Image logo courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Death by Design

The logo for NaNoWriMo

Here’s the start:

Over 15 years ago, I read the book, The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes and was furious. I wasn’t mad about the novel’s plot; I was angry because I felt the author completely misunderstood art restoration.

The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes takes place around an exhibition on early Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli (the man who painted The Birth of Venus, a.k.a., “Venus on the half-shell”). Among other things, a violent Italian fascist mutilates two Botticelli paintings… and puts the “Girl” of the book’s title into a dangerous position. I don’t remember the rest of the novel: I just remember how pissed off I was.

Why so mad, Keiran?

That’s because—after the crazed Fascist slashed through the eyes on a painting (or two), and left the piece barely intact—the curator gives the painting to some genius restorer who does magnificent work in, like, 2 days. In time for the exhibition opening.

While there are world experts in art restoration in NYC, there’s no way in hell that someone could restore a painting—executed in Italy in the late 1400s—in two f***ing days. I knew that and I didn’t even know the particulars about restoration experts of Renaissance painting.

So

As you can see by my continued annoyance

I wrote a couple of pages on a novel with a Taliesin house steward as the main character to show people what someone who knows the damned details about an artwork could do. But then got lost and did nothing more.

Until 2005

That’s the year that I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo, which is the subject of my post today.

What’s NaNoWriMo?

It takes place every November and stands for:

NAtional

NOvel

WRIting

MOnth

Some friends started it in 1999 after giving each other a challenge: write a 50,000 word novel in November from scratch.

In the lead up to November 1, you can do character development, plotting, planning etc., but you CANNOT write anything on the novel until 12:00 a.m., November 1.* And you must SUBMIT your 50,000-word novel by 11:59 p.m., November 30.

* I wrote earlier that you couldn’t start writing until 12:01 a.m. I’ve got no idea where I got that mistake came from. Well, yes, aside from coming from my own brain.

Do you win anything?

You win a link to a certificate that you can print. The certificate says you WROTE A 50,000 WORD NOVEL IN A MONTH.

What’s all?

Yup: that’s all.

No, really: don’t you get anything? Doesn’t anyone look at your novel?

The majority of people who look at the novel will be those who wrote it, and/or those who know the NaNoWriMo novelist.

Why the hell would you do this?

The folks who came up with Nanowrimo have dealt with these questions longer than me, so read their FAQ page from the Wayback Machine.

But,

Aside from knowing that you WROTE A NOVEL, there are people who participated in NaNoWriMo and took their 50k-words-(or more)-novel, and edited it, expanded it, found an agent and had it published. Novels written initially during Nanowrimo include:

Check out this web page mentioning some novels started at NaNoWriMo:

8 Bestselling Books Written During NaNoWriMo

 

Here’s my experience (experiences):

In October 2005, a friend online mentioned signing up for Nanowrimo. I’d heard about it, and among all of my “no I can’t do that,” this popped into my head:

Hey – why the hell couldn’t I do that? After all, I’d spent a week PO-‘d about The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes because “The writer wasn’t qualified to write what he did!!!”

Even in 2005 I knew I was an expert on Taliesin. And I knew my typing wasn’t bad.

so I could type like the wind!

And, oh yeah: there was my college degree. In writing.1

So: I wrote my first Nanowrimo novel.

Or, as I called it:

“The Book About a Murder at Taliesin… But Not That Murder

Lisa is the novel’s narrator. She’s a tour guide who works at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, and lives in Spring Green Wisconsin. She isn’t me… exactly. She’s shorter and has blond hair. I think she was a little younger than me when I first started this in 2005. And she went to Graduate School in Art History, but never got her degree.

She does smoke and drink too much. I probably did when I first wrote it, but not as much as Lisa did.

But that wasn’t really my fault:

NaNoWriMo means you have to write 1,667 words a day. Writing about lighting up cigarettes gives you a chance to change the character’s location. And drinking gives you a place to hang out with other characters. And just having a character look at their cigarette pack and realize they’re getting low, adds to your total word count.

I mean, look:

I checked my cigarette supply. I was down to half a pack. I thought, “Oh, man,… I’ll have to stop soon.” But I figured I would deal with it later.

