This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Frank Lloyd Wright might be the most chronicled architect of the past 150 years. Scores of books, both mainstream and academic, have been written about him. “Wright scholars” are common in the academy. Dissertations are still being penned about the great man, six decades after his death. Philip Johnson called Wright “my favorite 19th-century architect.” (It was not meant as a compliment.) And yet every half-decade or so, Johnson’s mothership, MoMA, mounts yet another Wright exhibition, and thousands flock to see the now-familiar models, drawings, and photographs. Wright has even received the Ken Burns treatment, a full-length PBS documentary, surely a sign of his Mount Rushmore–like cultural status. Into this very crowded room now steps author Paul Hendrickson, whose new book, Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright (Knopf), attempts to shed new light on the architect.
The book is not a straight biography, per se, nor is it a deep academic dive into the architecture. Hendrickson knows that both of these have already been done, more than a couple of times, and he’s generous throughout the book about citing the work of others. Instead, he looks at the cracks in the facade (the sometimes insufferable Wright persona), reexamining the history, questioning it, attempting at times to re-report the established record—which, as all historians know, is always up for grabs. Recently I talked to Hendrickson about the new book and the enduring Wright legacy.
Martin C. Pedersen: The first question is the obvious one: Why a bio of Wright, perhaps the most written about architect in history? What made you think you could bring something new to the record?
Paul Hendrickson: Absolutely important question. Maybe I can give it a twofold answer. One: Isn’t the best way we learn by osmosis? So here I am, a 9-year-old in Kankakee, Illinois, with a new bike under the Christmas tree in 1953. We lived on the same street, South Harrison Avenue, as two very important Wright houses: the B. Harley Bradley and its neighbor, Hickox. I would sail on that bike down toward the ballpark with my glove hooked on the handlebars and catching in my peripheral vision, over to the right, these two houses—but especially the Bradley. It vaguely scared me and deeply attracted me. Something was pulling me in. I am not even sure that I knew the name Frank Lloyd Wright in 1953. This house looked like nothing else in that town. It had just come down from Mars. I’m a slow learner, so it only took six and a half decades for it to loop around and find me as a story.
In no way, shape, or form do I wish to present myself in this book as any kind of architectural expert. What I am is a nonfiction narrative writer who gets obsessively hooked into projects. They begin to possess me. And so my bona fides are that it grew into me organically, a word that Wright might appreciate. But I thought I could find selected storytelling pockets that had not been looked at before, and as a journalist, I was not willing to take anything at face value. The obvious example being Julian Carlton, the man who brutally murdered seven people and set Taliesin ablaze in 1914. You punch his name into Google and what comes up pretty quickly is “West Indies,” “Caribbean,” “Barbados,” etc. Well, no, he was from backwoods Alabama. That’s an example of what I tried to bring to the table in this book, some new slants, and not go cradle-to-grave. I don’t know how to do those kinds of biographies. My psychic energy is elsewhere.
MCP: The book is a biography, but it’s also a rumination on history, on collective memory. It asks: What is history? What does it choose to remember? What does it forget? You’re correcting the record constantly throughout the book. What determined that approach?
PH: If you look at my prior books, they all have this element of search. My first book, published 36 years ago, was a reported memoir of my time as a Catholic seminarian, studying to be a priest. That book is entitled Seminary: A Search. All of these books are searches and ruminations, with meanderings down alleys. They’re nonlinear. It’s what I know how to do. It’s trying to bring the reader along with me and taking the risk of, in a sense, writing myself into the story, making myself a character. That tone, that voice, that construct is something I became familiar with, even in my 30 years of daily journalism at the Washington Post and elsewhere. I would try out this approach and sometimes get shot down by my bosses, and at other times be willing to write just straight third person, reportorial narrative. But this is the voice that I’ve gotten comfortable with.
MCP: Was that determined by the fact that so much had been written Wright, or was that the way you wanted to tell the story?
PH: Two things can be true at once. One, it’s what I wanted to do. Second, it was making a virtue of necessity. I knew that I couldn’t just write another book on Wright. Meryle Secrest’s biography is the book of record. All power to her. That book is very good. And, yes, I would be able to maybe bring some different things if I were doing that kind of book, but I wanted to explore something different.
MCP: And so in your quest to find Wright, what surprised you about him?
PH: It’s rolling the boulder uphill with your nose to try to use the H-word, the man’s “humanity.” From the beginning, I felt that I intuited something deeply about his humanity that other chroniclers had by and large missed. You can’t look at one of his buildings without feeling the fundamental soulfulness—just go to Fallingwater. But I don’t think I was quite prepared for the degree of pain, regret, concealed guilt, and yearning and longing for his father. We think of his mother as the driver of his life, the relentless will. But the father is the larger influence. The family broke up in 1885, and I can find no evidence that the two ever saw each other again. But in his autobiography, Wright murdered his father for posterity, and he knew it. And I feel that he was, even before that, on a search for his father. He knew the dynamics in that family. He knew what his mother did, and he pretended for a long time that the story was otherwise.
And once I began turning over those stones, I started examining what is under the narrative of his Taliesin fellowship talks. Those really hadn’t been looked at very much, so far as I know, by historians and biographers, and they’re the best. They’re like letters. They show frame of mind, because he’s speaking spontaneously in those Sunday morning fellowship talks. Once I started looking at those transcripts and got a few of the audio tapes and heard what I felt was the longing—that moved and surprised me and circled right back around to his humanity.
MCP: You worked on the book over the course of many years. How many Wright buildings did you visit? I ask because there are so many of them.
