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Wright in Love

1.

The most remarkable thing about the extensive literature on Frank Lloyd Wright—new additions to which flow forth season after season, even as the stream of other architecture books dwindles—is not its magnitude (871 titles, according to the Library of Congress catalog, twice the number of the building designs in his catalogue raisonné1). More striking is the extreme disproportion in the coverage of different aspects of Wright’s seven-decade career.

In addition to many lavish Wright picture albums, there is no end of publications on individual houses by America’s greatest architect. The finest of those studies are by the architectural historian and critic Donald Hoffmann, whose magisterial Wright series has been issued by Dover since 1978. In particular, Hoffmann’s penetrating analyses of the Robie house of 1906–1910 in Chicago and Fallingwater of 1934–1937 in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, are unrivaled and likely to remain so. Such classic monographs have been vastly outnumbered by the self-aggrandizing and similar memoirs written by many patrons who commissioned late-career Wright houses, whether or not the buildings they paid for were of any special quality.

Then there are the Wrightian subthemes discussed in books such as Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954–1959, by the architectural journalists Jane King Hession and Debra Pickrel. When the critic Herbert Muschamp’s brief but nonetheless disorganized treatment of the same subject, Man About Town: Frank Lloyd Wright in New York City, appeared in 1983, its subtitle reminded me of the ethnic-stereotype jokes about books with only one page: Italian War Heroes or Irish Teetotalers. Although one of Manhattan’s glories is Wright’s last masterpiece, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of 1943–1959 (which recently emerged from a meticulous restoration, mainly by Wank Adams Slavin Associates, in time for the building’s fiftieth anniversary next fall), he built little else in the city and its environs, and never lost his country-boy misgivings about the corrupting metropolis.

Nonetheless, as an architect who had few peers as a self-promoter, Wright was inexorably drawn to New York and its influential opinionmakers in publishing, broadcasting, and the arts. With each well-publicized visit, the architect burnished his carefully crafted image of a curmudgeonly embattled genius, as he dependably supplied reporters and cameramen with pithy quotes, clever photo-ops, and droll newsreel turns, like another incorrigible press hound of the period, George Bernard Shaw.

Hession and Pickrel are especially good at demonstrating how quickly and adeptly Wright adapted to new forms of mass communication as they emerged. The authors have rediscovered kinescopes and tapes of his frequent appearances on such early TV programs as Conversations with Elder Wise Men (in dialogue with the young Hugh Downs), The Today Show (with its first anchorman, Dave Garroway), and What’s My Line? (where a blindfolded Dorothy Kilgallen correctly guessed the mystery guest’s identity). After deftly fielding several aggressive questions from the host of The Mike Wallace Interview in 1957, Wright twitted his chain-smoking interlocutor about “that thing you have in your mouth” and “doing commercials for the cigarette” made by the show’s sponsor, Philip Morris. Not until Philip Johnson managed to silence the interruptive Charlie Rose, four decades later, would an architect so dominate a talk-show personality.

Frank Lloyd Wright in New York is entertainingly illustrated and laid out rather like a Time-Life book of the 1960s, with magazine-style sidebars, boxes, full-page-bleed news photos, and tinted-background sections on individual Wright projects, several of which have nothing to do with the title city. At times, Hession and Pickrel’s text reads like a promotional brochure for the Plaza Hotel, where the architect first stayed in 1909, on his way to Europe with his lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. In 1954 Wright leased a Plaza pied-à-terre, dubbed “Taliesin East,” for his use during the three-year construction of the Guggenheim, thirty blocks to the north.

A compulsive spendthrift who lived high on the hog even when flat broke, Wright redecorated the hotel’s Suite 223–225—overlooking Central Park and Fifth Avenue at the building’s northeast corner—with a mélange of Asian-inspired and modern furnishings (including chairs carved with a swan’s head motif, left behind by the previous tenant, the couturier Christian Dior), and obscured the rooms’ Beaux-Arts detailing with panels of gold-flecked Japanese rice paper. Although the Plaza’s beer-baron historicism exemplified the deracinated styles he rebelled against as a young firebrand, Wright the Olympian sage took a more benign view of the hotel’s forgettable architect than he did of more formidable competitors like Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Good old Henry Hardenbergh,” Wright told one client. “Of course, I wouldn’t do anything like it, but it is an honest building.”

Redundant publications such as this one point up major lacunae in the imbalanced Wright bibliography. For example, there is still no adequate study of the architect’s love affair with the automobile, which shaped—in fact, distorted—his approach to regional development. No other master builder has maintained a more enduring hold on the American imagination than Wright—not even Thomas Jefferson (who is considered first and foremost an architect by neoclassical fanatics). Although Jefferson’s reverence for the Vitruvian tradition was the antithesis of Wright’s contempt for historical revivalism, they shared an anti-urban vision of the United States as a gridwork of small farms and single family houses, punctuated by modestly sized towns. Both men viewed big cities with instinctive suspicion.

