LUCAS -- It was the second time I talked to Ellen Bromfield Geld that a chill ran up my back.
The first time I talked to the youngest daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning Mansfield author and conservationist Louis Bromfield, it started formally. The year was 2006 and I was then employed at Malabar Farm State Park, her father's estate — where Ellen had grown up — in Lucas, southern Richland County.
I was careful to be mindful of being a respectful employee of an internationally known historical site.
Her father had transitioned over the years of the early 20th century from young literary lion to best-selling popular writer whose stories were made into Hollywood movies. But Louis Bromfield left that world mostly behind when he stopped wandering the world and returned to his native north central Ohio and created Malabar Farm.
In so doing, he became one of the grandfathers of the modern conservation movement.
Though born in Senlis, France, Ellen was young when the family fled the brewing storm clouds in Europe to return to the states (something Bromfield's friend, writer Gertrude Stein never forgave him for, leaving her behind in France). Ellen grew up roaming the fields, woods, and creeks of southern Pleasant Valley.
In 2006, I was aware that Ellen and her sister Hope had ultimately moved away from Ohio and set up their own farms, Hope first in Virginia and then later in Montana, and Ellen in Brazil. But the dynamics of how they came to turn away from their father's estate were not clear.
I had already read Ellen's formal memoir of Malabar, "The Heritage," and found it informative, though restrained and a bit opaque.
I already had a history with Malabar myself by 2006, having begun presenting the series of historical dramas which I wrote and directed there (with a few exceptions) for over a decade, from 2003 to 2015. By the time I met Ellen, we had already debuted "Phoebe," a play about legendary eccentric (and Bromfield muse and relative) Phoebe Wise.
Before that, we had presented my play about Ceely Rose, the mentally disturbed young woman who poisoned her family.
By 2006, I was looking toward writing another historical drama to complete a series of plays related to Malabar. At first, I had been leery of writing about Bromfield himself. After all, it was my intent to produce an absorbing drama, not a neutral history pageant.
But the more I learned about Louis Bromfield, the more I began to sense that there was a sharp drama lurking beneath the blandly coiffed factoids presented on historical tours of his Big House mansion. I resolved to ask Ellen if she would mind if I wrote a play based on the family's life at Malabar.
Meeting Ellen in person, I was concerned that my request might seem impertinent. After all, my experience with the place was certainly much less involved than hers. But nonetheless, she offered neither resistance nor hesitation when I asked if she'd mind if I wrote about her family.
"Of course not," Ellen said. "I grew up the child of a celebrity. I came to terms long ago with the truth that everyone was going to have an opinion about my father, and not all of them were complementary. I don't mind at all."
I was delighted with her open-mindedness. As we continued to speak, the conversation grew more relaxed. I asked her how she felt about seeing the Big House after having grown up there herself.
"It's strange," she said. "Sometimes I half-forget that I lived here at all. It's so neutral now."
Then she suddenly let out a peal of laughter.
"It's too clean! When I lived here, there were all kinds of people and a herd of dogs tearing through here at all hours. It was never clean. It looked 'lived in.'"
After we talked a little about "The Heritage," I surprised Ellen by asking which of her other books I should read next. I was aware that in addition to her non-fiction memoir and books about her farming activities in Brazil, she had also written a number of novels.
(I'll never forget the time I told this story to my friend Richard Van Vorhis, a former classmate of Ellen's who had dropped out of touch with her over the years while he, too, lived away from this area. "Ellen writes novels?!?" he said. "She's the last person in our class I would have ever expected to write a novel. She was such a tomboy.")
Ellen was surprised to find someone seriously inquiring about her back catalog of writings, but she did nothing more than recommend her novel "The Garlic Tree," which was a novel related to her farming experiences in Brazil.
But the following day, she was back at Malabar, and she struck up conversation with me this time. Evidently our conversation had stuck in her mind. After we chatted for a moment, she suddenly gave me a look out of the side of her eyes, a look sizing me up. Icy tingles ran up my neck, because I instantly knew that look. I was seeing the eyes I recognized from so many photographs I had seen of Louis Bromfield, peering at an angle, sizing up someone with shrewd insight and sly humor.
I knew I was only one degree removed from the genesis of the phenomenon that is Malabar Farm.
"So, you want to write about the family here at the farm, eh?" Ellen said to me.
"Yes," I said, surprised that she brought the subject back up.
She continued to give me that probing look.
"Well, if you want the real story, you should read my novel 'A Winter's Reckoning.' It's out of print now, but you'll be able to find a copy on the internet. Everything's fictionalized, of course, but you'll be able to figure out who's who."
She explained that the story is not told by a character from her own point of view. The family in the book has only two children, instead of three, and they are the children of a world-famous architect instead of a world-famous writer. They live in Maine, not Ohio, and the story is from the point of view of the younger of the two children.
