The Wright Women:  “Loving Frank”, an Architect of Modernity

The Wright Women: “Loving Frank”, an Architect of Modernity

(8,560 words = 35 minute average reading time including the optional epilogue; or 30 minutes without the epilogue.)

April 30, 2017

by Doug “Uncola” Lynn:

 

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

 

For sometimes glimpses on my sight

Through present wrong the eternal right

And step by step since time began

We see the steady gain of man

–  Welsh hymn, from the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier

 

In a search for the quintessential American pioneer and archetype of twentieth-century capitalism, it would be hard to find a better representation than Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959). An architect and builder par excellence, Wright designed more than 1,100 buildings during his lifetime, of which 532 were completed. He was acclaimed as “the world’s greatest living architect” by the American historian and architectural critic, Lewis Mumford; and after Wright’s death; Mumford declared him as “the Fujiyama of American architecture, at once a lofty mountain and a national shrine.”

At an early age, Wright entered into a seven year apprenticeship with the innovative American architect Louis Henry Sullivan, who is known today as the “father of modernism” and the “father of skyscrapers”. Sullivan entirely rejected the muddled embellishment of European architectural design including the opulent ornamentation of Gothic Revival, French Empire, and Italianate designs which permeated the streets of America’s nineteenth-century cities. Instead, Sullivan favored cleaner engineering more in line with the maxim he personally coined: “form follows function”.

Although Frank Lloyd Wright later founded his own firm in the Chicago area in 1893, his tallest building was a mere nineteen-story construction in Oklahoma. Instead of soaring urban towers, Wright consummated his own uniquely American classification of architecture known as the Prairie School, a type of organic design marked by horizontal lines reconciled in harmonic integration with the landscape surrounding his structures.   Wright’s buildings were the result of a philosophy he designated as “Organic Architecture” and it is said the name “Usonian” was developed by Wright while on a trip to Europe, whereby he envisioned a new landscape for the United States to include urban planning combined with avant-garde architectural configurations.

 

I’d like to have a free architecture. I’d like to have architecture that belonged where you see it standing, and was a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.

Frank Lloyd Wright

 

My first feeling therefore had been a yearning for simplicity.

 

Frank Lloyd Wright

 

Wright’s career spanned over 70 years building houses, office buildings, schools, churches, hotels and museums. He additionally designed and fabricated multifarious, and uniquely authentic, elements within the interior spaces of his creations including light fixtures, furniture and stained glass. He authored 20 books, wrote numerous articles, lectured throughout the United States and Europe, was married three times and had a total of eight children. In his later years, Wright became identified as a famously flamboyant American icon instantly recognizable by his flowing mane of white hair, pork-pie hat, cape and cane.

The conceptual to the corporeal, three-dimensional compositions of Wright in their form, pattern, and innovative utilization of space has influenced many during his life and beyond. As the free-market individualist and artistic genius behind so many state-of-the-art and eloquently constructed edifices, Wright’s work continually stands in tribute to his talent, ambition, virility, and creative freedom. In turn, he has simultaneously inspired and enamored many fans from around the world, including a few women of the literary persuasion; to wit, Ayn Rand and Nancy Horan.

 

Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead of Man’s Rising Spirit

Alisa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, later known as Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982), was born into a middle-class non-observant Jewish family in St. Petersburg, Russia. She taught herself to read at the age of six and decided she wanted to become a writer by the age of nine. Her father was a successful pharmacist whose business was seized by Bolshevik soldiers under Vladimir Lenin in 1917, when Ayn was 12 years old. To escape the fighting, her family moved to Crimea where they lived in extreme poverty, at times, unto the point of near starvation.

Ayn graduated high school in Crimea at the age of sixteen and was among the first group of women to study at the University of Petrograd where she studied history and philosophy and was introduced to the writings of Aristotle, Plato and Friedrich Nietzsche. As an avid enthusiast of western films and plays, she enrolled at the Leningrad State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 in the hopes of becoming a screenwriter. A year later Ayn was granted a visa to leave Soviet Russia to visit relatives in Chicago where she stayed for six months before moving to Hollywood.

In an ironic coincidence, or fate, on only her second day in Hollywood, the renowned director Cecil B. DeMille saw Ayn standing at a studio gate and gave the young Jewish woman a ride to the set of “The King of Kings where she became an extra in that film and met her future husband, Frank O’Connor. Ayn and Frank were married on April 15, 1929, and she became an American citizen in 1931.

During the early 1930s, Rand sold her first screenplay, saw her first stage play produced and completed her first novel, We the Living, which was a semi-autobiographical account of her life in Russia about a heroine’s struggle against the Soviet totalitarian state. Her next book was a novella entitled Anthem, about a future collectivist dystopia; and in 1943, she published The Fountainhead, a philosophical novel depicting a steadfast young architect pursuing the American dream. The Fountainhead took Rand seven years to write and was turned down by twelve publishers before it became a global success, delivering to Rand both fortune and fame.

Although it was her later book, Atlas Shrugged, which is widely considered as Rand’s greatest achievement, both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were written in tribute to the triumphant accomplishments of mankind. It was The Fountainhead, however, that was inspired by the life and works of Frank Lloyd Wright and was her first major literary success.

