MANY MASKS

A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright

By Brendan Gill

Putnam. 544 pp. $24.95

TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS after his death, in an age of architectural stardom he helped to create, Frank Lloyd Wright remains the most famous American architect. Respect for his great works is but one of the reasons. Today, even more than during his lifetime, Wright's name is marketable; objects he designed, including whole buildings or parts of them, fetch ever-increasing prices at auction or in private sales; unexecuted plans he made are bought up and built. And, of course, his long and tumultuous life continues to fascinate.

In this biography -- informative, entertaining, gossipy, contentious, affectionate, irreverent and, ultimately, reverential -- Brendan Gill brings Wright the man alive as no previous biographer has done. Gill, a much-published author and a long-time writer for The New Yorker magazine, first encountered Wright in splendid old age, at a time when the architect was traveling constantly between the remarkable working retreats he had created -- the two Taliesins, east and west -- and to and from campuses and cities around the country. At the Taliesins Wright enjoyed his status as "resident deity," while in New York and elsewhere he relished his role as a "professional great man" -- the last pair among the many masks, Gill says, the architect had adopted to cultivate jobs, clients, admirers and fame while shielding himself and his exceptional talent from criticism, due and undue.

Gill's portrait, though sympathetic, is unflinching. The Wright that emerges from his scrutiny is, in the abstract, like Nietzsche's superman -- a passionate creator whose gift to the world "far outweighs the persistent, outrageous selfishness of the giver." Gill's Wright, simply put, is a genius; there's no other word to encompass his architectural achievements. But he also is a complex, vital, specific human being -- "a virtuoso at bearing false witness," "a confidence man of infinite charm" who, "disconcertingly," turned out "to be as great as he said he was."

Wright's Autobiography, published initially in 1932 when he was 65 and almost literally out of work, and expanded for a second version published in 1943, remains his great testament but, as Gill is not the first to point out, it is notoriously unreliable. Wright was born in 1867, a fact he took care regularly to misstate, apparently for no other reason than he liked to be thought of as two years younger than he was. This little vanity is vastly outdistanced by the mythology of childhood and adolescence Wright felt compelled to create for himself, beginning with the megalomaniacal assertion that his vocation of architecture was prenatally chosen for him by his mother.

Gill persuasively argues the improbability, as well as the self-serving silliness, of this assertion. More tellingly, he is able to reveal the pain behind Wright's version of his early life. Wright sided in almost every instance with his mother's eggregiously distorted account of her marriage to (and divorce from) his father, not only from a need for self-glorification but also to hide from the world the reality of his early family life and of his long, inwardly bitter struggle with his doting mom.

He grew up in a succession of small towns, mostly in the Midwest, following the restless pattern of his preacher, lawyer, musician father, William Cary Wright. The first of three children, he was the life-long favorite of his mother, ne'e Anna Lloyd Jones. But her possessiveness, Gill demonstrates, was bound to fail. When Wright, at 20 perhaps already sensing something of his great gifts, abandoned the failed nest for Chicago, his mother followed; she lived close by throughout his own years of domestic tranquility (or what passed for it) in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park; at age 81, even, she hastened to join her son (he was then in his early 50s) in far-away Tokyo upon hearing of his none-too-serious illness there. But by then she had become very near an irrelevancy in his own intensely creative, highly unconventional life.

It was this blunt fact, Gill suggests, that Wright felt compelled to conceal when writing his autobiography a few years after his mother's death in 1923, for he had, as a younger man, "ruthlessly outwitted her in the succession of tyrannies that she attempted to impose on him." By accepting his mother's version of his youth, Wright also was giving in to a need, Gill postulates, to construct an indirect defense against the social ostracism he himself faced. The break-up of his own first marriage, in the early 1910s, had been accompanied by a sensation of publicity (much of it generated by Wright himself), and his private life since that time had been lived in the public light.

The virtue of Gill's book is that, as no writer has previously done, he examines each of the dramatic episodes in Wright's life in great detail. He does not always unearth fresh material or offer new insights -- he cannot, for instance, penetrate the motivations of the servant who slaughtered Wright's mistress, Mamah Bothwick Cheney, and six others at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., on Aug. 14, 1914. Those secrets died with the killer, who committed suicide in jail. Nor are Gill's speculations always seemly. He suggests, on the basis of slight evidence, that one of the hidden reasons behind the split between Wright and his early, great mentor and colleague, Louis Sullivan, may have been that Wright "had embezzled a sizeable portion of the funds that Sullivan had entrusted him with" for the purchase of "Oriental rugs and other household valuables."

But mostly Gill is able to unravel the trail of Wright's mystifications and to summon other witnesses, other evidence (from letters, interviews and voluminous secondary sources) in order to set the events in Wright's "roller-coaster" life in a complex, believable context. He's at his best when describing the many, many occasions in which Wright was able to cajole vast sums of money from otherwise fiscally circumspect clients so as to build buildings that, almost always, greatly overran the architect's absurdly low cost estimates and that, as often as not, were the buildings Wright (and not the clients) wanted to build.

This was a curious dance that went on throughout Wright's professional life and Gill is doubtless correct to say we're all the better for it. Wright's buildings, especially his houses, are as good as they are not only because of their unusual (and greatly influential) open floor plans and their uniquely Wrightian sculptural forms, but also because, as a rule, Wright lavished his personal attention on their every detail. Pencil in hand he was able, as in the famous case of Fallingwater, that unbelievably beautiful apparition in the Pennsylvania woods, to summon a brilliant design in just an hour or so of inspired mental labor. But rarely did he let a loved design go; for Wright designing was a hands-on, almost improvisatory process, and, let the flat roofs leak and the dollars (of others) fall where they might, he would make changes to the final, exasperating, exhilarating moment.

Gill's work is, decisively, a life and not an architectural or intellectual history, though, since Wright is his subject, he thoroughly covers the architectural ground. He's opinionated -- the Beth Shalom Synagogue near Philadelphia is the best of Wright's late works, he says, notwithstanding the fact that it was built simultaneously with the Guggenheim Museum. He's insightful -- Unity Temple, the strangely glorious early Wright church in Oak Park, owes a great deal to Joseph Maria Olbrich and the turn-of-the-century Vienna Secession, he proves, notwithstanding Wright's protestations to the contrary. He's pointedly irreverent -- "for all {Wright's} preaching to the contrary, he, too, often permitted his structures to dominate a landscape instead of accommodating to it."

But for systematic interpretation of the architecture readers might want to turn to the many specialized volumes, such as Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr.'s recent account of Fallingwater or Jonathan Lipman's excellent study, also recent, of the Johnson Wax buildings, or to Peter Blake's short architectural biography, or to Henry-Russell Hitchcock's In the Nature of Materials, which, despite its early date (1942) and its effusive enthusiasm, remains the most satisfying comprehensive book on the architecture. Gill's book, however, fascinates in ways none of the others possibly can -- reading it is like sitting down for a few evenings with a contrary, brilliant, extraordinary soul, and being mesmerized despite all.

Benjamin Forgey is architecture critic of The Washington Post.