What We’re Reading: Finding the Wright Book on Frank Lloyd Wright

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

It’s high summer, that idyllic time of year for cruising a porch swing, sipping iced tea, and getting lost in a good book. If only . . . (cue katydids sawing away in the background).

If you have found that rare hour or two to sit and read, and if you also enjoy biographies of famous artists and architects, here are two captivating books about Frank Lloyd Wright that I highly recommend. 

Wright, the genius architect, narcissist of infamous ego and scandalous love life is the subject of a thousand and more books.  Two highly entertaining fiction works based on his life, Loving Frank and The Women, were written by authors with ties to Wright. Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank, lived on East Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois for 24 years, right down the street from the house Wright built for Edwin and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Wright and his lover, Mrs. Cheney, left their spouses, children, and homes for Europe together in 1909. Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, author of 28 novels including The Women, has lived in a Wright-built home in Montecito, California (the George C. Stewart house) since the early 1990s. Boyle, whose awareness of Wright intensified after living within Wright’s architecture, has also had a long-time fascination with larger than life American personalities, the “flawed icons” of our culture.

Interior, Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York, New York. Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959. Photo by Sue Slick.

When I read Loving Frank and The Women, I was recovering from a shoulder fracture, and it felt like a great luxury to spend hours reading these two novels back-to-back, as they filled in each other’s blanks nicely. I had visited Taliesin West a few months earlier and wanted to learn more about its storied architect.  Both books are deep dives into Wright’s complicated personal life.

What is needed most in architecture today is the very thing that is most needed in life-Integrity. Just as it is in a human being, so integrity is the deepest quality in a building.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House, 1954
Entrance to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1937. Photo by Sue Slick.

Loving Frank was Nancy Horan’s first book, an historical novel written from the viewpoint of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright’s married client and lover. Horan tells the story of the two secretly fleeing their families and their Wright-designed Prairie Style homes in Oak Park, Illinois to reunite in Europe. They would live there together for several years before returning to dwell in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where Wright would build their sanctuary, Taliesin. The shocking and well-publicized scandal captivated the world, and Wright and Cheney were hounded and scolded by the press and the public for years, even following Cheney’s tragic death. Horan draws on Cheney’s letters, journals, and secondary sources to weave the story of a conflicted woman, guilt-ridden mother, scholar, translator, and early follower of the women’s movement.  The author embellishes Cheney’s history with carefully considered prose and documentation of Wright’s own life, work, and writings. Though Wright seldom mentioned Mamah after her brutal murder at Taliesin and the fire that destroyed their sanctuary, Horan builds the case that Mamah was the love of Wright’s life.

T. C. Boyle’s The Women lays out Wright’s turbulent life in the quadrants defined by his four key female partners: Kitty (Catherine Tobin Wright), first wife and mother to his six children; Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright’s client, lover, and intellectual equal; Maude Miriam Noel, morphine addict, drama queen, and second wife; and Olgivanna Milanoff, third wife, protector of Wright’s later years, and mother of their daughter Iovanna.  The structure of the book is unconventional in its reversed chronology, as it ends in 1914 with Wright’s messy, painful affair with Mamah and her subsequent horrific murder. One almost feels she is not just the victim of the crazed handyman, Julian Carlton, but also the victim of Wright’s tempestuous ego.  The narrative is supported by the fictitious Tadashi Sato, an apprentice recalling his time with the great man, manipulative narcissist, and driving perfectionist.  The actual chronology of Wright’s life concludes in the relative calm of his marriage to Olgivanna, his later-life adoring, devoted partner. She wrote in her memoir, The Shining Brow, “To me Frank Lloyd Wright is synonymous with Taliesin. It is he who is the Shining Brow – the epitome of creative force in a life devoted to beauty.”

It’s hard to believe that we have just passed the 152nd anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth. His vision and architectural genius have left us with priceless treasures: the Guggenheim Museum of Art, Prairie School houses, Usonian houses, Taliesin East and West, and numerous other structures and artifacts.  These two novels help to reconcile the genius who recognized the integrity of humans and buildings with the man whose integrity was challenged in his own dealings with family, clients, and partners. These books enlighten the shadows a bit.

More and more, so it seems to me, light is the beautifier of the building. Light always was the beautifier of the building in the matter of shadows but now especially needs these deeper satisfactions; needs a more worthy human ego for that tomorrow that is always today because of yesterday.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House, 1954

Wright fell ill at his desert sanctuary, Taliesin West, and passed on April 9, 1959, at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Phoenix, at the age of 91. He did not live to see the Guggenheim Museum of Art completed; it opened on October 21, 1959.

Dome interior, Guggenheim Museum of Art, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959. Photo by Sue Slick.

Here are a few more titles to explore:

  • A Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright Public Places edited by Arlene Sanderson, The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, 1991
  • Frank Lloyd Wright by Vincent Scully Jr., George Braziler, Inc., 1960
  • Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography by Frank Lloyd Wright, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943
  • The Shining Brow by Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, Horizon Press, 1960
  • Years with Frank Lloyd Wright by Edgar Tafel, Dover Books, 1979

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