Sunday, July 17, 2016

Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by William R. Drennan

George Gershwin is on the radio playing a medley of all of his compositions.  If you like his jazzy/ classical compositions you can listen here.

Last week I was in Denver visiting my sister, Debbie.  She is an Architect and also teaches at the College School of the Mines.  While driving through the mountains, she related a story about Frank Lloyd Wright that I did not know.  When I returned home to Texas, I checked a book about the incident from my local library.  

It was an e book.  Don't you love checking e books out of the library?  You just go online  to Amazon through your library account, download the book for free, read it, and in two weeks it disappears all by itself.  I don't even have to leave my house.

The book I downloaded was Death in a Prairie House:  Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders.

I'm sure most of us know who Frank Lloyd Wright is:  one of the greatest American Architects of the Twentieth Century.  This book does not touch upon Wright's professional accomplishments but is a biography of his life and particularly the gruesome events surrounding one of the most mysterious mass murder cases in U.S. history.

Drennan is an engaging writer and at 232 pages (or in my case, 1214 KB), I read the book in one day.  

The first half of the book is devoted to Wright's biography.  Wright's parents were a strange combination to say the least.  His father, William Carey Wright,  was an itinerant Baptist preacher who never stayed anywhere very long and kept money hardly at all.  His mother Anne, apparently hated her husband, hated his children by a previous marriage- especially his young daughter whom she physically abused- and, really the whole wide world, except little Frank.

I've read that people develop Narcissistic Personality disorders when someone, usually a parent, usually a mother, dotes on a child to the point that the child is persuaded he is above everyone else, including laws and social mores.  This appears to be what happened to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank's father ran off while he was young.  Or run off, as it was believed that his abandonment of the family was a calculated move on Anne's part.  What Frank thought of it, no one knows, but he didn't attend his father's funeral. But then again he didn't attend his mother's either.

While "greatness makes you above the law" is debated by some, it is true that Wright developed a genius for designing houses and buildings.  His Prairie School  and Arts and Crafts designs are well known to anyone with a penchant for American Architecture. He became an apprentice and then a partner with a famous Chicago Architect, Louis Sullivan, and helped him create skyscrapers gracing downtown Chicago, including my Alma Mater Roosevelt University which was once a hotel and still houses the Auditorium Theater.

The World's Fair and its ushering in of Grecian and Roman revival apparently crushed both Sullivan's career and his spirit.  He died a alcoholic, heartbroken man.

Not so, Wright, who easily discarded the man who helped him step up into the professional world of architecture, establishing his own firm.  Wright thrived and moved on, developing his unique Americana houses and homes.  His signature house is the Prairie Home which expressed his philosophy that homes should be organic and produce a "harmony between man and nature".  Made to conform to the local landscape, his homes only used local materials, were single stories, unstained and unpainted and built with low ceilings and long rows of windows.  

After twenty years of marriage, Wright abandoned his wife and six children and left for Europe with Mamah (pronounced "may muh") Cheney, the wife of one of his clients.  In Europe Mamah translated the works of the Swedish feminist, Ellen Key.  Both Wright and Cheney advocated Key's principals that "true love isn't illegal and a marriage that is not based on true love is illegal." 

I suppose it occurred to neither of them that true love is based on the will and not on feelings or selfish desire, but let me move on.

In 1911, this caused quite a stir in rural Wisconsin, but Wright nevertheless returned with Mamah and built Taliesin, a Praire design house on family property.  Wright refused to budge, writing a public letter to the local newspaper that rules and laws were made for "little" people and truly great people were above the laws.  Such a proclamation didn't endear him to his neighbors.

All of this is merely the prelude to the actual plot of the book.  Two years after Wright and Cheney (now Borthwick as she returned to her maiden name) moved into Taliesin, in 1914, the unthinkable happened.  

Wright was in Chicago on business and Mamah was at home with her two children who were visiting for the summer (her ex-husband had custody). While at the table for lunch, a servant, Julian Carlton, bludgeoned Mamah and her son, John, to death with an ax, chased her daughter Martha, killed her, then set all of them on fire.  He also set fire to where workmen were eating in another room when they realized gasoline was pouring in from under the door.  The men tried to escape but only one survived in the end.

It is largely speculation as to what motivated Carlton to murder his employers.  Carlton was found in a boiler room where he drank acid to kill himself before getting arrested.

Putting the fragments together, it seems Carlton was emotionally disturbed, perhaps a paranoid schizophrenic.  Due to erratic behavior, Mamah and Wright had given Carlton and his wife notice, but according to Carlton, he was getting even with Emil Brodelle, one of the workers for his racist and violent attitude toward him.

Carlton starved to death before he was brought to trial.

Wright built another Taliesin on the original site to "wipe away the scars", but it burnt down too.  He finally built Taliesin III and created the Taliesin Fellowship which was a congregation of artists, architects and other creative people to live and inspire each other.

According to some sources they did a lot more than that, but that doesn't come into this story.

Wright married again, a Miriam Noel, but her morphine addiction soon doomed the marriage.  However, they stayed together for 15 years and Noel held firm sway over the older architect, keeping him from attending his mother's funeral.  He finally divorced her and married Olga Hinzenburg, another bohemian that influenced Wright, bringing in a guru and adding to the overall colorful, if not entirely upright environment at Taliesin.  (There's a book about the Taliesin Fellowship, but I decided against reading it after one review wrote the book made him feel "unclean".)

Wright finally died in 1959.  He was born two years after the Civil War; his grandparents were contemporary with Jefferson and Washington; and he died as John F. Kennedy's star was rising.

The Taliesin tragedy was a turning point in Wright's career.  His buildings were no longer to be merely organic but endurable and, more importantly, fireproof.

Given, the subject, Drennan's book could have easily become salacious, but he keeps the narration filled with energy and professionalism.  He makes the story enthralling without resorting to cheap gossip.

One thing that stands out to me is Wright's belief that he was above moral law.  According to the Bible the wages of sin is death.  The fact that he died as all mortals do indicate that he was no more above any law than the "little people" he held in contempt.

Nevertheless, pushing Wright's personal life aside, I have now ordered two books that catalogue every edifice Wright built.  I eagerly await them. 


  1. I know so little about architecture but this this sounds very interesting as Wright seemed to be such an interesting character.

    Though I approach it from a slightly different direction then yourself I find theories that discard morality and ethics, for what is often narcissism repugnant. It seems that Wright was a case study in this.

    By the way, I like your musical introductions to your posts.

    Have a great week!

    1. Hi Brian! After spending a week with my sister who is an architect, I have been inspired to read more about architecture and their designers.

      It seems certain people who were brilliant (scientists, artists, dancers etc.) saw themselves as above the moral law. They seemed to confuse their genius-I would say their God-given talents- with total autonomy. Instead of acknowledging God, they chose to view themselves as a god. Or an "Uberman" as Nietzsche stated in "Thus Spoke Zarathustra".

      I'm glad to get feedback about the music. Since I listen to it as I write, I thought people would like to hear it as well.

      Take care!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.