Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney Elope
Local gossips noticed Wright's flirtations, and he developed a reputation in Oak Park as a man-about-town.
His family had grown to six children, and the brood required most of Catherine's attention. In 1903, Wright designed a house for Edwin Cheney, a neighbor in Oak Park, and immediately took a liking to Cheney's wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Mamah Cheney was a modern woman with interests outside the home. She was an early feminist and Wright viewed her as his intellectual equal. The two fell in love, even though Wright had been married for almost 20 years. Often the two could be seen taking rides in Wright's automobile through Oak Park, and they became the talk of the town. Wright's wife, Kitty, sure that this attachment would fade as the others had, refused to grant him a divorce. Neither would Edwin Cheney grant one to Mamah. In 1909, even before the Robie House was completed, Wright and Mamah Cheney eloped to Europe; leaving their own spouses and children behind. The scandal that erupted virtually destroyed Wright's ability to practice architecture in the United States.
Scholars argue that he felt by 1907 that he had done everything he could do with the Prairie Style, particularly from the standpoint of the single family house. Wright was not getting larger commissions for commercial or public buildings, which frustrated him.
What drew Wright to Europe was the chance to publish a portfolio of his work with Ernst Wasmuth, who had agreed in 1909 to publish his work there. This chance also allowed Wright to deepen his relationship with Mamah Cheney. Wright and Cheney left the United States separately in 1910, meeting in Berlin, where the offices of Wasmuth were located.
The resulting two volumes, entitled Studies and Executed Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, were published in 1910 and 1911 in two editions, creating the first major exposure of Wright's work in Europe. The work contained more than 100 lithographs of Wright’s designs and was commonly known as the Wasmuth Portfolio.
Wright remained in Europe for one year (though Mamah Cheney returned to the United States a few times) and set up a home in Fiesole, Italy. During this time, Edwin Cheney granted her a divorce, though Kitty still refused to grant one to her husband.
Frank Lloyd Wright, the legendary American architect, had a long and remarkable life. He was 92 when he died in 1959. By then, he had stamped an original style on buildings, and had been lauded and vilified — often in equal amounts. A new novel imagines a scandalous and little-known part of Wright's history.
In 1909, Wright of Oak Park, Ill., married, with children, ran off to Germany with a neighbor — Mamah (pronounced "May-mah") Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client.
Mamah and her husband Edwin Cheney had two young children. She abandoned them all, for Wright.
"I think what [Wright] saw in Mamah was a very attractive woman, a woman with a great deal to say — curious about the world in the way he was," says author Nancy Horan, who chronicles the real-life love affair in a book called Loving Frank.
Mamah became intrigued, then obsessed, with a man who was re-inventing architecture.
"I'd like to have architecture that belonged where you see it standing and was a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace," Wright once said.
Horan says that Wright "wanted to create an architecture that was true — something that emerged like a plant from the earth. He was bent on cutting his connections to the past that belonged to somebody else."
He spoke about working "true" and did that at his drawing board. But Horan says that Wright felt he wasn't living true in his marriage. And so he fled with Mamah.
It was a scandal — especially for a proper turn-of-the-20th-century woman.
In the novel, Cheney tells herself that leaving her husband and children for Wright was an act of love for life.
"I think Mamah Cheney was a woman who had a hole in her soul," Horan says. "She was a woman who had unrealized potential that she wanted to explore and experience."
Highly educated, fluent in several languages, Mamah longed for more in life. To her, "more" looked a lot like Frank Lloyd Wright. But the two paid a terrible price for their passion and individualism.
"It ruined Frank Lloyd Wright's practice for many years afterwards," Horan says. "It ruined Mamah's reputation."
The ending, in 1914, was tragic — wrapped in destruction. To say more would give away an amazing story.
"I think Mamah was a flawed person. You can certainly view what she did as a selfish act. You can also view it, however, as a form of self-preservation in terms of what she needed to do for herself."
Terms like selfish and self-preserving apply as well to Wright. He was also known as a genius, of course, but also an arrogant narcissist.
"He viewed himself in a sense as a prophet, and a person who had gifts that other people didn't have," Horan says.
The author says her work of fiction was influenced by John Lloyd Wright's biography of his father, which showed another side of the famous architect.
"It was really his words that kind of gave me permission to imagine Frank as something more than a colossal egotist," Horan says. "And what he said about Mamah and about his father was that something in him died with her — a something that was loveable and gentle that I knew and loved in my father."