That’s 30 words right there!

Regardless, I did finish the novel. My word count was over 70,000.

I named the novel Death by Design

An online friend suggested it after I asked for input.

Why was Death by Design a murder novel?

It was the easiest thing for me to think up. Murder mysteries (as I learned) are easy… in ways. Particularly when you are attempting to write 1,667 words per day for 30 days straight.

Because 50,000 divided by 30=1,666.6666666667

I found that murder mysteries are easy because you (the author) figure out the clues and you can dab them in throughout the text, only to have them solved in the exciting denouement. Plus, I’d already spent years listening to murder mysteries on Old Time Radio Drama.

Death by Design‘s plot:

Main character, Lisa, is opening up the Hillside buildings one morning2 in May 2000.3 She walks into the Hillside Theater and finds the body of a man who’s been murdered.

Hilarity ensues since she has to call the programs director (at that time, a former guide who ran all the programs), while keeping the Taliesin Estate Tour guide with her group from accessing the Theater.

Over the following days, Lisa tries to deal with everything. Along with drinking too much (just beer, I swear). Additionally, she befriends a member of Taliesin’s Preservation Crew who she’s known for years. They end up dating by the end of the novel.

ALONG THE WAY:

Aside from every theory and every thought about Taliesin that came to mind, the book gave me a chance to write details about every fricking thing in the local area. I wrote in the novel information about the local bar, The Shed (sadly, closed this year) and the Spring Green General Store cafe. I took the opportunity to mention a yearly tradition at the General Store: BobFest.

And I invented a few obnoxious apprentices at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.4 That gave me a chance to write about the Taliesin Fellowship and its history. I then poisoned all of them with arsenic at dinner one night.

I pulled out “arsenic” after reading advice from another “Nanowrimer”: death and violence is a good way to switch up the story. Plus, by this time my book already had one murder. Maybe two.

UNTIL, finally, Lisa (and the love interest/Pres Crew guy, Jake5) get invited to a Taliesin formal dinner, in which the murderer tries to set fire to Taliesin.

Yes, I know: that old chestnut.

The murderer is caught of course. Lisa and Jake are together at the end. Lisa has started on a nicotine patch to quit smoking, and a new tour has been created based on the murderer trying to set fire to Taliesin.

Apparently, like the book Loving Frank, publicity about the murder in the Hillside Theater Foyer increases sales for tours that go to Hillside!


I participated in NaNoWriMo several more times:

2006:

The plot of the novel starts with Jake and Lisa as newlyweds. They’re on their honeymoon, which consists of going to other Frank Lloyd Wright sites.

as one does

I was also inspired in this novel by the destruction of two historic buildings in 2006. One was a destructive fire at a church by architects Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan in Chicago. Later that same month (January), a newly rediscovered house by Wright, the Wynant House, in Gary, Indiana was pretty much destroyed. Also by fire. So, the bad fortunes of these two pieces of architecture were put into the novel. 

In addition,

Lisa later defends herself (I think) with a heavy reproduction of a Frank-Lloyd-Wright-designed “Weedholder” vase. This particular moment of brutality comes at the Wright-designed Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York. I remember something else with furniture by Steelcase being used as a weapon at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May house, Grand Rapids, Michigan. And, lastly, Lisa finds the drowned body of a professor in Architectural History in the guest pool at Fallingwater.6 And she finds the Executive Director of Fallingwater after the E.D.’s been suffocated. She’d had Johnson’s paste Wax stuck into her nose and mouth.

Don’t worry if this makes no sense. I don’t expect anyone to know this unless they, like me, are Frankophiles.

2007:

That was a sci-fi novel where my character lived on a satellite of a gas giant. I never made it past 15,000 words. I had fun with it, but didn’t “Win”. The main character got stranded somewhere and I couldn’t figure out how to move the story on.

2009:

That October, I asked others what I should write for the upcoming NaNoWriMo. A friend suggested I write, “Frank Lloyd Wright in space!

Predictably,

I just relied on the trope of the Time Travel Police. That is, some police-like force exists to keep the “timelines” clear. In my book, the MC gets picked up by the Time Travel Police whose job it is to find clones that cultural geeks have made of their idols so they can remove the clones from timelines that they could mess up. The MC is brought to a clone of Frank Lloyd Wright living on a spaceship filled with other anachronistic clones.

