Wednesday 22 May 2013

"The Women". Frank LLoyd Wright and his many Wives.

"Local gossips noticed Wright's flirtations, and he developed a reputation in Oak Park as a man-about-town. His family had grown to six children, but Wright was not paternal and the brood required most of Catherine's attention. In 1903, Wright designed a house for Edwin Cheney, a neighbor in Oak Park, and immediately took a liking to Cheney's wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Mamah Cheney was a modern woman with interests outside the home. She was an early feminist and Wright viewed her as his intellectual equal. The two fell in love, even though Wright had been married for almost 20 years. Often the two could be seen taking rides in Wright's automobile through Oak Park, and they became the talk of the town. Wright's wife, Kitty, sure that this attachment would fade as the others had, refused to grant him a divorce. Neither would Edwin Cheney grant one to Mamah. In 1909, even before the Robie House was completed, Wright and Mamah Cheney went together to Europe, leaving their own spouses and children behind. The scandal that erupted virtually destroyed Wright's ability to practice architecture in the United States.

Scholars argue that he felt by 1907 that he had done everything he could do with the Prairie Style, particularly from the standpoint of the single-family house. Wright was not getting larger commissions for commercial or public buildings, which frustrated him.

What drew Wright to Europe was the chance to publish a portfolio of his work with Ernst Wasmuth, who had agreed in 1909 to publish his work there. This chance also allowed Wright to deepen his relationship with Mamah Cheney. Wright and Cheney left the United States in 1909 going to Berlin, where the offices of Wasmuth were located.

The resulting two volumes, titled Studies and Executed Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, were published in 1911 in two editions, creating the first major exposure of Wright's work in Europe. The work contained more than 100 lithographs of Wright's designs and was commonly known as the Wasmuth Portfolio.

Wright remained in Europe for almost one year and set up home first in Florence, Italy – where he lived with his eldest son Lloyd – and later in Fiesole, Italy where he lived with Mamah. During this time, Edwin Cheney granted Mamah a divorce, though Kitty still refused to grant one to her husband. After Wright's return to the United States in October 1910, Wright persuaded his mother to buy land for him in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The land, bought on April 10, 1911, was adjacent to land held by his mother's family, the Lloyd-Joneses. Wright began to build himself a new home, which he called Taliesin, by May 1911. The recurring theme of Taliesin also came from his mother's side: Taliesin in Welsh mythology was a poet, magician, and priest. The family motto was Y Gwir yn Erbyn y Byd which means "The Truth Against the World"; it was created by Iolo Morgannwg who also had a son called Taliesin, and the motto is still used today as the cry of the druids and chief bard of the Eisteddfod in Wales.

On August 15, 1914, while Wright was working in Chicago, Julian Carlton, a male servant from Barbados who had been hired several months earlier, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and murdered seven people with an axe as the fire burned. The dead included Mamah; her two children, John and Martha; a gardener; a draftsman named Emil Brodelle; a workman; and another workman's son. Two people survived the mayhem, one of whom helped to put out the fire that almost completely consumed the residential wing of the house. Carlton swallowed muriatic acid immediately following the attack in an attempt to kill himself. He was nearly lynched on the spot, but was taken to the Dodgeville jail. Carlton died from starvation seven weeks after the attack, despite medical attention.

In 1922, Wright's first wife, Kitty, granted him a divorce, and Wright was required to wait one year until he married his then-partner, Maude "Miriam" Noel. In 1923, Wright's mother, Anna (Lloyd Jones) Wright, died. Wright wed Miriam Noel in November 1923, but her addiction to morphine led to the failure of the marriage in less than one year. In 1924, after the separation but while still married, Wright met Olga (Olgivanna) Lazovich Hinzenburg at a Petrograd Ballet performance in Chicago. They moved in together at Taliesin in 1925, and soon Olgivanna was pregnant with their daughter, Iovanna, born on December 2, 1925.

