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 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.

Taliesin August 1914 after first fire

The First Fire

The photographer was on the Taliesin Hill Crown looking toward the structure after the first fire. The person seen standing on the left in the white shirt may be Frank Lloyd Wright.

I’ve mentioned the 1914 fire a few times (and wrote about it snarkily), but I thought it’s time to address Taliesin’s first fire.

On August 15, 1914 as Frank Lloyd Wright was in Chicago putting the final touches on his Midway Gardens project (1913-1929), he received a phone call that Taliesin was on fire. His son John (who later became an architect) was working with his father and described that day later in his book, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright:1

Suddenly all was quiet in the room, a strange unnatural silence, his breathing alone was audible, then a groan. I turned to him, startled, he clung to the table for support, his face ashen.
My Father Frank Lloyd Wright (1946; Dover publications, 1992), by John Lloyd Wright, 80.

Wright asked his son to get a taxi and then the two grabbed the first train back to Spring Green.

Details on that first fire:

For unknown reasons Wright’s servant, Julian Carlton, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin after serving lunch, and murdered seven people. He killed most of them with a hatchet (one died from his burns).

The names of those who died were: Wright’s partner, Mamah Borthwick; her two children, John and Martha Cheney (ages 11 and eight, respectively); Emil Brodelle (draftsman); Thomas Brunker (foreman); David Lindblom (gardener); and Ernest Weston, the 13-year-old son of carpenter William “Billy” Weston.

The fire mostly burned down Taliesin’s living quarters within an hour. One-third of the building was destroyed.

It’s impossible to know what happened that afternoon

The murderer died on October 7, before a trial could be held. Additionally, the two survivors (Billy Weston and draftsman Herbert Fritz) never talked about the murders. Who’d want to? Carlton not only attacked Weston (who he left for dead), but he murdered Weston’s son, Ernest. Fritz survived by jumping out of a window on the south side of the house, breaking his arm. 

You would think that my history of working at Taliesin—in a place where the woman’s head was “cleft in two”—would leave a creepy feeling. But it doesn’t, not for me. First of all, the Taliesin that stands doesn’t have the floorboards, walls and doors where it all happened in 1914. Those were all destroyed in that fire, after which he rebuilt. Then, that same part of the building was once more almost destroyed in the fire of 1925.

Although, ultimately, I’m left in awe by the beauty of the standing structure, built by one of the greatest architects who has ever lived.2

What some say about the murders:

Some have unsubstantiated theories about the murders. These include: Carlton disapproved of Wright’s lifestyle; Carlton’s paranoia took a bad turn for fear of deportation in order to fight in the first World War; that this was a Chicago mob hit (Wright spoke in his autobiography of disagreements with the “union boys” over Wright’s Midway Gardens); and Wright put out a contract to murder Mamah.

I even had a former guide from another Wright house—after taking a four-hour Taliesin “Estate” tour with me—come up to say that he had been hoping to get the “real story” behind the murders from a Taliesin tour guide.

By the way, just so it’s all said: I have posted the basics of what we know about the first fire, above. There is no secret stash of information given to those at Taliesin about what “really happened” during the 1914 fire. 

The theories that Wright had something to do with the murders make me wonder:

What kind of person do you think Wright was? Sure, he left his first wife, sometimes (maybe a lot of times) had problems with money, and could sometimes say outrageous things about buildings and cities (noted in this article on negative things he said about Pittsburgh).

But any of those things are far away from being a murderer.

Finally, as for Wright ordering a hit on Mamah: putting aside the fact that Wright was not a murderer, (a) what self-respecting mobster would have expected Wright to come through with the money on a hit; and (b) if all else, I don’t think Wright would have destroyed his own home.

As for the other theories:

If Carlton hated Wright so much, why didn’t he just kill him in his sleep? And concerning Chicago mobsters: if they were trying to scare Wright, something else would have happened to him, or somebody would have eventually said something.

Regarding World War I, everyone in Europe that August was saying that it would be over by fall (by the time “the leaves turned”), so probably no one in the world was worried about multiple countries outside of Europe going to battle.

