15 October 2007

Loving Frank

I went to Western Pennsylvania this weekend because two of J's childhood friends were getting married. Going on plane rides means that I need a new book or two, and this trip was no exception. I picked up Loving Frank and The Boleyn Inheritance.

I haven't started reading the Boleyn Inheritance, but I finished Loving Frank this morning. I am a sucker for historical fiction; this trip felt like the perfect time to indulge that urge. Plus, the other book I had really wanted to bring was the Half Blood Prince, but I could hear J groaning when I picked it up, and he wasn't even there.

Loving Frank follows the life of Martha "Mamah" Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress, from around 1903 until her death in 1914. This oft overlooked woman is usually "a footnote in the life of America's greatest architect," but in this book she shines. We finally learn a little bit more about Mamah (pronounced 'May-mah') Borthwick Cheney and her role in the American feminist movement (which is slight but notable), and the book even seems to treat her as Wright's first real love. The book ends with the tragic and untimely death of Mamah and her children in Taliesin, the house Wright designed for Mamah and himself after he deserted his first wife, Catherine, and their six children.

I have always wanted to know more about this mistress that Frank Lloyd Wright had, mostly because I crave details about tragic and clandestine love affairs of most famous people, especially ones that I admire. It's hard to find information about Mamah, aside from summaries of her murder which are usually just in the details about the demise of Taliesin. She obviously meant a lot to Wright, but on the other hand they only knew each other for a grand total of nine years, and the affair coincides suspiciously with a huge artistic/mid-life crisis on Wright's part. Even Mamah, through the voice of Nancy Horan admits that Frank was already and always a shining star in this world, and would have been even without her in his life. This is not to discount her, but she certainly wasn't his first mistress, and even though it's very possible that they may have been happy together if she had survived, he didn't seem to have a habit of staying faithful to any one woman (which reminds me of Roman Polanski in some ways).

I was angered throughout the book by Frank and Mamah, two incredibly selfish people who destroyed the lives of their families in the pursuit of their own happiness, but I have a soft spot for FLW's architecture, which helps me overlook his shortcomings as a father. In Mamah's case, the destruction was quite literal, since both of her children died with her that day at Taliesin, but many other accounts seem to say that Frank Lloyd Wright's children did not appreciate their father's desertion very much. While I tend to agree with most of Mamah's feminist views, on principle, she seemed to be living a social experiment with Wright simply to push her own feminist agenda -- one that seems sad when you take into account her children.

In the end, it was a beautifully written book, even though I felt that it romanticizes the relationship to the point of making it seem silly. Mamah's obsession with Frank sounded very much like my high school crushes: childish fantasies where I could not see anything outside of my desire. The biggest difference is that I was a child, myself, and she was a woman with children. I have some sympathy for her because she grew up in a different time, but much of her relationship with Frank seemed unstable to me, and if she hadn't perished in that fire, I sincerely doubt they would have made it to the end. Still, this is conjecture based on pure (albeit thoroughly researched) fiction since much of her correspondence was burned with her in Taliesin. The book was thoughtfully written and felt true to the characters, but it was pieced together using Frank's life and a meager ten letters from Mamah to Ellen Key.

If your things are architecture, feminism, and historical fiction, I highly recommend this book, although I would also recommend it if you like Cosmo, Glamour, or Chick-lit. There's a lot more "Bridges of Madison County" in this book than there are accounts of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural influence on anyone but Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

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