It’s now 60 years since Frank Lloyd Wright died in Phoenix, Arizona, aged 91, and still his life seems too big to take in. There are eight or nine full biographies of the great American architect, as well as hundreds of other books on his work, but writers continue to circle around his existence as if there could never be enough words to explain him.
Paul Hendrickson’s new biographical study, a whopper at nearly 600 pages, is a brave attempt to do something different; “a kind of synecdoche”, he calls it, “with selected pockets in a life standing for the oceanic whole”. Hendrickson’s method, which he has previously applied to Ernest Hemingway, is to “move the narrative backwards and forwards in time, through these non-linear pockets … trying not to confuse you, while also taking things in a general chronological direction”. It sounds risky but we’re in safe hands.
Hendrickson has no argument with Wright’s reputation as an architect of genius, an assessment that rests on five or six buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and Fallingwater, the sublime house perched over a waterfall in Pennsylvania. What he really wants to challenge is the legend of the “strutting, self-seeking, self-centred charmer” who helped himself to other men’s money and their wives, causing heartache and misery all around, then attempting to justify it by saying he preferred “honest arrogance to hypocritical humility”. Was there a capacity for regret, sadness and shame beneath that monstrous ego?
The moments Hendrickson chooses as his “pockets” are not always the most expected. Right at the start, he delves deep into Wright’s friendship with Cecil Corwin, a young man he met in his first job in Chicago. Wright later wrote a romantic recollection of Corwin in a 1932 memoir, more than three decades after they lost touch. Hendrickson rummages around to discover that Corwin was a closet homosexual and rereads Wright’s memoir as a coded description of a possible gay affair. But he had treated Corwin badly, and Hendrickson finds letters revealing Wright’s remorse for letting his friend down.
This work at the fringes can be fruitful but still Hendrickson says “we can’t dream ourselves enough” into the most sensational event in the Wright story, the August day in 1914 when his black servant, Julian Carlton, went on a killing spree at Wright’s home. The action is there in the prologue, then replayed in slow-mo at the centre of the book. Why did Carlton take a hatchet to Wright’s lover and her children, slicing and bludgeoning a total of seven people to death while the architect was busy on a Chicago building site?
Hendrickson accepts that we can never know for sure. But he does the best job to date of bringing Carlton out of the shadows, tracing his origins to Alabama and talking to the congregation at the church where his sister worshipped until 1968. The potential for maniacal fury in a life so oppressed becomes palpable, and brings contemporary resonance to the story. Wright reacted showily to the massacre by playing Bach on the Steinway as the shrouded bodies lay beside him, but Hendrickson finds convincing material to support his argument that he suffered genuine regret in the wake of the tragedy.
This book will not be everybody’s cup of tea. The writing is baroque, much of it in the first person, as Hendrickson chases down the architect and his hauntings, many of them involving fire and grisly deaths. But the contradictory Wright who emerges, both hateful and human, is probably the truest portrait of the man we have yet.
Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright by Paul Hendrickson (Bodley Head, £25), buy it here.