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Wright in Love

Modern Architecture was also the architect’s reminder to a forgetful world that not only did he still exist, but mattered greatly to the future of his art form. His resurgence began with the creation of the Taliesin Fellowship, a combination of home, school, and workshop that enabled Wright to concentrate on the three brilliant schemes that clinched his unanticipated comeback: Fallingwater; the Johnson Wax Building of 1936–1939 in Racine, Wisconsin; and Taliesin West, Wright’s other home and design studio, begun in 1937, in Scottsdale, Arizona, a trio outstanding within Wright’s oeuvre not only for quality but variety.

Although Wright’s Prairie Houses responded with notable sensitivity to specific sites and social settings, they also shared a certain sameness. The architect of Fallingwater insisted that “the ideas involved here are in no ways changed from those of [my] early work…. The effects you see in this house are not superficial effects.” However, there is no denying that some of its details evince the then-ascendant International Style, against which Wright felt pitted in mortal combat.

For example, the monolithically planar, severely unadorned balconies of the Kaufmanns’ country house would have been right at home in a white-stucco Le Corbusier villa. (Wright had originally wanted to surface those parapets with gold leaf, an idea rejected by the elder Kaufmann, who deemed the gilding provocatively ostentatious during the Great Depression.) And Fallingwater’s “disappearing” corner of outward-opening casement windows was an idea employed by several European modernists, including Gerrit Rietveld and Truus Schröder-Schräder in their Schröder house of 1924 in Utrecht, Holland. More than one critic has pointed out that Fallingwater was Wright’s not-so-subtle way of proving to a new generation of foreign upstarts that he could outdo their hallmark motifs if that was required.

Truer to Wright’s claims of consistency with his pioneering work of the century’s first decade was his Johnson Wax headquarters, which, despite being an exercise in the trendy Streamlined Moderne style then sweeping the country, was rooted in his Larkin building of three decades earlier. The Johnson offices’ Great Workroom reiterated the basic format of the Larkin’s central workspace, the Light Court, which was similarly inward-turning, high-ceilinged, and illuminated by skylights.

Taliesin West evoked a more recent Wright precedent, his temporary Ocatillo Desert Camp of 1928 in Chandler, Arizona, where the architect and his devoted staff rusticated during an ill-fated series of commissions that ended abruptly with the Wall Street crash. Although Taliesin West was initially assembled from the same unfinished board-and-batten wood siding and canvas roofs as its precursor, the diagonally sloping forms of Wright’s later, larger home-and-office complex were anchored by massive piers made from local boulders cast in concrete, which gave the composition a feeling of greater permanence and connection to its surroundings. Taken as a whole, these three schemes represent the most concentrated display of Wright’s profligate talents during any equivalent period of his career.

The early days of Taliesin West—where the fellowship escaped the harsh Wisconsin winters—are vividly recalled by Wright’s longtime official photographer in an illustrated memoir, Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey (for which I wrote the foreword). Although Wright harbored biases not unusual for a man born just two years after the Civil War ended, he betrayed no prejudice when he unhesitatingly welcomed Guerrero, a poor Hispanic, into the Taliesin community at a time when discrimination against Chicanos was rife in the American Southwest. Guerrero also relates how Wright treated him with immense paternal tenderness and reflexive munificence when, after Pearl Harbor, the young man enlisted in the army, to the dismay of the pacifist Wright, a stalwart of the isolationist America First movement.

In contrast to such noble episodes, The Fellowship seems a minefield of racy anecdotes that detonate with lustful self-combustion every few paragraphs. Friedland and Zellman’s sixty-five pages of endnotes attest to their diligence in interviewing the diminishing band of Taliesin alumni who knew the master personally. These copious citations also seem to anticipate disbelief in the authors’ portrayal of the fellowship’s allegedly unbridled sexuality, a prurient atmosphere they attribute largely to Wright’s sinister, manipulative, and voyeuristic third wife, Olgivanna—a Montenegrin divorcée and acolyte of G.I. Gurdjieff. (Mrs. Wright’s flagrant advances toward Gurdjieff during his 1934 stay at Taliesin made the depth of her attraction embarrassingly clear.)

