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B I O G R A P H Y & A R C H I T E C T U R E

Architect of his own downfall

An eccentric synthesis of biography and autobiography

JOYCE CAROL OATES

PLAGUED BY FIRE The dreams and furies of Frank Lloyd Wright

PAUL HENDRICKSON 624pp. Bodley Head. £25.

AS OSCAR WILDE famously said, “Biography lends to death a new terror”. Yet he could not have foreseen a postmodernist subgenre of biography in which not the esteemed biographical subject but the biographer himself is preeminent, as in a film narrated by a voice that directs attention to itself and its own motives:

This book isn’t intended as a Frank Lloyd Wright biography, not in any conventional sense … Rather, [it] is meant to be a kind of synecdoche, with selected pockets in a life standing for the oceanic whole of that life. And: “this book seeks to be a biographical portrait more than true biography. But it’s also intended as group portraiture, with a central figure … prowling every page, even when he’s pretty far offstage”.

An eccentric synthesis of biography and autobiography, rife with speculation, rumours, myth-shattering and myth-making, sensationalized accounts of Wright’s personal life and highly detailed scrutiny of individuals only peripherally connected with Wright, Plagued by Fire: The dreams and furies of Frank Lloyd Wright takes for granted that the reader is already informed, from biographies by Grant Carpenter Manson, Meryle Secrest, Robert Twombly, Ada Huxtable, Neil Levine and Brendan Gill, among others, of the basic facts of the life of the greatest, and most controversial, of American architects. (The “single best piece of long-form journalistic criticism ever written about Wright” is, according to Paul Hendrickson, Lewis Mumford’s two-part essay in the New Yorker in 1953, on Wright’s mammoth exhibition Sixty Years.)

Beginning, not with a significant episode in Wright’s architectural career, nor with his family background, as a more conventional biography

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might begin, but abruptly, in medias res, with a luridly sensational account of the slayings, on August 15, 1909, of seven persons (including Wright’s common-law wife Mamah Borthwick Cheney and two of her children) at Wright’s Spring Green, Wisconsin home Taliesin, Plagued by Fire yields its information piecemeal, like a suspense novel. Through a blizzard of details and speculation on the part of the biographer, who forges ahead, behind, back and forth in time with the zeal of a forensic bloodhound, an intimate portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright gradually materializes, as a pointillist portrait comes into focus at a little distance: Wright was “an architectural genius possessed of an appalling character”.

Born in 1867, died in 1959, having imagined a thousand buildings of which more than 500 were built, the most famous (and for a long time the most contentious) being the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Wright was brilliantly creative through an astonishing career of seventy-two years. He is most revered for his “organic architecture” – his “prairie houses” – designed to complement surrounding landscape with open floor plans, lowpitched roofs, vertical windows in rows, strong horizontal lines, and building materials of local wood and stone. As Wright said: “The horizontal line is the line of domesticity”. And: “Organic architecture is based on the interior content, which we call the life of the thing. When architecture ceases to express the life of the people, what is it?” (In contrast to the vertical line, the line of urban development; and in contrast to Le Corbusier’s chilly proclamation, “A house is a machine for living in”.) Though in his personal life Wright rarely denied himself extravagant luxuries, he insisted on casting himself as a champion of democratic egalitarianism, in the lineage of such American Transcendentalists as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman; though he was influenced by the elegant sparseness of Japanese architecture, he defined himself as iconoclastic, rebellious, unique and without predecessors: “My work is original not only in fact but in spiritual fiber”. And, with revolutionary insolence: “I don’t build a house without predicting the end of the present social

TLS

Frank Lloyd Wright with his model for the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1953

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of, most recently, Pursuit. In spring 2020 she will be Visiting Distinguished Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick order. Every building is a missionary”.

Famously, or notoriously, Wright was a charismatic figure – for if a radically original architect is not a seducer of wealthy clients, how will his work be realized? Like many charismatic figures, Wright was drawn to exploiting his admirers, including women; he paid his employees and acolytes starvation wages, or none at all; at the time of the Spring Green slayings, Wright was in debt to a number of employees and local tradesmen, and breezily indifferent about paying what he owed; the pettiness recounted by his biographers is extraordinary. He seems to have had virtually no relationship with his children, and no shame in revealing his least admirable qualities to them: his son Robert Llewellyn Wright notes in a memoir that his father treated a creditor rudely in his presence and laughingly boasted afterwards, “Son, that’s the way you handle creditors”. His equally estranged son John Lloyd Wright acknowledged, in his own memoir, My Father Who Art on Earth, that he knew his famous father only at a distance yet admired him “in his great burst for freedom, jolting against the world at large with actions, at times, of shocking boldness; driving through life in chase of his own ideals”. (By which the son meant that he did not condemn even his father’s very public, and humiliating, abandonment, in 1909, of his first wife Kitty and their six children.) In his private copy of My Father Who Art on Earth Wright wrote of himself in the third person: “The man apparently was a sort of cleverconfidence-man – winning by sheer dexterity over those of more solid worth … Many suffered in silence that he might glitter … I know! I know!” From one so besotted with his own uniqueness, and so sensitive to the criticism of others, this is a remarkable insight on Wright’s part, but it seems to have had no effect on his behaviour.

When Wright left Kitty, his wife of twenty years, to elope to Europe with Mamah, the wife of a wealthy client, it nearly destroyed his professional career; after the Spring Green slayings, which received national attention, it was common for newspapers to denounce Frank Lloyd Wright as an adulterer whose “violent and lawless loves have violent and lawless

JANUARY 24, 2020

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