On May 21, 1945, one of the most famous weddings in Hollywood history occurred, and it didn’t happen in Monaco, New York, London, or Paris. It happened in the beautiful rolling hills of rural Ohio when Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married at writer Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm. The wedding, occurring just a couple of weeks after the Allies declared victory in Europe, was an entertainment reporter’s dream. It was springtime, and the war was drawing to an end—a great time to celebrate the nuptials of a fascinating new Hollywood couple.
The best account I’ve found of this event comes from the bride herself—Lauren Bacall. In her first autobiography, Lauren Bacall By Myself—which I’ve found to be an impressive and interesting book–she tells the story of how the wedding was a hurried event to accommodate their movie schedules, and how she managed to keep it together despite the intense scrutiny. The public was fascinated with the sultry young beauty marrying the classic Hollywood tough guy twenty-five years her senior.
Bacall had been seeing Bogie since 1944. He was in a disintegrating marriage to Mayo Methot, his third wife. The two fell in love on the set of To Have and Have Not, a famous Howard Hawks film loosely based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel. One fascinating element of Lauren Bacall’s book is her very candid description of how callow she felt in Hollywood society. Born in the Bronx as Betty Joan Perske, she started her career as a model and lived with her mother until married to Bogart. Once she was cast in To Have and Have Not, her world soon became a fascinating whirl of Hollywood actors, directors, and other show business people, many of them with strong personalities, such as director Howard Hawks, who was not thrilled when Bogie and the young starlet became romantically involved on his movie set. Bogie gave her some insight on how to deal with Hawks, describing him as a jealous man who liked to be in control. Eventually Bogart separated from his wife and the relationship was public.
Louis Bromfield was an old friend of Bogart’s. Both men had strong political views. Although a Democrat, Bromfield was more conservative and was critical of much of FDR’s New Deal, while Bogart was a passionate liberal. The two traded good-natured political jibes with one another. Bacall writes the following:
“Bogie and Louis’ political philosophies were diametrically opposed, but that did not interfere with their friendship. Bogie felt that Louis worked his farm, cared about farmers, understood about them—and that his politics were the result of intelligent thought. Based on that, they must be respected. Louis was a very tall man of enormous charm and good humor. We got on well immediately. It was odd to see Bogie in the company of such a man—it made his past life much clearer to me. I could comprehend, in part at least, why Bogie always said the Twenties were the ‘good old days’—much more fun than the Forties.”
Bromfield had purchased several rundown Ohio farms in the late 1930s and combined them into one. He had grown up close to nearby Mansfield, Ohio and had lived for many years as an expatriate in France. His mission became restoring the worn-out land and educating the public about conservation. There was always a steady stream of visitors to the farm, including Hollywood celebrities like Humphrey Bogart.
The decision to marry at Malabar resulted from an earlier trip the couple made to Bromfield’s property. Bacall traveled there with her mother and Bogart in the winter of 1945. In her autobiography she writes affectionately of the Bromfield clan, which included not only Louis, his wife, his mother and three daughters, but also “seven boxer dogs and one cocker spaniel.” Despite wartime rationing there were “fresh eggs and great slabs of butter.” She was impressed with how Bromfield had restored the land and writes of how much she enjoyed being there, of the card games and banter between Bogart and Bromfield, the “dog fights under the table and boxers breaking wind at all times.” She witnessed a calf’s birth in one of the barns. Bromfield and George Hawkins, his friend and business manager, suggested the couple marry at Malabar, an idea Bacall eagerly embraced–she found Malabar an oasis from the world of Hollywood pressure and publicity.
Bogie and Bacall left Pasadena for Ohio on May 18, 1945. Louis Bromfield and George Hawkins met them at the train station.
Local police worked to keep intruders off the property as the couple went through the required blood tests and trip to the local courthouse to get their marriage license. Finally the big moment arrived, although Bromfield’s daughter Hope had to re-start her rendition of The Wedding March as Lauren Bacall had nervously run off to the bathroom one last time. George Hawkins gave Lauren away as her father was an absent figure in her life. For those of us who have grown up seeing Lauren Bacall as an older woman with a formidable presence, it is startling and endearing to read how she was a nervous bride just like so many other young women.
“My knees were knocking together, my cheek was twitching—would any sound come out when I had to say ‘I do?’ We turned the corner. When I reached Bogie, he took my hand—the enormous, beautiful white orchids were shaking themselves to pieces; as I stood there, there wasn’t a particle of me that wasn’t shaking visibly.”
A local judge married the couple. The ceremony, like many weddings, was emotional. Bacall writes that Bogart had “tears streaming down his face.” Once the ceremony ended the press cameramen began snapping photos. Bacall wrote that Bromfield had to get out of his confining suit and “changed into his dirty, old man of the soil corduroys—and newsreel cameras followed us around the farm.”
The couple savored the day: “We eked out every last drop of Midwestern air and sky—of farm and cooking smells—boxer dogs.” Bromfield gave them a puppy and one acre of Malabar land. They left the next day.
“We hated having to leave, but the following day, after profuse thanks to family and staff and one last look, with a promise to return soon, we left for our train. There was so much ahead that it was probably the only time in my life I was able to leave a place that housed people I loved without a wrenching pain. So the newlyweds headed back to California united at last and ready to live happily ever after.”
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were married just a little under twelve years and had two children.Bogart died at the age of fifty-seven on January 14, 1957 of esophageal cancer. Lauren Bacall would later marry Jason Robards, Jr. They divorced in 1969.
By the early 1950s, Bromfield’s wife and his business manager were both dead, and his daughters were beginning their own adult lives. Malabar became increasingly expensive to run, and Bromfield was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1955, dying in March 1956 in a Columbus hospital.
But Malabar eventually passed into state ownership, becoming a wonderful state park promoting Bromfield’s legacy of sustainable agriculture and educating people about Bromfield’s life and mission. I have only been there once, and the “Big House” where Bogie and Bacall were married was closed for restoration work. But I look forward to going back. I was able to walk the land that was so precious to Bromfield, and to Lauren Bacall as well. Visitors can see the land the Bromfield family treasured, where in the waning months of a war two stars were married and people looked forward to a better world to come.
Lauren Bacall By Myself. Ballantine Books, 1978.
Wikipedia: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Howard Hawks.