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Last Exit Magazine « The Mistress of Taliesin

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[published: August 07, 2008]

The Mistress of Taliesin

Frank Lloyd Wright’s many renovations haven’t exorcised the ghost of his murdered mistress from Taliesin, the home the famed architect built for her in Wisconsin.

If my mother had been born 30 years later — if she had been part of my generation instead of hers — she probably would have been an architect.

Instead, she was a kindergarten teacher because my grandfather thought that was an appropriate profession for a woman and he paid most of her college tuition. Still, she managed to create, designing two homes my father built before his death and a third she lives in now.

When she’s in full-on construction mode, she’ll walk neighborhoods, scrutinizing homes of all sorts to steal ideas. Once, she pulled me right up to a window of a stranger’s home to look at the interior features. I remember hoping we wouldn’t be caught and arrested.

Thus, it was no surprise that my mother’s email telling me that she wanted to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate on her next visit to Wisconsin was quickly followed by a package containing my homework for the trip: I was to read Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s meticulously researched historical novel about Wright’s mistress.

“She was a feminist,” my mom said. “She was concerned about the right to vote, women having careers. She was ahead of her time.”

She also left her husband and two children for Wright, an arrogant and spendthrift jerk.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Wright was born in part of the Driftless Area in western Wisconsin. When the glaciers scraped the Midwest flat, they bypassed that region, leaving its hills and valleys untouched and loaded with rich topsoil. Today, it’s a hotspot for organic farming.

In Horan’s book, Wright compares the hills in Spring Green to those surrounding Florence, Italy. I’ve never been to Florence, but I do know the Driftless Area looks more like New England than the eastern part of Wisconsin where I live.

Wright spent his adolescence in Madison, the state capital and gateway to southwestern Wisconsin, before moving to the Chicago suburbs to start his career and family.

In 1903, a prosperous electrical engineer named Edwin Cheney hired Wright to design a home for him and his wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. The Cheneys and Wrights became friends. Then Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney became more than friends. They ran off to Europe together in 1909, leaving behind eight children between them.

Cheney’s husband divorced her, but Wright’s wife held on. Catherine Wright’s refusal to divorce her husband may have been spite, but Horan speculates that it was because she feared poverty. Wright was notorious for not paying his bills. It seems unlikely he would have paid child support or alimony in a timely fashion.

After about a year in Europe, Wright returned to the U.S. to try to resurrect his career. Newspaper accounts written during his lifetime say he reconciled with his wife.

Horan’s book gives a more ambiguous account of the period. Did he reconcile with his wife? Or did he only return to the house to woo clients frightened off by the public uproar over his affairs? (Mamah wasn’t the first.)

It is clear that by 1911, Wright had resumed his relationship with Mamah, who had remained in Europe. He convinced to her to return to the U.S. and built a house for the two of them in Spring Green.

To keep things quiet, he had his mother buy a plot of land overlooking the Wisconsin River. He positioned the house on the brow of the hill, where it melts into the landscape, and named it Taliesin, which is Welsh for “shining brow.” Nearly all of the surrounding property was owned by relatives, including Wright’s sister and two aunts who ran a boarding school.

The standing Wright’s family had in the valley made it hard for locals to snub the scandalous couple. But the Chicago media continued to dog them.

Horan describes Wright throwing one reporter out of the house, only to have a gaggle of others set up camp outside.

That may or may not have happened. But Wright must have felt considerable pressure from the newspapers because he agreed to an interview with a group of reporters on Christmas Day. The 41-year-old architect talked at length about the problems in his marriage and his affair with Mamah. In a Chicago Daily Tribune article published the next day, he self-righteously declares that conventions are for lesser men.

“I want to say this: laws and rules are made for the average,” Wright said. “The ordinary man cannot live without rules to guide his conduct. It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules to guide his conduct. It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules, but that is what the really honest, sincere, thinking man is compelled to do. And I think when a man has displayed some spiritual power, has given concrete evidence of his ability to see and to feel the higher and better things of life, we ought to go slow in deciding he has acted badly.”

