Loving Frank By Nancy Horan
I am constantly surprised at how little I know – and how much I learn from reading fiction, and how it leads me to learn more. The novel Loving Frank by Nancy Horan was such a novel. Through photographs, I was familiar with houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and I’ve been several times to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (only now being painted the particular shade dictated by the architect in his original design), but I knew nothing about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Loving Frank tells the story of the years prior to 1914 in the life and career of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a novel, but the facts of the story are based on truth.
The novel is primarily the story of the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney – a client. Mamah was a well-educated woman – she married only because it was what was expected of her.
Her husband, Edwin, was a very nice man, but when Mamah (pregnant with her second child) met Frank Lloyd Wright she knew she was in love.
Her love was returned, and in spite of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 20-year marriage and six children, Frank and Mamah leave their families to be with each other. It was a huge scandal at the time and the couple – living in sin – departed for Europe. Mamah left her children, John, six years old, and Martha, only two years of age.
In Europe Mamah meets a Swedish feminist, Ellen Kay, and becomes her translator and disciple. Ellen Kay espouses “free love” and at first encourages Mamah in her resolve not to stay in a loveless marriage.
Couples, especially at that time, continued to stay married for “the sake of the children”.
Divorce was seen as a failure and could compromise a man’s career and banish a woman from “society”. Mamah and Frank take the risk and are determined to make a life for themselves, first in Europe, and then on their return to the United States.
They return, not to the Oak Park suburb of Chicago where their spouses and children live, but to the Wisconsin countryside where Frank begins, in the spring of 1911, to build a home, Taliesin. Frank Lloyd Wright is quoted as saying “I couldn’t think of anything more noble than making a beautiful home. Still can’t.”
And it is a beautiful home that he creates – as with other buildings he designs not only the structure, but the interiors, the furniture and the stained glass – his typical Prairie style house, one of many he built between 1900 - 1917.
Apart from the story of the relationship between Mamah and Frank it was interesting to read about feminism in the early 1900s, the lives of women generally, and especially Mamah, who chose to leave a very comfortable life for a very difficult one with the man she loved.
Although Frank Lloyd Wright also gave up a great deal in order to live with Mamah, his career and the creative process were the most important things in his life.
He developed his ideas fully “stewing in his head” before putting them on paper and then “he might sketch furiously for only an hour before a brilliant design appeared.” He designed and built many homes and public buildings over his very long career.
He died in 1959 at the age of 91.
The novel concludes with such a shocking tragedy that I was stunned. I had no idea that such an event had taken place – and had to look it up to confirm that it was in fact true.
There was, for me, enough suspense throughout the novel to hold my attention and I hope I haven’t given too much away – not knowing anything about the life of the architect, I was making discoveries as I read. This book read as a novel and taught me about the lives of two very exceptional people.