Tuesday, February 23, 2010
This was such a beautiful book, very moving, very sad. It’s one of those novels that are based on fact, about the affair between the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. These two met and started a relationship around 1907 when Mamah (pronounced “may-ma”) and her husband Edwin hired Wright to design a house for them in Oak Park, IL. Shortly after the house was built Mamah and Frank each left their respective spouses and children and ran away together to Europe. It was a huge scandal in turn-of-the-century Chicago society. Wright’s business suffered for years afterwards and Mamah lost custody of her children and was ostracized by society and vilified in the press.
Despite all the adversity Wright and Borthwick (she reverted to her birth name after her divorce) had a passionate, deep, and enduring love for one another. Borthwick was a suffragette and a feminist. She worked as a translator for an influential Swedish feminist named Ellen Key who strongly influenced Borthwick’s efforts to create “an authentic life” for herself, a life that was not defined by her husband, her parents, or her children, but which was hers alone. Horan writes sympathetically of Borthwick, who endured years of emotional pain and guilt over the lack of contact with her children. Wright comes across less attractively. He was a complicated man who could be difficult to deal with. Horan does a good job of presenting him accurately while still making us understand why Mamah loved him.
The tale of Mamah and Frank has a tragic ending. People familiar with Wright and with his Wisconsin home Taliesin will know the story but maybe lots of people who read this blog post will not. I don’t want to give it away, so I won’t talk about it any more. Nancy Horan has a really nice web site with information about Wright and his architecture and photos of Borthwick, Wright, and of the houses that Wright built in Oak Park in the early 20th century, including the house he built for Mamah and Edwin. The original newspaper articles that she links to are especially interesting, though they do give away the ending, so avoid those (and also Wright’s and Borthwick’s Wikipedia pages) if you don’t want to know what happens before you finish the book.
(Book 10, 2010)