In her initial written appeal to Wright, it was clear Rand considered him as her ideal:

 

[The story of human integrity] is what you have lived. And to my knowledge, you are the only one among the men of this century who has lived it. I am writing about a thing impossible these days. You are the only man in whom it is possible and real. It is not anything definite or tangible that I want from an interview with you. It is only the inspiration of seeing before me a living miracle — because the man I am writing about is a miracle whom I want to make alive.

Letters of Ayn Rand, ed. Michael S. Berliner, New York: Dutton, 1995, p. 109.

 

The man Rand was “writing about” was none other than the protagonist of The Fountainhead, “Howard Roark”. Roark was an individualistic and uncompromising architect who began his career with an expulsion from the Architectural School of the Stanton Institute of Technology prior to his graduation; before went to work with a once-renowned architect by the name of “Henry Cameron”.

In actuality, it was Wright who dropped out of the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1887, prior to his graduation before obtaining employment with the acclaimed architect, Joseph Silsbee, for the wage of eight dollars a week.

Although Frank Lloyd Wright was, indeed, the inspiration behind Rand’s “Howard Roark”, the beginning of the Rand-Wright collaboration was tenuous:

 

The outlines of the Rand-Wright story are familiar from the former’s Journals and Letters and from Barbara Branden’s biography (The Passion of Ayn Rand, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986). Novelist approached architect repeatedly for an interview, and each time she got what must have been a hurtful and frustrating brush-off from her hero. In the end, she finished The Fountainhead without his help and, so far as any biographical data establish, without having seen one of his buildings in person. She did, however, make extensive notes on his published writings, especially his Autobiography and his 1930-31 Kahn lectures at Princeton.

The two finally met at length after The Fountainhead was published (though before Wright had read it), and in time they became friends: Rand and her husband visited Wright at his home, Taliesin, in 1945.

 

The story of The Fountainhead is a celebration of man’s reason, talent and courage in the battle for liberty, integrity, individualism, innovation, and free market capitalism, against the ever-encroaching centralization of suffocating political collectivism and bureaucracy.

In the Fountainhead, her other novels, and predominantly within her later writings and speeches, Rand cautioned against the tyrannical societal suppression of individual liberty. In Anthem, she even envisioned a future state where the word “I” was removed from the language; an apparent precursor to Orwellian Newspeak and the social justice movement of the modern, politically-correct age; which daily campaigns for the equality of outcomes over individual autonomy and opportunity.

Rand identified the individual as the smallest minority and advocated accordingly.

 

The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.

Ayn Rand

 

In contrast, however, to the soaring success of her writing and the ideological purity of the fictional protagonists in her books, Rand’s own life was, at times, a portrayal of fractious and broken relationships.

Whereas Rand glorified the material edifices of Frank Lloyd Wright as manifestations of, and monuments to, the rising spirit of the uncompromised man; another author by the name of Nancy Horan, wrote a work of historical fiction describing a time in Wright’s life when he violated the Victorian morality of his day and, thus, became a societal outcast; a pariah even to some within his family and the residents of the rural Wisconsin hills where he called home.

 

Nancy Horan: “Loving Frank” – The Powerful Attraction of Ideals Over Vows

In her 2007 book, “Loving Frank”, the author, Nancy Horan, painted a literary portrait of Martha “Mamah” (pronounced May’-mah) Borthwick-Cheney (1869-1914) and her relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright that began in 1903. That was the year Borthwick-Cheney’s husband, Edwin Cheney, a Chicago electrical engineer, commissioned Wright to build what is known today as the “Edwin H. Cheney House” located in Oak Park, Illinois.

Mamah Borthwick was a feminist intellectual who was born in Boone, Iowa and graduated from the University of Michigan before working as a librarian in Port Huron, Michigan. At the age of 30, she married Edwin Cheney in 1899 and they had two children; John in 1902, and Martha in 1905. Living in the same city of Oak Park, Mamah Cheney was a friend of Wright’s first wife, Catherine, and there is some speculation Mamah may have influenced her husband’s decision to build the Cheney house a few blocks away from the Wright home and studio.

 

 

The book, “Loving Frank”, was Nancy Horan’s first novel and was inspired by her own 24-year residency in Oak Park, and the fact she lived near the Cheney House; on the very same street, East Avenue. As time progressed Horan became fascinated with Mamah Cheney as a “highly educated woman, a wife, and mother of young children”. Moreover, Cheney was a feminist intellectual and fluent in several languages, who translated the writings of the Swedish philosopher and suffragist, Ellen Key, for publication in America.

 

Love is moral even without legal marriage, but marriage is immoral without love.

 

Ellen Key (1849-1926),”The Morality of Woman,” The Morality of Woman and Other Essays (1911).

 

Although a work of fiction, “Loving Frank” chronicles the actual and extrapolated circumstances of Borthwick-Cheney and Wright’s relationship between the years 1907 to 1914. The narrative, intertwined with a few fictive persons and events in addition, recounts the following timeline:

 

  • From Mamah Cheney’s contrived attendance at Wright’s 1907 speech to a women’s group that commenced the consummation of their prior emotional affair;

 

  • To 1909, when they left their respective spouses to travel to Europe and live in Italy for one year;

 

  • To their 1911 return to America, their public shaming in the press , and their escape to the Taliesin; a rural home Wright built for Mamah in Spring Green, Wisconsin;

 

  • And, through August 15, 1914, the day Julian Carlton, one of Wright’s disgruntled and likely racially harassed, former employees gruesomely murdered Mamah, her two children, and four of Wright’s associates before setting fire to the Taliesin.

