Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Cad By Any Other Name...

Loving Frank
by Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan pulls off a remarkable feat here - she makes you feel sorry for a narcissistic philanderer. Loving Frank is the story of the relationship between famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his long time mistress, Mamah (pronounced MAY-mah) Borthwick Cheney. Of course Mamah is not blameless in the whole scenario, but somehow she comes off as more of a lost soul, whereas Wright often seems like a sleazy predator.

There is no doubt that Wright was a man of phenomenal talent, but if Horan's biographical novel is to be believed, he had a sense of entitlement that in the long run was detrimental to his career. He would rack up amazing amounts of debt on luxurious items, justifying it by saying that he had to be surrounded with beautiful things so that he could think properly and experience true artistic vision. He would fail to pay contractors and apprentices, saying that the "privilege" of working with him should be pay enough. What a jerk.

Nevertheless, if Horan is to be believed, there was genuine love between Cheney and Wright, and the early 1900s were not a friendly time for them. Between them, they had nine children, and the judgements of society on people who would leave spouses and children were harsh. They seem to have been worse for Cheney, but there is no question that both Cheney and Wright paid a high price for their love. One wonders if it was worth it. They had to move around Europe for the first several years of their cohabitation, because they were so ostracized in the United States. When they finally did resettle in the United States, Wright built his showplace home, Taliesin. Sadly, just as people were moving on to the next juicy bit of news and moving on from their outrage, the couple was finally settling into what promised to be a rich life together when a self-righteous lunatic brutally murdered Mamah Cheney and her two children. A tragic ending to a sad story. I was surprised how saddened I was by that part of the narrative - Horan did an excellent job of conveying the horrible loss that Wright (and Mamah's former husband Ed Cheney) had to endure, and the reader truly gets a sense of the world that Wright and Cheney had created for themselves crumbling to the ground.

A couple of things about the story that I have wondered about - one is the ever present double standard. Both of the protagonists were judged harshly but in the early 1900s Cheney definitely had the more difficult burden to bear. Not only did everyone assume she was some kind of a whore, but she had very few options as far as supporting herself if her relationship with Wright did not work out. She picked up some work as a translator, as she was very gifted with languages. Not to excuse or condone adultery, but she seems to have married her husband only because she did not know what else to do with herself. Then, many years later, she realized that she was living a terribly hollow life. One has to wonder if Mamah Borthwick Cheney lived today would her life turn out differently simply because she would have other opportunities.

The other thing I wonder about is the accuracy of Horan's portrayal. The book is very well-written and it makes a great story, but is it truthful historical fiction? For the most part, Cheney is cast as Wright's great love, the one who came closest to saving him from his worst excesses. There are a couple of allusions to possible other women, but usually it seems as if their relationship was exclusive. I really need to read a non-fiction bio of Wright to see if that is the way things actually were. I know T.C. Boyle recently published a novel called The Women, in which Cheney is only one of several of Wright's paramours. So what is the real deal? Anybody know? Or have suggestions for further reading about this couple?

Reverent Reader


At 9/4/09, 7:23 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




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