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by By Ed Buch, CSI, AIA,
BuchNotes #56, Oct. 3, 2014
Those of you who have been reading BuchNotes for a while know that I stick to non-fiction books on design and construction related topics. This time I’m making an exception. I’m reporting on a book of fiction but one that is based on historical facts in the non-architectural life of one of America’s most famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, was a New York Times bestseller when it came out in 2007. It is a fictional account of his years-long extramarital affair with the wife of a client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
The story began in 1903 when FLW designed a new home for Edwin and Mamah Cheney in Chicago’s Oak Park. It concludes with Mamah’s gruesome and untimely death in August 1914 at Taliesin in Spring Green, WS . In between it describes the struggles both of them had with conflicting desires to be true to themselves on the one hand, and at the same time to be good parents to their children; Mamah had two children and FLW had six. Mamah was a university educated woman, a proto-feminist, in a society not ready for feminism. FLW, in addition to being a well known architect, had a reputation in Chicago as a man about town. In 1909, when Mamah decided to travel to Europe with FLW where he spent several months working on a book of his drawings, the affair became public knowledge. Headlines in the Chicago papers broadcast the news that they had abandoned their families, “Living in Sin”, was one characterization of their relationship. Divorce wasn’t common in the early 20th Century, at least not without significant social stigma. It wasn’t until June of 1911 that Mamah was divorced while FLW was never divorced by his wife Catherine.
A considerable portion of the book focuses on Mamah’s story especially her attraction to the thinking of the Swedish philosopher, feminist, and author, Ellen Key, whose ideas were very well known in Europe at the turn of the Century. Mamah was employed by her to make the Swedish to English translations of her books, “The Women’s Movement” and “Love & Ethics”.
The book doesn’t include very much insight to FLW’s architectural practice during the period beyond mention of the couple’s travel to Japan at the beginning of the Imperial Hotel project. It also mentions the terrible way in which FLW ran the business side of his practice. He was frequently behind on payments to creditors to the point where it was starting to have a negative effect on his relationship with Mamah. Mamah often had to intervene on behalf of people to which FLW owed money.
In late 1911 construction of Taliesin was underway in Spring Green, WS. The book includes considerable description of the house, its construction, and the reaction to it by the residents in the surrounding towns. The Chicago papers described it as a “Love Nest” for FLW and Mamah. The book ends here in 1914 with the murder of Mamah and the arson fire that destroyed most of Taliesin.
The factual portions of the book were taken from several biographies of FLW, essays written by him, along with numerous newspaper articles, and other architectural books. The portions on Mamah were augmented by letters between Mamah and Ellen Key. Loving Frank was published in 2007 by Ballantine Books and has 377 pages without any photos or drawings.
Ed Buch, CSI, CCS, AIA, Los Angeles, CA
The Inland Empire Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute