It's not quite true to say I almost rented a Frank Lloyd Wright house; it's more like I became aware of the possibility of doing so.
It was 1992 and I was working on a story about Wright's houses in the Phoenix area for New Times. One house I was particularly intrigued by--the Norman Lykes house, his final residential design and the project that was on Wright's drawing board when he died in 1959 and which was completed by his apprentice John Rattenbury in 1967--had been on the market for several years. The owners had just cut the asking price from $1 million to $650,000.
When I visited the Lykes house, which sits just below the crest of a mountain on the edge of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve and commands a spectacular view of the sprawling metropolis in the valley below (a view which disappears when you sit down in the custom furniture Wright designed for the house), I discovered a young student living there. She paid some nominal rent, but mainly she was there as a caretaker. And the house required a lot of care. She was about to move out and, had I not already accepted a job in Arkansas, I might have been able to take her place.
Anyway, the house sold in 1994, and the new owners commissioned Rattenbury to renovate it; the five closet-sized bedrooms were turned into three traditionally sized ones. Reportedly the new owners restored the house to glory and kept faith with the wishes of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. They still own it, though it's going up for auction on Oct. 16. (You can see the listing at tinyurl.com/y6cmzksr.) It's being sold without reserve and there is no minimum starting bid.
I can't afford it now.
That 1992 story wasn't the first or last I'd written about Wright and his work; while I am by no means a Wright scholar, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about him over the past 30 years or so. I've read most of the popular books about him and quite a few academic ones. I've talked and corresponded at some length with quite a few people who knew him, including Edgar Tafel, one of Wright's first apprentices who worked with him on Fallingwater and the Johnson Wax Building, and Arkansas' E. Fay Jones, who learned from Wright but never became his satellite.
I have voiced my imperfectly informed opinions about him, and received querulous letters from people I uncharitably think of as the artist's acolytes. When I started writing about Wright, there were still a considerable number of people around who knew and worked under him--if there are any left, they seem quieter these days. The last few times I've mentioned Wright in print no one has bothered to wag a rhetorical cane in my direction.
There's nothing novel about my opinion of Wright; it's the conventional one. He didn't pay his bills and didn't love his children. He didn't design buildings for his clients to use; he designed them for the ages. He was a nasty piece of work who, despite a chilling deficit of empathy, is one of the three or four greatest artists this country has produced.
Paul Hendrickson, once a staff writer at The Washington Post, now an academic and the author of several excellent works of nonfiction, takes issue with that conventional opinion in his latest book, Plagued By Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright (Knopf, $35).
Like me, Hendrickson is fascinated by one particular tragedy in Wright's life; on Aug. 14, 1914, a servant at Taliesin, Wright's house in the Wisconsin countryside, murdered Wright's lover, Mamah Borthwick, her two children and four of Wright's employees. The servant set fire to the house, then hid in the ruins after drinking acid that burned his throat and made it difficult for him to speak or eat.
Seven weeks after the incident he died of starvation in the local jail. (I've told that story a lot over the years; I've made use of it in songs and poems. I'm grateful to Hendrickson for pointing out a couple of errors I've repeated. The servant's name was Julian Carlton, not Carleton, and he was not from Barbados but from Alabama.)
If you know anything about Wright, you know about his affair with Borthwick, the wife of a client, Edwin Cheney, and a neighbor of Wright's in in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. While Wright was working on the house, he fell in love with Mamah. She left her husband, Wright left his wife and six children, and together they fled abroad on what she called a "spiritual hegira." It was a national scandal. When they returned, Wright built Taliesin for her.
The day the house burned, Wright was in Chicago, overseeing work at Midway Gardens on Chicago's South Side in the company of his grown son John Lloyd Wright. In his famously unreliable and occasionally bizarre memoir My Father Who Is On Earth, John wrote that he made arrangements for his father to travel back to Taliesin.
"Mr. Cheney was on the train too," he writes. "I got a compartment and shoved Dad and Mr. Cheney into it to save them from being crushed by reporters who were already crowding in on us . . . From the moment he clasped Dad's hand there was a closeness between them, a grief-stricken, mute understanding. From there on the only words I remember hearing uttered between them were when Mr. Cheney took his departure at noon the next day. The remains of his two little girls were in a box he held in one hand." (John is a bad reporter; there was a son and a daughter.)
Edwin Cheney presents as boring, bald, soft-middled and respectable. He was an electrical engineer who played golf. By the time his children were murdered, he had remarried; he still lived with them and his new wife in the house he had commissioned Wright to build. He had proposed to Mamah several times before she said yes.
Cheney presents as the humble antithesis to the cad Wright. Maybe he wasn't all that decent. Maybe Wright was capable of tenderness and affection. Hendrickson has impressed me but he hasn't convinced me Wright was as much victim as victimizer. I wonder if he's quite convinced himself.
Nor am I sure that it matters; we know bad people are capable of making great art. So are decent people. Plagued By Fire is more concerned with Wright's life than his work and that makes for compelling reading. But Mick Jagger was wrong to insist "it's the singer not the song."
Trust the art, not the bastard who made it.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 10/08/2019