The Taliesin Fellowship’s lithe, nubile, and enticingly underdressed apprentices responded to the climate, whether homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, or pansexual. But it is no news that college-age youths like to have a great deal of sex, and that old folks do, too (the nonagenarian Wright improbably boasted that he “fucked his wife every night”); or that design students are perhaps more likely to be gay than many other students; or that a lothario like Wright could be homophobic. For decades, the unimpeachable gatekeeper of the Taliesin archive has been Bruce Pfeiffer, who was of immeasurable help to historians and critics (myself included) during the long twilight of Olgivanna, who outlived her husband by more than a quarter-century, and whose greed and mania for control might have brought Wright studies to a complete halt were it not for him. This paragon of accuracy and probity provided one of The Fellowship ‘s few jaw-dropping reminiscences. When Pfeiffer told Wright he was gay, the architect replied, “Bruce, why don’t you cut your dinky dick off?”

Inevitably, the authors speculate about whether or not Wright was homosexual himself, and tick off a standard checklist of telltale traits exhibited by

Wright the aesthete, the one who loved flowers so much that he made them his emblem and took exquisite pains with their arrangement, the man who designed his wife’s clothing, the dandy who affected a wardrobe so fussy and prettified that he recalled Oscar Wilde….

After this red herring, they go on to reaffirm Wright’s straightness, though not before quoting yet another bitchy Taliesin fellow, who was repulsed by his hopelessly vain boss showing off a new dinner jacket, “strutting around—like a little girl in a Shirley Temple dress.”

The only truly revelatory aspect of The Fellowship is its discontinuous but cumulatively devastating portrait of Olgivanna and Frank Lloyd Wright’s only child together, Iovanna, who renamed herself Rosa, and at eighty-two lives in a mental institution, as she has for much of her life. The architect’s seventh offspring got off to an inauspicious start: before her parents could legally marry, the newborn and her mother were hounded from the hospital by Wright’s erratic and vindictive second wife, Miriam Noel.

Iovanna Wright, the architectural counterpart of the pathetic Lucia Joyce, suffered from familial dysfunctions familiar to children of the great in every field. But as The Fellowship makes painfully apparent, Iovanna/Rosa was psychotic, although her flashes of intelligence repeatedly raised false hopes about her prognosis. This heartbreaking case history provides an insistent, melancholy counterpoint to Friedland and Zellman’s lively but ultimately pointless chronicle of sexual antics and court intrigues that swirled around the indifferent Wright, whose imperturbable nature was a mixture of Micawberish optimism and cosmic self-absorption.

3.

It is almost half a century since Wright died, on April 9, 1959. Next year will also mark the centennial of his abandonment of his first wife, Catherine Tobin Wright, and their six children, and his elopement with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a neighbor in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, for whom he built his Cheney house of 1903–1904. This folie à deux ended with her murder in 1914, the grisly denouement to a sex-and-homicide saga that surpassed its nearest equivalent, eight years earlier, when Stanford White was shot to death by the deranged husband of the roué architect’s erstwhile underaged plaything, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, “the girl in the red velvet swing.”

Two very different recent books deal with the Wright-Cheney affair and homicide: William R. Drennan’s non-fiction Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders and Nancy Horan’s novel Loving Frank. Although I had been previously inclined toward factual rather than fictional versions of well-documented historical events, the simultaneous publication of these contrasting accounts of the same story has made me think otherwise.

For five years, Wright’s real-life soap opera played out in headlines that brought him to the attention of a national audience as yet unfamiliar with his work. However, by 1906 the architect had become enough of a local celebrity to merit a picture postcard of his own Oak Park house and studio of 1889–1898. The caption under that image, “The House Built Around a Tree,” referred to his having reconfigured the ground plan for his octagonal home-office addition of 1897–1898 to preserve a mature gingko tree (which survived until it was felled by lightning, in 1992). Wright carried out a much less edifying alteration of the structure a decade after that tree-sparing gesture, when he remodeled it to serve as an income-producing boardinghouse run by his forsaken spouse, after he and his financially independent lady friend took off together.

