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He’d Rather Be Wright

His shadowy, feckless father, William Cary Wright—a failed itinerant preacher and talented church musician—withdrew in the wake of Anna’s maternal possessiveness. As Frank Lloyd Wright observed in An Autobiography:

When her son was born something happened between the mother and father. Sister Anna’s extraordinary devotion to the child disconcerted the father.

The father never made much of the child, it seems.

No doubt the wife loved him no less but now loved something more, something created out of her own fervor of love and desire. A means to realize her vision.

Throughout his life Wright sought out strong women like his mother. He left his first wife, the sweet-tempered, long-suffering Catherine Tobin Wright, mother of six of his seven children, for the freethinking feminist Mamah Borthwick Cheney, wife of a client and neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois. The flight of Wright and Mrs. Cheney from their respective spouses to Europe, their return to set up a convention-flouting rural retreat on his mother’s land in the Helena Valley at Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Mamah Cheney’s subsequent murder there (along with six others, including her two children) at the hands of a demented servant, who then burned down Taliesin, was the basis of the plot for the opera Shining Brow. (“Taliesin,” the name of the legendary Welsh bard, means Shining Brow.) The early history of the house, up to the massacre and fire, is the subject of Taliesin: 1911–1914, the first volume of Southern Illinois University Press’s new series, Frank Lloyd Wright Studies, edited by Narciso G. Menocal.

Still shaken by his loss, Wright became mesmerized by the fascinating but unstable Miriam Noel, a stranger who wrote him a condolence letter after the highly publicized tragedy (Wright’s conjugal scandals having become a staple of the popular press). They soon began an affair, and in 1915 Wright wrote a brief justificatory statement of his unorthodox living arrangements, “On Marriage,” that is published for the first time in the initial volume of his collected writings. Yet Wright gathered the courage to divorce his first wife only after his mother died in 1923, when he finally married Miriam. His new wife was addicted to morphine, and after six months they separated. For the next six years she waged a relentless harassment campaign against Wright and his new lover.

Olgivanna Ivanova Lazovich Hinzenberg, a Montenegrin dancer and disciple of Gurdjieff, began living with the architect in early 1925 and quickly became pregnant. The second Mrs. Wright stalked her estranged husband, launched legal actions against him, held press conferences denouncing him, had him thrown into jail for violating the Mann Act (Wright was accused of having taken Olgivanna across state lines for “immoral purposes”), and when Olgivanna gave birth to Wright’s seventh child, Miriam hounded mother and daughter out of the hospital. Even after Wright obtained a divorce and was able to marry Olgivanna in 1928, when their daughter was three, Miriam followed them to California and vandalized their house. This avenging Fury continued to bring legal charges against him until her death two years later.

Wright’s third and final wife, with whom he lived for the last three decades of his life, was as determined as Miriam, though her energies were directed toward her husband, not against him. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright (as she styled herself, adopting his matronymic as though it were part of a compound surname), according to the recent books on the architect, was possessive, grandiose, manipulative, paranoid, and vindictive. She seems admirable only in her extreme belief in and devotion to Wright, who depended on her utterly and received from her unconditional emotional support. Though to a degree the couple also fed each other’s least appealing characteristics—vanity, self-pity, and quickness to take offense—they were complementary personalities: he giving and she hoarding, he optimistic and she anxious, he gregarious and she conspiratorial.

Yet it is unlikely that without Olgivanna at his side Wright could have made his astonishing creative comeback of the mid-1930s, well after he had been written off by most people as a historical relic. Wright’s hugely successful Prairie House period of 1900–1909, when he devised the first American architecture that was to influence new developments in Europe, was brought to an end by the Cheney scandal. Though his patrons in and around Chicago were by and large self-made and independent businessmen, they still expected a certain responsibility and discretion in an architect: a house builder should not be a home wrecker.

Wright’s sojourns in Japan to build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where he mostly lived between 1917 and 1922 (subject of Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan, an exhibition scheduled to open at the Phoenix Art Museum in 1995), removed him from the changing American scene at a crucial time. The renewed interest in classicism made the work of Wright and his lieber Meister, Louis Sullivan, seem dated to potential clients. Anthony Alofsin’s Frank Lloyd Wright, The Lost Years, 1910–1922 concentrates on the new repertory of architectural forms and motifs—especially Central American and “primitive”—Wright drew on for the declining number of commissions he received between his departure from Oak Park and his five Mayan-inspired Los Angeles houses of the early 1920s.

Even during the boom years of the 1920s Wright’s career did not revive. In fact, the decade between 1924 and 1934 encompassed Wright’s truly lost years, during which he executed only five commissions. Were it not for Olgivanna’s encouragement, the Great Depression might have finished him off altogether. Wright had seen Sullivan die in penury in 1924. Frank Furness, the maverick master with whom Sullivan apprenticed, was reduced late in life to ghosting a building for the classical revival firm of McKim, Mead and White, whose work was antithetical to his. In 1931, two decades after Furness died, the architectural firm that took over his business went under and his archives were thrown out with the trash.

