wondered if the reverse wasn’t actually true: “She’s too old for me—and I’m too young to be married.”
In January 1945, after finishing work on his next picture with Bacall, The Big Sleep, Bogart headed for a two-week visit to Malabar to decompress and plot his next steps. Bacall met him on the farm later that month. Around this time, gossip columnists began reporting on the affair and Bogie finally owned up to it. Asked if he intended to marry the young actress, Bogart said, “You’re God damn right. But I’m not divorced yet so we’ve got to put it off.” The press seemed confused by Bogart’s whereabouts. “The mystery of the week in Hollywood,” read one wire report, “was why Humphrey Bogart journeyed 2,000 miles to an Ohio farm to announce his romance.”
George Hawkins, Bromfield’s plump and wise-cracking secretary, was waiting in a Ford station wagon to pick up Bacall and her mother (who came as her chaperone) when they arrived at the Mansfield train station. Bacall later wrote about this visit in her memoir, describing the farm covered in snow and the house with “beautiful antique French country furniture and seven boxer dogs.” Bromfield struck her as “a very tall man of enormous charm and good humor. We got on well immediately.” As for the farm itself, she said, “I was agog.”
Malabar was more beautiful than Bogie had described it in his letters . . . The food was wonderful, the atmosphere really back to the earth. There was rationing because of the war, but one couldn’t tell with the fresh eggs and great slabs of butter that the day started with. . . . There were roaring fires and screaming games of hearts, Bogie and Louis’ affectionate ribbing of each other….There were dog fights under the table and boxers breaking wind at all times. Louis took me all around the farm, and in a barn, for the first and only time in my life, I saw a calf being born. It was a happy, healthy, peaceful way of life. I envied them all.
The visit ended with Hawkins and Bromfield “insisting” that, when the time came, the couple should have their wedding at Malabar. Bacall thought this was a “lovely idea.”
By the middle of March, Bogart’s lawyers had worked out a settlement with Methot that included real estate, two-thirds of Bogart’s cash assets, his life-insurance policy, and several investments. Guilt-ridden to be leaving his wife in such a state, he was, according to his biographers A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax, “buying himself out of the marriage.” As part of the deal, Methot would spend about a month in Reno, Nevada, to fulfill the residency requirement for a divorce, which was granted in early May. The wedding at Malabar was set for May 21. Life magazine asked if their photographer could join the couple on the train from Los Angeles to photograph the run-up to the nuptials. “Great,” Bogart sniffed, “maybe he’d like to photograph us fucking?”
They boarded the Santa Fe on May 18. Because of a transfer in Chicago and the couple’s shooting schedule, they would have only a two-day window in Ohio for preparations and the ceremony. All the arrangements fell to Hawkins: the blood tests, the marriage license, keeping the press at bay. He found a local judge, Herbert S. Schettler of the Mansfield Municipal Court, to waive the customary five-day waiting period for a license. Requests for invitations poured in “by the hundreds,” Hawkins said. “We have been forced to give the same answer even to the closest friends of Mr. and Mrs. Bromfield.” Many people asked if they could “help out” with the preparations: a wedding singer from Akron volunteered to come at his own expense; sorority sisters offered to help Miss Bacall with her makeup. Hawkins got the local sheriff to post guards at entrances and outlaw parking on the road leading to Malabar. Nevertheless, he said, “It seems certain Miss Bacall and Mr. Bogart will not have the quiet ceremony they so urgently desire.”
Hawkins told an AP man that the preparations were driving “me out of my mind . . . This is the first wedding I’ve arranged and if I get through this one, it’s going to be my last.” The day before the wedding, Bromfield took Hawkins fishing to calm him down.
May 21 fell on a Monday, not traditionally the most festive day of the week but the weather was bright and clear and Bacall remembered that the farmhouse was “shining,” with every table waxed, and the brass polished: “It was truly beautiful.” Newspapers across the country were following the event closely. “Today’s the Day!” wrote one. “The plot— matrimony. The cast of characters—languorous Lauren Bacall and merchant of menace Humphrey Bogart. The setting—Malabar, novelist Louis Bromfield’s 1,100 acre estate.”
The couple rose early for their blood test and the visit to the Richland County Courthouse to get the license. “Bogie and I were ridiculous, holding hands like teenagers (I almost was one).” After they returned, Bacall started to feel nervous. She ran a bath. Following an old tradition, she laid out something blue (a slip with her name embroidered on it), something old (a bracelet), something borrowed (a handkerchief from her mother), and something new (everything else). She put on a two-piece belted doeskin suit and wrapped a dark scarf around her neck. Hawkins knocked on the door, calling her by the same name Bogart used. “Are you ready, Baby?”
In her simple outfit (a concession to wartime fashion standards), she looked even younger and skinnier than on-screen. Bacall and Hawkins hugged each other, and then she gave him the ring and felt herself begin to shake with a mix of fear and excitement.
Bromfield’s daughter Hope, Hawkins said, was “at the piano, ready to start.” Bacall’s mother Natalie, the farm workers, and their families had all assembled in the grand entry hall, which was decorated by Bromfield with white snapdragons and tall ferns. Hawkins said that Bogart was getting “itchy” waiting for her. “Shall I give the signal?”
“Okay,” she said, but then she told him to wait a minute: She had to run to the bathroom.
“Where is she?” snapped Bogart from downstairs.
“Hold it,” replied Hawkins, adding with romantic discretion: “She’s in the can.”
Bacall emerged. Hawkins led her to the top of the stairs. Hope began to play the wedding march from Lohengrin as they descended. “My knees shook so, I was sure I’d fall down.” She caught sight of Bogart, in his plain gray flannel suit and dark tie. He had had a few martinis to calm down before the ceremony and now looked to her “so vulnerable and handsome.” Bromfield, the best man, towered over him in a blue three-piece suit with a flower in his lapel. Prince, his favorite of the half-dozen boxer dogs at Malabar, sat himself down at the center of the altar, on Judge Schettler’s feet.
Bacall took her place beside Bogart as the judge began the ceremony. She remembered feeling so nervous that the “enormous, beautiful white orchids I was holding were shaking themselves to pieces.” She saw tears coming down Bogart’s face. When it was over, he leaned in to kiss her lips, but she shyly turned her cheek. Bogart said, “Hello, baby,” and then she hugged him. At the end of the ceremony, Bacall turned her back to the audience and tossed her bouquet, which Hope caught. Then, Bacall wrote, “all hell broke loose with the press.”
Cameras were whipped out, the outsiders were let in, the cake was brought out—three beautiful tiers, with a bride and groom standing under an arbor on top—and we were photographed from all angles—cutting the cake with Louis watching, me feeding Bogie a piece. . . . Champagne was flowing—we all went outside for more photos—Louis finally could stand the blue suit no longer and changed into his dirty old man-of-the-soil corduroys—and newsreel cameras followed us around the farm.
“Every photographer in the world was there,” said Ed Clark from Life magazine. “God there was just a swarm of us.” For a gift, Bromfield gave the couple a boxer puppy, and 1 acre of land at Malabar for them to build a cottage—which turned out to be only a symbolic gift, since they never did. But Bacall fantasized about it. (“The picture was always complete with me in an apron carrying milk bucket.”) This celebrity wedding accomplished something that Bromfield—despite his stature as a novelist and agricultural reformer—could not have achieved on his own: Now, practically every American knew the name of Malabar Farm.
Excerpted from The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution. Copyright 2020 by Stephen Heyman. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Originally Appeared on Vogue