On April 20, 1925, another fire destroyed the bungalow at Taliesin. Crossed wires from a newly installed telephone system were deemed to be responsible for the blaze, which destroyed a collection of Japanese prints that Wright declared invaluable. Wright estimated the loss at $250,000 to $500,000. Wright rebuilt the living quarters again, naming the home "Taliesin III".

In 1926, Olga's ex-husband, Vlademar Hinzenburg, sought custody of his daughter, Svetlana. In October 1926, Wright and Olgivanna were accused of violating the Mann Act and arrested in Tonka Bay, Minnesota. The charges were later dropped. During this period, Wright designed Graycliff (1926–31), the summer estate of Isabelle and Darwin D. Martin.

Wright and Miriam Noel's divorce was finalized in 1927, and once again, Wright was required to wait for one year until marrying again. Wright and Olgivanna married in 1928."

Architect of desire: Frank Lloyd Wright's private life was even more unforgettable than his buildings
While Frank Lloyd Wright designed some of the most beautiful buildings of the 20th century his personal life was falling down around his ears. On the 50th anniversary of his death, Marcus Field tells a tale of axe murder, madness, drugs and redemption

 BY MARCUS FIELD   SUNDAY 08 MARCH 2009 in The Independent /

 March 1985: a grave in a dank, mossy cemetery near Spring Green, Wisconsin, is quietly opened, its contents removed and the earth piled untidily back into the ground. Only a handful of people know the body of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is being taken from its resting place of more than 25 years to be cremated in nearby Madison. The papers requesting the exhumation had been signed by Wright's daughter, Iovanna, by his third wife Olgivanna, whose dying wish had been that the ashes of their two bodies should be mixed together and interred at Taliesin West, their winter home in Arizona nearly 2,000 miles away.
 "Grave-robbing" is what Wright's son David called it when he found out. After the news became public, local officials wrote to Arizona to ask for the return of the remains. "Much more than ashes have been taken from Wisconsin – the citizens of the state have lost one evidence of our history, spirit and genius." Another of Wright's sons, Llewellyn, described the act as a desecration, while his granddaughter Elizabeth Wright Ingraham said: "I tried to sit on the fence, but I thought it was a gross miscalculation." But Iovanna stood firm and the ashes remained stored for several years in Arizona until a memorial garden was finally built.
 Today, Taliesin West is the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and a major attraction for fans of the architect's work. But the memorial garden is not on the public tour and there are no plans to mark the 50th anniversary of Wright's death on 9 April this year. All discussion about whether the ashes should be returned to Wisconsin has been shelved. Instead, there is a desire to move forward.
 "We have a duty to protect and preserve Wright's work," says Phil Allsopp, the British CEO of the foundation since 2006. "But we also have a duty to play a role in debates about the sustainability of the environments we make for ourselves. Architecture's influence on our environment is virtually nil. We want to change that." To this end, the school of architecture Wright established now runs accredited BA and MA courses and a popular summer school, while a major exhibition opening at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in May will explore, says Allsopp, "how buildings can work with nature, how they can fit into the landscape".
 Allsopp believes the foundation can become like Harvard or Yale, an intellectual powerhouse known for the quality of its ideas rather than the sensational stories of the guy who gave it his name. But escaping from the shadow of a man once described as "perhaps the greatest American of the early 20th century" is easier said than done. Of course Wright's buildings are iconic – 10, including the Guggenheim, which has its 50th birthday this year, are on a tentative list for World Heritage status. But even these magnificent buildings struggle to compete with Wright's life for sensation value. '
The myth-making began in his lifetime – he was a skilled self-publicist who basked in scandal, and enjoyed the speculation that he was the inspiration for Ayn Rand's 1943 bestseller The Fountainhead. But since his death, aged 91, in 1959, the legend has only grown. There have been biographies and memoirs, as well as exposés such as The Fellowship, which delved into the cultish community Wright built around himself. Novelists have also returned to the field, the latest being TC Boyle with The Women, out last week. But can anything in fiction be more extraordinary than the facts?
 Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867 of Welsh stock. His preacher grandfather, Richard Lloyd Jones, had crossed the Atlantic in 1844, bringing his wife and children with him. The Lloyd Jones family settled in Helena Valley, a fertile slice of the Midwest close to Chicago, and this sublime landscape became not only an enduring influence on Wright's work, but also the site of Taliesin, his beloved home. "I turned to this hill in the Valley," he later wrote, "as my grandfather before me turned to America – as a hope, and a haven."