During the Depression, still faced with chronic financial problems, Wright retreated once again to Taliesin and “the Valley of the God Almighty Lloyd Joneses,” there to live off the land and start an architectural school. Though Wright began the enterprise to raise cash, the likelihood that few prospective students would have the money to pay for tuition led to his conception of the Taliesin Fellowship as an experiment in communal, agrarian living: he saw it as a combination of kibbutz and medieval brotherhood of craft apprentices. Taliesin also became Wright’s architectural firm, the fellows who worked in it “learning by doing,” as if they were applying John Dewey’s instrumentalism.

Several Wright biographers, including Gill, have characterized the Taliesin Fellowship as an exploitative feudal system mainly devoted to providing the great man and his consort with a supply of unpaid servants to support a sybaritic way of life that the luxury-loving Wrights could otherwise ill afford. But that view disregards the heroic aspect of his strategy for creative and spiritual survival. Though the Taliesin Fellowship was strictly hierarchical and far from democratic, it nonetheless created an atmosphere that kept its members going through hard times, with a strong emphasis on cooperation, self-respect, and anti-materialistic values. Wright may have been a great example, but he was not a great teacher—or perhaps what he knew could not be taught. Though some of his most important work was done at the Taliesin Fellowship in the 1930s, his later career was less distinguished, and Taliesin Associated Architects, as his successor firm is known, has produced nothing approaching the quality of Wright’s design at its best.

The positive aspects of life at Taliesin are made quite clear by the architect Edgar Tafel, who joined the fellowship soon after its inception in 1932, in About Wright, a collection of reminiscences by him and a number of others who worked for Wright or for whom Wright worked. The most amusing recollection is Arthur Miller’s account of a trip he made with his then wife, Marilyn Monroe, and Wright to inspect the site for a house they wanted the architect to build in Connecticut in 1957. During the visit Wright urinated on the property and proudly announced that he had thereby claimed it. His design turned out to be so much more imposing than the clients wished that it was never executed. Though the quality of the contributions to Tafel’s collection is highly uneven (including an overheated introduction by Tom Wolfe), these witnesses to Wright’s buoyant spirit and energy give the cumulative impression that to spend some time with him—even in his advanced old age—could be the encounter of a lifetime.

3.

Since the death, in 1985, of Olgivanna Wright (who survived her much older husband by more than twenty-five years) no one has been more responsible for the revival of Wright studies than Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, who joined the Taliesin Fellowship as an apprentice in 1949 and is now the director of archives for the Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Foundation at Taliesin West. Like many other artists’ widows, Olgivanna Wright did her husband the posthumous disservice of overprotecting his memory, in this case causing Wright scholarship to come to a virtual halt during the last years of her life. Graduate students and academics were required to pay exorbitant research fees, and permission to reproduce Wright drawings and photographs (also accompanied by steep charges) was granted only if texts were first submitted to the Wright Foundation for approval.

Pfeiffer has changed all that. He encouraged the arrangement with the Getty Foundation whereby the complete Wright archive is available to researchers not only at Taliesin West but also at the Getty Center in California. Under Pfeiffer’s intelligent supervision, the Wright Foundation has sold off duplicate and lesser versions of Wright’s huge Nachlass of drawings, raising money for the preservation of the two Taliesins and improving the archival facilities there. And Pfeiffer has also overseen an extensive project with Rizzoli to eventually publish Wright’s complete writings in six volumes.

Pfeiffer has also assembled several handsome collections of Wright drawings and photographs for the general reader, including Frank Lloyd Wright: The Masterworks, a portfolio of thirty-eight of the architect’s executed schemes (three of which were subsequently demolished). Superb new color photographs, most of them taken by Paul Rocheleau and Michael Freeman, demonstrate how gracefully most of Wright’s buildings have aged. Despite the serious conservation problems noted by William Cronon in his essay in the MOMA catalog, Wright’s architecture has continued to become a part of its landscape settings—and they seemingly part of the architecture—in an unparalleled integration of the natural and the man-made. (Wright’s responsiveness to the environmental conditions of his commissions is discussed with sensitivity by Terence Riley in his essay for the MOMA catalog. That ecological interest will also be the subject of Frank Lloyd Wright: Shaping the Landscape, 1920–1929, an exhibition planned by the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal for 1996.) The current exterior condition of most of Wright’s structures is all the more impressive when they are compared with other surviving works of the modern movement, especially those with smooth white stucco surfaces, which in many cases have been in terrible shape. For example, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye of 1928–1930 in Poissy, France, has greatly deteriorated between restorations of varying thoroughness, as has Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat house of 1928–1930 in Brno, Czechoslovakia.

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