ASHLAND -- A man and a woman — American expatriates in France in the 1930s— both writers, of different generations and different social circles. What topic would bind them in a close friendship? Gardening.

Ashland Chautauqua is sponsoring “A Cultivated Friendship” in its 2020-21 series of virtual events.

This event is a first-person costumed performance by two of Ashland Chautauqua’s favorite scholars. John Dennis Anderson will portray Louis Bromfield. Karen Vuranch will portray Edith Wharton.

Their conversation will be set in the 1930s and will be based mainly on letters they wrote to each other during that time.

“A Cultivated Friendship” has two parts. First is the videotaped dramatized conversation that will be available starting March 11 at this link for the Ashland Chautauqua YouTube Channel:

Second is a real-time Q&A session at 7 pm EST, Thursday, March 25. Register for the Q&A prior to March 25 through this Eventbrite link:

Participants are encouraged to watch the video any time between March 11 and the Q&A on March 25. 

Although there was a 34-year age difference, Wharton and Bromfield shared a love of gardens and plants. This mutual passion created a deep friendship, further enhanced by their shared profession of writing and shared frustration at the business of writing.

They would commiserate about publishers and then find solace in their love of gardens. In their exchange of letters, they also wrote of their travels and of their experiences during the Great War in Europe and of expatriate life in France after the war.

How did Bromfield and Wharton meet? They apparently met around 1930. They shared friends such as art historian Louis Gillet and author Aldous Huxley. They both lived north of Paris, although about 45 minutes journey apart, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Wharton’s diary notes that she visited the Bromfields for lunch at their home in Senlis on June 10, 1931. Both were notable authors and Pulitzer Prize winners. Wharton won the prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence and Bromfield in 1927 for Early Autumn

Their letters developed from respectful acquaintances to intimate friends.  As time went on, they became more platonically affectionate and a bit gossipy.  For the most part, they continued to write about gardens.

Bromfield saw gardens as a sanctuary and an escape, whereas Wharton found a source of joy in them but also suffered when her gardens were devastated by freezing weather.

One point of disagreement between them was about returning to live in America. Bromfield planned to do so, but Wharton did not. She could not see why he would want to be a farmer, although they were both passionate about gardens. They also had different attitudes about writer Gertrude Stein and had different social circles in France.

Bromfield was more gregarious. He hosted large Sunday drop-in brunches attended by many celebrities, whereas Wharton preferred small intimate gatherings. Bromfield felt that society should be agriculture based, not based on a banking system. He mistrusted bankers, teasing Wharton about her belief in banking as a basis for society.

Anderson performed at Ashland Chautauqua as Louis Bromfield in 2015; the local connection to Bromfield’s Malabar Farm in Richland County was of special interest to the local audience. Vuranch performed as Edith Wharton in 2014. Anderson explained that they had both been intrigued by the letters between Wharton and Bromfield.

The current invitation to do a virtual conversation has allowed the scholars to experience their characters more fully and to share that experience with Ashland Chautauqua’s growing audience via virtual programming.

The Ashland Chautauqua Conversations series of virtual events is made possible with support from the Ohio Humanities, Ohio Arts Council, Ashland Main Street, Explore Ashland, Trinity Lutheran Church Outreach Fund and Peace Lutheran Endowment Fund. 

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