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The Women - T. C. Boyle

”Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose arrogance.” --Frank Lloyd Wright

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Frank Lloyd Wright

Tadashi Sato abandoned his studies and his life in Japan to come to America, more specifically Wisconsin, to study with his hero Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright had a fascination with Eastern culture, in particular their paintings, so it wasn’t hard for Tadashi to get one of the coveted apprenticeships. As I read this book I thought it was truly remarkable that anyone would take an apprenticeship with Wright. He was on the verge of bankruptcy most of the time. His personal life was one controversy after another which usually contributed to his insolvency. An apprentice might spend as much time peeling potatoes, hoeing in the garden, building rock walls or running an errand than they will working at the drafting tables. There was no pay, but generally they were housed and fed. All of this wouldn’t make any sense except that they were allowed to work with a man that is considered the most revered architect of his time. Fortunately for Wright he was not the only one that thought he was a genius. 

”Was he the wounded genius or the philanderer and sociopath who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women, especially them?”

T. C. Boyle uses Tadashi as the narrator of this book. He tells the story of Frank Lloyd Wright through his relationships with the women in his life. There were three wives, often overlapping each other, and there was one lover/soulmate who was tragically murdered. His 5’8” tall mother, two inches taller than him, always seems available to fill in the gaps when he is between women. He doesn’t do well on his own. 

”The dishes were a nuisance, piled up around the house with unrecognizable crusts of food fused to their surfaces, the rugs were filthy, the linens needed changing, he was running short of shirts and underwear--socks--and he was tired of having to send someone out to the laundry every other day. The smallest thing. That was all he needed. Someone to look after him.”

It must have been quite the shock for the women in his life to transition from this passionate love affair into the drudgery of keeping up with Frank’s extended household. It must have been difficult to watch FLW flitter about the country chasing down commissions and being left behind to “manage his affairs”. He was amazing and he was an ass. He was always dancing on the head of a needle not only in regards to his women, but also with his career. 

It takes superb balance to stay on that needle.

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The Edwin H. Cheney house that turned out to be so tragically costly.

In 1903 FLW designed a house for Edwin Cheney, a neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois. Little did Cheney know that part of the cost of the commission was also his wife...Mamah. I’m sure it did not come up in the negotiations. She was a follower of the writer Ellen Key who advocated independence for women even to the point of saying that the bonds of marriage should not be a bond at all. 

Controversial stuff in 1903. 

FLW had been married to Catherine “Kitty” for twenty years and had four children with her. When he threw Kitty over and ran away with Mamah his career was quickly in shambles. Headlines blared his infidelity. He was hounded to the point that he finally called a disastrous press conference. He was big on those. 

”One wonders when they were first conceived of--and wonders to at Wrieto-San’s curious propensity to inflict them carelessly on the women he professed to love.”

Kitty continued to stand by him telling the press it was all just a misunderstanding. She was the dutiful wife until the end even long after they were divorced. 

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Mamah Cheney, her bid for freedom ended disastrously.

To escape the press FLW and Mamah flee to Europe. Even those that wanted to give him commissions could not. He was the hot potato; and few, even his best friends didn’t have the calluses to offer him help. One of the many times in his life when he had to sell his personal collections of paintings and vases to keep the wolves at bay. (Wolves is really not the proper term as most of the people he owed money to were ordinary people like the grocer he owed $900 to. The equivalent of $6,500 in today’s money.)

One thing Wright could always count on was his own celebrated genius. He was a great self-promoter and even with this controversy eventually things die down enough for him to quietly begin building again. This was also the birth of Taliesin. He convinced his mother to buy land in Wisconsin where he could build his dream house and be away from the prying eyes of the press. 

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The next woman to enter his life pursued him with a barrage of sympathetic letters. Miriam Noel was an artist and hooked on morphine. She was cultured and elegant to the point that she was beyond being just an American, but really more a citizen of the world. FLW was experiencing a gap after the tragic death of Mamah at the hands of a servant from Barbados who went temporarily insane killing seven people at Taliesin. Two of the victims were also Edwin and Mamah’s children. The cost of building that house just keeps adding up for Edwin. 

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Miriam Noel Wright. She was 45 when she met FLW, but looked 35. She was in the bloom of morphine youthfulness.

Miriam was passionate and easily slighted and the rows these two proud people had were legendary. One thing that Miriam always chafed under was the spectre of Mamah.

”’Cold meat, Frank. But I’m alive, a real live flesh-and-blood woman!’
Both her hands were at her collar now and in a single savage jerk she tore the dress to her waist, her breasts falling free even as the cold air of the room assaulted her. ‘Look at me. Look at my breasts. You’ve fondled them enough. Suckled them like an infant. They were good enough for you then. And now you prefer a corpse, a corpse over me?’”

She was also rather destructive. 

”She picked up the table first--an end table of rosewood, intricately carved--and the sound it made when it tore the screen from the wall was like the overture to a symphony. Cloth gave. Wood. Plaster. Glass rang and chimed and hit all the high notes ascending the scale. She found an axe propped up against the fireplace and brought it down on the dining room table, the bookshelf, the chairs, the divans, the desk, Frank’s desk. There was the whoosh of a ceramic vase grasping at the air, the shriek of splintering wood, the basso profundo of the andirons slamming to the floor.”

But the sex...well it was exceptional. 

Miriam was the most independent of his women. She left him several times. Each time waiting patiently for him to miss her enough to beseech her to return. She overplayed her hand in the end because he met Olgivanna. Passion and lust, not unusual for Frank, overrode all other considerations. He had trouble getting divorced from his wives. Kitty didn’t allow a divorce until 1922 and Miriam held out for as long as she could until finally letting him go for good in 1927. So while married he installed Olgivanna in his household as a “housekeeper”. Of course he promptly impregnated the “housekeeper” which effectively destroyed the fiction of that arrangement. 

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Miriam was certainly a tigress. She hired a private investigator to follow her husband around and a couple of times she broke into the places they were staying and destroyed their possessions. Restraining orders? Who cares about no stinkin’ restraining orders. She did manage to get him arrested on violations of the Mann Act in Minnesota. She was magnificently vindictive.

”It is named after Congressman James Robert Mann, and in its original form prohibited white slavery and the interstate transport of females for "immoral purposes". Its primary stated intent was to address prostitution, "immorality", and human trafficking; however, its ambiguous language of "immorality" allowed selective prosecutions for many years, and was used to criminalize forms of consensual sexual behavior”. Wikipedia

More press and more embarrassment, but I can’t help thinking that FLW despite the controversy and the temporary losses of commissions believed in the old adage “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Genius has a way of being forgiven. Notoriety is just part of the myth. In the end what people remember about Frank Lloyd Wright is his buildings not his scandals or his defaults or for that matter his faults. When the man is gone his genius survives. 

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Fallingwater, considered one of his masterpieces.