How Malabar Farm Got Its Name: India and The Rains Came

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.

Louis Bromfield (1896-1956) was born in Mansfield, published 33 books of fiction and nonfiction in his writing career that included a Pulitzer Prize, 18 best-selling novels, and 14 major motion pictures. He was easily as popular in Europe as in the US, as evidenced by this 1933 Swedish magazine where he appears on the cover with Greta Garbo. This is what he looked like when he made the trip to India.

The Opportunity

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.

Bromfield and his family traveled to Bombay on a steamship of the Peninsula and Orient line called the Victoria in January 1933.  They shared the ship with statesmen returning from the historic Round Table Conference in England, an early attempt at independence for India from British Raj rule.

The Novel

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.”

Reviews of The Rains Came in November of 1937 were almost universally enthusiastic, such as this column from the St. Louis Globe.

The first edition of The Rains Came from 1937 in the upper left corner, the latest in lower right from 2007.

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.

This illustrated 1947 edition was published in Paris in two volumes. Some French editions of The Rains Came are published in two or even four volumes.

A watercolor illustration of Ranchipur by D. Charles Fouqueray, 1947.

A Paris edition of La Mousson (The Monsoon) by Louis Bromfield was published in 1945 with 22 lithographs by Gerard Cochet. One example of the value the French publisher placed on Bromfield’s masterpiece is the carefully designed illuminated initials printed throughout the book, including this monkey from Part One.

For readers familiar with The Rains Came these two images by Cochet are easily recognizable as the Maharani’s tent from which she ruled the kingdom after her palace was wrecked; and a trio of Ranchipur musicians who are playing almost continually in the background until the disaster, and whose reappearance afterward signifies hope that life will go on.

The care and respect that went into this special edition of Bromfield’s novel indicating its classic stature in France can be paralleled in US culture at the same time by similar editions illustrated by popular American artsis of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

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.

From the 20th Century Fox in-house newsletter Dynamo, August 5, 1939.

From Motion Picture Herald magazine, September 23, 1939.

This photo taken from the middle of Park Avenue West is from Dynamo, the 20th Century Fox in-house newsletter, September 16, 1939, under the headline, RAINS DROWNING BOX OFFICE RECORDS EVERYWHERE!
The film was shown simultaneously at both the Ohio and Madison Theaters, with 3,200 seats sold for 40 cents apiece.

The evening of the world premiere in Mansfield began with a gala dinner at the Leland Hotel attended by 300 friends of Louis Bromfield from Mansfield, and a number of studio execs from Hollywood.

From The Los Angeles Times, Friday 15, 1939: “Another gala and colorful Hollywood premiere last night at the Chinese Theater with the showing of 20th Century-Fox’s epochal filmization of Louis Bromfield’s best seller, “The Rains Came.” With huge grandstands erected around the theater, special police were on hand to take care of the record crowd that surged bout the foyer to catch a glimpse of the arriving celebrities. It seemed that everybody of importance in the motion-picture industry to see this much-heralded picture.”

From Motion Picture Herald magazine: “Crowds from here to way over there are jamming their way not into a bomb shelter, the publicity department of the New York Roxy theatre proudly points out, but into the theatre on the tenth day of 20th Century-Fox’s “The Rains Came.”  The total attendance exceeded 250,000 on the 12th day of the run.”

A considerable amount of the Big House at Malabar Farm was paid for by foreign investment as people the world over bought tickets to see The Rains Came.

The Rain in Spain.

In many countries where The Rains Came showed, Louis Bromfield was as highly credited in all the publicity as any of the movie stars.

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, casually, 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.

Fame is fleeting, and something as ephemeral as book sales or box office popularity would never survive into a new century, so Louis Bromfield made sure his debt to India was acknowledged in more permanent fashion by having a special niche created over the front door of his Big House, where he could honor a Hindu diety and bless all who enter for generations to come.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s