"I was too young to know everything that was going on here, you know," Ellen said. "But my sister Hope was old enough to understand it all. So, I interviewed her extensively before writing the book. It's really from her point of view."
This was an amazing piece of information. She was offering me an inside glimpse into the behind-the-scenes drama of a family, not the stately formal memoir crafted for public scrutiny. I tracked down a copy and read it eagerly.
Reading "A Winter's Reckoning" finally made the human side of Malabar Farm come into focus in a believable way. It was the story of a headstrong father who drags his family into the countryside whether they want to go or not. The architect's wife, Marion, is clearly a portrait of Mary Appleton Bromfield.
Bromfield had met and wooed the New York socialite in the 1920s, hoping to set the shy woman free from the gilded cage of her stilted upbringing. Unfortunately, that was typical of Bromfield's egotistical drive. He never paused to ask Mary if that's what she wanted out of life. It wasn't. She wanted to devote herself to a powerful man and be adored for it. But the more Mary clung to Louis, the more he retreated from her.
Bromfield's 1934 novel, "The Man Who Had Everything," portrays a successful writer bored with his life and wife. They remained married, but live independent lives.
By the time the family was at Malabar, Mary was particularly bereft. At least when they had lived in New York City, Hollywood, or Paris, she could play socialite hostess. But in the depths of rural Ohio, few of her acquaintances came to visit, and most of Louis' visitors weren't interested in Mary.
In a sketch for a memoir left unfinished at his death, Bromfield described Mary as being like a ghost that wanders the halls of the Big House.
In Ellen's novel, the oldest child is a schizophrenic young man who is outed at school as being gay. This appears to be a gloss on the experience of the oldest Bromfield child, Anne, who at the very least was somewhere along the autism spectrum in her youth, but then apparently suffered adult-onset schizophrenia as she aged.
Malabar tour guide Craig Biddle once told me that he had listened to a recording made on an old wire recorder in the 1950s by a couple of teenage students living at Malabar and working at the farm. The boys are doing the typical rude things you'd expect teenage boys with a recorder to do when suddenly they stop speaking. Footsteps can be heard passing by.
"That's Anne," one boy whispers to the other a few moments later. "I hear she's a lesbian."
Unable to deal with these intense social pressures, Anne couldn't flourish in the public schools in the area, much to her father's frustration.
The father in "A Winter's Reckoning" cannot comprehend that his progeny should lack the sheer willpower to push through and bend the world to his will. Interestingly, the character in Ellen's novel ultimately builds up hostility and rage until he attacks the family nanny and later burns down an old pioneer house in the woods near the family mansion.
The old Ferguson place, up on the ridge over the Big House mysteriously burned down in the 1940s. Is the novel's story what actually happened?
I tried to edge toward asking that after I read the novel, but the next time I spoke with Ellen, she made it clear that she was only going to go so far in spelling out the details.
"What was Anne like in the later years of Malabar, and after your father passed?" I asked Ellen.
She paused for a moment, then spoke.
"Hope tried to take her in at first, but she was too much. Then I tried to take her in."
She looked at me with a look that made it clear this was the last she would have to say on the subject.
"It got bad," she said. “Really bad.”
And that was that.
I delve into these subjects here to document our conversation for posterity, now that Ellen herself has drifted off into history. I used "A Winter's Reckoning" to provide the behind-the-scenes dynamics of the family where the youngest children had to eventually reject their father in order to get out from under his domineering shadow.
I declined to get too far into Anne's personal life in the play. The insight that she was brilliant but unable to function socially is enough to tell us how difficult her existence was, particularly with a father unable to comprehend this disability, considering his own spectacular ability to bend people to his will through wit, charm, or pressure.
After I premiered my play "Louie," Peg Eilenfeld, a long-time worker at Malabar came up to me, a little upset.
"Why you want to air all that dirty laundry?" she said.
I answered as honestly as I could, saying that I think Louis Bromfield was a deeply flawed individual. He made some egregious mistakes in his life, and one was bullying his family to participate in his grand adventure, whether they wished to or not.
Bromfield was largely a forgotten writer in financial trouble when he died. There is no doubt that he felt himself a failure: he said as much in his unpublished memoir sketch.
But look at Malabar Farm and Bromfield's legacy today. He died too soon to see how the seeds he planted in the world consciousness would eventually flower into the modern conservation movement which could yet be the thing that saves the world as we know it for future generations.
Despite his flaws, Bromfield never stopped trying to make this place a better world. If he could overcome such massive flaws and mistakes to do great things, what is stopping the rest of us?
Rest in peace, Ellen Bromfield Geld. And thank you for letting me share the real story.