Like Jane Austin. And Leonardo Da Vinci.

So you can see, that there was a reason why I felt I have done what I could with NaNoWriMo.

Now, remember:

If you’re interested in the idea, November starts in a few days. Go to the site. You can read about the rules (or not), and the organization, in “Help Desk” on the NaNoWriMo page. And you can just sign up, and you can check on your word count as you go.

If you get through it, if nothing else at least you can say that for once in your life, you wrote a novel. You’ve got a month to write it, and all the time you need afterwards to edit it.

October 28, 2022
The image at the top of this is the logo for NaNoWriMo.


Notes:

1 I didn’t figure out the Art History interest until I was a junior in college.

2 Regardless of whether of not apprentices/students were at Hillside, tour guides used to open the Hillside structures in the morning, and shut the building down at the end of the day.

3 I chose to set the novel in the year 2000 because this eliminates any discussion of 9/11/2001.

4 One of the apprentices, who is a big, lying jerk, isn’t based on anybody I know or knew.

5 For those who know me IRL, Jake started out based on a real person. But I got grossed out when I realized the main character and Jake would have a romantic relationship. So, I changed most things about him.

6 The murdered Architectural Historian was real. But, that’s ok: he passed away years ago.

 

Taliesin August 1914 after first fire

Julian didn’t seal the entrances

Albert Rockwell took this photograph on August 15, 1914. It shows Taliesin’s burned living quarters.

WARNING: My post includes descriptions of the extreme violence that took place during Taliesin’s 1914 fire. Additionally, contemporary news reports often refer to murderer Julian Carlton as “the negro”. I’ve removed that term for Carlton when the sentences are still comprehensible, but did keep it in areas.

In this post I am dissecting what I think is the biggest myth surrounding the August 15, 1914 fire and murders at Taliesin: that the murderer sealed all of the entrances and killed everyone as they ran out of Taliesin’s one unlocked door.

Read my post on the fire for the basics and information on those killed.

And I wrote a note near the bottom of this post (1) that lists the newspapers that repeated the myth in 1914. However, I want to address the “he sealed the doors to the house” myth first.

This myth derives from something that survivor William Weston said. Here’s Weston, in the Detroit Tribune on August 16:

As each one put his head out,” said Weston, “the Negro struck, killing or stunning his victim. I was the last…” [ellipses included]

The ax struck me in the neck and knocked me down, but left me conscious. I got up and ran, the Negro after me. Then I fell, and he hit me again. I guess he thought he had me, because he ran back to the window and I got up and ran. When I looked back he had disappeared.

People gravitated to this statement:

“As each one put out his head…,” Carlton “struck, killing or stunning his victim. I was the last.”

However,

the other survivor, Herbert Fritz, gave a description that day which contradicts the myth. I copied his statement on what happened. The Chicago Daily Tribune first printed this on August 16:

I was eating in the small dining room off the kitchen with the other men, said Fritz.The room, I should say, was about 12 x 12 feet in size. There were two doors, one leading to the kitchen and the other opening into the court. We had just been served by Carleton and he had left the room when we noticed something flowing under the screen door from the court. We thought it was nothing but soap suds spilled outside.

The liquid ran under my chair and I noticed the odor of gasoline. Just as I was about to remark the fact a streak of flame shot under my chair, and it looked like the whole side of the room was on fire. All of us jumped up, and I first noticed that my clothing was on fire. The window was nearer to me than the other door and so I jumped through it, intending to run down the hill to the creek and roll in it.

It may be that the other door was locked. I don’t know. I didn’t think to try it. My first thought was to save myself. The window was only about a half a foot from the floor and three feet wide and it was the quickest way out.

Arm Broken by Fall.

I plunged through and landed on the rocks outside. My arm was broken by the fall and the flames had eaten through my clothing and were burning me. I rolled over and over down the hill toward the creek, but stopped about half way. The fire on my clothes was out by that time and I scrambled to my feet and was about

Cont’d, p. 6? column 1

to start back up the hill when I saw Carleton come running around the house with the hatchet in his hand and strike Brodelle, who had followed me through the window.

