I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, where it was almost obligatory to take a junior high class trip to Fallingwater. I remember very little about my visit, other than enjoying the woods around the house and wondering why all the beds seemed so small. I knew nothing about the famed architect behind the house. It was an ignorance that I decided to finally remedy with Paul Hendrickson’s new biography, “Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Calling it a biography doesn’t fully capture what the author is attempting. While the book is technically a biography, it’s more than that. Sometimes it’s a meditation on the nature of Wright’s work, on genius, or on the man himself. Sometimes it’s an exploration – a guided tour of Frank Lloyd Wright, with Hendrickson leading us along a meandering path. The writing style, with the author himself appearing as a frequent character, lends itself to exploration. Hendrickson is fond of saying things like, “But more on that later,” as a way of drawing readers in that’s quite charming in its own way.
The biography begins with Wright’s darkest moment, an event that almost neatly bisected his life. A servant at one of his houses went mad. Taking up a hatchet, the servant murdered Wright’s romantic partner, her two children, and several of the architect’s workers before setting the house on fire. It was a gruesome, shocking crime that would have drawn media attention regardless. That Wright was married, but not to the woman he lived with, and that the servant was African American, only heightened interest in, and the scandal of, the whole incident. In the author’s estimation, it was an event that would have destroyed anyone less self-assured and self-absorbed than Wright, though it still caused damage.
Hendrickson tends to go on long tangents throughout the book. While many of these are interesting, it’s not always clear how they’re directly relevant to understanding Wright’s life.
Wright is not a sympathetic character. Large portions of the book are spent picking away at the self-mythologizing Wright engaged in during his own lifetime. His account of his education, of his first architectural job, and, most importantly, of his father’s early departure from his life, were likely not as close to the truth as one would hope. Wright was a man of many flaws. He admitted he wasn’t a good father to his children, and that his fatherly instincts were mostly reserved for the buildings he created. The roofs on many of his projects notoriously leaked, though it didn’t seem to bother him much. When one client called him to report that the roof was leaking onto his dining room table, Wright suggested that he “move the table.”
Contemporaries, and many biographers, believe Wright moved through life unbothered by its troubles, that he only looked forward no matter what happened. And yet, as Hendrickson tells it, Wright experienced and felt more than he was given credit for. In fact, during his life, and especially at the end, he never stopped looking back.
Brady Clemens is the district consultant librarian at Schlow Centre Region Library.