Frank Lloyd Wright: Murder, Myth and Modernism

New Yorks Guggenheim Museum is Frank Lloyd Wrights most famous public building and he, like it, has become an American icon. The Guggenheim opened in 1959, just a few months after Wrights death. He had, by then, achieved legendary status and the title he claimed for himself the worlds greatest architect has remained largely unchallenged since. But Wrights reputation at the end of his life and his own mischievous myth making, has obscured less dignified details of his earlier career bitter rivalries, financial chaos and personal tragedy. Wright preferred not to discuss these in his later years and, as a result, most casual admirers know nothing of them. On 15 August 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright was at his office in Chicago. 140 miles away, at their home in Wisconsin, his mistress, Mamah Borthwick-Cheney, sat down to lunch with her two children. In another room were six of Wrights staff tradesmen and studio workers. After serving the meals, Wrights servant, Julian Carleton, quietly bolted the doors and windows, poured gasoline around the outside of the house, and set it alight. As the house began to burn, he took a hatchet and attacked and murdered Mamah and her children she was killed where she sat. He then went after the workmen. Herbert Fritz and Billy Weston escaped by smashing through a window. They were the only survivors that day. At his office, Wright received a phone call telling him only that there had been a fire but when he arrived at the train station he learned the full story from waiting reporters. The brutal murders were the final tragic act in a story of adultery and intrigue that had scandalised polite society for the previous five years. Wright was grief-stricken but refused to be defeated he vowed to rebuild Taliesin. This is the story of how Wright rebuilt his life and reputation on the site of his greatest tragedy, the house that he called Taliesin. Wrights own account of his life is notoriously unreliable, but he revealed himself most clearly in the houses he built, and most of all in Taliesin. If the Guggenheim is his epitaph, this is his biography. For half a century, Taliesins changing fortunes followed Wrights own and it ultimately inspired the act of creative genius that justified Frank Lloyd Wrights assessment of himself as the worlds greatest architect.