Then I saw Carleton run back around the house, and I followed in time to see him striking at the others as they came through the door into the court. He evidently had expected us to come out that way first and was waiting there, but ran around to the side in which the window was located when he saw me and Brodelle jump out.

I didn’t see which way Carlton went. My arm was paining me, and I was suffering terribly from the burns, and I supposed I must have lost consciousness for a few moments. I remember staggering around the corner of the house and seeing Carleton striking at the other men as they came through the door, and when I looked again the negro was gone.

Showing where everyone sat that day:

I determined everyone’s location due to work by other Wright biographers, and the article in the August 20, 1914 edition of the Weekly Home News (the newspaper of Spring Green). The Home News had the best article on the fire and murders.

I wrote the room in which each person sat on the drawing from 1914, below. The words, “living room”, “porch” and “men’s dining room” appear on the actual drawing:

Taliesin floor plan after the 1914 fire.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), 1104.010

ARTSTOR also has this drawing on-line.

One person (Herbert Fritz) escaped through the south window without being touched. On the other hand, Julian Carlton attacked two men (Brodelle and Wm. Weston) who exited on that same side (the arrow with “Men’s Dining Room” is pointing at the room’s south wall). Carlton also attacked three that came out of the door on the north side of the room (Thomas Brunker, David Lindblom, and Ernest Weston). The details about the attacks on those three are not known.

Looking at what happened and what Fritz and Weston said, it appears that Weston witnessed:

        1. Fritz jumping out of the window,
        2. Emil Brodelle next jumped through the same window, where Carlton struck him, then
        3. Weston jumped. Carlton almost fatally struck Weston, who must have also been on fire.

Regardless,

people interpreted Weston’s quote, that “[a]s each one put out his head,” as “everyone attacked that day came through one door with Carlton waiting on the other side.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune printed Herbert Fritz’s statements that, “It may be that the other door was locked. I don’t know. I didn’t think to try it. My first thought was to save myself.” However, most other newspapers put the myth (the interpretation of Weston’s statements) into print. And newspapers often printed that Carlton locked all of the doors except for one.

Then, adding to the gruesomeness,

is the fiction that everyone at Taliesin stuck their heads out of Taliesin’s windows. In fact, the Chicago Daily Tribune states on August 16 that Carlton, “dashed at Weston and chopped at his head as the carpenter thrust it out the door.”

On that same day, the Decatur Daily Review wrote that Borthwick: “was the first to put her head through the window to escape the intense heat.” And that Carlton “struck her down with one blow, crushing her skull.”

Yet, no one saw Carlton attacking her, or her children.

The October 4, 1914 issue of the Washington Post has this:

Mamah Borthwick made a dash through the window. As she went out a hatched[sic] crashed into her head. Her innocent little son jumped after his mother. He, too, was killed by the hatchet. Then the daughter jumped. She was stricken down. One by one the guests jumped out, not knowing what had happened to the others. Each one was struck down. When the murderer was finished six lay dead and three wounded seriously.

The particularly violent and horrific narrative that the murderer stood outside of the one unlocked door is consistent in the contemporary news stories. And this, while even Nancy Horan wrote in Loving Frank that three of the victims—Mamah Borthwick and her children, John and Martha Cheney—sat in the terrace off Taliesin’s living room.

You can see where people sat in the drawing I put above.

This narrative stays because it’s so grisly.

In addition, in 1914, it was conveniently racist: of course, a fiendish Black man killed all those people. But, even more so, he did it with superhuman (animal?) speed and cruelty.

This detail, then, has been written in biographies and historical books. I didn’t start to get closer to this until I thought I really needed to read the primary sources.

That was when I realized people writing in 1914 were wrong about things at the time. Of course they were! On August 15 and 16, 1914, they were there, taking notes while trying to make sense of a pile of burning rubble that had once been a house. One that most had never seen before.

First published August 12, 2022.

Photograph A.S. Rockwell took the photograph at the top of this post on the day of, or the day after, the fire. The photograph in on Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taliesin_After_Fire.jpg for information about the origin of the photograph.


