Friday, January 13, 2017

MANSFIELD PART 3: THE ALLURE OF MALABAR FARM


Despite the time-warp leg-up that Joerdie’s mystic Lincoln had provided us with, I seemed to be somehow out of sync on this latest trip back to Ohio. After Mark Jordan had left his car in the Mansfield city parking lot and climbed into the Lincoln with us, he informed us that we could, if we wanted to, go out and take a look at the Ohio State Reformatory—of Shawshank Redemption fame—but it would have to be from the outside, since, for tours inside, it had just closed for the season.
Now, frankly, the prison and its macabre infamy were pretty much my whole reason for having wanted to come to Mansfield in the first place. And when I was younger, this news would have hit me like a bucketful of cold water. Back then, I always had plans that were meant to be followed to the letter and set stories I planned to tell, outlines already forming in my head before I hit the road. This, back then, would have been disappointing and irritating news. But perhaps you don’t reach your late sixties without learning something...like that some things happen for a reason...or not. But it doesn’t really matter. Wasn’t I already experiencing a place I’d never been before and could never have imagined? Hadn’t I just lunched in one of the last great 1930s diners? Wasn’t this day-trip with amazing friends, wherever it happened to go from here, an adventure in itself? So why not just take the day as it came and see where it led? I mean, so far, so good! And if there was one thing I’d learned from long experience, it was that there’s a story around every corner, behind every window, inside every heart.
So, just for the sake of saying I’d been there, we drove out to the old, abandoned state prison. Promising myself another road trip back here at some point in the future when the place was open, I grappled my sciatic humanity up onto a boulder by the road in front of the prison and took a few panoramic shots of it. Like that, it looked, I don’t know...institutional, I guess, more than anything else. It wasn’t until I clambered down off of the rock, moved up to the chain-link fence, and looked at the digital viewfinder from that angle, that I got a better, more chilling feel for the place. Jim Bowsher was standing right beside me as I framed the shot, and I couldn’t help remembering his telling me about his experiences teaching hardened felons in Ohio prisons how to set their stories down on paper.

“One thing you never get used to,” Jim had said, “is that cellblock door slamming shut behind you after they’ve checked you through.” It was a feeling, he had intimated, of here but for the grace of God go I. A feeling that, by error or by design, none of us was more than the slamming of an iron gate away from the fate of the caged men and women inside such institutions.
It was a chilling thought. It was, perhaps, what made this and other American prisons so terrifyingly fascinating—that odd, unnatural reality of humans keeping other humans caged up in carefully structured, industrially constructed institutions. It was “the system” at its most frightening. I felt that perverse fascination now, as I bent to the chain-link for a clear shot with the fence as a frame. I made a mental note to come back here again one day. I needed to get into closer touch with these dark feelings.
Several film-makers had evidently felt the same way. Although the prison was most famously and centrally featured in Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption, it had also figured in certain scenes from other Hollywood pictures, such as Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One and the 1989, multi-director action movie Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell.
But Mansfield was no stranger to Hollywood from long before. Not only was there Malabar Farm owner and Ohio writer Louis Bromfield’s life-long link to Tinsel Town, but also that of Mansfield native son and Hollywood actor Robert F. Simon.
“Robert F. Who?” you might be asking.
Once while my late brother Dennis and I were drinking beer, eating pizza and watching a movie together, he suddenly pointed at a familiar face on the screen.
“See that guy?” he asked.
“Yeah.”
“How many movies have you seen him in?”
“I don’t know...a dozen at least.”
“What’s his name?”
“I have no idea.” Pause. “Sooo...What is it?”
“I don’t know either,” said my brother. “That’s my point. He’s one of those guys who’s worked his ass off in Hollywood all his life and it’s only when he dies and you see his picture and obit in the paper with his name on it that you go, ‘Oh yeah! That guy! So that’s his name!’ Pleased to finally meet you, buddy, and happy trails!
Robert F. Who?
Well, Robert F. Simon was one of those guys, a perennial supporting actor on both the silver screen and in television, who, from the 1950s through the mid-1980s, worked in literally scores of films and shows, every time a tall authority-figure character actor was required, while remaining, throughout a prolific three and a half-decade career, virtually anonymous. Simon was well into his forties before he became a professional actor. Before that, he was a traveling salesman and took up amateur acting to help him overcome his shyness. At some point, he realized he’d found his passion and went to New York, after a few professional gigs with the Cleveland Playhouse. His talent was recognized in New York, where he attended The Actor’s Studio (of which he would eventually become a lifetime member) and he landed a job as Lee J. Cobb’s understudy in the lead role (Willy Loman) for the famous Broadway staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a part in which he would eventually succeed Cobb. Broadway would be his professional home for nearly a decade.
