By T.C. Boyle
Published by Viking/Penguin Group; Hardcover; 451 pp
I approached this book with mixed expectations. T. C. Boyle is, by anyone’s estimation, a fine writer, but two years ago in this space I reviewed Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, and I was not sure I wanted to know much more about the horrifying end of Mamah Bortwick Cheney, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress and inspiration for the building of Taliesin.
Thanks to the fact that Boyle has carefully structured the story to move backward from Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna, I was free to focus on his later marriages, at least until the very last part of the book. It was a wise choice, and an inevitable one, because after describing the gruesome murder of Mamah and her children and four of the workmen at Taliesin, there isn’t really any place to go.
The Women purports to be the reminiscences of one of Wright’s apprentices, a Japanese student named Tadashi Sato. Although he was educated in this country (son of a diplomat) and speaks fluent English, Sato mentions at the beginning of the book that he has a co-writer, his grandson-in-law, Seamus O’Flaherty. I’m not sure that Boyle needed this conceit, especially since O’Flaherty is rarely mentioned (indeed, the second or third mention came in a footnote so far into the book that I had to look back to find out who he on earth he was). But writing in Sato’s voice gives Boyle the chance for some wry and/or insightful comments by an outside sort of insider, a clever device for sure.
Sato’s depiction of Wright, or as he calls him, Wrieto-san, is remarkably evenhanded, acknowledging the man’s genius and flamboyance, but also his intense selfishness and often ruthless use of others. On the flyleaf of the book there is a quotation that describes very well the man who bullied and cajoled and made his way through life borrowing (and failing to repay) huge sums of money from friends and clients alike: “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose arrogance.”
Wright loved women, but dominated and used his wives relentlessly. Many people thought him a monster, but he was most assuredly the premier architect of his age. His originality and brilliance are unquestionable. So is his competence, as evidenced by the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which withstood a major earthquake that flattened most of the city.
Boyle gives the women of the title, i.e. Wright’s wives (and mistresses), due diligence, something that is very gratifying to this reader. Certainly, with the exception of his first wife, Catherine, whom he married when she was still a teenager, Wright chose (and was chosen by) spirited, intelligent women to share his larger-than-life life. His own fame and colorful persona, however, might well have subsumed them if his relationships hadn’t been quite so controversial or conducted so publicly.
Olgivanna, his third and final wife, was herself married when they began their affair. Managing divorces from both their spouses provided fodder for sensational press coverage, especially Frank’s divorce from Maude Miriam Noel, who had pursued Wright very soon after Mamah’s death. Maude was an intensely dramatic, self-indulgent southern beauty who had lived in Paris. Once she became Wright’s mistress, their relationship seems to have been a continual roller coaster of ecstasy and despair, an off-again, on-again comedy of partings and reconciliations. Eventually he married her, but even that didn’t smooth out the relationship. He picked up with Olgivanna during a period when Maude was “off” yet again, but very quickly she decided that she was indeed Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright, wronged wife, and not about to give him a divorce. Her fury and vindictiveness were seized on by the press, and the prolonged battle before Wright was free to marry Olgivanna is a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about marrying a woman (Maude) who is addicted to morphine and dramatics.
Catherine, Wright’s first wife, was little more than a child when he married her. She bore him six children in eight years, and seems to have been content with her suburban life in Oak Park, Ill. When Wright was hired to design a house for his neighbors, the Cheneys, it is little wonder that he fell hard for Mrs. Cheney, known as Mamah (pronounced May-muh). She was a brilliant, college-educated woman who was chafing under her role as wife and mother (of two). When they ran off together to Europe, there was major scandal in the press. In earlier books about this period, Wright is given credit for returning home to give his marriage another try, but Boyle presents him as coming home simply to ask for a divorce, and paints him as living celibate in the house while he planned and raised money to build Taliesin for Mamah. She, meanwhile, was busy in Europe, learning Swedish so that she could translate the works of Ellen Key, a feminist writer whose passionate views of how men and women should relate to one another were, for their time, even more scandalous.
All the wives (two of whom were mistresses before he married them) jump off the page in lively detail, but somehow in this book Mamah.is not presented as vividly. She was, I believe, in many ways the most complex and interesting of the lot. If you want to know more about her, consider Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank. Both books are well worth reading, but the emphases of the authors are decidedly different. Together they give a more rounded picture, not only of Wright, but of the women who loved him.
©2009 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomen.com