Monday, September 6, 2010

Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders

by William R. Drennen

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University of Wisconsin Baraboo/Sauk County professor emeritus, William Drennen traces the story of Frank Lloyd Wright.  After a brief introduction, he backs up to family histories, tracing those of Wright's parents and grandparents.

Drennen shows the strange and unusual relationship under which Wright, the most favored son, lived with his frighteningly possessive mother.  He tells of the religious and philosophical meld of Unitarian/Universalist and Transcendental/Emersonian philosophies deeply held in Wright's familial background.

Wright's father was an artistic and self-indulgent sort with apparently no financial management skills or common sense.  His family often lacked basic necessities while whims were indulged.

Drennen tells of Wright's early design successes.

We are told of his love for his first wife, Kitty, and their family, and how his entire design scheme at that time was an extension of that love, and an expression of family unity.  His idea of a prairie house included specific mechanisms designed intentionally to center around a happy family experience.

And then he went wacko.  Drennan spends some time spelling out the connection between Wright's religious/philosophical background and his seemingly sudden shift in world view.  If a person's religion is not based upon a specific Scripture, what is there to hold one firm?

After designing a house for a Mr. Edwin Cheney, Wright continued to spend increasing amounts of time with Cheney's wife, Mamah.

Mamah was an early feminist.  She and her husband Edwin had two children, but she did not see it as particularly her job to raise them.  Her primary fulfillment as a woman was to free herself from traditional female roles which she thought of as chains.  In order to be emotionally honest, she had to do only, exactly what she wanted to do at all times.

After a couple of years during which Wright seems to have been unsure of which path he wanted to follow, he threw in his lot with Mamah.  Wright seems to have become convinced of this superiority of emotional honesty and the virtue of living according to one's true desires.

Wright built Mamah the ultimate prairie house. Taliesin, outside of Spring Green, WI, has been described as the culmination of all Wright's design ideas;  the sum of what he had been trying to portray with his prairie style.

And then suddenly it was all gone.  Mamah was dead, along with six others, and the living quarters of Taliesin burned down at the hand of a madman.  Although the murderer was known right away, there has been much speculation surrounding the incident and many questions the answers to which no one will never know.

 Wright continued to work after this time, but his designs, according to Drennen, were of a much different sort.  Less beauty, less life.  And much fewer in number.  The tragic events seemed also to have spelled the end of Wright's genius.

Wright rebuilt Taliesin, the living quarters burned once again at a later time.  He rebuilt again.  Although Wright built on the same sites and even using the remaining structures each time, both rebuilds were less great than the original.

Death in a Prairie House is well told.  Drennen includes a thorough bibliography.  He tells readers when he is guessing, and what others have asserted and surmised regarding Wright's life, his personality, and the circumstances of the Taliesin murders.

I have lived in Madison, WI, and also in Oak Park, IL, both stomping grounds of Wright.  Many of the places mentioned were familiar.   I was glad to know more about this 20th century great.

The book made we want to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his designs, and also about transcendentalism and universalism and how they affected 20th century worldviews.

While reading this book, I was often reminded of a theory a good friend once proposed.  She said that all masters or geniuses (as in those who are "way above normal" great at what they do) are a little bit crazy.  If true, Frank Lloyd Wright is no exception.

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