Last summer I managed to read a number of novels I had wanted to read for some time (Frankenstein, Pompey the Little, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, Dracula) but amid of these various titles I also read Meryle Secrest’s eponymous biography of Frank Lloyd Wright. If I had chosen to read Wright’s autobiography, my summer reading would have consisted entirely of fiction.
Secrest’s book read like any other biography and excel in all the qualities we come to expect from good biographies: it’s thorough, insightful, and unafraid to present the reader with an unflattering portrait of the subject. To be fair, Wright’s poorer characteristics were never a secret and, much in the style of Quentin Crisp’s self-evident queerness, Wright set out early in life to make his greatness abundantly clear to the world. Even when he was a mere draftsman, he lied to prospective employers about other job offers, giving them the impression that he was in great demand, and managed to secure himself higher salaries because of it.
As an architect, he was notoriously difficult to work with and frequently underestimated the total cost of his projects, much to the dismay of his many frustrated clients. Nevertheless, he appears to lulled many of his clients’ worries with his charismatic personality and convinced the, to give him more money. However, this didn’t always work. His first concrete block house, the Millard house in Pasadena, CA, went well over budget and nothing Wright could say would convince his client to fund the project to completion. In the end, Wright had to finance it himself. Critics did not care much for the house but Wright was utterly pleased with himself, and today the house is much admired.
A lot is said about the power of his personality and he was indeed quite forceful but I suspect that many of his clients, though they admired his architecture very much, simply put up with his temper and egotism. After all, a complete house is better than an incomplete one. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Aline Barnsdall, a wealthy oil heiress, from hiring to build her two home. Only the first of these properties, the Hollyhock house in Los Angeles, CA, still stands and is now a part of an art school designed in a fashion reflecting the aesthetic of Hollyhock. Barnsdale was unlike Wright’s other clients and did not easily submit to his decisions. Wright frequently became frustrated with her requirements because she would tell him she wanted a room to feel green but wouldn’t want the room to actually be green. The house was successfully built but Barnsdall did not live in it for very long until she gave it to the city.
Being Wright’s friend was just as frustrating as being his client but in some cases more devastating. Darwin D. Martin was a client and longstanding friend of Wrights. Throughout the course of their friendship, Martin loaned him substantial amounts of money to help fund Wright various project, very little of which was ever repaid to him; despite this and warnings from his family and friends, Martin continued to give him money until he had exhausted much of his life savings. Martin was spared during the 1929 market crash, losing everything overnight, and did not have any savings to depend on.
Not all of his relationships were as tragic but they were generally tumultuous. I was struck by just how dependent he was, throughout much of his life, on other people–his wives, children, and the various architects who worked for him at his Taliesin residences. From his own testimony, we are given the impression he was utterly independent but in actuality he benefit greatly from technical support and much of his success later in life was due to the tireless effort of his family and the Taliesin architects.
Few people today would doubt his talent, despite the various engineerings flaws that have plagued his more inventive designs. He was a deeply flawed man in numerous ways but he never gave up on his goals. Despite many serious setbacks, he never gave up in despair and managed to cement his legacy in American architecture over a nearly 70 year career. His work and influence have been and continue to be extensive. As much as I admire his work, from reading about him I am left with the realisation that I would have found his personality just as infuriating as his many clients did. From my own distance perspective, I can look back at his life and laugh at the excessives of his behavior, but only because I never had to know the man himself.
I would highly recommend Secrest’s book to anyone interested in Wright’s life or architecture. Though it covers the same territory as Ken Burns’ documentary, it goes well beyond it and is less sycophantic. My only complaint about the book are the uneven pages on the hardcover editions. Publishers only do it for some esoterically aesthetic purpose. In the case of this particular biography, this rather functionless decoration seems rather appropriate but frustrating all the same.