“At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism,” the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin once wrote. Was he referring to the fact that great art—or great architecture—is underwritten by great wealth, whose origin is often suspect? Or was he making the different point that the failings of great artists are part and parcel of their work? The question of the relation between a work of art and its maker is an old one. But it has assumed new urgency in the #MeToo era, bolstered by what some have called “offence archaeology,” which maintains that the failings of the past—even the distant past—should temper our present-day cultural and artistic judgment. In this context, it’s an interesting moment for the appearance of a new biographical study of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Few architects had as many well-publicized failings as Wright. Trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of this grand and monumental—and often self-serving and ignoble—figure is the task that Paul Hendrickson has set for himself in Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, published by Knopf in October. First off, this is not a takedown. Hendrickson’s aim is not to bring Wright down a peg but rather to try and understand his peculiar genius in the light of his—to put it mildly—extremely complicated life. He is hardly the first to attempt this task. Brendan Gill’s Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (Putnam, 1987) is sometimes gossipy but informed by the author’s sound eye and the fact that he knew Wright and was close to him; Meryle Secrest’s solid contribution, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography (Knopf, 1992), is the work of a conscientious professional; and Anthony Alofsin, FAIA’s Frank Lloyd Wright—The Lost Years, 1910–1922 (University of Chicago Press, 1994) is a penetrating look at a brief but crucial period in the architect’s life.
Hendrickson’s approach is different. “This book isn’t intended as a Frank Lloyd Wright biography, not in any conventional sense,” he writes. “Rather, this book is meant to be a kind of synecdoche, with selected pockets in a life standing for the oceanic whole of that life.” Synecdoche? I had to look that one up. According to the dictionary it means “a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole.” That makes the book sound abbreviated, although at almost 600 pages it is hardly that.
The “Shoe Leather” Thing
Hendrickson is not an architectural critic, an art historian, or a Wright scholar; he is a writer. His last book, Hemingway’s Boat (Knopf, 2011), which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, was an exploration of the famous novelist through the lens of his lifelong obsession with the sea. Hendrickson teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania (full disclosure: I am an emeritus professor there). He is not a lifelong academic, however, having spent more than two decades as a staff writer for The Washington Post. In other words, he cut his teeth on newspaper reporting, an experience that colors his book. His research on Wright is not based only on written sources (although there are plenty of those: the bibliography lists more than a hundred titles). Instead, combining journalism and detective work, he calls up people, follows leads, hits the streets, talks to bystanders (the “shoe-leather thing”). The result makes for compelling reading.
For instance, in consulting the records of the University of Wisconsin, Hendrickson learned that Wright’s college education, which is sometimes described as an incomplete course in engineering (Wright himself claimed that he almost received a degree), actually consisted of only three classes: French, in which he received no grade, mechanical drawing, and descriptive geometry, both Cs. This is not to criticize Wright’s understandable desire to bolster his credentials, but rather to marvel, yet again, at the spectacle of an untutored 19-year-old who, only one year after arriving in Chicago, was working for Louis Sullivan, became his right hand, and only five years later set up his own shop.
The author encounters many dead ends, some of his subject’s own making. “The dilemma with Wright is that you have to keep lifting your arm and trying to brush your fingers across the raised surface of the stone monument of his pride, hoping that if you do this lightly enough and well enough you might be able to find—what? That essential thing trying to get out. The quality trying to show through from underneath, like pentimento,” writes Hendrickson in his characteristically lovely prose.
The author goes about “brushing the surface” not by speculating about Wright, as some novelists have done (T.C. Boyle in The Women and Nancy Horan in Loving Frank) but by examining the lives of various characters who played roles, big and small, in Wright’s life: an early and close architect pal, his clients, his wives (there were three) and children (six), and his father, whom Wright accused of abandoning his mother, although the reverse was actually true. These side excursions occasionally turn up nuggets of new (to me) information—for example, that Wright likely owed his creative genes to his father, a musician. But more often they simply provide a background texture that helps to add nuance and humanity to the book’s subject.
