The incendiary love life of Frank Lloyd Wright
Last November, T.C. Boyle stood on the roof of his house in Montecito, California, garden hose in hand, prepared, if ill-equipped, to battle the conflagration known as the "Tea Fire" as it swept down the Santa Ynez Mountains. Only a last-minute westerly spared Boyle's home from joining the 230 homes ultimately destroyed in the blaze. Compared to other concerned neighbors (Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges, Rob Lowe), Boyle's anxiety was tenfold: the house he and his family have been restoring for the past 16 years, a 1909 Frank Lloyd Wright original known as the George C. Stewart house or "Butterfly Woods," was just weeks away from marking its centennial. The celebration would coincide with the publication of Boyle's 12th novel, The Women, an artfully playful rendering of the life, loves and, yes, the two headline-making fires at Wright's Taliesin home that stoked the creativity of America's foremost architect. Mere insurance could never restore such a loss.
"I thought, this is hubris!" Boyle recalls. "I was hysterical. This house is entirely made of redwood, so it would have been terrible."
Fire—destruction as prelude to construction—is as much a leitmotif in Boyle's latest and most ambitious historical novel as it was in Wright's personal life, the details of which were highly flammable indeed. Wright abandoned his first wife, Catherine "Kitty" Tobin, and their six children to run off to Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client and neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois, the cradle of Wright's Prairie School of architecture. Though they were both married, Wright installed Mamah at the newly built Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where she would ultimately be brutally murdered along with seven others by a deranged servant in 1914. Wright would again outrage the citizenry by living out of wedlock with, before marrying, second wife Maud Miriam Noel, a Southern belle and closet morphine user. He would similarly replace Miriam with his third and final wife, Montenegrin beauty Olgivanna Milanoff.
Although Boyle envisioned tackling the larger-than-life Wright from the moment he set foot in Butterfly Woods, it was the master's scorched-earth love life rather than his architectural genius that ultimately sparked The Women.
"My editor jokes that we should eventually do a boxed set of my books about the great American egomaniacs of the 20th century, with the last book about [sex researcher Dr. Albert] Kinsey (The Inner Circle), the Kellogg book (The Road to Wellville) and Wright," Boyle chuckles. "There is a lot of appeal in these figures for me.
"All three were dynamos of the 20th century who changed the way that we live in radical ways, but each was a narcissist in the clinical sense of the word. That is, they had a scheme and that scheme was all-important; you and I and anyone else weren't really individuals who had lives or needs of our own, we were simply figures in their design. It comes to a head with Wright, who not only designed the furniture but in some cases the clothing that the housewife was to wear. These figures are fascinating to me because, of course, novelists are like that."
A less inventive writer might have been content to render the Wright stuff with a simple chronological narrative; certainly the historical facts in this case need little embellishment. But Boyle, never one to retrace his steps, nimbly reverses the order, introducing us first to Wright's last wife Olgivanna, then Miriam, and concluding with Mamah's tragic death. The effect lends a spirit of parlor comedy with a whiff of ash to the proceedings as each woman in turn falls for Wright and feels the inevitable sting of her predecessor's wrath.
To further pique our curiosity, Boyle leaves the narration to Tadashi Sato, a Japanese apprentice and devotee of Wright, as translated from the Japanese by his great-grandson. Tadashi's own story moves forward in time, a novel within a novel, slipped in primarily in the section introductions and droll footnotes. Credit Boyle's mastery with keeping this circus moving and easy to follow.
"I wanted not simply to do a kind of melodrama but to do something almost in the way that Nabokov would have approached it, something that is amusing and ironic in some ways, but also is complicated structurally and has many layers of narration," Boyle says. "The structure allows you always to question who is writing this book and how deeply they are representing a given point of view and whether or not that view is true. I guess we're having fun in a postmodern way, not that I really thought about it as I was writing it. I'm just always seeking to find something new."
Boyle willingly cops to a few similarities with the mercurial Wright.
"He was like me in the sense that we're control freaks and we have an agenda and this is our world; I write these books as a cautionary tale to myself," he admits. "But he's also very unlike me in that he only seemed to be able to create when all hell was breaking loose, when he was being sued by creditors and pursued by lawyers and divorce lawyers and women and cops. I can't work unless everything is perfect and quiet."
Although Boyle turned in the finished manuscript in July 2007, he says publication was delayed, first due to the publication of Nancy Horan's novel Loving Frank, which centers on Mamah, then to avoid being lost in the drama of the 2008 presidential election. He's pleased that the book's publication now coincides with the centennial celebration of his own piece of Wright's legacy.
"I thought that living here would give me an extra charge or thrill while writing the book in this house, and it did to a degree, but not as much as you would think because it's my house; I've lived here for a long time and I've written many books here. And yet it gave me great satisfaction to learn more about this particular house and more about his work."
Jay MacDonald writes in the Prairie style from Austin, Texas.