The moral outrage their affair ignited can be deduced from the sensational press coverage. The Chicago Tribune deemed the brazen liaison “an affinity tangle…unparalleled even in the checkered history of soul-mating,” a widely shared perception that wrecked the architect’s thriving career in short order. Public indignation was further inflamed by the knowledge that Wright’s practice had been based on residential commissions like the Cheneys’—the revolutionary series of Prairie Houses (more than fifty all told) through which he advanced his program for a new, distinctively American form of domestic habitation.

In Wright’s recasting of the modern home, the routines of everyday life were exalted as sacred activities, dramatized by the altar-like dining tables that became as much a hallmark of his interiors as his leaded-glass windows. More than one potential Wright client surely felt that his reckless and licentious behavior desecrated his temple of the family, and made a mockery of the idealistic values he purported his architecture would reinforce. It takes considerable imagination to conjure a convincing impression of how Wright and Mrs. Cheney dealt in private with their very public predicament. In Loving Frank, Horan does far better than one had expected: her tone is measured and thoughtful, and she establishes a believable mood in keeping with Wright’s written statements on the most painful chapter in his life story.

Mamah Cheney was a follower of Ellen Key, the Swedish feminist and advocate of free love, and as such saw her own belated rejection of married life and child-rearing as an act of high philosophical principle, not an insolent flouting of bourgeois convention. After Wright and Cheney returned from Europe, they sought refuge in the Wisconsin farming valley where he grew up, a place where they could be away from the prying eyes of Oak Park neighbors who knew the aggrieved spouses both transgressors had left behind.

Protected within his extended family’s arcadian stronghold, Wright concealed the scope of his plans for a new dream house there. He disingenuously claimed that Taliesin (the name of a mythic Welsh bard) would be no more than a bungalow: a false-modest misnomer as laughable as a Newport Gilded Age “cottage.” His most inspired design decision was Taliesin’s siting: not atop a hill, but nestled into the crest of a hillside, in keeping with his belief that a truly organic architecture must be subservient to nature.

The expansive Taliesin complex—a serene Japanesque interplay of long, low-slung wings shaded by broadly overhanging roofs and interspersed with terraced courtyards—accorded with no one’s notion of a tawdry love nest. Then, with Wright absent, at lunchtime one Saturday in August 1914—two weeks after the Great War began—a Caribbean-born servant of the couple’s, Julian Carlton, set fire to the house and went berserk with an axe. By the time his rampage ended, the structure was in ruins and Mamah Cheney, her two children, and four Wright employees lay dead.

William Drennan, who teaches English at a branch of the University of Wisconsin, recapitulates a gruesome crime that has been so well documented that a monograph is superfluous. With little new information to justify yet another account, Drennan, a crime-scene investigator manqué, busies himself with a tedious step-by-step reconstruction of the precise sequence in which Carlton slaughtered his victims. This minutely detailed revisionist time line brings to mind the obsessive frame-by-frame scrutiny of the Zapruder film by Kennedy assassination buffs. Carlton’s motive remains as unfathomable as ever, beyond the only pertinent explanation: he did it because he was crazy.

In Loving Frank, Horan evokes the wrenching aftermath of that day with poignancy and tact. He gracefully acknowledges the impossibility of outdoing Wright’s own words on the tragedy, and quotes the open letter he wrote to acknowledge his neighbors’ condolences. She has obviously seen the original document: in one of her most telling details she describes how the distraught architect’s pen nib almost tore through his writing paper.

He buried Mamah Cheney in the churchyard of the Unity Chapel of 1886 in Spring Green, Wisconsin, his first executed building, where he himself would be interred, forty-five years after the massacre. As the authors of The Fellowship relate, Olgivanna Wright had no intention of allowing the ill-starred couple to rest in peace together for all eternity. She left instructions that upon her death, which finally came in 1985, her husband’s remains were to be dug up, cremated, his ashes commingled with hers, and immured within the walls of their Arizona home, far from the grave of his great lost love.

Letters

Wright in Love’ February 12, 2009

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