The major difference was that Wright’s idea for modern exurbia—his unrealized Broadacre City scheme of 1932–1934, a low-rise, low-density Nowhere Land he hoped would encourage “lives lived in greater independence and seclusion”—depended on the private automobile as virtually the sole means of transportation. Broadacre’s formula for communal dispersal and social isolation presaged the rampant sprawl that has become the ruination of our national landscape, a consequence very much at odds with the environmentalism imputed to Wright’s earthy organic architecture. This conjunction in Wright’s work of two quintessential American manifestations—the destructive effects of the car culture and the unchecked individualism fetishized as “freedom”—remains unexplored, but it could yield a critique of far-reaching significance.

2.

The biggest gap on the Wright bookshelf remains a biography that begins to approach John Richardson’s multivolume masterpiece A Life of Picasso. Retellings of Wright’s life story continue to appear and just as predictably vanish. None thus far has been wholly satisfactory, although the most useful collection of facts is to be found in the uneven Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture of 1979 by Robert Twombly (editor of a new compilation, Frank Lloyd Wright: Essential Texts.)

One can understand why any historian would shrink from the all-consuming effort needed to realize a comprehensive life-and-works of this prolific figure, who died when he was ninety-one. However, such an achievement would guarantee its author a place in the Boswellian pantheon along with Richardson, Leon Edel, Richard Ellmann, and other masters of the genre.

In the absence of such a biographer, Wright’s personal history lends itself all too readily to the salacious scandalmongering that makes for nonfiction best-sellers. Academic scholars are not immune to this cheapening tendency, as shown by Franklin Toker, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the inexplicably well-received Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House.2

In Toker’s book, Fallingwater’s enlightened patrons seem cartoonish—the handsome, overbearing, and womanizing department store tycoon E.J. Kaufmann is seen in contrast to his homely, oversensitive, homosexual son, the architectural historian Edgar Kaufmann Jr. A miraculous commission is reduced to a dynastic psychodrama. At a 1986 Columbia University conference in celebration of Kaufmann Jr., three years before his death, Toker launched an ominous trial balloon for Fallingwater Rising in a lecture that turned the tribute into a roast. With apparent satisfaction, Toker unloaded a barrage of gratuitous revelations in front of the mortified honoree, including the closely guarded secret that his adored mother, Liliane Kaufmann, had committed suicide at their legendary country house (and is entombed there, in a burial vault with a bronze sculptural relief by Alberto Giacometti).

The same unsavory and insinuating air hovers over the pages of The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, by Roger Friedland, a sociologist described on the jacket flap as “a student of the intersections among culture, religion, and eroticism,” and Harold Zellman, a Los Angeles architect. They concentrate on the architecture school-cum-professional practice that Wright set up in 1932 at his estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin—less out of love for pedagogy than as a survival strategy when the Great Depression exacerbated his desperation after a fallow decade that made even erstwhile devotees see him as an irrelevant anachronism. (That protracted eclipse is the subject of the forthcoming Frank Lloyd Wright: The Heroic Years, 1920–1932, by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, the longtime Taliesin archivist.)

The fellowship turned out to be Wright’s salvation—financially, spiritually, and creatively (until advanced old age began to sap his powers). He based his putatively democratic—though in fact rigidly hierarchical—brotherhood on English Arts and Crafts antecedents like the Guild of Handicraft, established in 1888 by his architect friend C.R. Ashbee. The American’s enormous debt to the design theorists and social activists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, above all its presiding spirit, William Morris, is abundantly evident throughout Modern Architecture: Being the Kahn Lectures for 1930, the texts of six talks Wright gave at Princeton during the lowest ebb of his fortunes.

The endpapers of Modern Architecture— which Princeton University Press has reissued in a facsimile of its original 1931 edition are embellished with Wright aphorisms that recall the improving mottoes typically displayed in Arts and Crafts interiors: “Principle is the safe precedent,” “A matter of taste is usually a matter of ignorance,” “Great art is great life,” and, most inarguably, “Death is a crisis of growth.” (Wright incorporated such uplifting slogans in the cathedral-like main workroom of his Larkin Company Administration Building of 1902–1906 in Buffalo, headquarters of a mail-order business co-founded by Elbert Hubbard, America’s foremost Arts and Crafts popularizer and creator of the communal Roycrofters workshop.)

The Princeton reprint has an authoritative introduction by the architectural historian Neil Levine, whose ambitious 1996 survey, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, was marred by his insistence on the primacy of French (rather than more plausible German) influences in Wright’s development, particularly the supposed effect of the “Romantic Rationalism” expounded by the architect and theorist Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, whose Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle of 1856 Wright praised as “the only really sensible book on architecture in the world.” Levine paid much less attention to the arguably greater impact on Wright of the theories of Viollet’s German contemporary and counterpart Gottfried Semper, or the uncharacteristically open admiration Wright showed for a member of his own generation, the Austrian architect and designer Joseph Maria Olbrich.

Here Levine starts off with the rave review Modern Architecture received in The New Republic from the housing specialist Catherine Bauer in 1931 (during her affair with Lewis Mumford, one of the few critics whose support of Wright never wavered). Bauer rightly praised the book as “so rich in sound observation, trenchant comment and philosophic purity that architecture itself takes on a new dignity, a fresh social importance,” foretelling the consensus that it is the most eloquent summation of Wright’s artistic credo.

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

  1. 1

    William Allin Storrer, The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion, Revised Edition (University of Chicago Press, 2006).

  2. 2

    Knopf, 2003.

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