But Hollywood awaited: He would be Hardy Strong in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart), Captain J.B. Henderson in Operation Petticoat (with Carey Grant and Tony Curtis), Dr. Norton in Bigger than Life (with James Mason), and Police Lieutenant Johnson in Compulsion (with Orson Welles and Dean Stockwell), among dozens of other movie credits. On TV, he was Samantha’s father-in-law in Bewitched, J. Jonah Jameson in The Amazing Spider Man, Captain Rudy Olsen in The Streets of San Francisco, General Maynard Mitchell in M*A*S*H, and he racked up over 190 other credits in television shows throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies, becoming known in the profession as a master of comedy, drama and the American Western. A Mansfield native who became one of the best known, unknown faces in America.
Mark Jordan instructs Jim Bowsher on the origins
 of Oak Hill Cottage
Coming into town earlier in the day, Joerdie had pointed to a large brick house on a hill above the city proper, partly obscured by the last surviving, late-autumn foliage of the deciduous hardwoods that thrive in the region. She said she’d noticed it a couple of times before and had always wanted to go up there to see it.
Turns out, Joerdie has a real eye for outstanding architecture, since now, Mark is telling us that the house she spotted is a Mansfield landmark known as Oak Hill Cottage. He says he’ll be glad to show us around when we go back into town to pick up his car before going out to Malabar Farm.
On the way, I wonder about the origin of the name of Malabar Farm. Being a Spanish-English translator besides writer by trade, I’m thinking that, in Spanish, malabar (almost always used in the plural, malabares) refers to any sort of juggling or exercises (whether figurative or literal) of coordination and balance. And I try to imagine why someone would use such a term as the name of a rural estate. But later, I recall that there’s also a region known as Malabar in southern India, the Malabar Coast on the Arabian Sea. And I remember too, Bromfield’s novel entitled The Rains Came, made into a movie called The Rains of Ranchipur that I went to see with my parents as a boy in the 1950s. The story of a torrid romance against a background of flooding, disease and poverty on the Indian subcontinent. It seems that in the Indian dialect from which it is derived, Malabar there means “hill country” and that the Malabar region is one of deciduous hardwood forests, so Malabar Farm’s name suddenly makes sense to me. Mark later confirms this, telling me that without the money he made selling the movie rights for The Rains of Ranchipur, Bromfield never would have been able to realize his Malabar Farm dream. And since The Rains Came was set in the Malabar region, naming the farm after it was a natural progression. 
Bromfield, the gentleman farmer/writer
Perched on a promontory of sorts, a stone’s throw from the railway lines that powered Mansfield’s early growth, the so-called “Oak Hill Cottage”—actually a large, sturdy, gabled, red brick house with Carpenter Gothic trim—dates back to 1847, when it was built for John Robinson, superintendent of the Mansfield, Sandusky and Newark Railroad. Ralph Adams Cram, a celebrated Gothic Revivalist architect whose renowned ecclesiastical works include Saint John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, is quoted as having once described Oak Hill Cottage as “the one perfect Gothic House I’ve seen in the United States.”
Jim bones up on the history of the landmark   
Its most famous residents, Dr. Johannes Jones and his wife, Francis (née) Barr, purchased the house toward the end of the Civil War. While they and their four daughters lived there, Oak Hill Cottage became a veritable center for Mansfield high society events. When Dr. Jones died in 1895, his funeral was held there. His wife would continue to reside in the house until 1912, and other members of his family long afterward.
Francis Barr Jones, Mark tells us, was the great-aunt of Louis Bromfield, and as a boy, the author spent happy days visiting there. Bromfield immortalized the house as “Shane’s Castle” in his first novel, The Green Bay Tree (1924), which launched him to almost instant fame. The house was purchased by the Richland County Historical Society in 1965 but wasn’t opened to public tours until 1983.
Joerdie takes a self-guided tour of the
"cottage" grounds.
True to my trend on this trip, Oak Hill Cottage wasn’t open for tours on this particular day either, but we had a walk around the yard and enjoyed it from the outside, while listening to Mark’s running account of the connection with Bromfield. It was easy enough to see what a pleasant place it must have been to visit for an imaginative boy like Louis, who would embellish it in his boyhood dreams and file it away as a venue for tales he was surely already spinning in his young mind.
After we left Oak Hill Cottage, we swung back through town to pick up Mark Jordan’s car and then followed him out to Malabar Farm. The road we took was a pleasure: a winding, rolling ribbon of two-lane highway, wending its way through the rises, woodlands, ridges and valleys of the region. This is maple syrup country, where the western edge of the Allegheny Mountains’ foothills reach into the heart of northern Ohio and fashion a stunning landscape.
