How Mansfield Gossip Went Hollywood in 1934

Louis Bromfield & the Senator’s Daughter’s Mother

The moral of the story has it that idle gossip always leads to no good.

I’m here to prove exactly the opposite this time: idle gossip in Mansfield led to a highly important literary award; a significant step on the ladder to fame; and a very lucrative film contract.  Not to mention a movie that was so popular it was banned.

Mansfield Whispers

People are nosy to begin with, and if you’re a public figure they feel they have a right to talk about you.  If you are an elected official, so that they are actually paying your salary, then they feel it is their obligation to dig into your dirt.

John Sherman was not only an elected official, he was a major force in Washington DC for generations, from 1855 to 1898; which made him fair game for the intense scrutiny of high-powered busybodies.

He also had the biggest house in Mansfield, which made him eligible for the most far-reaching, soul-scrubbing gossip there was.

Sadly, he lived in an era of very polite society; and even sadder, he was rather terminally boring.  Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear; didn’t laugh as far as anyone could see.  Didn’t anything. 

His politics were dry as dust: tariffs, currency, specie; he was Secretary of the Treasury and it’s not inconceivable that he had records of every dime he ever owned.  No scandal there; nothing to even whine about.

He was apparently the most honest man who ever set foot in Washington DC.

He had that George-Washington-chop-down-the-cherry-tree kind of unimpugnable integrity.  When they needed someone to dedicate the Washington Monument in 1885, they picked him out of the whole Congress because he had that super-boy-scout reputation.

When they made him Secretary of State he was the only one in town who was against attacking Cuba, even though there was a fortune to be made in that war.  He was simply too honest to load up the pork barrel for everyone else.

He kept running for President, and he most likely would have been better at it than all the men who beat him in the races; but the problem was that no one could really imagine him in the White House.  He was too dull. He wasn’t evil enough to stab his opponents in the back; not charismatic enough to get supporters crazy about him.  Just a hard-working, extremely efficient, nice guy.  Devoted, decent.

Exactly who you didn’t want to gossip about.

John Sherman (1823-1900) of Mansfield: Congressman 1855-1861; Senator 1861-1897; Secretary of the Treasury 1877-1881; Secretary of State 1897-1898.

The Rumor

Still, people are nosy, and if you’re not around to counter the tales, then tales there will be.  If you’re off in Washington all the time, there will be chatter even if they have to make it up. 

People will find stories to tell.  In Mansfield, all the stories had to do with the Senator’s daughter; and most of the speculation had to do with just who exactly the father might be, and who exactly the mother might be.

In 1868 the Shermans adopted an 8-month-old girl and gave her their name.

(The Sherman Room, Mansfield/Richland County Public Library.)

It was broadly hinted in circles around town, by folks who knew the whole Sherman family, that the pretty little girl bore a striking resemblance to John Sherman’s brother: William Tecumseh Sherman.

Portraits of the Sherman brothers taken at the famous Matthew Brady studio in Washington DC.

William Tecumseh had a wife of his own, and kids of his own, but he stopped in the Mansfield mansion often enough without his wife; so folks imagined perhaps he left behind one of the maids with child.

That was a story that gained considerable currency around Mansfield.  William Tecumseh was famously known as the wild man pillager of the South, who ravaged Georgia to complete the Civil War.  Seemed quite possible he was spawning unsanctioned children at his brother’s.

Folks on Park Avenue peered closely at the Sherman’s maids trying to discern which one might be little Mary’s mother.

The Unauthorized Version

There were other rumors floating around though, and many variations on the theme according to who you gathered your gossip from—or in this case—at which hat store you shopped.

In the early 20th century there was a young Mansfield boy growing up on Third Street, abutting the Sherman place, who had a sharp ear for all these interesting tidbits.  In a few years, he would be the famous author Louis Bromfield.

When he got old enough to be a reporter for the Shield & Banner, he had opportunity to ask questions of anyone with a tale to tell.  He heard all the Sherman stories even though the Senator had been in the cemetery since 1900.

Bromfield honed his writing skills for two decades, and rose through the ranks of published authors until he took the highest honor among all American literary recognition: in 1927 he mounted the Pulitzer Prize on his wall.

