“The impossible, the clean and consistent. That is what you are in love with. Art is the only place you will find it.” says Wynand to Dominique (Fountainhead)
Frank Lloyd Wright, the supreme architect. Mamah Cheney, his client’s wife. Their real-life love story.
Mamah was a waiting-to-exhale housewife in a ‘stifle-a-yawn’ marriage with the bland, devoted and very cuckolded Edward. On the verge of her second pregnancy, she felt the spell of Wright’s charisma and artistic dynamo. The brazen affair quickly detonated two families (his six and her two children), made her a convenient ‘harlot’ for News headlines and wrecked his architectural career. Almost.
I have a dismissive impatience for starry-eyed romances. Romeo-Juliet. Even Bridges of Madison County. They need a dose of humdrum, mundane domestic life, I thought. Bills, grocery, laundry,toilet-seat-up, income tax, dandruff.
To be fair, Wright-Mamah survived admirably through most of the above. They made a 7-year life together, following their ‘decision made in harmony with the soul’ . He built Taliesin for her (Reminded me of Dominique’s Stoddard temple!). This idyllic home is also where Mamah’s skull was hacked with an axe, then doused in gasoline and set on fire, alongwith her 2 children, by a maniacal servant.
Inspite of the irritating self-absorption of the protagonists, the Mamah who lingers on in the mind, is an endearing mix of steely resolve and innocence. She was fluent in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin. Then in the midst of a torn family and filthy headlines, she spent a summer mastering Swedish to translate Ellen Key’s Love and Ethics. And yet, as she admits ‘She had a grand ambition for life. All she did with it was to attach herself to a colossal personality, who would have made great work irrespective of her.’
Guilty Confession to make. I kept trying to fit Wright into Howard Roark mold all through the book. (It was rumored that Roark’s integrity and fanatic self belief was modeled on Wright, as was his building-in-sync-with-Nature houses). Wright had the apt halo of eccentricity to match his artistic magic. He spent extravagantly and always had a trail of unpaid bills. He went into furious depression when his students ‘stole his ideas and took credit for them’. I expected more flair than the decidedly unoriginal ‘I am stuck in an unhappy marriage’ pick-up line. Incidentally, Ayn Rand did not form a favorable impression when she met him during Fountainhead research.
Would the affair make headlines and scandalous gossip if THE Frank Wright was not involved? Maybe not.
Would the book leave a bitter-sweet taste if not for Mamah’s chilling end? Maybe not.