Notes:

1 Newspapers where the myth was first printed:
The Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 16; the Decatur Daily Review, Aug. 16; the Detroit Tribune, Aug. 16; the Daily Clintonian, Aug. 17; the Des Moines Daily Review, Aug. 18; the Richland Democrat, Aug. 19; the Waterloo Evening Courier, Aug. 19; the Winchester Journal, Aug. 19 and the Camden Record on Aug.. 20 (both of which reprinted the Clintonian news report); and, repeated from the Judson News story is the Wanatah Mirror and the Westville Indicator of Aug. 20, the Monon News and most of the story in the Roann Clarion on Aug. 21; Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News on Aug. 20 (which otherwise is probably the best reporting of the 1914 fire and murders); and the Washington Post on October 4.

Cover of Taliesin album. Image sent to Keiran Murphy in 2005.

The Album

This is a photograph of the cover of “The Album”. The image was sent to me by the person selling it through the online auction site, Ebay, in January 2005.

Since we’re in January, I’ll take the time to expand my story of “The Album” that I mentioned months ago in my entry, “Post-it Notes on Taliesin Drawings“.

The Album was how I knew that Wright had designed bunkbeds for his draftsmen. Two photographs in The Album showed the bunkbeds and later, I found a drawing of them in Wright’s archives. I marked it with a post-it note.

WHAT?! You’re putting Post-It notes on archival drawings?!
Calm down – read the post to get the story.

Finding out about The Album:

In January 2005, Carol Johnson (Taliesin Preservation’s then-Executive Director), met me after I’d just gotten out of my car for work and said,

“Tony told me there are photos of Taliesin on Ebay.”

“Tony” was Tony Puttnam (1934-2017), who became Wright’s apprentice in 1953.

The director knew they were really old and rare and sent me the website address for the Ebay auction so I could try to see them. Once I looked online, I recognized 2 of the 3 photographs shown by the seller.

Yes: these were really rare images in a handmade album (the cover of which is at the top of this page). Building details dated them to 1911-12.

I wrote to the seller, Helen Conwell, as someone who “might” buy them. I asked her to send me some of them.

Sounds sneaky, but I didn’t say anything fraudulent. My supervisor and I thought we might be able to get money for them, depending on what they were. We had dreams, you see.

Conwell sent me 28 scans (out of 33 images). I had seen 10 of them before this.

Where had I seen them?

See, in the early 1990s, when the Taliesin Preservation Commission—as the .org was known then—began the restoration of Taliesin, others tried to get this new organization up to speed. Architects, architectural historians,1 former Wright apprentices, and those in Wright’s archives at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation gave “TPC” copies of photographs to enhance the knowledge of Taliesin’s history.

In particular, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation gave copies of Taliesin I photographs from the “Clifford Evans collection” at the University of Utah.

Why Clifford Evans?

Here’s a rundown on Evans (1889-1973), an architect who donated his materials to the U of UT:

  • Evans was the architectural partner of a man named Taylor Woolley.
  • Taylor Woolley was a draftsman for Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, Italy, and Taliesin.
  • Taylor Woolley gave some of his items to the Clifford Evans collection. Included were his photos taken during the first year of Taliesin, some of which are also in The Album.

I’ve already posted Woolley’s photographs on this blog. Here are some entries including them

  • The Woolley photos in Utah include 9 that The Album didn’t have.

I told people what I knew

The week The Album was up for auction and the whole Wright world was freaking (which I wrote in “Post-it Notes…”), I told people a version of what I just wrote above. It really didn’t do anything, but I felt the story had to get out there. Besides, I wasn’t the only person who knew these images were repeated elsewhere. There were those at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archives; and a professor in Utah, named Peter Goss.2

Why were these important?

Previous to this album’s discovery, most Frankophiles knew the existence of about 60 photos of Taliesin I (1911-14). This album had 33 more images, 32 of which had never been published.

One had been published in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West, by Wright scholar, Kathryn Smith.

Photos from The Album included several of Taliesin’s east façade, its carriage path in its first autumn, and almost 10 interiors, including Wright’s Drafting Studio.

One in the studio has workmen in front of its fireplace. The Wisconsin Historical Society says that they’re “maybe at Taliesin”. No: they’re actually at Taliesin. Trust me.