 

Loving Frank took seven years for Horan to research and it was actually written twice. Horan didn’t like the first version she started in 1999 because, in her own words, “it wasn’t very good”. Two years into the project, she decided to write it from Mamah’s perspective and “her research became more focused”.

Because there was very little recorded history of Borthwick-Cheney’s personal life, Horan began piecing together a portrait of Mamah thru newspaper articles, letters, recorded memories of former Oak Park citizens, and by the shades of Wright’s published documents from that time; researching the way, perhaps, an astronomer would study a black hole by its proximate, gravitational effect upon the light of nearby stars.

In 2001, however, Horan was excited to discover the existence of ten letters that were written by Mamah Borthwick-Cheney to her employer, and mentor, Ellen Key, that were stored in the Ellen Key Collection in the Royal Library of Sweden in Stockholm.

 

You can imagine my joy when the library sent me copies of the letters. All along I had been creating a character out of the pieces I could find to fit together, even composing letters she might have written. Suddenly, here was her actual voice, her actual hand-writing. To my unending relief, I found her personality shining through in those letters. And while the content of her correspondence dealt largely with the business of translating, she included a number of paragraphs about her own life and mental outlook.

Nancy Horan, A Reader’s Guide, “Loving Frank”, page 368

 

Published in 2007, or 100 years after the married Mamah Cheney began her illicit affair with the espoused Frank Lloyd Wright, “Loving Frank” won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 2009. It was also named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor.

Speaking of her novel, and addressing the claim made by some that Wright was an “arrogant narcissist”, Horan said:

 

In the novel, Cheney tells herself that leaving her husband and children for Wright was an act of love for life.

I think Mamah Cheney was a woman who had a hole in her soul. She was a woman who had unrealized potential that she wanted to explore and experience…. To her, ‘more’ looked a lot like Frank Lloyd Wright. But the two paid a terrible price for their passion and individualism.

It ruined Frank Lloyd Wright’s practice for many years afterwards. It ruined Mamah’s reputation….

….He [Wright] viewed himself in a sense as a prophet, and a person who had gifts that other people didn’t have.

SOURCE

 

Horan’s statements on Wright correspond with the assessment of his biographer, Meryle Secrest, who in 1992, wrote:

 

then his abandonment of the Celtic cross for the pure square heralded a philosophical shift. It meant that he was the rejecting the dictates of his religion and its morality and was preparing to place himself beyond their reach, on a pinnacle far removed from the world-as-it-is, a hero of mythical stature, a poet, a Druid.

… Instead of seeing himself as ordained for an elevated, perhaps unattainable goal, he has shifted to the idea of Taliesin, the artist as Superman, divinely endowed, and therefore never to be challenged or questioned.

Frank Lloyd Wright, A Biography: Chapter 7 “A House Divided”, page 200

 

In the tradition of storytellers like Orson Welles who utilized fiction, as in the case of “Citizen Kane”, in order to provide insight to authentic historical figures (i.e. William Randolph Hearst); so did Nancy Horan, with Frank Lloyd Wright, in Loving Frank.

By the end of the book, the reader is left with a haunting impression of Mamah Borthwick-Cheney, the love of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life who, for the most part, abandoned her own children when they were very young.

In Loving Frank, Nancy Horan hypothesizes a flashback in the mind of Wright while he contemplates Mamah’s murder. It was a recollection of a time he and Mamah rode horses into the isolated countryside for a picnic.

 

                ”Blue-gentian,” she said after a while, peering through her horn-rimmed spectacles at a low-growing flower near the edge of the blanket.

                “Did you wear your glasses all the time when I first fell in love with you?” he asked.

                “I don’t think so.”

                He reached over and took them off her. “You know, if you exercised your eyeballs, you wouldn’t need the things.”

                She laughed her trilling giggle that cascaded down to an earthy guffaw. “You are susceptible to some of the silliest ideas, have I told you that?”

                “And the boots are certainly a recent development,” he said. “I regret to say I bought the damn things. You used to wear the most delicate little leather boots.” He unlaced them and pulled them off. “And look at these socks. Where are we, the Crimea?” He removed the thick cotton stockings she wore. He rose on his knees and went behind her back, unbuttoning her loose blouse, then her camisole. Mamah smiled up at him.

                “There she is,” he said, pulling off the dented straw hat. What he saw was dark brown hair shot through with strands of silver. A woman of forty-five sitting nearly naked under the unforgiving sun. And yet, my God, how exquisitely lovely she was!”

“Loving Frank”, Chapter 54, page 354

 

Although most of the letters and excerpts that began several chapters of Loving Frank were extrapolated, the perspectives and anecdotes described in the book had to have been very close to the truth. The book recounts many of Wright’s fallibilities and foibles known to be accurate, such as his occasional indebtedness and failure to meet his financial obligations to his construction vendors and others. Wright’s described foray into brokering Japanese art to pay his bills in the absence of architectural commissions also occurred in real life.