In addition,

Author Paul Hendrickson brought forth evidence that Carlton was born in Alabama (not Barbados) in his book, Plagued by Fire.

Wright’s reaction:

But to get back to the 1914 fire: Wright was devastated. Who wouldn’t be? He left for work in Chicago on a summer’s day in the middle of the week and came back that Saturday to a complete, unreal nightmare. And probably nothing could touch the guilt the man must have felt for hiring Carlton. Finally, the emotional weight of such a horrific and terrifying end to his life with Mamah must have been overwhelming. In fact, as far as I know, his painful and poignant writing about the fire was only done once: in his autobiography. I encourage you to seek out his autobiography to read his words (in three editions: published in 1932 and updated in 1943, which was republished in 1977), but here’s his writing about burying Mamah:

The August sun was setting on the familiar range of hills. I felt, dimly, the far-off shadows of the ages, struggling to escape from subconsciousness and utter themselves… then—darkness…. I filled the grave—in darkness—in the dark.

No monument marks the spot where “Mamah” was buried.

All I had to show for the struggle for freedom of the past five years that had swept most of my former life away, had now been swept away.

Why mark the spot where desolation ended and began?3
Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography, in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 240.

Wright wrote how the aftermath of the fire caused him to leave Taliesin for a bit and try to work out his grief in Chicago. And, then he writes,

So the rage that grew when I felt the inimical weight of human censure on my soul began to fade away and finally took refuge in the idea that Taliesin should live to show something more for its mortal sacrifice than a charred and terrible ruin on a lonely hillside in the beloved Valley.
An Autobiography, Collected Writings, volume 2, 241.

Some final thoughts about the 1914 fire

I noted at the start of this that the fire doesn’t make me feel weird while being at Taliesin. But I do feel deep, quiet sadness if I go to Mamah’s grave in the family cemetery, particularly standing near her grave and looking toward his house. Some years I’ve made a point of going there on August 15 when the sun is setting, the mist is rising, and the frogs are singing. The physicality of it goes deep in the bones.

But in addition, there’s the knowledge that above it all, he stayed! He rebuilt his living room in the same spot and the same size and rebuilt their bedroom in the same spot and the same size (and kept using it until 19364). What a weird reaction. Well, I used to think it was a weird reaction, anyway. Then September 11 happened.

In the wake of 9-11-01, I came probably as close as I can to fully understanding Wright in the aftermath of the 1914 fire. That desire to rebuild as a fight against obliteration was all around us in talks of rebuilding the World Trade Center. And, that connects very simply to Wright’s closing words about the fire in his autobiography:

There is release from anguish in action. Anguish would not leave Taliesin until action for renewal began. Again, and at once, all that had been in motion before at the will of the architect was set in motion. Steadily, again, stone by stone, board by board, Taliesin the II began to rise from Taliesin the first.
Ibid.

This was first published March 10, 2021.

The photograph above was taken by A.S. Rockwell on the day of, or the day after, the fire. The photograph was placed on Wikimedia Commons as an image 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 If you get the chance, you should read John’s book. It’s fun, funny, and insightful. I got a real sense of what Wright was like as a father. You can check out my post, “How did Frank Lloyd Wright feel about Christmas?” to read the scene John about seeing his father on Christmas Eve.

2 I haven’t said so before, I’ll say it here: I don’t think he was the absolute, above all others, greatest architect. The world’s a big place and built human history goes back to, what, 4,000 BCE? That’s a lot of building. So I think it is impossible to pick one person as the greatest architect (or artist). However, if someone made a list of the top 25 greatest architects in history throughout the entire globe, I believe his name would be there.

3 If you go to the Unity Chapel cemetery, you’ll see a grave marker for Mamah. It’s at the base of the tallest pine tree in the cemetery. It was put there in the 1960s under the direction of Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

4 He and Olgivanna moved to separate bedrooms in that year. Those rooms remained their bedrooms in Wisconsin for the rest of their lives.

 

A link to my writing on Taliesin’s second fire.

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.