A tale of the genius of architect Frank Lloyd Wright

October 04, 1992|By Barbara MacAdam | Barbara MacAdam,Los Angeles Times



Meryle Secrest.


634 pages. $30. Frank Lloyd Wright's life was the great American novel: epic melodrama alleviated by comic relief. Just when it appeared that Wright's career was finished (he was called the best architect of the 19th century) and his life a shambles (he'd left his job, wife and six children in 1909 with no prospects), he resumed action and steered a new course as turbulent and inventive as the last.

There are even recurrent motifs, especially fire. Wherever Wright went, whatever he built, whatever happened to be near him was subject to burning. When the most grotesque of his personal tragedies occurred -- the murder by a crazed servant of his lover, Mamah Borthwick, her two children and four workmen -- the crime was compounded by arson. Each time, he rose like a phoenix from the ashes.

Wright remains an indomitable force. With the reopening of the always controversial Guggenheim Museum and with the exhaustion of postmodernism, Wright looks fresher than ever. His architectural syntheses work perfectly and are far less arbitrary than those of the postmodernists.

Bethesda writer Meryle Secrest -- author of previous biographies of Salvador Dali, Kenneth Clark and Bernard Berenson -- skillfully re-creates Wright, drawing from his autobiography as well as from the vast, newly available Wright Archives. Wright was a charmer and a rogue, a bohemian and a puritan (he neither smoked nor drank and liked simple foods). Ms. Secrest is a seductive storyteller, drawing the reader into a saga of prairie life in rural Wisconsin where Wright grew up among hardy Welsh farmers. Occasionally, an excess of trivial or inconclusive psychological speculation intrudes. Nevertheless, she has turned out a spellbinding tale of an excruciatingly human genius.

Wright was a natural non-conformist born in 1857 (though he later claimed it was 1859) to a Welsh mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, and a Harvard-educated preacher father who could keep neither money nor jobs despite his abundant charms. After Wright's mother left, Frank's father ran back to his first set of children, never seeing Frank or his sister again. So Anna's brother, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the prominent independent and liberal Chicago minister, became his chief influence.

Wright's greatest strength was living almost exclusively in the present -- he liked to have fun and didn't have time for the past or future (though he might savor the odd old grudge). In this way he could shrug it off when he learned that one of his best projects -- the ingenious, progressive Larkin building -- had been demolished. He said to his daughter, Catherine, in 1921, "Everyday life is the important thing, not tomorrow or yesterday but today. You won't reach anything better than the 'right now,' if you take it as you ought."

This book treats Wright with fairness and compassion: a genius deserves his due, and so do those around him, for loving, supporting and enduring him. Wright could be cruel, greedy and envious. He'd hate the person in whose debt he was; he'd respond to a plea for repayment with a call for another loan.

He was shameless. Architecture critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock once went with him to Abercrombie & Fitch, where Wright instantly headed for the most expensive men's coats. Wright chose one and launched into a brilliant discourse on why the store should simply give him the coat. After the manager succumbed, Wright said, "Fine, and I want one for my friend, too."

Wright couldn't tolerate what he found visually displeasing. Toward the end of his life, living at the Plaza Hotel, he sat in a chair in the bathroom because he couldn't stand the recently remodeled rooms. He'd try to ordain what people wore in the homes he designed for them -- mostly beige, to be unobtrusive.

What was most modern about Wright was his sense of inclusiveness. He eagerly integrated the machine-made and the handcrafted. From his prairie-style houses through the Guggenheim Museum, he drew from a vast range of influences: Japan; the Aesthetics Movement; the Arts and Crafts movement; Shingle style; Mayan, Aztec and Egyptian architecture; Art Deco and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

But not classicism. Wright hated colonial houses, considering them too conservative and confining. And he deeply resented the International School, which nearly supplanted his distinctive American synthesis.

Like characters out of fiction, the players here are extremely peculiar: Few are content with their given names. We learn at the end that Wright's first wife, and mother of six of his children, Catherine, known as Kitty, really wanted to be called Nancy. His mother was born Hanna but called herself Anna. And Wright himself changed his middle name from Lincoln to Lloyd and then began using the double, instead of single, "L" for his middle initial.

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