Before Fallingwater, he created the prairie houses. After Fallingwater, he built the Guggenheim Museum. He made two exceptional homes for himself: Taliesin East in Wisconsin and Taliesen West in Arizona. Frank Lloyd Wright had a long and varied career. And smack in the middle of that career he left his wife and six children to go off to Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. She, in turn, had left her husband and two children. They didn’t explain themselves then or later, just stood in the storm of controversy and abuse.
Nancy Horan has based her novel Loving Frank on what is known about the affair. Whereas Wright lived long and wrote prolifically — while saying almost nothing about these events — Mamah died young and wrote little. It’s a challenge for a novelist to show us how these two could have been drawn together in defiance of all the conventions of the time. The effort is parallel to David Lodge’s A Man of Parts about H. G. Wells, except that Wells left a flood of letters and writings, while Horan has much less to work with.
Frank Lloyd Wright and his work have been a long-term interest of mine. I have seen his buildings in Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida — and also closer to home. (See my slide show at Wright in Our Neighborhood.) Through his biographies I kow that he was a serious artist with a messy personal life and a tendency to live beyond his means. Horan understands, but does not exonerate him, and neither does the fictional Mamah:
“I know,” he said, “it’s madness.” He shook his head. “You can’t imagine. I hold off, and then this pent-up desire to buy things comes on. I don’t expect you to understand it, but it all springs from the same place — the good and the bad. This impulse to arrange things in space, to make harmony out of the right objects in relation to each other. What can I say? It’s an insatiable..”
“Affliction,” she said. It’s a sickness, Frank. You cannot use your gifts to justify cheating other people.”
But Mamah Borthwick Cheney? Surely, I thought, an artist-groupie in love with Wright’s vision and blind to her personal responsibilities. Horan depicts her, successfully I think, as a person with a real gift for languages and a true aesthetic sense. She also shows that Mamah was naive about the price that she, Wright, their spouses and children would pay for expressing their their freely chosen love. In Europe she meets Swedish philosopher and writer Ellen Key and learns Swedish so that she can translate Key’s writing for American women. Initially Key supports her, but then decides that motherhood is more important.
In reading the account of your departure from the United States two years ago, I find myself much concerned about the manner in which you have chosen to pursue certain choices. It has been my belief and expressed philosophy that the very legitimate right of a free love can never be acceptable if it is enjoyed at the expense of material love…. I urge you to reconsider this matter and return to your children if there is any question of their happiness.
Wright and Mamah struggle on, still very bound to each other. Mamah continues to develop her own talents, for translating and for writing, but looks back on her life choices with some regret.
But what had she done with all that ambition? Attached herself to two colossal personalities. Spent herself on Frank Lloyd Wright and Ellen Key, who would have done great work without ever having down her. Poured her soul into defending the sanctity of the individual while John and Martha slid from her grasp.
The final price she and the children pay seems undeserved, although it really did happen and no novelist can change the final disaster. Wright did not deserve to lose them either, whatever his faults. He went on to new creations, a new wife and, finally, great recognition, but it was the end of the story for Mamah Borthwick Cheney.