My fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright – not just his architecture, but the man himself – began when I was a high school senior. I went along with a friend to visit her classmate who lived in Fountainhead, the Jackson, Mississippi, home designed and built for the J. Willis Hughes family. I remember the boy telling us Wright had lived with his family for three months before designing their home in order to get a feel for each member's individual personality.
In the years since I have toured Wright’s homes and buildings in many areas of the country, including Taliesin, his hillside home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. In the dark and verdant family plot down the road from Taliesin, I picked a wild vine from the architect’s grave, planting it in a Styrofoam cup to keep. Near his grave stands a marker bearing his epitaph, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no occasion to change.”
For more about this fascinating man, I recommend Brendan Gill’s biography, “Many Masks.”
Many people are unaware of the real-life horror story that haunted Wright throughout his long and colorful life. I found this succinct version on Wikipedia:
In 1903, Wright designed a house for Edwin Cheney, a neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois, and immediately took a liking to Cheney's wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Mamah Cheney was a modern woman with interests outside the home. She was an early feminist, and Wright viewed her as his intellectual equal. The two fell in love, even though Wright had been married for almost 20 years. Often the two could be seen taking rides in Wright's automobile through Oak Park, and they became the talk of the town. Wright's wife, Kitty, sure that this attachment would fade as the others had, refused to grant him a divorce. Neither would Edwin Cheney grant one to Mamah. In 1909, even before the Robie House was completed, Wright and Mamah Cheney went together to Europe, leaving their own spouses and children behind. The scandal that erupted virtually destroyed Wright's ability to practice architecture in the United States.
On August 15, 1914, while Wright was working in Chicago, Julian Carlton, a male servant from Barbados who had been hired several months earlier, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin (Spring Green, Wisconsin) and murdered seven people with an axe as the fire burned. The dead included Mamah; her two children, John and Martha; a gardener; a draftsman named Emil Brodelle; a workman; and another workman's son. Two people survived the mayhem, one of whom helped to put out the fire that almost completely consumed the residential wing of the house. Carlton swallowed muriatic acid immediately following the attack in an attempt to kill himself. He was nearly lynched on the spot, but was taken to the Dodgeville jail. Carlton died from starvation seven weeks after the attack, despite medical attention.
To my knowledge no motive was given for the axe murders, other than the story that the Barbados manservant "went mad." Wright, 47 years old at the time, died in 1959 at age 91. Following the tragedy, he went on to become America's premiere architect.