July 12, 2008

"Loving Frank" - A Novel About Frank Lloyd Wright

While Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is considered to be one of the greatest American architects of all time, his personal life remains almost as intriguing as his professional career. Born in Wisconsin to a family of Unitarian ministers, Wright showed a gift for creating and building as a kindergartner and began his formal studies in architecture as a very young man. He was soon hired by the Chicago firm of Adler & Sullivan and within a few years was designing residences known as "Prairie Houses", extended low buildings with open floor plans, that were revolutionary in plan and very popular.

It was a commission for a Prairie House in Oak Park, Illinois, that opened the door for a series of events that forever impacted his personal life and more recently set the stage for a marvelous novel by Nancy Horan. "Loving Frank" follows the illicit romance between the architect, married at the time to Catherine "Kitty" Tobin and the father of 6 children, with Martha "Mamah" Borthwick Cheney, who, with her husband Edwin, hired Wright to design their home in 1903. By the standards of the time, Mamah Cheney was a "modern woman" - educated, independent and had interests outside the home. Frank Wright had a reputation as a "man-about-town" and before long an irresistible attraction developed between the two and they fell in love. It was, at first, a clandestine relationship, but in 1910 Frank Wright left for Berlin to work on a portfolio he was publishing with Ernst Wasmuth, and Mamah soon followed him, both leaving their spouses and children behind.

The novel follows their lives as the romance is kindled, their year in Berlin and Italy, Mamah's connection and translation work for the Swedish feminist Ellen Key, and the couple's return to the United States. The affair had made headlines in their absence and the homecoming was not an easy one. While Edwin Cheney finally agreed to a divorce, Kitty Wright was not giving in, and Frank and Mamah were greeted by a hostile press and a drying up of funds as clients demonstrated their disapproval by reneging on commissions.

Eventually Frank Wright persuaded his mother to sell him a large piece of property in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where he began building a home that would embody his principals of "Organic Architecture" and provide a self-sufficient sanctuary for he and Mamah. That home was Taliesin. Their paradise was not to last however. In 1914, Mamah, her 2 children, and 4 employees were hacked to death as a deranged servant set fire to the house and killed as many as he could inside.

Here is where the story ends. Not a happy ending, but a powerful one, and a gripping climax to a very good read. Frank Wright went on to fame and fortune, 2 more marriages and another child. His architectural masterpieces include "Fallingwater" in Bear Run, PA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, NY and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, and his legacy has achieved a cult status. "Loving Frank" is a historically accurate and very well written look at this American icon's early life and career.

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