PH: These books grow inside me, and they overlap. So while I’m working on my Ernest Hemingway book, who grew up in Oak Park, I’m going to Unity Temple to find my space, to get inside my serenity for a moment. So there’s a conjoining with those two guys over the word space: the Unity Temple and Ernest Hemingway’s stories. But way before I signed a contract for Hemingway, I wrote about his sons at the Washington Post in 1987. I also wrote a story about a beautiful Usonian that’s right outside of Washington, the Pope-Leighey House. So all of these things overlap and intertwine. The Wright book has been growing inside me inchoately since I was a boy on my maroon JC Higgins three-speed.
I’m also a lifelong amateur student of architecture. I’m not trained in it, but I know what I know and like what I like. So the specific answer to your question: If we know that there are about 400 extant Wright buildings, almost all of them in America, I’ve been to more than a hundred. I haven’t been inside all of them, because sometimes I could only peer in from the sidewalk.
MCP: You make an amazing connection between the horrible massacre and fire at Taliesin and the race massacre in Tulsa seven years later. How did you make that connection?
PH: It’s so hard to get down in a few words, because it’s such a complicated thing. I tried to do my detective work. The ostensible connection is Wright’s first cousin, Richard Lloyd Jones, who in 1914 was right there in Madison. He’s editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. That’s the link. But the thing I’m trying to explore is far deeper and more psychic. What got into Richard Lloyd Jones’ head was this awful compartmentalization of good and bad. It was Manichean. There were good negroes in the universe, and there were bad ones in the universe. And my conjecture and contention and argument is that the terrible atrocity at Taliesin was a catalytic event in the head of Richard Lloyd Jones. It was not cause and effect, of what was going to happen seven years later, when Jones is now the editor of the Tulsa Tribune, and who is this awful racist, who baits the Tulsa massacre. And thank you for calling it that, and not the grossly misnamed “Tulsa Race Riot.” It was a race massacre. Jones, with his paper, with his pen, this contemptuous man, baits that event into being. So what’s the connection here? I’m trying to explore, not in any knee jerk cause-and-effect way, a tragedy that’s broader even than Tulsa, than Spring Green in 1914. Does 1909—when Wright abandons his family—in some way lead to 1914? Does 1914 in some way have to be “avenged” by what happens in 1921? And you put his father into the mix? Well, it’s the unanswerable question that I am circling in the entire book: I’ll call it “chains of moral consequence.” That’s what I am working toward, with as much reporting under it as I could possibly summon. To what degree did Wright himself think about these things? To what degree was Wright haunted about these things?
MCP: If you were to ask somebody who isn’t connected to architecture to name two American architects, they would probably name Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright, who died six decades ago. What accounts for that?
PH: Wright worked his way past architecture into the consciousness and subconsciousness of American culture. He becomes like Elvis or Hemingway. He rises above his artistic genius in his field to become something else, to become iconic, a figure of pop culture. But that wouldn’t have lasted this long if it wasn’t backed up by the art. It was Wright, with some psychic power of his will, his force of consciousness, and his immense gift. He also knew how to present himself, how to project himself. This little man with the cape and the porkpie hat, who as an old man conquered television in the 1950s. Did the medium of TV ever seem more perfectly suited to anyone than to Frank Lloyd Wright? I don’t know what explains it, how someone accomplishes that kind of thing, but they do. And it becomes a phenomenon that remains to this day.
MCP: As somebody who’s seen more than a hundred Wright buildings, I won’t ask you to name your favorite, because there are 300 you haven’t seen. But among the ones you’ve seen, what are some of the can’t-miss buildings?
PH: Unity Temple will always have pride of place for me. I love the Jacobs House, in Madison. That jewellike little thing you feel you could nest in your palm. It’s so small and fragile-seeming, but how could it be fragile if it has withstood all those Wisconsin winters? The B. Harley Bradley, which is my boyhood Wright. I like the Guggenheim. It took me some time to begin to appreciate it, but I like it very much. Overall, though, I tend to prefer the spare works over the grand works.
MCP: I like the Guggenheim, but I’ve never liked it for looking at art. I love to be in that atrium and look up. It’s amazing. But for actually viewing art, I don’t feel like it’s a great museum.
PH: That was his ego at work. He wanted the building to be better than the art that hung on its walls. I agree with you: It’s not a great place at all to look at art. It can feel claustrophobic. But in that atrium, looking up, there’s something magical that happens.
Of the grand houses, I love the Heurtley House on Forest Avenue, in Oak Park, just a few houses down from his own, at the corner of Chicago and Forest. That house is amazing. I love the Winslow House, in River Forest. We better stop talking about favorites, because a whole bunch of them start coming to mind.
MCP: But for you, they tend to be the houses?
PH: Yes. I believe that speaks to his decency. He wanted to build shelters for mankind. He wanted to give people a dignified sense of domestic living. He didn’t think of them as houses—they were homes. And that dynamic, that terrible tension, was working against all of the probity and decency and homelike atmosphere he could never find for long in his own life.
MCP: Architecture has changed radically in recent decades. Most young architects wouldn’t recognize the process that Wright used to create his buildings. They’re barely doing the same job. What lessons does Wright still hold for them?
PH: I don’t know much about how young architects practice. I know they do the bulk of their work on computers. So would they even recognize a triangle or a T-square? But one of the reasons he might still speak to us, aside from all of the ego and the myth, is because his buildings are green in a sense. They’re environmentally attractive, and there’s a consciousness in America to want something that is in harmony with what we fear we’re losing, which is nature. Wright’s buildings have that connection.