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Novel Sheds Light on Frank Lloyd Wright's Mistress

Frank Lloyd Wright (left) and Mamah Borthwick Cheney created a scandal when they ran off together.
Frank Lloyd Wright (left) and Mamah Borthwick Cheney created a scandal when they ran off together.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.