Plagued By Fire

Paul Hendrickson has written an unconventional biography of America’s iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  The maverick designer was born in 1867, shortly after the Civil War, and died in 1959, the year Alaska and Hawaii became states. Wright has been described as a narcissist, philanderer, liar, spendthrift and anti-Semite.

The architect’s break up with Kitty, his first wife and the mother of six of his seven children, provides just one example of how he flouted his era’s moral code. His egotism was especially on display throughout his life.  When a client complained that a distinctively designed roof was leaking onto his desk, Wright’s solution was simply, “Move the desk.”

Despite his disregard for others and for social conventions, Wright was a creative genius. The visionary designed more than 500 buildings during his long life. One of his best-known works is “Fallingwater,” a home built in 1935 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh. He had a long, successful career and after his death his peers claimed his best work was done in his 90s. These include the Guggenheim Museum in New York City with its spiral ramp leading up to a dimmed skylight.

“Plagued by Fire” is unique among the many books about Wright because the author chooses to focus his account of Wright’s life and character on a single incident. On August 15, 1914, at the Taliesin home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a servant on the estate, Julian Carlton, went mad. He killed Mamah Borthwick, Wright’s lover, her two children and four workers. To hide his atrocity the deranged man poured gasoline on the seven bodies and set the carnage afire. This appalling tragedy occurring in Wright’s late 40s, Hendrickson claims, stirred multifarious and recurring reactions in the architect throughout his life, therefore the title, “Plagued by Fire.”

Hendrickson depicts many dark episodes in the protagonist’s life and searches for the common thread that connects all of them to the curse of fire in Wright’s life. He claims the true emotional underpinnings of Wright’s life are regret, sadness, shame and restitution in an effort to make Wright a more sympathetic figure, a tortured genius as human and vulnerable as anybody else.

Hendrickson sums up his theme, “He wanted the money, he wanted the fame; he was a reprobate, and an adulterer, but I don’t think it’s possible to look at the buildings without feeling there must’ve been a fundamental soulfulness in this guy.”

Hendrickson’s meticulous and rigorous research is notable, but the psychological study is overwritten with too many complex and tangential anecdotes. Readers seeking a more traditional, less psychologically oriented chronology of Wright’s life, should choose a different book.