 Wright's apprenticeship in the offices of several prominent Chicago architects served him well and he soon made his mark. In 1889, aged just 22, he designed and built a house for himself and his young wife, Kitty, in Oak Park, a new suburb on the edge of the city. It is a handsome example of the Arts and Crafts style, but in its first incarnation there is nothing to suggest its owner was anything other than a modern member of his profession. Soon, however, telltale signs of Wright's character show through. In 1893, after he was sacked from his job for moonlighting, he set up his own practice and began to extend the house to accommodate his growing family and office. His additions included a barrel-vaulted playroom entered, for dramatic effect, through a low, dark passage. His studio is a single-storey building of Japanese inspiration, which he built around a tree, an early example of how he incorporated nature into his work. His son John later recalled life with Wright at this period: "He was an epic of wit and merriment that gave our home the feeling of a jolly carnival."
 As Wright's designs became more experimental – his elongated, open-plan Prairie Houses are of this period – so his appearance and behaviour changed. He began to sport broad-brimmed hats, a red-lined cape and a cane; an ensemble that became his customary dress. One Spring Green resident remembered him coming into the bank in his suit and Stetson, but with bare feet. "You could do this," he said to the wide-eyed manager, "if you weren't so strait-laced."
 In 1909, the extent of Wright's midlife crisis really began to show. At 42, he left his wife and six children and ran away to Europe with Mamah Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. His impetuosity, especially where women were concerned, affected him all his life. "I am a house divided against itself by circumstances I cannot control," he wrote to his mother in 1910.
 In 1911, the couple returned and began to build what the local paper termed "a love bungalow" in Helena Valley. Soon they were living in such open adultery that the papers demanded an explanation. Wright issued a statement: "It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules. But that is what the really honest, sincere thinking man is compelled to do."
 The "love bungalow" turned out to be Taliesin, named for a Welsh bard, and was one of Wright's greatest achievements. The free-flowing house embraces courtyards and gardens, and hunkers down against the hills of his childhood. "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything," he later explained. "It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other."
 But, just a few years after its completion, on 15 August 1914, tragedy struck. It was a Saturday and Wright was working in Chicago when Cheney sat down to lunch with her two children and several workers from the estate. Julian Carlton, a servant who had recently been threatened with dismissal, was due to serve them. Instead, he poured paraffin around the building, locked all the doors, set fire to the house, then proceeded to hatchet seven of the nine occupants to death. Cheney and her children were among those killed. Carlton survived, but later died in custody after drinking acid.
 Wright was devastated. "All I had left to show for the struggle for freedom of the five years past that had swept most of my former life away, had now been swept away," he later wrote. But he wasted no time in rebuilding Taliesin, making it more elaborate than ever. He threw himself into his work and spent the next decade building the luxurious Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Site workers there were astonished to see the diminutive architect arrive in velvet suits, cuffed trousers and high-heeled shoes. Wright loved the culture of the country and assimilated many ideas from its buildings.
 Yet, after returning to Taliesin in the early 1920s, he struggled to find work. News of the international style, epitomised by Le Corbusier, had arrived in America and Wright, now in his fifties, seemed washed up. "You see I am bad, bad to the core, so what's the use," he wrote to a friend of his financial worries. For a while he tried working in LA, where his son Lloyd had a successful practice. There he designed Ennis House, a Mayan-looking structure that appears in Blade Runner; and Hollyhock House, an enormous folly for an oil heiress which had a sitting-room so large that the fireplace had a moat. But Wright was not a city lover and soon returned to Taliesin.
 In November 1923, after his divorce from Kitty became final, he married Miriam Noel, a bohemian clairvoyant and fantasist whom he first met in 1914. She addressed him as "Lord of my waking dreams" and he wrote to her, "I had not loved you much until I began to understand my hungry need... and your gifts came to me in the dark like a ray of hope." Their marriage was short and tempestuous, and after her behaviour became increasingly erratic, Wright discovered she was a morphine addict. Later, in the divorce proceedings, he was accused of beating her and calling her "vile, vulgar, indecent and abusive". She, in turn, admitted drawing a knife on him and threatening to use a gun.