Nancy Horan wrote in her novel, Loving Frank, that these men were in the Living Room, but that’s wrong: the photo shows them in the Drafting Studio. I don’t blame her that she didn’t realize this was at the Drafting Studio fireplace. It took us a while to figure it out, too.

Note: when I write “us”, I usually mean “me”.

That’s not even mentioning the two photos with the bunkbeds.

Moreover,

The Album shows landscape photos all over what is now the Taliesin estate. There’s one of them, below, taken just south of Taliesin:

Looking south on the Taliesin estate with snow. Taliesin is behind the photographer.
Property Wisconsin Historical Society. Whi-29048

I went out later, trying to match the views. My attempt to do that is in color, below:

Looking south on the Taliesin estate in winter.

Photograph by me, March of 2005.

But, more importantly,

This album, showing the newly completed building, had a history that could be traced. In other words, it had a “provenance“. Someone from the Spring Green, Wisconsin area owned the album, then sold it to Conwell in the 1970s.

End of the auction:

Helen Conwell thought she would get about $200 for an album that sold for $22,100.

I wrote about it in “Post-it Notes…”, but you can also read here how Conwell got the album and how the Wisconsin Historical Society acquired it.

While the photographer was unknown in 2005, I knew it was likely Taylor Woolley. This was proven in 2010, when author Ron McCrea found Woolley’s collection at the Utah State Historical Society. He’s included in my post, “This Will Be a Nice Addition“.

So, that week was exciting.

And you can see all of the images online at the Wisconsin Historical Society website, here.

That said,

It’s been much too long since a big, unknown haul of Taliesin photographs has come to light. Seriously: we need new, old photos of Taliesin.

Now, there are photographs taken in the early 1940s by David or Priscilla Henken that were published in A Taliesin Diary: A Year With Frank Lloyd Wright.

But that was published almost a decade ago. Yet, I still have hopes that children of those who were in the Taliesin Fellowship in the 1950s will discover photographs their moms or dads took while apprentices at Taliesin.

What do I want to see?

Off the top of my head, I’d like detailed photographs of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright‘s bedroom taken in 1957-58. That’s a pipe dream, but what you see in her bedroom today was restored and worked on with as much information as possible. But it’s probably not the room as it stood. We do what we can.

“If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research, would we?”

A quote often ascribed to Albert Einstein that he apparently never said/wrote. Read someone writing on how it doesn’t appear to have come from Einstein.

First published, January 20, 2022.
The scans of The Album’s cover, and the exterior photograph taken in the winter were sent to me by Conwell in 2005.
They are the property of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and can be found here and here.


Notes:

1. Like Sidney K. Robinson, who owns the Ford House by architect, Bruce Goff.

2. Goss wrote about Woolley in the article, “Taylor A. Woolley, Utah Architect and Draftsman to Frank Lloyd Wright,” Utah Historical Quarterly (2013) 81 (2): 149–158.
https://doi.org/10.2307/45063406

Looking toward Taliesin from the grounds of Unity Chapel

“This book is going to be big”

This photograph is looking from the Unity Chapel cemetery, which is the private cemetery of the Lloyd Jones family. Frank Lloyd Wright received permission to bury Mamah Borthwick here. Wright’s home, Taliesin, can be seen against the hill.

I wrote that in an email to Taliesin Preservation‘s Programs Director, as well as its Bookstore Manager.

Then I continued:

“I don’t mean big in ‘our’ little Wrightworld. I mean big in the real world.”

It was May 2007 and I had just read about the release of an upcoming book, Loving Frank. Written by Nancy Horan, it is a book of historical fiction with Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick as the main characters.

As August 15 (and the anniversary of Taliesin’s 1914 fire) comes up this weekend, I thought I would write about Loving Frank, and my thoughts on it when it came out.

My first encounter with tales of this upcoming book included newspaper titles with headlines like this:

“They were the Brangelina of their time…”

It catches the eye, you can say that. That sentence, in the Courier Journal newspaper (Lexington, KY), came from Ballantine publisher Libby McGuire, speaking about Wright and Borthwick’s scandalous love affair that made the national news in 1909-1910… 1911-12… and 1914.