Additionally, in response to the Chicago Tribune alluding to Mamah Borthwick-Cheney’s murder as “divine retribution”, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote a genuinely heartfelt editorial that was published in the Spring Green Weekly Home News in 1914. A truncated version of Wright’s actual letter appears at the end of Loving Frank as an impassioned tribute to his soulmate; and, as a reprimand to anyone who would disparage her memory:

 

…..Mamah and I have had our struggles, our differences, our moments of jealous fear for our ideals of each other—they are not lacking in any close human relationships—but they served only to bind us more closely together. We were more than merely happy even when momentarily miserable. And she was true as only a woman who loves know the meaning of the word. Her soul has entered me and it shall not be lost.

You wives with your certificates for loving—pray that you may love as much and be loved as well as was Mamah Borthwick! You mothers and fathers with daughters—be satisfied if what life you have invested in them works itself out upon as high a plane as it has done in the life of this lovely woman. She was struck down by a tragedy that hangs by the slender thread of reason over the lives of all, a thread which may snap at any time in any home with consequences as disastrous.

….She is dead. I have buried her in the little Chapel burying ground of my people…..and while the place where she lived with me is a charred and blackened ruin, the little things of our daily life gone, I shall replace it all little by little as nearly as it may be done. I shall set it all up again for the spirit of the mortals that lived in it and loved it—will live in it still. My home will still be there.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Talieson

August 20, 2014

 

Compared and Contrasted

In considering the lives of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mamah Borthwick-Cheney, Ayn Rand, and Rand’s fictional characters, there are common themes. These would include: Individualism (i.e. independence + self-reliance), free-will, adherence to ideals in the face societal pressure to conform (i.e. integrity), overcoming challenges, perseverance, moral consequences, and even, castigation by the media and society in general.

As previously delineated, the life and works of Frank Lloyd Wright personified the ideal of Ayn Rand as depicted in the characters of her novels; specifically Howard Roark in The Fountainhead.

As to be expected, there were various straightforward, albeit elementary, similarities and distinctions between Frank Lloyd Wright and Howard Roark. For example, Wright stood at an average height of 5’9”, whereas Roark was characterized as taller, with “a body of long straight lines and angles”.

Both men began their careers with hard physical labor. Wright was born into a farm community in Richland Center, Wisconsin at a time when boys were considered men by the age of ten and expected to work long hours and “add tired to tired”. Wright’s uncles were farmers, sheepherders, masons, millers and carpenters. From a young age, Frank learned many trades which allowed him to complete the construction of his first home while still in his twenties.

Howard Roark worked as a plumber, electrician, rivet catcher and various other odd jobs in the building trade before he began his career as an architect.

Both the men viewed nature as a resource to be exploited. The actual Wright desired structures designed to pair harmoniously with nature:

 

In common with the woods, Wright had a vision of Arcadia, of man living in harmony with nature.

So he engaged teams of neighboring farmers to haul loads of native stone from a quarry on a hill a mile away, and up his beloved hillside. ‘The stone went down for pavements of terraces and courts. Stone was sent along the slopes into great walls. Stone stepped up like ledges on to the hill and flung long arms in any direction that brought the house to the ground…’

Frank Lloyd Wright, A Biography: Chapter 1 “Bedd Taliesin: Talieson’s Grave”, pages 9-10

 

And, the fictional Roark had visions of skyscrapers reaching towards heaven.

 

                He [Roark] looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky.

                These rocks, he thought, are here for me’ waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice’ waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.

Chapter 1, page 4, “The Fountainhead”, Ayn Rand

 

In many ways, both men were as uncompromising and stubborn as the rock and stone they sculpted in accordance to their will. In so doing, their personalities were forged as well:

 

Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.

 

Frank Lloyd Wright, The World’s Best Thoughts on Life & Living (1981) compiled by Eugene Raudsepp;

 

As previously mentioned, in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead , Howard Roark was expelled from architecture school, whereas Wright dropped out of his own choosing from the University of Wisconsin. Both men valued independent thought, self-reliance, and their own judgment over conformity; or, doing things the way they were always done. Therefore, they took from their respective institutions of higher learning what they needed, and nothing more. In fact, as Ayn Rand portrayed in her representation of Howard Roark and, as Frank Lloyd Wright literally lived; both described the same coercion of conformity that still exists in the modern American educational system:

 

Our schools today, busy turning out ‘the common man,’ seem to be making conformity a law of his nature. The study of architecture is often relegated to the abandoned military shed or the basement of our educational institutions, and the old adage—’those who can, do, those who can’t teach..’—was never more truly descriptive of purveyors of ‘the higher education’ in architecture. Life-long I have been shocked by the human deficiency capitalized by American education.

— Frank Lloyd Wright, from “Frank Lloyd Wright: A Testament”, page 97.

 

Roark was also uncompromising, even to the point of disparaging the Greek Parthenon to the Dean of the architectural school where he was earlier expelled:

 

Why do you want me to think that this is great architecture?’ He pointed to the picture of the Parthenon.

‘That,’ said the Dean, ‘is the Parthenon!’

‘So it is.’

‘I haven’t the time to waste on silly questions.’

‘All right, then. ’Roark got up, he took a long ruler from the desk, he walked to the picture. “Shall I tell you what’s rotten about it?’

‘It’s the Parthenon!’ said the Dean.

‘Yes, God damn it, the Parthenon.’

The ruler struck the glass over the picture.

‘Look,’ said Roark. ‘The famous flutings on the famous columns—what are they there for? To hide the joints in the wood—when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?’