 Noel and Wright were already estranged by December 1924 when a new, exotic addition joined the Taliesin household, a place where Wright's assistants lived in a proto-hippy community, growing their own vegetables and making music together in the evenings. Olgivanna Hinzenberg, a mystic and dancer from Montenegro, had followed her first husband to Chicago to sue for divorce. She already had a daughter, Svetlana, but was soon pregnant with Wright's child.
 But before the birth of the baby, tragedy struck again at Taliesin. In April 1925, an electrical fault caused a fire that burnt the house to the ground. It was insured for $39,000, enough to pay for the rebuilding but not to cover the loss of Wright's art collection, which was valued at around half a million dollars. His home was ruined and he was broke again, but he remained steadfast. "I suppose it's just a question of how much punishment one can stand," he wrote to a friend.
Then, after the birth of his daughter Iovanna on 2 December, yet another scandal broke: when Miriam heard about the birth, she tracked Olgivanna to the hospital, demanding to see "my husband's baby" and later tried to have Wright arrested under the Mann Act, designed to prevent the trafficking of immigrant prostitutes. He could have been forgiven for giving way under the pressure, but Wright rallied and soon staged the most remarkable comeback in architectural history.
In 1928, the year he and Olgivanna were married, the pair decided to invite paying students to live at Taliesin and study Wright's holistic approach to design by following his daily routine. By 1932, a small group had enrolled and the Taliesin Fellowship was born. It was a strictly unconventional education, and the architect expected his apprentices to work in the fields, cook and listen to the renditions of Bach and Beethoven he played on a Steinway grand in his studio. Indeed, Wright's vanity was legendary – he was once overheard singing "I am the greatest" to himself – which didn't make him easy to work for. One apprentice, the Austrian Rudolph Schindler, described Wright in a letter to his friend the architect Richard Neutra, thus: "He is devoid of consideration and has a blind spot regarding others' qualities. Yet I believe, that a year in his studio would be worth any sacrifice." And on meeting Wright himself, Neutra wrote: "He is truly a child, but not a well-behaved one."
 When questioned about his vanity, Wright justified himself by saying: "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose honest arrogance." Even those who suffered under his firm hand – his son John described "a lifelong struggle to avoid being destroyed" – agreed that Wright had saving graces. "He had so much life and energy; it shaped everyone around him," said his son-in-law Wes Peters.
 The arrangement at Taliesin helped support the household during the Depression. It also led to some of Wright's most important commissions, including Fallingwater, the exquisite house he built over a waterfall in Pennsylvania for Edgar Kaufmann, the father of one of the Taliesin Fellows.
 Fallingwater revived Wright's career, and during the last 25 years of his life he designed as many buildings as he had in the busy period from 1893 to 1911. The Guggenheim, the perversely round building in a city of straight lines, is probably the most memorable. But it is Wright's winter home near Phoenix that is the most beautiful. In 1937, he bought several hundred acres in Paradise Valley and built a "desert camp" where his school could relocate for the cold months of the year. Wright christened the house Taliesin West and its open-plan living quarters are furnished with rugs and low-slung chairs like a Bedouin tent. Seventeen of the original men and women who helped build it continue to live there today.
 Wright and Olgivanna ran Taliesin West as a community loosely based on the teachings of George Gurdjieff, the Armenian guru with whom Olgivanna had lived and studied before she met Wright. As well as a belief in the value of creative work, Gurdjieff's teachings called for daily forms of dancing, making Taliesin the subject of much derision. All this continued under Olgivanna's supervision after Wright's death, and later under the watchful eye of Wright's ageing apprentices.
For decades, Wright's reputation suffered, with the teaching at Taliesin regarded as crackpot and his buildings preserved as historic monuments rather than living architecture. But with increasing interest in low-energy, low-impact buildings, schemes such as Taliesin and Taliesin West are relevant again: both Wright's homes were built using local materials and were designed to be cool in summer and warm in winter without relying on mechanical ventilation.
There will also always be a fascination with the private life of a man who lived so large. The novelist Boyle, for example, became interested in Wright after he bought a Prairie House designed by the architect in 1909. His new work tells the story of Wright's three wives and Cheney, and after months of research, Boyle feels he understands his subject better. "Was he just a womaniser? I don't think so. He needed challenging, attractive women by his side. He could only create with his back against the wall and his relationships were essential to his work." As to whether his novel rakes up old dirt, Boyle is adamant that the architect's genius will always win through. "My book only adds to the sum of the legend. What really matters is that he made great buildings. Nothing can detract from that."

