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Wright in Love’

In response to:

Wright in Love from the November 20, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

Dead wrong. Martin Filler is dead wrong in his allegations [“Wright in Love,” NYR, November 20, 2008] that a lecture I gave at Columbia University twenty-two years ago, on Frank Lloyd Wright and his Fallingwater patron E.J. Kaufmann, “unloaded a barrage of gratuitous revelations” about the Kaufmanns. There was nothing but conventional scholarly prose in my Columbia talk, as your readers can confirm for themselves by examining the complete reproduction of my original thirty-page dot-matrix lecture text, including last-minute handwritten additions in color, now online at www.franklintoker.com/disprovingfiller.html. Your readers will find not a single scandalous revelation in that text, and they will actually find no revelations of any kind, since the insights in my lecture were wholly based on facts that other scholars had ascertained years before.

What completely demolishes Filler’s allegations is the second document now on that Web site: the autograph letter Filler sent me in 1999 in answer to my request for the text of a lecture he gave to the Society of Architectural Historians in 1983. Filler’s own words flatly contradict the accusations he makes against me now. In one passage he cites my Columbia lecture of 1986 (though it was not part of my letter to him) and the “candor” I displayed therein. The usual dictionary synonyms for candor are “frankness,” “honesty,” “sincerity,” “truthfulness,” “integrity,” and “veracity.” My 1986 lecture was all those things, and lively besides, but scandalmongering it was not.

A second passage in Filler’s letter reads: “I’m very happy to hear about your forthcoming book on Fallingwater,” which he says he is eager to review. Filler closed his 1999 letter by offering me a suggestion “in a friendly and collegial manner,” and with warmest wishes to me. How can Martin Filler now defame a scholar he embraced with warmth and esteem just nine years ago?

Filler is only half-right in calling my Fallingwater Rising “inexplicably well-received.” Well received it demonstrably was: even in your pages, Michael Kimmelman [“The Dreams of Frank Lloyd Wright,” August 11, 2005] cited “Franklin Toker’s very fine Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House.” Hundreds of other reviewers praised it, too: Janet Maslin acclaimed it in her New York Times review, then again in the Times as one of the notable books of 2003—a judgment she then repeated on CBS’s Sunday Morning. Thousands of readers demanded five different printings of the book from Knopf. At 406 pages of scholarly text and 55 pages of small-print source notes, Fallingwater Rising is demanding reading, but it has become a classic of art history nonetheless.

Your readers deserve an apology from the NYR editors who allowed such irresponsible charges onto your pages, and a retraction and correction from Martin Filler.

Franklin Toker
Professor of the History of Art and Architecture
University of Pittsburgh
Past President Society of Architectural Historians
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Martin Filler replies:

I am somewhat puzzled by Professor Toker’s complaint, not least because his Fallingwater Rising acknowledges that “in 1986 I gave a lecture at Columbia University that proposed E.J. Kaufmann Sr. as a major force—maybe the major force—behind Fallingwater. Kaufmann Jr., who sponsored the lecture, was annoyed at my revisionist reading of his father, and he soon cut off communication between us.”

I attended that symposium and ever since have believed that Professor Toker’s presentation referred to the tragic death of Liliane Kaufmann, the wife of Kaufmann Sr. Although his letter makes no mention of that particular point in my article, I feel compelled to note that the typescript he proffers online as rebuttal evidence neither mentions her demise (from a lethal mixture of alcohol and barbiturates) nor terms it a suicide, as I wrote. I had hoped to verify my recollection to the contrary through tape recordings of the conference, but an archivist at Columbia’s Avery Architectural Library has informed me that none seem to exist. Absent that impartial documentation, I offer my apologies to Professor Toker.

Beyond question is Kaufmann Jr.’s anguish (as he reported at the time to my wife, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, a former graduate student of his) over Professor Toker’s characterizations of Kaufmann Sr. as a socially excluded Jewish merchant who used architecture to advance his status, a charge reiterated and amplified in Fallingwater Rising. Despite his claims in his letter that the 1986 talk included “no revelations of any kind,” and that “the insights in my lecture were wholly based on facts that other scholars had ascertained years before,” the author of Fallingwater Rising proclaimed it, as we have seen, a “revisionist” reading and reassigned primary credit for the Wright commission from Kaufmann Jr. to Kaufmann Sr., reversing long-accepted accounts of the project’s genesis, and thereby undermining Kaufmann Jr.’s proudest claim.

Given the enthusiastic critical reception of Fallingwater Rising, my dissenting opinion was decidedly in the minority. And though I disparaged the book, I have in no way defamed its author. One man’s scandalous revelations can be another’s conventional scholarly prose. Professor Toker can likewise define “candor” however he pleases. I regret that commonplace courtesies in my letter of July 6, 1999, encouraged the recipient to feel “embraced with warmth and esteem.”

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