Chapter 1, page 12, “The Fountainhead”, Ayn Rand

 

Both the literal Wright and the literary Roark remained resolute against the asphyxiating authoritarianism of the hive-mind.

Moreover, as also mentioned heretofore, Frank Lloyd Wright left college to work with Louis Sullivan, the pioneering architect who coined the term “form follows function”; of which Ayn Rand attributed to Howard Roark’s fictional mentor, “Henry Cameron”, in The Fountainhead.

In her book, Ayn Rand first describes Roark’s genius by means of his pencil drawings:

 

They were sketches of buildings such as had never stood on the face of the earth. They were as the first houses built by the first man born who had never heard of others building before him. There was nothing to be said of them, except that each structure was inevitably what it had to be.

Chapter 1, page 7, “The Fountainhead”, Ayn Rand

 

One is left with the impression Rand was viewing the authentic drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright as she sketched those literary images with her words.

 

 

By all accounts, and in the opinion of anyone who has ever critiqued architecture, Wright was revolutionary:

 

Wright evolved a new concept of interior space in architecture. Rejecting the existing view of rooms as single-function boxes, Wright created overlapping and interpenetrating rooms with shared spaces. He designated use areas with screening devices and subtle changes in ceiling heights and created the idea of defined space as opposed to enclosed space.

SOURCE

 

Just as Ayn Rand was committed entirely to her art with wholehearted devotion, she displayed much integrity and perseverance in overcoming multiple challenges during her career. She endured somewhat insignificant and odd jobs in Hollywood before working in the wardrobe department of RKO Radio Pictures. She never gave up on her writing and eventually obtained some moderate success. In the case of The Fountainhead, it was turned away by twelve publishers before becoming an immediate best-seller and is, today, one of the Modern Library’s Top Ten books of the twentieth-century in the “Readers’ List”. Actually, it is ranked # 2 after Rand’s later book, Atlas Shrugged .

In similar fashion, Rand’s protagonist (Roark) in The Fountainhead suffered setbacks as did Frank Lloyd Wright in real life. When Roark’s career temporarily dried up, he worked as a laborer in a rock quarry while accepting smaller commissions, including residences, throughout the American Midwest. Today, Wright’s homes are primarily clustered in Middle-America; with other structures sprinkled throughout the entire United States like confetti. In tough times, Wright took whatever job he could land, large or small, and, as previously mentioned, he even sold Japanese paintings to make ends meet during his “blackout period” during, and after, his love affair with Mamah Borthwick.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Mamah Borthwick-Cheney and Ayn Rand, as well as Rand’s female protagonist in The Fountainhead, Dominique Francon, (and Dagny Taggert in Atlas Shrugged) all viewed love as a response to values as opposed to sacrifice. This is how they all justified leaving their respective spouses and previous partners behind. And, in the case of Borthwick-Cheney, she never relinquished her relationship with Wright even when her feminist ideal, Ellen Key, challenged Mamah for abandoning her children.

 

     ….I find myself much concerned about the manner in which you have chosen to pursue certain choices. It has been my belief and expressed philosophy that the very legitimate right of a free love can never be acceptable if it is enjoyed at the expense of maternal love. It distressed me deeply that my words to you have been misinterpreted. I urge you to reconsider this matter and return to your children if there is any question of their happiness.

   You know the esteem I hold for you. I trust you will a choice in harmony with your own soul.

Ellen Key

 

…..Anger welled up in her [Mamah]. It struck her that Ellen Key’s ideas were inherently self-contradictory….. What did Ellen want her to do? Return to Edwin for the sake of the children? How ironic, in light of what she had written about staying in an unloving marriage – that it was tantamount to prostitution.

“Loving Frank”, Chapter 7, page 235

 

In actuality, it was Wright who most often oppugned the intellectual elite of his day. It was the collectivists, the blue-blood elite, and the polite society who feared any divestiture of mainstream public sentiment; and the entrenched, mind-melding, public opinion spin-doctors who were most offended by Wright; perhaps because he didn’t need them. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark’s ideological counterpart and the antagonist of the story was personified in the character of Ellsworth Toohey; a Marxist-socialist, intellectual, architecture critic, and manipulative people puppet-master extraordinaire.

When the American journalist Mike Wallace once asked Frank Lloyd Wright about such people, he responded in this way:

 

Mike Wallace: What do you think of these people who either don’t understand or don’t care?

FLW: I don’t think they matter, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think they’re for me and why should I be for them?

I don’t like intellectuals…They are from the top down, not from the ground up. I’ve always thought of myself—of what I represented—as from the ground up.

SOURCE

 

At the end of Part 2 in The Fountainhead, an exchange occurs between Ellsworth Toohey and Howard Roark as follows:

 

Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”

 

“But I don’t think of you.”

 

Part 2, Chapter XV, page 401, “The Fountainhead”, Ayn Rand

 

Within the conceptual context of their tenacious individualism, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mamah Borthwick and Ayn Rand nonetheless suffered personal consequences for their decisions. By means of their public love-affairs they all wrought destruction in lives of those who loved them; they were at times vilified in the media; and they experienced, to some extent, blowback in their respective careers.