'The Women', by TC Boyle, is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99. Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward is at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 15 May to 23 August

'Slow Pay Frank' and his many wives

Sarah Churchwell is entertained and frustrated by the story of a great architect's failings
Sarah Churchwell
The Guardian, Saturday 7 March 2009

 Like so many self-styled great men, Frank Lloyd Wright appears to have elevated selfishness to a fine art. TC Boyle's 12th novel, The Women, opens with an epigraph attributed to Wright: "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose arrogance."

As the story opens, it is 1932 and Boyle's narrator, a fictional Japanese apprentice named Takashi Sato, is travelling to Taliesin, Wright's Wisconsin estate, to join Wright's "Fellowship", which, as Sato soon discovers, is a grandiose term for "milking money out of those gullible enough to think that [Wright's] aura could communicate anything bankable to them". Wright puts Sato to work along with the rest of his "apprentices" chopping wood, peeling potatoes, washing dishes. And what did Sato learn about architecture from his near-decade of domestic servitude? "I learned," he says, "that Taliesin was a true democratic and communal undertaking, save for the god in his machine who presided over it all in his freewheeling and unabashedly despotic way, and I saw too that a practising architect was like the general of an army, like the general of generals, and that a whole host of amenities, civilities and mores had to be sacrificed along the way to the concrete realisation of an inchoate design."
As Boyle's story makes clear, it wasn't just amenities, civilities and mores that had to be sacrificed: like most people of ruthless ambition, Wright was quite prepared to sacrifice others as well - always excepting those he currently deemed necessary to his emotional wellbeing. The Women tells the story of three of the four women who had that dubious honour, working backwards from 1932, as Wright is living in comparative domestic stability with his third and last wife, Olgivanna; to his profoundly unstable second wife, Miriam Maude Noel; and finally back to the lurid tragedy that shocked and titillated the nation, and which provides the horrifying climax to Boyle's tale, the appallingly violent death of his mistress and "soul mate", Mamah Borthwick Cheney, for whom Wright built Taliesin as a retreat from the scandal created by their adulterous affair.
Poor Kitty, Wright's first wife and the mother of six of his seven children, gets short shrift in fiction as in life: Boyle spares her little time or attention, preferring, like Wright, the more flamboyant personalities of the three women who became Wright's mistresses, because his current wives were curiously unwilling to grant him divorces upon demand. Boyle begins with Olgivanna, a former dancer and disciple of the mystic Gurdjieff, who finally had the backbone and survivor's instinct to hold Wright's almost comically entropic enterprises together. When Olgivanna and Wright met, he was still married to wife number two, Miriam Maude Noel Wright, southern belle, artist manqué and morphine addict, whose deranged jealousy drives much of the plot. Boyle is brilliant at recreating her drug-fuelled volatility.
Although Miriam had already left Wright when he took up with Olgivanna, she didn't go without putting up a tremendous fight. In what Boyle wonderfully terms "a fugue of litigious ecstasy", she threw every accusation at him she could think of, while also accusing Olgivanna of being an undesirable alien. She tried to take possession of Taliesin, pursued them from the midwest to California, had them arrested, harassed him with phone calls and letters, and broke into their house and smashed it up with an axe. She finally submitted to the divorce when Wright paid her off.