In a little while, Joerdie says, “The land on the right, there, is the beginning of Malabar Farm.” She’s smiling, and now so am I because the fields are so sweetly picturesque in the gold-dusty light of an advancing late-autumn afternoon. The setting for Malabar Farm is quite aptly named Pleasant Valley. The farm’s meadows rise out of a deep, fertile-looking hollow into a series of gentle hills that climb to what Bromfield called The Big House, backed and flanked to our left by a tall, wooded ridge, under which, I’ll discover later, the writer’s body was laid to rest.
My first look at Malabar Farm
I’m about to cry “Bingo!” as I watch a family saying good-bye to a caretaker who is standing by a tractor and climbing into their car to leave. They are, clearly, the last round of tourists for the day, and now the tractor pulls out behind them and heads down the hill to an equipment area separate from the farmhouse. It’s about 4 p.m. Guided tours are over for the day as I ask Joerdie to let me out at the open gate before she drives on up to the farmhouse, which to me looks more homey than I would expect a place called “The Big House” to look. I shoot a few stills of the house, the barn, the sheep in the barnyard. If I didn’t know better, I’d figure I might be able to walk up, knock on the door, and invite myself in for a cup of coffee with Bromfield. Despite having been long ago turned into a state park, Malabar still has a warm, working farm feel to it.
For Bromfield, his farm was serious business
This sensation is underscored by visiting it with somebody like Mark Jordan, who makes his home here, as manager of the on-site hostel just down the lane. He talks, although he is far too young, as if he’d known Bromfield and his friends personally, and as if the anecdotes he’s relating had happened yesterday. In fact, Bromfield has been dead for over sixty years and most of his Hollywood star friends with him. Storyteller Jim Bowsher too has been here enough that the place feels like home away from home to him as well, and he, like Mark, has incorporated anecdotes into his repertoire that make you feel he was there when Bromfield still entertained his illustrious guests.
Right now, as we’re standing on the porch, Jim says, “You know, Bromfield had his quirks. Like he used to make his guests earn their keep by going down by the road to sell produce.” He grins and adds, “No, really! So people would drive by and maybe see James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart down there selling corn out of a roadside stand.”
Gazing like a peeping-tom through the windows...
his typewriter, his desk...
Suddenly, as I gaze through a window like a peeping-tom, I’m no longer disappointed that the house is closed for the day. There’s something about looking at it through the windows and past the shutters that makes this self-styled tour seem all the more intimate, as if I’m stealing a look at something I shouldn’t be seeing—the desk Bromfield sat at, the typewriter he wrote on, the stairs Lauren Bacall descended the day she married Bogart...
That’s right. Bogart and Bacall were married right here, at Malabar Farm. Sneaking a peek through one of the front windows I see the impressive dual staircase down one side of which the trembling still teen-aged Lauren made her grand entrance on May 21, 1945. She was just nineteen. Bogart was forty-five. Mark tells me that Bacall’s mother was so opposed to the marriage that she refused to attend the wedding. And the bride was shaking so badly that the bouquet she was holding quaked uncontrollably.
...the dual staircase Lauren Bacall descended...
As the select covey of guests waited below, Mark says, the nervous young Lauren decided at the last minute that she wasn’t going to make it through the ceremony without one last pee. In one of the less romantic moments of the event, Bromfield’s loyal live-in secretary and business manager George Hawkins leaned over the banister and shouted, “She’ll be down in a minute. She's in the can.”
Some months earlier, the couple had met when director Howard Hawks discovered the as yet unknown Bacall and, just like that, flew her out to Hollywood to star opposite “Bogie”, a major Hollywood name, in a screen adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel, To Have and Have Not. Almost immediately, Bogart became Bacall’s mentor. Lauren was so frightened and overwhelmed that she couldn’t stop trembling—very much like her response to the Ohio wedding—and looked stiff as a board on camera. Bogart took the situation into his own hands and started joking and cutting up and making the whole rigorous process of movie-making into a fun first-time experience for his film-debutant co-star. Off-camera, he made her feel relaxed and at home and showered her with attention and confidence. By the end of the shoot—to the chagrin of not only Bacall’s mother but of director Hawks as well—they were an item. And the wedding took place at Malabar Farm almost as soon as the ink was dry on Bogie’s divorce from his third wife, Mayo Methot.
Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not...
 the romance was real.
Despite all predictions to the contrary, and in spite of its being a tempestuous relationship in which each put up with the other’s indiscretions, by Hollywood standards the marriage that began in a simple ceremony at Malabar farm in 1945, was a success and lasted until Bogart’s death in 1957. So lasting was Bacall’s regard for the relationship that she and Bogie had shared that her second husband, Jason Robards, would often caustically refer to her as “The Widow Bogart”.
