How one of Hollywood’s most famous couples ended up marrying at Louis Bromfield’s innovative Ohio farm
| Columbus Monthly
In the iconic last scene of Howard Hawks’ 1944 adventure film “To Have and Have Not,” Slim, the too-cool-for-school heroine played by Lauren Bacall, strides over to her hotel pianist pal Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) to say so long. “Hey Slim, are you still happy?” Cricket asks, and with a knowing nod, Slim answers: “What do you think?” With that, Bacall shimmies back to her beau, Steve (Humphrey Bogart), and the two jauntily head out the door. In the movie, Slim and Steve are undoubtedly destined for further adventures, but in real life, Bogie and Baby—to adopt the couple’s nicknames for one another—might have been headed to Ohio.
On May 21, 1945, Bogart and Bacall were married—it was his fourth union and her first—on Malabar Farm, the 600-acre plot of land (now a state park) owned by one of Bogart’s confidants, author Louis Bromfield. The story of how two members of Hollywood royalty came to exchange vows in the Buckeye State is one of the most surprising in the annals of show business.
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Bogart and Bacall entranced moviegoers in “To Have and Have Not,” but they were also entranced with each other. Bogart, 44, was in the midst of a troubled, alcohol-fueled marriage to his third wife, Mayo Methot, when he met Bacall, a 19-year-old who had won the attention of Hawks thanks to his second wife, also named Slim, who caught sight of the then-model on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
“I think it was just sheer human magnetism,” says Eric Lax, co-author, with the late A.M. Sperber, of the 1997 biography “Bogart.” “It’s easy to understand why Bogart was so crazy about her. I mean, look at any of those pictures.” By contrast, Bacall saw in Bogart a steady presence she could lean on. “Here was a guy who knew the ropes, who was a big star, who was getting her though all this,” Lax says. “He had said in the very beginning when he first met her, months before shooting started: ‘You know, we’re going to have a lot of fun.’”
So they did, but first there were practical obstacles to figure out. They did some of their most important figuring at Bromfield’s Malabar Farm in Richland County, long a draw for Hollywood types who wanted a taste of the simple life. A native of Mansfield, Bromfield nurtured twin interests in literature and agriculture, penning numerous novels much admired in their day, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Early Autumn,” and, in 1938, returning to Ohio from war-anxious France to acquire the land—and large farmhouse, the “Big House”—that became Malabar.
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“He basically came up to the house, knocked on the door—nobody was in there—and he headed out to the barn to offer them some money for a piece of land,” says Lori Morey, an official at Malabar Farm State Park. Inspired by the examples of self-sufficient farming he had witnessed in Europe, Bromfield had grand plans for Malabar, Morey says. “They were beekeeping, they had laying hens, they had hogs, they had cows, they had the corn and the soybeans and the vegetables and the hay products,” she says.
Within a couple of years, Bromfield scaled back his ambitions—a dairy and a beef herd were maintained, among other things, Morey says—but, by then, Malabar had already become an unlikely Midwestern destination for the author’s acquaintances from Hollywood. According to Stephen Heyman’s 2020 biography of Bromfield, “The Planter of Modern Life,” James Cagney, Joan Fontaine and Kay Francis were among the stars who trekked east to stay there. The war had prevented travel to Europe for many jet-setters, Morey notes, making the farm an attractive place to get away. “Those people were literally just bouncing around the United States, bored out of their minds because they couldn’t or didn’t feel comfortable going to Europe,” she says.
Bogart, too, was a fixture at Malabar. “The New York City-bred Bogart may have had no rural hankerings himself, but he was amused by how much pleasure the squire of Malabar could wring out of his fields,” writes Heyman, who notes that in January 1945, with filming complete for their follow-up film for Hawks, “The Big Sleep,” first Bogart and then Bacall decamped to the farm to plot their strategy. Before the legends left, Bromfield and his secretary George Hawkins suggested that they get hitched in the Big House, an idea to which the couple quickly cottoned. “It was an exotic place to go. … ‘Let’s go off, take the train across the country, go there and continue on to New York,’” Lax says. “That was sort of the best you could do for a glamorous wedding and honeymoon under those circumstances.”
A Nevada divorce ended the Bogart-Methot marriage, and then all eyes turned to Malabar. With a smattering in attendance, including many who worked at Malabar, the ceremony took place in the Big House’s entryway, sandwiched between a pair of staircases. Mansfield judge Herbert S. Schettler officiated. The fashions were sensible, according to a report in The Columbus Dispatch: “The bride was dressed in a pink beige two-piece suit with a brown neck scarf. She wore a corsage of white orchids. Bogart wore a gray suit with a white shirt and wine-colored tie. In his buttonhole was a white gardenia.”
Even if it wasn’t the wedding of the century, the press still formed a throng outside the residence. Yet, ever savvy, Bogart plucked a lone photographer, Life magazine’s Ed Clark, to come inside to snap pictures. “Life got the first photos of it all, and then everybody else came in,” Lax says. “None of them were stupid about the benefits of good publicity, especially here he is, 25 years older than his bride, and leaving Methot.”
Bromfield died in 1956, a year before Bogart, who stayed married to Bacall up until his death. Today, Malabar Farm boasts camping, picnicking and fishing, and still maintains 80 tillable acres. Yet for movie buffs, the site is far more than a scenic getaway. You might call it a quasi-religious site. “A couple times a year, there are just people who specifically are Bogie/Bacall fans, and they want to see just that and nothing else,” Morey says. “They just want to be where they stood.”
This story is from the June 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.