In the case of Rand, it has been said she “hypnotized” a young admirer by the name of Nathan Blumenthal, who was fourteen-years-old when he read The Fountainhead. After meeting Rand, he later changed his name to Nathaniel Branden in order to incorporate Rand’s last name into his own surname. Branden later married Barbara Weidman in 1953; and the next year, he began a torrid affair with his intellectual idol, Ayn Rand:

 

She was obsessed, Mr. Branden says, with her place in history as a philosophic champion of individual autonomy and laissez-faire capitalism against the reigning liberal-left cant of the day. Restless in a tepid marriage to a laconic underachiever while she slogged through the tome that became ”Atlas Shrugged,” she hungered in secret for a temporal reward. The young admirer’s chiseled features and idealistic intensity matched the exalted vision of her romantic fiction. He was more than willing to become her first disciple. Eventually, despite a 25-year difference in their ages, he was honored to become her lover; to borrow from their pillow talk, he played a heroic Siegfried to her passionate Brunnhilde.

SOURCE

 

In a cruel way, Rand persuaded both her husband and Branden’s wife Barbara, to accept an arrangement where she and Nathaniel could have time set aside each week together for intellectual and erotic stimulation. Many speculate the humiliation contributed to Frank O’Connor’s descent into heavy drinking and, obviously, National Branden’s subsequent divorce from his wife Barbara.

In spite of the very messy and public dissolution between Rand and Brandon during the middle of the increasingly licentious 1960’s, the press was relatively kind to Rand; quite unlike the Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick affair of five decades prior.

In 1911, when Wright and Borthwick returned to America from their year-long excursion in Europe, there began daily gossip regarding the home Wright was building for hismistress” in Wisconsin; from castigating conservative neighbors, newspaper editors and preachers of whom condemned Wright’s Taliesin as a “pit of sin”. Even the local county sheriff weighed in:

 

“That there’s something wrong with the Wright-Borthwick way of keeping house”

 

The Day Book, Chicago, December 27, 1911

 

After Borthwick’s horrific and macabre murder in 1914, however, the tabloid-style headlines became epic as the Chicago Tribune reported on “Divine Retribution” and other newspapers addressed the Wright-mare massacre in the Wisconsin “love nest” and “Bungalow of Love”:

 

THE TERRIBLE FATE

OF MAMAH BORTHWICK IN

HER BUNGALOW OF LOVE

Woman, Who With

Frank Lloyd Wright,

Dared to Live Contrary

to Accepted Rules of Conduct

Meets Disaster in a Few Short Years

The Ogden Standard, Utah, September 5, 1914

 

In The Fountainhead, similar denouncements by the press were directed towards Howard Roark via newspapers owned by a mogul named Gail Wynand; a “Citizen Kane” type character seemingly modeled upon the real-life William Randall Hearst.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, however, Howard Roark eventually rose above the fray and achieved time-honored success.

Notwithstanding Wright’s loss of the love of his life and several close associates, he rebuilt what madness burned down. Although his career greatly suffered and he only produced a few works in the 1920s, he began to conceptualize new approaches to architecture which led to the construction of his greatest works during the final years of his life. These would include Fallingwater, which the American Institute of Architects has honored as the “best all-time work of American architecture“; the famous SC Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin; the Monona Terrace Civic Center in Madison, Wisconsin which was built 33 years after his death; and The Guggenheim Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in New York City.

Unlike Ayn Rand’s fictional Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Wright never built any New York City skyscrapers. Even though the Guggenheim Museum was certainly controversial at first, it is now widely esteemed as one of New York City’s most cherished structures.

The renowned American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, his intellectual soulmate Mamah Borthwick, and the uncompromising novelist, Ayn Rand, as well as the literary protagonists of Rand’s books, are all examples of perseverance in the face of societal conformity and intimidation. They strived to overcome socialist collectivism in accordance to Ayn Rand’s definition of “civilization” as “the process of setting man free from men“.

 

The Brave New World: An Existential Philosophic Inquiry

Recently, I wrote regarding two authors who were, in fact, both contemporaries of Wright and Rand, yet their life’s work consisted of writing to warn mankind against the dangers of collectivism; to wit, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” where “everybody belongs to everybody else” and George Orwell’s “1984” where “Big Brother”, like mediocrity, reigned supreme.

Today, there exist many parallels between today’s headlines, the life of Frank Lloyd Wright and the literary works of Huxley, Orwell, Ayn Rand and Nancy Horan. In the face of today’s deceptively scandalous headlines, identity politics, the hive-mind of political correctness, biased media programming, Technocracy, internet censorship, Islamic totalitarianism and a growing left-of-center polis, both Wright’s and Rand’s celebration of the individual could be considered as a therapeutic counteractant to the tyranny as diagnosed by Orwell. Conversely, rampant individualism could otherwise act as an accelerating stimulant toward the self-gratifying, ethically vacuous, and licentious Brave New World as forewarned by Huxley.

Although, some have considered Wright’s previously expressedbelief in the emancipatory potential of the Bolshevik Revolution” and his (Usonian) “Broadacre City” obsession as potentially dystopian complete with “Orwellian negations”; and others have lamented his personal, self-seeking and unadulterated selfish lifestyle, the fact remains that the core ideology of Wright, and Rand, embraced the sacredness of the individual and the ancient precepts required as the foundation for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

However, as is often the case, in the advancement of progressive, personal liberation, the pendulum can swing to the extremes of degenerating moral decadence. Consider Ayn Rand’s female characters Dominique Francon of The Fountainhead and Dagny Taggart of Atlas Shrugged, whose sexual attitudes resembled those of Lenina Crowne in Brave New World and Julia from 1984. Evidently, in the future, multiple sexual partners were considered the norm, but in the century past, reputations suffered including those of Wright and Mamah Borthwick; and, to a lesser extent, Rand and her lover Nathanial Brandon; all of whom renounced their marital vows.