Bromfield (center) helps Bogart and 
Bacall cut their wedding cake 
With Joerdie as our enthusiastic chauffeur and Mark Jordan as tour guide, we take a drive around to see some other Shawshank memorabilia.
“That’s the tree!” Jim cries from the backseat. “The one next to a stone wall that Andy tells Red to look for when he gets out of prison, remember?”
“Where?” I ask, seeing only some fine fallen oak timber.
“It fell over in a big windstorm a few years back,” Mark says sadly.
Shortly afterward, he directs Joerdie up a winding logging road that leads to a small camp of rough-hewn buildings that now serve as infrastructure for a maple sugar operation that is mostly kept working for the tourists who come here every year for the maple run. On his instructions, we pull up in front of one of the cabins.
“This is where they filmed the first scene in Shawshank Redemption,” Mark tells us.
“The one where Tim Robbins is sitting in his car in the dark with a .38, drinking whiskey and trying to decide whether to go in and kill his wife and her lover,” Jim adds.
Where Andy (Tim Robbins) sits in the car with bourbon 
and a .38trying to decide whether or not to kill 
his wife and her lover.
For the life of me I can’t recall this scene https://youtu.be/2cHiBF1TreA, because, I suddenly realize, I’ve only ever seen the movie—one of my favorites—on TV, and, almost always, already started when I find it while zapping through the movie channels. It makes me nostalgic for the days back in the seventies and eighties, when the grand old movie theaters of Buenos Aires were still operating and I could enjoy the magic of sitting in the darkened cinema excitedly waiting for the first scenes of great movies from around the world to fade in on the big screen. In fact, it makes me nostalgic for a lot of things that don’t exist anymore. Indeed, it’s a nostalgic day, here on Malabar Farm sharing time with the ghosts of such extraordinary and creative visitors and their host.
Ceely Rose
We can’t leave the place, however, without a visit to the home of a much darker spirit. A much less pretentious home, a clapboard farmhouse that was once the home of the infamous Celia “Ceely” Rose. Ceely was a mentally challenged girl with severe learning disabilities. By all accounts, her parents, David and Rebecca Rose, tried to protect her from the outside world, but her encounters with local residents were often tainted by derision and taunting. One person, however, always treated her with kindness and respect. He was a young farmer by the name of Guy Berry.
Mentally childish, but by now growing physically developed, Ceely quite naturally fell in love with Guy and started telling him, and anyone else who would listen, that she was soon going to be his wife. Local legend has it that Guy, not wanting to hurt her feelings but not knowing how to dissuade her of the idea that he might have any but a friendly relationship with her, told Ceely he couldn’t marry her because Mr. and Mrs. Rose and her brother, Walter,  didn’t approve of him as a husband for her. The apparent lie got Guy Berry off the hook, but unleashed a terrible tragedy.
The house where Ceely Rose murdered her family
Ceely’s disappointment quickly turned to rage, and in the summer of 1896, she poisoned her parents and brother—some accounts say by lacing their coffee with rat poison, others, by pouring poison soaked from flypaper over their food. Mr. Rose died almost immediately. Brother Walter lingered for some days longer before succumbing. But Ceely’s mother survived the attempted homicide. She apparently told Ceely she knew what her daughter had done, but sought to protect her from the authorities. Two weeks after Walter’s death, however, Ceely slipped Mrs. Rose a second dose of poison and, this time, succeeded in murdering her.
Following the deaths of Ceely’s entire family, Guy Berry decided he had better skip town before he came under investigation. Sad and distraught by the news of Guy’s departure to parts unknown, or so the story goes, Ceely confessed to a neighbor what she had done. She was ultimately committed to the State Prison Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Lima, Ohio, and resided there until her death. Ghost stories about her abound in Pleasant Valley and at the site of her reclusion and burial in Lima. Mark Jordan has a collection of Ceely Rose stories of his own and has written on her extensively (including a Ceely Rose play staged at Malabar Farm). Here’s a sample:  http://www.ghostvillage.com/encounters/2004/06152004.shtml
With the sun sinking low, we now drive to the top of a tall ridge across from Malabar Farm to see the glorious landscape in the last golden light of a beautiful, chilly autumn day. Even after the sun has set, we linger for a while, near a pond down by the road and the haunting feeling I’ve had in this place all day long only increases. 

Standing here in silence with my friends after an extraordinary day, I couldn’t be more pleased to have come. Mansfield, it turns out, is an amazing place.          


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