There’s no comment from Mamah in the article, and I wonder what she thought as she sat, listening to Wright rant. She was educated, with two degrees from the University of Michigan, and had worked as a teacher and librarian. During her affair with Wright, she worked as a translator for the celebrated Swedish feminist Ellen Key. Did she realize Wright was digging their hole deeper with every comment? If so, how did she restrain herself from strangling him?

The affair lasted about three more years. Then, in August 1914, a servant who had been dismissed locked most of the doors and windows to the house, set it on fire and killed Mamah, her two children and four work men with a hatchet as they tried to flee.

My mom and I discuss this. Both of us wonder how one person could overpower four grown men. Luckily, the yellow press had no qualms about sharing the gory details. It seems the servant cut the men down as they came out of the house one-by-one. One worker stumbled as he ran out a door and the ax missed his head. He survived.

During our tour of Taliesin, a woman asks our guide where Mamah was killed. Several people on the tour have read Horan’s book. The guide says the porch where Mamah and her children died once existed near an area where a bird walk now juts off the great room and extends into the valley.

Later, I learn that the guides have been struggling to answer tourists’ questions about where events in Horan’s novel took place. Wright expanded and reconfigured the house when he rebuilt so the places Horan writes about no longer exist.

I wonder if he did this to forget or if it merely reflects his insatiable need to build? He rebuilt and expanded the house again after an electrical fire in 1925. The current version is sometimes called Taliesin III, although that is misleading too. Wright continued to remodel throughout his lifetime, using the house as a laboratory to test many of his ideas. If Taliesin was software, this version would be something like 3.6.

From the great room in the new Taliesin, Wright could see Unity Chapel and his family’s cemetery. He buried Mamah at night and marked the grave by planting a tree. A tour guide confides that although Wright said there was no gravestone worthy of his lover, he probably worried about desecration and was reluctant to mark the spot for all those offended by the affair.

Wright apparently received quite a bit of hate mail telling him the tragedy was punishment for a life of sin.

He was buried in the graveyard near Mamah in 1959. But in 1985, his remains were dug up, cremated and eventually scattered at Taliesin West, his estate near Phoenix.

That’s because his third wife was jealous of Mamah.

Within months of her death, Wright took up with a sculptor named Miriam Noel. He married her in 1923 after finally getting a divorce from his first wife. But Noel was a drug addict and the marriage crumbled within months.

Wright met Olga Lazovich Hinzenberg, known as Olgivanna, the next year. They had to wait four years before marrying because Noel dragged her feet on a divorce. But Olgivanna was a keeper, and the couple remained married until Wright’s death.

Both my tour guides at Taliesin noted that whenever they say “Mrs. Wright,” they were talking about Olgivanna. One explains that she didn’t like Taliesin much because it had been built for Mamah, the woman she saw as her rival.

“People refer to her as the love of Mr. Wright’s life,” my guide explained. “But that’s not true. Mrs. Wright was the love of his life.”

After touring Taliesin, my mom and I visit the cemetery where Mamah is buried. Wright’s gravestone is still there, although his body is not. Someone has placed a stone marker at the foot of the pine marking Mamah’s grave. A fresh rose lies on top of it.

My mom insists that Mamah changed Wright and made him more community-minded and an advocate for working women. She points to his establishment of an architectural school and his hiring of women architects.

I am skeptical – particularly since Wright was near bankruptcy when he established the school and seemed to be doing anything he could to keep himself afloat.

Who knows what Mamah’s legacy was? Wright apparently never talked or wrote about her. His autobiography barely refers to the affair or her death. Perhaps the subject was too painful.

But I like Mamah. I like her unconventionality and her willingness to take risks for love. If anything, I wonder if Wright deserved her. Then I look at the rose on her grave, and I know she is not forgotten, and that makes me happy.

Copyright Last Exit 2008


Reader Comments [2]

  1. 1.  

    Nice personal “touch” with “mom”.

    Also, the intergenerational viewpoint is good.

    Any more “travel with mom” stories?

    W. Loyd · Aug 14, 03:29 PM ·#

  2. 2.  

    What a wonderful article! It proves Kierkegaard’s observation that “Geniuses are like thunderstorms. They go against the wind, terrify people, cleanse the air.”

    How lucky for the writer (and her Mom) that they were able to experience this very personal story together.

    low.tide.junkie · Aug 14, 03:35 PM ·#

Comments closed