There is a reason why Malabar Farm in Richland County, Ohio is named after a place 8,000-miles away on the west coast of India.
When author Louis Bromfield was driving around the hills of Lucas in 1938 looking for a suitable site for his new home, he had just received a fat check from 20th Century-Fox for the rights to turn his latest novel into a movie.
The novel was a best seller; the movie was the most expensive film ever produced, and it turned into the biggest blockbuster the studio had ever seen. During the year when his Big House was under construction, a veritable flood of income and royalties was pouring into Bromfield’s life to make the farm possible.
And that great deluge all started from a vacation he took to the Malabar Coast of India.
Bromfield and his family had been living in France since the successful launch of his literary career in the 1920s, and they had taken plenty of vacations all over the continent—some of which had provided material for his stories.
But in 1933 when he boarded a liner bound for Bombay, the author happened to find himself in the company of India’s national leaders returning from a major political conference in England. As the ship steamed across the Mediterranean and the Arabian Seas, Bromfield had an introduction to the culture and history of India from the very people who were making history in the 20th century. These were the most influential men in the government, and they invited Bromfield to visit their home states to get an intimate and personal tour of the beating heart of the nation.
It happened that this vacation occurred during a brief era of world history when India was struggling to achieve independence from the British Empire, so Indian events were in the headlines around the planet and people were particularly curious about the place. The last big impression world literature had given of that exotic land was from a generation before, in the writings of Rudyard Kipling.
So the time was uniquely ripe for a new set of literary eyes to take a look at the country, and Bromfield was uniquely prepared for the moment with a reputation of 11 best-selling books and readers in 22 countries.
Louis Bromfield was a wonderful storyteller, and that’s why his books so often became movies because they had compelling plots motivated by memorable characters.
But this book was more than storytelling. It was deeper than that, and it is the only novel in Bromfield’s entire career that he went back and spent time editing and rewriting in order to achieve more perfect depth of harmony. This book had soul, and it addressed deeper issues of humanity in more complex fashion than anything else he ever attempted. The Rains Came is the culmination of Bromfield’s talent. It is his one work that perfectly deployed all the skill and power he gained in a decade of serious writing; and fully exercised all the reasoning qualities of his rich life and broad experiences.
In the story, there is a catastrophic flood that strips away layers of existence; removes not only the veneer of houses and possessions, but the very substance of civilization. With all their distracting things gone, the characters then experience a dissection of their very lives as Bromfield begins peeling back layers of personality, ego, and any false sense of self in relation to others.
Stripped of their illusions, the characters find what really matters to each of them, and the reader gets a fresh look to reevaluate the propriety of government, of religion, of humanity. Bromfield can address the very meaning and purpose of life and death, the bodies we each inhabit, and the soul we each access.
It leads the reader through a brilliant deconstruction of assumptions about life in order to see the core of who we are.
This is why one critic said of The Rains Came, “The Nobel Prize has been awarded to lesser books than this.”
The World Reads Bromfield
In the United States, the first several printings sold three-quarters of a million copies. It was the rest of the world though, that really took the book to heart.
In France, The Rains Came was valued so highly it went through several different publishers simultaneously throughout the next decade—even during the WWII years when the country was under occupation by German troops. Two separate editions were published with illustrations; one in watercolors, and one with hand-pulled lithographs.
By then, the characters and various elements of the story were so iconic and familiar to European readers that it took only simple images to convey recognizable scenes with no caption or explanation.
In England, there was a new printing as recently as ten years ago.
While Bromfield is nearly forgotten in American popular culture today, he is still highly respected in other places around the globe, most particularly for The Rains Came.
The Movie Event
Before 1937 when The Rains Came was published, there had already been movies made from four of Bromfield’s novels—one of which was a giant hit and media sensation. So when this book promised to be another best-seller, the Hollywood studios launched into a bidding war for his latest.
From the moment 20th Century-Fox announced the project, every stage of the film making process was followed closely by US and world media—and not only movie magazines. Major newspapers around the world reported on the search for the right movie stars to play the roles. Once filming began, there was regular coverage on how earthquakes and floods were achieved; how many elephants were hired; how many different kinds of rainfall the special effects technicians had to devise.
Way before the movie was released, The Rains Came was already a huge event. That’s why, when the studio execs at 20th Century-Fox announced a world premiere in Mansfield, Ohio, it was national news.
The Farm That India Built
During the many months when both the book and the movie were spreading around the world, Bromfield was ever in motion, and had already moved on to the next projects in his career.
While the Big House was being built he was writing to his architect from Hollywood and from New York; and he was only able to steal a quick weekend here and there to dash home to see his farm taking shape.
I had a chance to talk with his architect, Louis Lamoreaux, one afternoon in the 1970s, and I asked him, in an offhanded manner, how much the house cost. Lamoreaux was hesitant to respond because, even though nearly 40 years had passed since 1938, it seemed impolite to him to speak of spending great sums of money during the Great Depression.
He lowered his voice like someone might overhear him, and spoke like it was a secret. The house cost somewhere north of a hundred thousand dollars. In 1938 dollars that would translate to our time as just shy of two million.
Bromfield was comfortable and generous with his windfall—he often wrote Lamoreaux to ask if “an advance would be helpful.” But there were months during the construction when he cautioned his overseer not to spend too much until the next check came in from Hollywood. They joked that there should be plaques mounted on the buildings: “This barn provided by Harper Brothers Publishers.”
“This wing of the house generously sponsored by 20th Century-Fox.”
But of course, the greatest acknowledgement and tribute of them all was when he named his farm after India: the source of inspiration for his greatest work.