Wright really was plagued by fire, as the title suggests. Taliesin, his Wisconsin retreat, was ravaged by fire twice, and almost burned again a third time. His winter home in Arizona likewise suffered a conflagration. And there is more. “It almost seems as if the histories of certain Frank Lloyd Wright houses are trying to reproduce his own history of calamitous fall, improbable comeback, lurid headlines, quiet beauty, incalculable sorrow, financial desperation, sexual intrigue, unsolvable riddle, and, not least, the determination to survive—no, to triumph,” writes Hendrickson. The young industrialist who was Wright’s client for the famous Robie House ruined the family business, was divorced by his wife, went bankrupt, and was obliged to sell his beautiful home after living in it for only two years. The wife of the owner of the three-story Heller House in Hyde Park, an unusual and groundbreaking 1896 design, was said to have fallen—or jumped—down the elevator shaft. The owner of the Bradley House in Kankakee, Ill., an early proto–Prairie Style house, committed suicide. The wife of the owner of Fallingwater died of an overdose of sleeping pills. And so on.
The greatest personal tragedy that befell Wright involved the first fire, in 1914, and the murder of his mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and her two children, as well as four employees, by a servant run amok who also started the blaze that consumed much of Taliesin. Plagued by Fire includes a chapter on the background of the killer, Julian Carlton, who was not from Barbados (as Wikipedia still claims) but from Alabama. Carlton, who was black, grew up in a small town during the violent era of lynchings and the Klan. Hendrickson traces his history, visits the town, and talks to distant relatives. He doesn’t answer the lingering question of “why,” but gives the reader a sense of what might have led to the terrible crime. When Wright returned to Taliesin to confront the tragedy (he had been in Chicago), Hendrickson paints a moving scene: There was a piano in an unburned part of the house, and Wright started playing Bach. “He played the music over and over,” he writes. “Supposedly, he played through his crying. No one disturbed him. It went on for a long time.”
Self-Inflicted Professional Suicide
Bad things happened to Wright, but some were of his own making. In the spring of 1909 he was 41, had been practicing for 16 years, and had built more than a hundred buildings (and designed twice as many). He had established a strong reputation as a residential architect with an original personal style, building houses of all sizes, including mansions such as the Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Coonley House in Riverside, Ill. He had also completed two significant nonresidential projects, Unity Temple and the Larkin Building, and a third, Midway Gardens in Chicago, was under construction. He was at the point in any ambitious architect’s career when he was ready to take the next step that would elevate him to the national stage—winning a competition for a significant public building such as a courthouse or a city hall, snagging a major federal commission in Washington, D.C., building a skyscraper in the Loop or in Manhattan.
Instead, Wright committed what amounted to professional suicide. He abandoned his family—and his practice—to run away to Europe with Mamah Cheney, the wife of a client. Only three years earlier, Stanford White had been murdered by the husband of a woman whom White had seduced when she was 16. White was a libertine, but his dalliances with actresses and showgirls, even if underage, were tolerated at that distant time. But abandoning a wife and six children, and breaking up another man’s marriage—a client, no less—was another matter. Wright was ostracized; during the ceremonial inauguration of Unity Temple, for example, his name was not mentioned. For the establishment, Wright became persona non grata. There were serious consequences: In his long life—there were 50 more years and many more commissions to come—he was never given the opportunity to build an important public building in a major city; his clients tended to be mavericks, outsiders like himself. Wright became America’s most famous architect, yet arguably his best-known work is a rich man’s weekend house in a remote corner of Pennsylvania.
What was he thinking that fateful spring of 1909? Wright was self-indulgent, but he could also be naive, almost childlike in his enthusiasms—that was part of his charm. It’s possible that he was simply unable to foresee the result of his rash decision. Or did he think that society’s norms did not apply to him, that he could flaunt them in ways others could not? We cannot know the answers to these questions, nor does this book try to provide them. There is always something slightly appalling about genius, and what Hendrickson achieves is to humanize his subject. He shows that Wright was not immune to remorse and shame, for example, and was much more self-aware than his often outrageous public pronouncements suggest. “I had to make a noise in the world, in order to gain as much of the world’s attention as I could,” Wright once told Brendan Gill. By humanizing his subject—and without resorting to armchair psychoanalysis—Hendrickson gives us a sense of how the single-mindedness, drive, and sensibility that informed and enabled Wright’s work also affected his life. This does not necessarily change our understanding of the work itself; architecture is not biography, there are too many outside forces: clients, builders, budgets, technology.
Let us give the old magus the last word. In a 1935 letter to Isabelle Martin, the recent widow of his close friend and long-suffering client, Darwin D. Martin, Wright wrote: “I only wish I had been less taking and more giving where he was concerned but character is fate and mine got me into heavy going—and no safe harbor yet in sight.”