Regardless, in either the present or future, can there be judgment without an intervening God? Moreover, can reconciliation occur without mediation?

Wright’s father was a Unitarian minister and his uncle, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, founded the “All Souls Unitarian Church” in Chicago. Being of Unitarian descent, Frank Lloyd Wright was a Deist in the line of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

Wright’s view of God was defined as follows:

 

”I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”

 

As quoted in Quote magazine (14 August 1966)

 

And

 

”Nature is all the body of God we mortals will ever see.”

 

As quoted in The Duality of Vision : Genius and Versatility in the Arts (1970) by Walter Sorrell, p. 28

 

Deism defined is the belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically, of a creator who does not intervene in the universe. In other words, the divine “God of Deism” could be compared to a watchmaker who first designed, then fabricated, and then wound to set in motion the laws of physics before taking an eternal leave from the mechanized systematization of creation.

As a common ideological paradigm of the 17th and 18th centuries, it is perhaps no surprise Wright, like other American legends of old, was a man of action who took charge of destiny; as opposed to waiting upon any higher power’s influence upon the affairs of man.

Rand, on the other hand, was an evangelical atheist and architect behind the Theory of Objectivism:

 

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

Ayn Rand, Appendix to Atlas Shrugged

 

From the perspective of Rand’s atheism was written her first comprehensive non-fiction work entitled: “For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1961). Therein, she includes excerpts from her novels, essays and speeches whereby she analyzes two opprobrious philosophical oppressors from history: The “Witch Doctor” and the “Attila”.

The Witch Doctor can be either be a religious figure or an “intellectual” who uses language to convince people to renounce their rational minds; whereas the Attila employs brute power, and fear, to force the actions of others. In her appeal for a type of “new intellectual”, however, Rand refused to acknowledge any higher spiritual power, or the consequential evidence of the duality of humanity that was denied the characters in her books; yet manifested in her own life, as well as the life of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick.

There remains a certain irony in the ability of the atheistic Rand to write literary end-runs around the faith of the founding fathers of the United States, who like Frank Lloyd Wright, acknowledged a remote God while living free; and remaining representative of both genius and moral fallibility.

 

You see, I am an atheist and I have only one religion: the sublime in human nature. There is nothing to approach the sanctity of the highest type of man possible and there is nothing that gives me the same reverent feeling, the feeling when one’s spirit wants to kneel, bareheaded. Do not call it hero-worship, because it is more than that. It is a kind of strange and improbable white heat where admiration becomes religion, and religion becomes philosophy, and philosophy — the whole of one’s life.

Letters of Ayn Rand, ed. Michael S. Berliner, New York: Dutton, 1995, p. 16.

 

To Ayn Rand, philosophy was religion, the “whole” of her life and the foundation of her ideology rested upon the twin pillars of “egoism”, or the morality of self-interest, and “reason” as applied to the productivity, independence, integrity, honesty, justice and pride of mankind. By the late 1990’s she was even honored on a U.S. Postage Stamp in a tribute to the “virtue of selfishness”.

It seems Rand venerated the anima mundi behind the innovators advancing the Industrial Revolution yet she failed to properly attribute the prior and supplemental influence underlying the European Renaissance and Protestant Reformation; as well as the previous contributions of instrumental men of faith, like Isaac Newton, to its outgrowth.

The aforementioned architectural critic, Lewis Mumford, identified the “archetypal model” for the industrial era as “the clock”:

 

the monastic emphasis on order and time-keeping, as well as the fact that Medieval cities had at their center a church with bell ringing at regular intervals as being necessary precursors to a greater synchronization necessary for later, more physical manifestations such as the steam engine.

 

Rand, in her appreciation of mankind’s achievements, fails to acknowledge the same sort of design as evidenced in the Universe including the seemingly engineered and mechanized configurations of our solar system and the cohesive design of the human body. In her “Objectivist” description of “morality” as “adherence to the values that sustain Man’s life”, Rand fails to recognize the prime mover behind the same morality inherent to the natural world. She embraced the skeleton of mankind’s corporal entity while, at the same time, ignoring the sinew, the muscle and the flesh of that which breathes life into man’s existence.

 

 

Regardless, even if Ayn Rand worshiped her brand of logic instead of a God of faith, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright still resonated within her as an exultation of the spirit of Man.

To Rand, and many others, Wright’s veritable fountainhead of architectural vision manifested via spring-tensioned coils of inspiration spiraling towards heaven; through horizontally clean-lined structures paired in harmonic balance to nature and by virtue of sharp angles embodying logic in three dimensions. His soaring, harmonic designs epitomized man’s reconciliation to nature’s God and his reach to the skies in proclaimed defiance before the familiar and suffocating gravity of collectivist orthodoxy.

Foregone were the unnecessary architectural trimmings; the frivolous fenestrations, flutings, tryglyphs, dormers, roof gables, mansard roofs, square based domes, projecting eaves, corbels and cornice structures. Eliminated were the faux belfry towers, brackets, decorative columns, and crenelated parapets. And, abandoned were the shackles of structurally superfluous accolades, aprons, apses and arches.