It was at that heady stage of career when he dug out the old gossip from his childhood trove of Mansfield lore, about the Senator and the secret love affair on South Main Street.

The Author

Throughout the decades of Louis Bromfield’s writing career there is a notable absence of consistency in the subject matter and literary quality of his published works.  He is still remembered for his best fiction; praised for his best non-fiction farming books; dismissed for his political rantings.

His best fiction speaks straight from the heart, and those stories that have the greatest depth of soul all emerged from the life he lived growing up in Mansfield.

Even the big-city hard-edged critics who scoffed at small-town sentimentality were quick to recognize in Bromfield an honesty, integrity and clarity that brought his small-town subjects into the ranks of the greatest writers of his day.

When he wrote his story about the Mansfield/Sherman gossip, it entered into the stream of 1920s American fiction as a rather romantic short story, printed in a popular women’s magazine, that might be easily dismissed as a teary soap opera.

The story had that Bromfield edge to it though, that seemed to stride boldly through back alleys of society where few dared to go.  That’s what he did best: real human dimensions of honest tragedy and sexuality crashing against small-town values.

Just about everybody who read his books in the 1920s could totally appreciate his candor.  That’s why he sold so many books.

This particular story literally embodied that exact collision of honesty versus propriety.

It was called The Scarlet Woman.

Bromfield’s story of the small-town milliner, whose love for the Senator brought forth a child unsanctioned by church or marriage, was an instant national sensation.

Published in January, it was, by September, awarded an O. Henry Memorial prize. Bromfield received $100 in cash, and his story was reprinted in their famous annual prize collection.

Bromfield subsequently reprinted it in his own collection of short stories: a book called Awake and Rehearse.  Before it went to press however, he changed the name of his prize-winning story.

The reason he changed it was because he sold he movie rights to RKO, and he wanted the story to be clearly associated with the film.

The new title of the story, and the title of the movie, was The Life of Vergie Winters.

Louis Bromfield in 1927.

(Motion Picture Herald March, 1934.)

Before the movie was even released it was banned in Ohio.  You can be sure there was no big Mansfield premiere of Bromfield’s new hit movie…though there probably should have been.

It was a bittersweet experience for Mansfield.  Everybody certainly wanted to be proud of the hometown boy who hit the big time; but they were all a little wary of what it was he was suggesting to the world about his hometown.

In fact, the movie was less about the Senator’s child than it was about how the women of town had tried to ruin Vergie Winters’ life.

The churches came out strongly against showing the film in Ohio.  Ironically, notices in the papers covering the controversy explained the difficulty lie in Miss Winters having a child “without benefit of clergy.”

Eventually some committee decided it was not going to corrupt Ohio if Bromfield’s movie was shown here.

Because of the controversy, however; and because of the wait and the suspense: when the movie opened, all the cinemas across the state were packed.

Theater owners were ecstatic.  They loved Bromfield.

Folks in Mansfield loved or did not love Bromfield strictly according to where they fell in the spectrum of local characters portrayed by Hollywood stars.

There was no disguising the Mansfield genesis of the script.  There were little details that happened to correspond exactly to the Senator’s life in town; and to the milliner’s hapless career.

Senator John Sherman had been in his grave for 28 years, and Senator John Shadwell on the screen was far more handsome than his Congressional progenitor; but to folks around here who remembered the 1800s, it was clearly the old Mansfield gossip come to life once again.

Mansfield News, July 20, 1934.

Mansfield gossip made it all the way to Europe, where it filled cinemas across the continent.

When Gossip Becomes Legend

When I was a kid I knew a sweet old woman at the Art Guild who used to tell me stories about her friend Louis Bromfield; and when I asked for more she always had much more to tell.   She is the one who told me one day exactly who Vergie Winters had been, and exactly where she had lived.

I ran home right away and read that story.

Reading The Scarlet Woman took me right back to that other Mansfield—the city that was still small-town enough that everybody knew everybody else: for better or for worse.

In the story, Bromfield refers to his childhood Mansfield community simply as The Town.  It is awesome to watch a major motion picture that impacted the entire nation, and realize it is about Our Town.

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