The Infamous Frank Lloyd Wright: A Modern Day Henry VIII
Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, a masterpiece of architectural geography, now a UNESCO site -- this iconic photo is essentially the basis of Wright's current fame
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a lusty egomaniac with a god complex. He was an outright cad and ludicrously vainglorious. He reminds me of England's 16th century monarch, King Henry VIII -- famous for his girth, many wives, and bloodthirstiness. Except Wright didn't have the imprimatur of an official crown. He just crowned himself.
Like England's head chopping monarch, Wright was a spendthrift who donned a red cape and purported to found "modernism." Henry founded the modern English nation. Wright founded modern architecture (or so he claimed). More significantly, Wright -- like Henry VIII -- destroyed the lives of women, right and left, like a deadly hurricane leaving desolation in its path with impunity.
Mr. Wright was Mr. Wrong.
a young Frank Lloyd Wright
Mr. Wrong's Reputation
Wright is venerated as one of America's greatest modern architects. The "greatest who ever lived," in his own opinion, an opinion which he preached to anyone who would listen. Over and over, sometimes in a sing-song voice. Like a would be prophet-genius, Wright claimed to "work true." He was known as the inventor of "organic architecture" and the "prairie house," distinctively American concepts at the time.
To be sure, Wright was an influential innovator and had a shape-shifting impact on his oeuvre. He produced a few iconic buildings like Fallingwater, Taliesin West, and the crazy Guggenheim Museum spiral. Eight of his buildings became UNESCO sites in July 2019.
Wright's Imperial Hotel in Japan, from 1923, now demolished
But when you scythe away the thickets, Wright shouldn't be that fondly eulogized.
Some of his masterpieces no longer even exist, like the Imperial Hotel. Most aren't easily accessible and are rarely visited. Almost all Wright's buildings were vastly over budget, with massive engineering flaws that threatened their survival and required costly renovation.
Many of them reflected what Wright, not his clients, wanted in a home. An ultra control freak, Wright had a nasty habit of entering his clients' home when they were absent and removing "unauthorized' decorative objects that he thought weren't "true."
Taliesin West in Arizona, the current home of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture
In large part, Wright was an overrated product of overwrought myth making. Moreover, as a person, Wright was rotten to the core. He wasn't living out some Emersonian ideal of natural simplicity, as he expounded to the public.
To the contrary, Wright was a fraudster. He led a selfish and salacious lifestyle full of personal scandal, lurid love affairs, and dishonorable behavior. Throw in a few bonfires -- his houses had a habit of going up in flames -- and the press had a field day. The sensational headlines only increased Wright's fame, though they did cost him clients.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The corkscrew design looks pretty, but isn't great for displaying modern art.
Wright Was An Irredeemable Cad With A Dark Side
Why so harsh, you might wonder.
Well, Wright wasn't just an ass with a big personality and outsized ego. He was a dangerous right wing, anti-urban, white Supremacist hypocrite. He didn't give a crap about other humans or even his architecture's effect on them.
Wright once opined that Nazi bombing of London was desirable, to "decentralize" the overcrowded place. He wanted Boston and Pittsburgh depopulated as well. Wright preached democracy, but embraced tyrants like Stalin. His architecture purported to elevate the family unit, while he personally sabotaged families.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, one of eight Wright UNESCO sites
With his grandiose boasting and unconventional lifestyle, Wright became the inspiration for the character of architect Howard Roark in Ayn Ran's best-selling novel The Fountainhead. Rand was another right wing nut job, spinning another idiotic life philosophy.
Like Wright, the quasi-fictional Roark revealed Rand's cold worldview, her lack of humanity. Roark put the idea of self, individualism, and bracing fundamentalist ideas above all else -- a classic symptom of narcissistic personality disorder.
Not only did Wright have a bad case of egotism and regressive idealogical flaws, he was also a common confidence man. (Albeit one pretentiously dressed like a dandy in swaggering hats, elevator shoes, and a cane.) Wright specialized in tax evasion, fleecing employers and clients, and stiffing creditors and friends. He even lied about his age.
Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park Illinois. Wright said, “I don’t give a damn what the use of it is; I wanted to build a building like that.”
Wright was perpetually either scheming to get money or bankrupt. All the while indulging in luxuries and spending a fortune on Japanese art and a fleet of cars. Not very transcendental or Emersonian, now is it?
Wright's "architectural school," the Taliesin Fellowship, was just more of the same con game. It was born out of desperation and greed. Wright was bankrupt after the Great Depression. His commissions dried up during the "lost years" of personal scandal. In response, he and his third wife dreamed up a plan to charge tuition for exposure to the rarified Wright and put "apprentices" to work.
Only it wasn't just architectural drawings these acolytes produced. No, they plowed fields, slaved away in the kitchen peeling potatoes, washed dishes, and performed manual labor. All the while ponying up an exorbitant tuition fees and bowing and scraping to Wright, their charismatic and sometimes abusive guru. In it initial incarnation, Taliesin could easily be viewed as a cult, or proto-hippy community.
Frank Lloyd Wright, a Trump-like figure except without NYC
Wright As A Revivified Henry VIII
Even worse, for purposes of this article, Wright was a utter cad to a string of women, who suffered mightily at his hands. Loving him was the proverbial kiss of death. Just like England's famous Henry VIII. Tellingly, Wright is purportedly very distantly related to Henry. Apple-tree, and all that.
