Paul Hendrickson’s previous (and very fine) book was Hemingway’s Boat, published in Britain in 2012. It was a nice conceit to see the writer’s life through his singular obsession with Pilar, the boat he commissioned from a Brooklyn shipyard, which remained the steadiest companion in his choppy voyage.
The enormous life of Frank Lloyd Wright — the architect who was born two years after the Civil War, and died in 1959 when Bobby Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife’ was a hit — offers no such straightforward device. With more than 500 completed designs, splendid eccentricities and a well-developed taste for confrontation, every single Wright building could have become a novella. He was a philanderer, fantasist, liar, cad, spendthrift, anti-Semite (whose most famous clients — Guggenheim and Kaufmann — were Jewish) and a ‘narcissist and control freak’ (at least, according to the New York Post in a spasm of fastidiousness).
But he was also an incomparable creative genius. It was the sight of a worker killed in the collapse of the neo-classical Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, that led him to ‘examine cornices critically’ and subsequently invent an architecture all his own. His best work was — astonishingly — in his ninth decade, when he built the Guggenheim in New York (having essayed the concept in a sports car showroom on Park Avenue) and proposed Mile High Illinois, a building 1,600m tall.
Wright’s combative attitude to clients and his lofty concept of the architect as quasi-divine seer made him the model for Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. His arrogance was epic. When a client complained that an ambitiously designed roof was leaking onto a desk, Wright said: ‘Move the desk.’ His artistic reach always exceeded the technical grasp of his builders. Edgar Kaufmann, the client of Fallingwater, the Pennsylvania house on anybody’s list of Most Beautiful Buildings Ever, said the design was a ‘triumph of imagination over materials’.
Despite the super-abundant richness of the sources, Wright presents a biographer with as many obstacles as opportunities. There have been countless art-historical monographs and many very sound lives in recent years: Brendan Gill in 1988, Meryle Secrest in 1998, and Ada Louise Huxtable in 2004. Meanwhile, Nancy Horan published a bonkbuster novel called Loving Frank in 2007. And then there is Wright’s own autobiography, published first in 1932 and enlarged (in size and ambition) in many subsequent versions. The Rizzoli edition of his letters runs to five volumes.
But Hendrickson is attempting something else. Plagued by Fire is not conventional biography, nor is it art history. Instead it is a ‘kind of synecdoche, with selected pockets in a life standing for the oceanic whole of that life’. I suspect, as Wright cultivated an aura of hokey bardic mysticism, there may have been a bit of spirit possession involved at some stage of the writing: Hendrickson’s story goes backwards and forwards in time and, ‘synecdoche’ or not, this treatment can lead to rambling and repetition.
Somewhat as with Hemingway’s boat, Hendrickson isolates a single episode to explain his subject. This was an event destructive, not creative. On 15 August 1914 at the Taliesin studio-compound in Spring Green, Wisconsin, while Wright was away in Chicago, a servant from Barbados called Julian Carlton went berserk, using a shingling axe to kill Mamah Borthwick (with whom Wright was living ‘indecently’), her children and several workers. He then used gasoline to set fire to the evidence of his atrocity. For a man like Wright with a martyr complex, an ample sense of the symbolic and a genius for (re)invention, this appalling calamity inspired complex and recurrent responses. Hence, Hendrickson’s title.
But one returns always to the glorious, bravura performance that was Wright’s life. He wrote his autobiography in Thoreau-like seclusion in a Minnesota hut. He did jail-time under the Mann Act for smuggling women over state lines. His Taliesin studio-compounds (one in Wisconsin, one in Arizona) were, according to Ada Louise Huxtable, a ‘shameless scam’. Wright created sex rotas for his student-disciples who were, in fact, underpaid and over-exploited interns. Certainly, Taliesin would not have passed scrutiny by Health and Safety or Equal Opportunities, still less #MeToo. He also invented his name: the given ‘Lincoln’ was changed to Lloyd so as to appear more authentically Welsh and thus arcane. (Taliesin was a sixth-century Brythonic poet.)
Wright’s dress sense was extraordinary: a gardenia boutonnière, a Malacca walking-stick, white shoes with lifts, capes, scarves, eccentric trousers, porkpie hats and high, starched collars. Hendrickson suggests that he may also have suppressed an early homoerotic episode with his colleague Cecil Corwin, but since this is based on suspicions raised by the ineffable chat-up line ‘Come home with me tonight and we’ll concertise with my grand piano’, I am not so sure.
Hendrickson was a writer for the popular Style section of the Washington Post, latterly teaching writing workshops at the University of Pennsylvania. His easy-going and conversational manner disguises impressive research in a sprawling book about a sprawling life. It is an amiable and enjoyable read if, on occasions, a little too nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Unfortunately, the lines are set to a length that makes the reading of it physically uncomfortable.
Hemingway’s Boat floated to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and was happily becalmed there. If that does not happen to Plagued by Fire, there will be two reasons. One, it is not quite so good a book. Two, our taste for XXL 20th-century American heroes may at last be in decline. I have just seen a Frank Lloyd Wright house for sale in New Jersey at $995,000.