At which point the story jumps back in time to the beginning of Wright's affair with Miriam, as she pursued him in the wake of Mamah Cheney's murder. Their tempestuous relationship was punctuated by break-ups during which Miriam sent Wright histrionic letters, addressing him as "Lord of My Waking Dreams". Miriam knows that she is competing not only with Mamah's ghost, but also with two women very much alive, Wright's formidable mother and his jealous housekeeper, Nellie Breen, who responds to being fired by accusing Wright of violating the Mann Act by bringing Miriam to Wisconsin across state lines.
Once Wright's mother dies, Miriam is able to take over Taliesin, but she can't marry Wright until Kitty grants him a divorce. Meanwhile, they travel together to Japan, where Wright has been commissioned to build the Imperial Hotel, where they part and reunite; the section ends as they finally marry.
Then the narrative jumps back to the first affair, the first wronged wife, as Kitty confronts Wright's affair with Mamah, and Mamah decides to leave her own family in the name of free love. They flee together to Europe, where Mamah begins translating the Swedish feminist and advocate of free love Ellen Key, and eventually try to build a life together at Taliesin.
But they are shunned by neighbours outraged in equal parts by their living in sin and "Slow Pay Frank's" perennial refusal to honour his debts. As one cook explains to Mamah as she tenders her resignation: "It's sinful, that's what it is. And sin and pay is one thing, but sin and no pay I just can't abide." And so Wright hires a Barbadian couple, Julian and Gertrude Carleton, as cook and house-servant, and goes to Chicago to work on the Midway Gardens. While he is away, Julian Carleton takes an axe to Mamah, her two children, and four other members of the extended household, before burning Taliesin to the ground.
Because of the reverse plot arc, the reader knows Mamah's fate, more or less, from the outset. What remains in suspense is Carleton's motive. In fact, no one really knows why Carleton went on his homicidal rampage, although his imminent dismissal seems implicated, but Boyle adds a schematic and unconvincing contrivance: Mamah tries, quite absurdly, to educate Carleton in feminism and free love, and then fires him for beating his wife.
The real irony of The Women is that of all the formidable and often admirable women in Wright's life, only the unhinged Miriam really comes to life. The others remain underdeveloped, more gestures than fully realised characters. This seems primarily a consequence of Boyle's unnecessarily convoluted and repetitive structure, and his excess of mediating perspectives. Sato intrudes regularly, not only in the personal reminiscences that open each section - and which do bring Wright rather more to life than the rest of the narrative, partly because they focus on architecture, rather than on sex - but in arch footnotes that are presumably meant to be funny, but are more often distracting and pointless.
Whether it is Sato or Boyle who doesn't trust his reader to draw obvious connections is unclear. However interesting, and formative, the women in Wright's life may have been, the unavoidable fact remains that they are interesting in so far as they were involved with Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the greatest architects in history. But architecture remains in the margins of the tale, something Wright is off doing while his women pine. When we do encounter Wright, he is comically conning the locals, or "fully aroused, his face gone rubicund and his ears glistening like Christmas ornaments in the quavering light, [as he] breathed his answer against the soft heat of her lips". Really, I'd rather not. It's the (in Boyle's phrase) "continuous architecture" of Wright's mind, rather than of his relationships, that is missing from this rollicking, entertaining, frustrating story of a great man's failings.

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