What do the Guggenheim Museum and the bronze tile of a ginkgo leaf over my stove have in common? Frank Lloyd Wright. He was the architect for the Guggenheim and his influence pioneered many designs that include craftsmanship, nature, and if there is a suggestion of Asian design, so much the better. Houses all over the world include decorative elements that reflect Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence to some degree. Enough about Frank and me. Loving Frank is really about Mamah Borthwick Cheney. She loved Frank … and her children, and her freedom. That’s where things got tricky. They weren’t Frank’s children (he had six of his own). Mamah had to choose between conventional motherhood, circa 1910, and her own happiness. Since she couldn’t support herself, she was never truly free. Cheney had a fine education but the times did not encourage most women to devote themselves to a career. The few that did were singularly driven, usually privileged and rare. She packed her bags and left her husband, two children and a life of domestic security, albeit boredom to be Frank Lloyd Wright’s soul mate. He was never free to marry her and she suffered far more public scorn for her scandalous lifestyle than he did. I can only assume that taking her children with her wasn’t an option. Of course it wasn’t an option! Frank Lloyd Wright made it clear that he wasn’t interested in living with children: anyone’s children including his own. There were visits but much longer separations. Frank and Mamah beat their breasts in parental guilt. But that was all forgotten when the next party in Paris or Berlin was ready to start or the afternoons in Fiesole, Italy were just too lazy to do anything but lounge in the garden. What children?
Most Frank Lloyd Wright biographies mention Mamah but no one had written about her life until Nancy Horan created a fictionalized biography. Scholars often struggle with the fictionalized part but Horan’s careful research has allowed little stretching of the facts. Her account was readable and I was not able to deduce from her book if the author was horrified, supportive or indifferent to Mamah’s decisions. We readers are left to judge for ourselves.
For me, I see Frank Lloyd Wright as one of the many brilliant, creative and charismatic men we’ve seen even in modern times whose personal life is in shambles. If Wright had attended a Governor’s Conference in this country, he would have been among friends. The more benevolent thinking is to realize that in extraordinarily brilliant people, there is frequently, as the pop psychologists say, “risk taking behavior.” For Mamah, I’m torn. I want to write her off as a woman who took the easy way out. She dabbled at a career only when it was interesting to her, took the role of “Uncle Mommy” getting to avoid the day-to-day headaches of parenting, and basked in Frank Lloyd Wright’s fame and genius. I honestly don’t know how she could look herself in the eye. But I realize that she was frustrated at having so few options. One of her worst fears was that she’d have to go back to being a, gasp, librarian if she had to work for a living. She couldn’t support herself on the wages a librarian made at that time. Living in a loveless marriage would have been miserable and Frank Lloyd Wright offered her a much more exciting alternative. She knew her children were well cared for – just not by her. Nancy Horan, the architect of the story achieved the balance and harmony seen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs and favorite leaf, the ginkgo.