And everyone at Taliesin (and all Wright sites) totally wants Brad Pitt (fan of architecture that he is) to take notice and come around.

You’ve seen the photo of Brangelina at Fallingwater, right?

So, in talking about that upcoming book through the summer in 2007, I would jokingly say, “I can’t wait to see the ending!”

Yes, it’s black humor, but what are you going to do?

I mean, I worked at a place where seven people were murdered on August 15, 1914 by servant Julian Carlton in an unknown and unknowable butchering with an axe, and fire (of the seven lives lost, only one died from his burns).

And the summer was full of listening to radio programs with guests discussing Wright and Borthwick. Looking it up, I wrote this in my own journal at that time:

I’m getting tired of reading that Mamah Borthwick is seen as a “footnote” in Wright’s life; or “not dealt with at all,” or “brushed over” or, perhaps, “not dealt with because people feel squeamish,” or that, “she’s not seen as very important.”

I continued:

It’s not that way for me…,  but I get tired of it….

I realize I may be taking this personally.

Me taking something personally? Really? Nah!

But the book came out, which I dutifully purchased. I expected to hate it. Perhaps my view of Loving Frank was reading the word “Brangelina” in relation to Wright and Borthwick.

Perhaps they would be called “Wrightwick”? “Framah”?

The word “Borght”, though, is cute. A Hungarian soup that Björk would eat.

Therefore, I held my breath as I read Nancy Horan’s book. I wanted to hate it, silently checking its facts. And yet I remember, early on, my old boyfriend walking through our living room, asking me what I thought.

By that time I had read, perhaps, up to page 50.

“Well, I don’t want to throw it against the wall,”

I replied.

And, over one hundred pages in, I became impressed by the research done by the author.

For example, in Chapter 21, Wright and Borthwick (who have left their families) are in Berlin, Germany. They have been discovered there by a reporter from the United States; which is true. And upon their discovery, Loving Frank tells the story of how the two became front page news in papers across America. This is also true.

After being discovered, the two leave the hotel and get breakfast. Wright says, “I want to take a little detour over to Darmstadt to see Olbrich, if we can. I’m told his work is worth seeing. Then on to Paris.”1

“Oh my God—she’s read Alofsin,” I said out loud.

I think I even put the book down in amazement.

While in Germany with Mamah Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright visited the work of Austrian architect, Joseph Olbrich. In fact, Wright was said to be “The American Olbrich”.

But, then there’s my mention of Alofsin. “Alofsin” refers to Anthony Alofsin. I wrote about him in my post on “Post-It Notes on Taliesin Drawings”. Alofsin wrote a seminal book in Wright scholarship: Frank Lloyd Wright: The Lost Years, 1910-1922: A Study of Influence.2

Alofsin worked on tracing Wright’s movements in Europe

It sounds simple, but it’s not. Wright wasn’t in touch with many people and his movements had to be dug up by Alofsin through Wright’s correspondence (which had recently been indexed3) and Wright’s later statements. So, until Alofsin’s work, Wright’s time in Europe in 1909-1910, was mostly a big hole. 

Here’s a later post I made about Wright’s travels throughout his life.

Returning to Loving Frank

The book sold so well that it inspired a special “Loving Frank Tour” at Taliesin. The first of these tours was done with Nancy Horan, in September 2008 (links on a press release and a poster for the tour are here and here). I was her contact on it, and created the timeline, etc, for the tour. It combined my touring and talking portion, where I told people what they would have seen in 1911.

Then I brought them to Taliesin’s living room, where they met Nancy, who was seated. She then read from the book.

She donated her time to Taliesin Preservation, did a public reading at the end of the day, and did a book signing. Regardless of all that, I found her to be delightful, sincere, and touched by Taliesin. 

And, again, I don’t know when, or if, the Loving Frank movie is going to come out, but if he wants to know, both myself, and Nancy Horan’s friend (who came out to Taliesin with her) thought that actor Brendan Fraser should play William Weston (Wright’s real-life carpenter who survived the 1914 fire/murders).

Of course, August 15 is still this coming Sunday.

I took this trip down Memory Lane as more-or-less a distraction from the approaching date. If you want to read my serious take on that day, read here.