Desperate for an heir, Henry VIII married six times and was a homicidal maniac, executing two of his wives and terrifying them all (and his other, more secret, mistresses). So toxic were his marriages that there's a little rhyme for the fate of his poor wives -- "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived."
Let's take a look at the ugly parallels between Wright and dear old Henry.
Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of King Henry VIII of England, 1537 -- wearing a red cape just like Wright later did
Henry VIII's first wife was Catherine of Aragon, a aristocratic beauty from Spain. They were married for 24 years. She had a daughter and a zillion miscarriages. Despite her loyalty and maternal bad luck, Henry wasn't sympathetic. Instead, he was pissed. After all, there were pressing dynastic imperatives to fulfill. And his own libido.
Henry began an affair with the attractive and beguiling courtier, Anne Boleyn, and abruptly dumped Queen Catherine. When he couldn't get a quickie Catholic annulment from Rome, Henry took extreme measures. He founded a new Protestant religion so that he could divorce her. Once out of the way, a sad and defeated Catherine was shuttled off to a dank castle to live out her days. Oh joy.
Wright was no less awful than his distant ancestor. As a young man like Henry, he married Kitty Tobin, a beauty from Oak Park Illinois. Unlike Catherine, Kitty was prolific, producing 6 children. Though Wright built family-centric homes, he didn't actually like families and was a neglectful father. The children were irritating distractions to his work. Buildings were children; children weren't children.
Anne Boleyn, late 16th century copy of a lost original of c.1533-1536 -- Henry VIII's doomed second wife and mother of Queen Elizabeth I
So, like Henry, Wright began having an affair with a client's wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Mamah was an exotic intellectual compared to mother hen Kitty. So intoxicating was Mamah to Wright, as Anne had been to Henry, that they ran off to Europe on what Wright dubbed a "spiritual hegira."
The pair chose to "love life." Husbands, wives, and kids be damned. Wright was too grand for such plebeian and conventional restraints anyway. He needed to live his best life. Talk about BS rationalization. The con man's biggest con was conning himself.
Like Catherine, Kitty refused to grant Wright a divorce for 14 years. Like Catherine in her dank castle, Kitty was consigned to the dilapidated Wright home in Oak Park, where child support was a scarce commodity. With a loan, and somewhat on the lam from prying eyes, Wright and Mamah built a "love bungalow," Taliesen East in rural Wisconsin.
Taliesen East in Spring Green Wisconsin
But Mamah and Anne Boleyn both got screwed too. When Anne failed to produce a male heir, a formerly besotted Henry blithely discarded her. Anne was beheaded in 1536 for trumped up adultery charges. Mamah met an early death too, thanks to her association with Wright. She was axed to death by an assassin with a grudge against Wright, who torched Taliesen, killing 9 people.
What about the third go round? How did Henry's and Wright's third major relationships fare? Not bloody well.
After the charming Anne, Henry rebounded by marrying a plaint Jane Seymour. She gave him an heir (who later died), but then died in childbirth herself. I guess that's marginally better than Boleyn's pubic execution grounds at the Tower of London. But no less final.
Frank Lloyd Wright, in his studio in 1938
Wright went the other way. He hooked up with the flamboyant and liberated Miriam Maude Noel,who was even more exotic than Mamah. She was an artsy clairvoyant, morphine addict, and turban wearer. She comforted and flattered Wright after Mamah's death. But, after a cosmopolitan stint in Japan (where morphine was freely available), she tired of rural Taliesen and decamped.
Wright couldn't stand being single. Not for more than a moment. So he began an affair with a much younger and more impressionable woman. Oglivanna was a Montenegrin dancer from an aristocratic family. She was also married at the time. But trivial details. When Oglivanna gave birth to a daughter, it didn't sit well with a humiliated Miriam.
Miriam went a bit crazy. She launched an ongoing "divorce war," filing lawsuits alleging adultery, abandonment, and violations of the Mann Act. But Miriam's vengeance only caused her, gradient by gradient, to sink into mental illness. Property destruction, home invasion, and ludicrous press conferences followed. Miriam was well and truly ruined by her marriage to Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright with his wife Oglivanna and daughter Iovanna
As a result of Miriam's lawsuits, Wright went into hiding with his mistress Oglivanna. She and her daughters were fugitives, shuttling between temporary homes. Eventually, Oglivanna was arrested and jailed.
She outlasted Wright's other love interests. But the early trauma hardened her. She became a tyrant at Taliesin. Wright's apprentices called her the "dragon lady," a dreadful appellation and fate if you ask me.
Henry went on to have two more wives, one ousted by a quickie divorce (Ann of Cleves) and one that outlived him (Catherine Paar). He was too old and too disabled to properly torment her.
a rather silly 2019 book attempting to portray the "humanity" in Wright, an irredeemable cad
Both Henry and Wright were demon lovers and shitty husbands. They both had a raging sense of superiority and entitlement, which played out in very negative ways.
Nothing good came of a relationship with either of them. The two great egomaniacs tormented the women they loved, sucking out their vitality until it was reduced to thin sea foam or worse. Like a haunting, the cycle was repeated over and over.
There's nothing remotely romantic about it. And the two men should be recognized for the cads they were. They caused real pain. Being scoundrels doesn't negate their life's work. But it does give it a cloying odor.