These works notwithstanding, it seems the architect never stopped working on his greatest creation: himself. As Paul Hendrickson puts it in his new book, “Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright,” the man in the cape and the wide-brimmed porkpie was “such a fantastic fabricator” on his own behalf “that it’s become something of a cliche among his chroniclers to say he barely grasped the basic concept of truth telling.” Also well known, at least among the architecture set, are “the vulgar narcissism and arrogance and bombast and egocentrism and reckless financial — not to say moral — ways” of this self-proclaimed, and yet actual, genius.
That may sound off-putting. Aren’t we contending with enough high-profile narcissism these days? But readers of this biography will begin to see these things as only part of a complex self. As he did in his last book, “Hemingway’s Boat,” Hendrickson, a former Washington Post reporter, employs tremendously rigorous research to interrogate the myths that hang around his larger-than-life subject. His is not an effort to exonerate (or make excuses for the bad behavior of yet another white male artist!) but to dig deeply into who Frank Lloyd Wright really was.
“So much of his history was attended by the gothic and the tragic, encircled by it, pursued by it,” writes Hendrickson, who lays his narrative foundation with a horrific event from Wright’s life. In 1914, Wright was already well known. He had built the homes that would come to exemplify the Prairie style, as well as the jewel-box-like Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill. Five years had passed since he had abandoned his wife, Kitty Tobin, and their children, for Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. The scandal had played out in all the newspapers, in which Wright came off as obtuse and entitled, if not morally bankrupt. He’d since established some calm at his Taliesin estate in Spring Green, Wis. But on Aug. 15 of that year, while Wright was in Chicago, this new life was destroyed: A crazed servant named Julian Carlton set fire to Wright’s residence and murdered Cheney, her two young children and four others with a shingling ax.
What can a person do after such a thing? And where can a biographer go? In Hendrickson’s case the answer is wherever the search for Wright’s psyche leads him. The title of this book refers not only to the terrible ways in which literal fire kept coming after Wright in the years that followed, but the extent to which he was burned by the events of his life and sometimes by his own actions.
This thick volume is not meant to serve as an introduction to Wright or his artistic trajectory — his relationship to Japanese aesthetics, for example, or the Arts and Crafts movement, or larger Modernist forces. (I suspect Hendrickson himself might recommend the slimmer “Frank Lloyd Wright: A Life” by the late great critic Ada Louise Huxtable for that purpose.) That is not to say that it doesn’t cover Wright’s notable projects or his notions about “organic architecture” with a great deal of attention and care. If anything, the author overdoes it, parsing too many chronologies and splitting too many hairs with previous Wright biographers.
But Hendrickson’s persistent and expansive curiosity, which has driven books on the Vietnam era and the American South, among other subjects, also takes readers beyond Wright in important, revelatory ways. No man — no self-indulgent designer of handsome spaces — is an island, and a lot of effort here goes into learning about other human beings, many of whom were beset by their own troubles: family members, clients and even the insane, murderous Julian Carlton. And so Wright’s narrative becomes part of a larger story that also involves the Great Migration, the horror of the Tulsa Race Riot, the legacy of the Transcendentalists, the tradition of the New England pulpit and the beginning of suburban sprawl. What this suggests: There is no American life that isn’t bound up with our larger cultural history.
“If harmony and order were his great artistic ideals,” Hendrickson says, “Wright could find little of them in his own debt-plagued, scandal-wracked, death-haunted history.” Passing through his darknesses makes you see his buildings, and all that flow, beauty and light, in a new way.
John Glassie is the author of “A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change.”
PLAGUED BY FIRE
The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright
By Paul Hendrickson
Knopf. 624 pp. $35