For other photographs of the first Taliesin, and its devastation after the 1914 fire, you can get Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin: Illustrated by Vintage Postcards, by Randolph C. Henning; and Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss, by Ron McCrea.

Originally published August 13, 2021
I took the photograph at the top of this page on August 15, 2005.


1 Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan (Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, New York, 2007), 125.

2 University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.

3 Frank Lloyd Wright: An Index to the Taliesin Correspondence is a 5-volume set that was edited under the direction of Alofsin and published in 1988. It’s available at larger libraries.

East facade, Taliesin I

What was on the menu the day they were murdered?

Looking (plan) northwest at Taliesin’s living quarters (the part of the building where the architect lived). On August 15, 1914, fire destroyed every part of the building you see in the photograph that’s not stone. 

On August 15, 1914, while Frank Lloyd Wright was working in Chicago, a servant named Julian Carlton – for reasons that will probably never be known – murdered seven of nine people at Wright’s Wisconsin home, Taliesin, while they were eating lunch. Six out of the seven were murdered with an axe. Before/ after/ or while he was doing that (we don’t know), Carlton set fire to Taliesin’s living quarters, pretty much destroying that part of the building down to the stone (that’s why one of the victims, David Lindblom, died from his burns). Among those murdered was Wright’s partner, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick (formerly Mrs. Edwin H. Cheney).

The 1914 fire was a historic detail until the book, Loving Frank

Aside from Frankophiles (fans of Wright’s), this horrible act was mostly unknown to people for decades. In part because it happened before the existence of radio and television. In addition, it’s unbelievable (“Wait – you’re telling me that there was a MASS MURDER at the house of the guy who designed Fallingwater?”). 

The murders were a strange, sad, fact until the August 2007 publication of Loving Frank, a novel of historical fiction by Nancy Horan. The book’s main character is Mamah Borthwick.

It was a huge hit: Loving Frank stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 54 weeks.1

Curiosity about that day’s lunch came unexpectedly

One thing I didn’t anticipate with the book’s release was people calling us2 wanting to know what the victims were eating for lunch that day. Sometimes people called just wanting to know that day’s “menu”. And some wanted to know what soup was being served.

Soup? Could you explain that?

That question is because of the book, Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders, by William Drennan. It so happens that  Drennan’s book was published 5 months before Loving Frank. I think it would have faded into obscurity otherwise.

Drennan chose to write that Carlton served the victims soup before attacking them.

So – how to you know they didn’t eat soup?

I’ve read lots of newspaper accounts about the murders (over 75), but I’ve not found any proof that they were eating soup for lunch. And, aside from the fact that the victims were attacked at lunchtime, no one wrote what they were eating. And I doubt the reporters would have asked the two survivors (Herbert Fritz or William Weston).

Furthermore, let me tell you: southern Wisconsin can get very warm in the summer. Soup is kind of improbable. Drennan’s choice therefore led some of us at Taliesin Preservation to wonder if Carlton, or his wife, Gertrude (the cook), had perhaps served vichyssoise or gazpacho that afternoon.

Additionally, Taliesin wasn’t an upscale abode with a chef and butler. It was a house in the country:  Gertrude would not have had planned, printed menus.

Regardless:

Fritz (who escaped by jumping out a window), and Weston (who survived, but lost his son, Ernest) probably didn’t think or care about what was on the table since that day. It ended with horrific murders that were mostly done with an axe. If I sound intense, it happens when you think about seven people murdered, only one of whom died as the result of his burns, and three of whom were under the age of 14.

First published 8/9/2020.
Photograph at the top of this page was taken by Taylor Woolley, 1911-12. It shows the east facade of Taliesin. ID 695917. A larger version of this photograph is located through here at the Utah Historical Society.
The entire Taylor Woolley photograph collection is here. See this and other Woolley photographs in Ron McCrea’s book, Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss.


1 By the way: people have asked me how “true” Loving Frank is. It’s remarkably accurate. The author definitely did her research. Obviously, the conversations that took place between Mamah and Frank are fiction, but many more things are backed up by research.

2 “us” being employees of Taliesin Preservation, in Wisconsin. Where I worked for half of my life before Covid.