In similar fashion, in the lives of both Wright and Rand, were the burden of social mores removed as well as any humility, or stewardship to the lesser material contributors of mankind; which required the indisputable renunciation of marital vows to wives and husband’s: “In sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part”.

In the biography written by Meryle Secrest, she quotes Wright in a letter he wrote to one of his client’s by the name of Darwin Martin:

 

I cannot make the standard of conduct I raised for myself – the moral standard for any human being – I believed it was right – but superhuman.

Frank Lloyd Wright, A Biography: Chapter 7 “A House Divided”, page 199

 

While so eloquently advocating for the unforgiving laws of engineering, logic, and philosophic individual certainty; Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand both sought perfection in art and in life. They embraced lofty ideals and led lives of uncompromising dedication to themselves through the completion of their works. Yet, in their own lives, they suffered the adverse consequences as all mortals do; including divorce, death and strained relations with others.

 

ONE LIVES BUT ONCE IN THE WORLD.

 

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  

In spite of any personal or perceived moral failures, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand live onward in perpetuity; both in the material world and, in the hearts and imaginations of their fans and followers. It is how they still move the world, even beyond the confines of their time.

 

Optional Epilogue: Ripples in the Pond and the Eternal Waves of Moments:

Throughout our family travels when my offspring were young, and much to their anguish, they would quite often be towed through formal, and sometimes informal, tours of Frank Lloyd Wright properties; including his home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois and drive-bys like the home Wright built for Edwin and Mamah Cheney; which remains a private residence today.  As my children became older, however, their complaining diminished and they expressed more interest.

I was first inspired by Wright as a young boy upon seeing photos of his structures in a book that was expressly ensconced upon the coffee table in the living room of my childhood friend who lived next door. Although his mother had banned us from that room, I would sneak in when I could because also therein, was a hard-cover, Life Magazine collection of photography of which I found equally as fascinating as the book on Wright.

In fact, the Life photography book contained the first real-life photo of a dead person I had ever seen. It was of a young boy lying in a pool of blood on the street of a large city. That photo haunted me in ways I could not articulate back then. In similar fashion, so did the photos of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, although it wasn’t until much later that I reconnected the designs to the man.

When I was older, during a fit of teenage angst on a phone call with my oldest brother, he told me where to find his hard-cover edition of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” in our parents’ home. The book was a 1968 twenty-fifth anniversary edition which included an introduction written by Rand and a sort of amateurish painting of a skyscraper’s metal frame rising into a dark sky amidst four sunbeams breaking through the clouds. The painting was attributed to Ayn’s husband, Frank O’Connor, and even back then I believed its mediocrity stood in stark contrast to the excellence of Rand’s prose.

I recall opening the book for the first time and visualizing its protagonist, Howard Roarke, standing upon the “frozen explosion” of a granite cliff over “motionless water”. I was immediately intrigued because, at that time, during the summers, my friends and I would often swim at abandoned rock quarries located within twenty-minute motocross and gravel road commutes by Yamaha from the home town where I grew up. One of the quarries had a cliff rising over 30 feet above pristine water. Standing upon the rock cliff we could quite often see the quarry bottom. The area below the promontory must have been at least twenty-five feet deep, but when the water was clear it looked more like five.

In spite of the obvious danger, we would jump and dive off that rock all summer long. The trick when jumping, was to cover the body’s sensitive areas (varied by the sex of the jumper) with both hands; and when diving, it was best to make fists and position them to break the water with a fair amount tension in both arms; otherwise the surface, or the clenched fists, would slam the top of the head (or forehead) with what felt to be the thick end of a heavy glass Coke bottle; as they definitely were made back then.

The mental picture of Howard Roarke standing high upon the cliff, over the water, while laughing, described what I had experienced on many occasions. Obviously, the opening few words of The Fountainhead made a strong impression on me. When I soon discovered Rourke was an expelled rebel, I further identified with the story; and once I learned he was an architect and a builder like Frank Lloyd Wright, I was hooked.

Today, and because possession is nine-tenths of the law (in the case of my brother), the same book stands steadfastly enshrined behind the clear glass of a built-in shelving unit in my home.

Although I later read Ayn Rand’s other works, her biography, and I was even a recipient of “The Objectivist” newsletter when I was in college; I always remembered something Rand wrote towards the end of her introduction to the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of The Fountainhead. Speaking of its lasting appeal, she said:

 

it is a confirmation of the spirit of youth, proclaiming man’s glory, showing how much is possible.

 

The works of Wright, and the writings he inspired, may someday burn, or fall away, or fade like laughter from days past, or dissipate from the minds of many into the atmosphere; yet the spark which was exemplified by his life, and so eloquently illustrated within the literary works of both Ayn Rand and Nancy Horan, was but from a flame long before ignited. It will burn eternal for those who hold on, persevering unto the end of days.

As the other  Wright woman, the aforementioned biographer, Meryle Secrest, wrote towards the end of her most excellent account of the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, she described a tomb in North Wales as: “being all boulders built amongst old trees and poised above a rushing river”. There, she relayed a story of Wright imagining the ghosts of his ancestors and their message for him to look to a symbol carved upon the gatepost of the chapel yard.

It read: “The truth to set against the woes of this world is Joy!”

 

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