Screen grab of actress, Bonnie Hunt as a tour guide walking with a group through the White House.

“Well, the guide told me….”

Screen-grab of actress Bonnie Hunt in the 1993 movie, Dave. The scene shows Hunt as a White House tour guide with a group going through the “People’s House” [the White House]. I guarantee most of you, tour guide or not, have this going through your head right now: “We’re walking… we’re walking….

In this post, I’ll write some of what people on tours told me, or other guide staff, during the almost-25 years that I worked at Taliesin Preservation.

In addition to being the Taliesin historian, I gave tours every season from 1994-2019 (except for the 2004 season and most of the 2014 season).

Giving tours exposes you to many things. In this case, visitors on tours told me things about architect Frank Lloyd Wright, his buildings, his personality, the murders at his house, etc.

In a way, that’s the beauty of it: you come into contact with so many different people and you’re all on a journey that lasts 1 to 4 hours. You’re all experiencing the same space at the same time and are interacting with each other. Even if they aren’t looking at—or listening to—each other.

Fortunately, though, I never expected people on tours to listen to me like I was a drill sergeant. So I didn’t take it personally if people on tour weren’t looking at me. I usually only asked them to keep their voices down if they were interrupting others on the tour.

That’s because I knew people were coming with their own backgrounds. Some loved Frank Lloyd Wright since they were 7 years old, and were now in their 70s.

On the other hand,

others might not know anything. Maybe they were on tour because their partners, children, or friends brought them. Maybe they were driving to The House on the Rock and thought they’d stop in….

Although, honestly, I really felt for the husbands who came on the Loving Frank Tour.

The book, Loving Frank, really appealed to women, and – at least from my perspective – the men on those tours mostly seemed to be the husbands/partners/boyfriends/friends of those women who had read, and loved, the book.

My job on those tours was walking the group around and describing what was there in 1911. Then I brought them to Taliesin’s Living Room and another guide (Margaret) did a book reading.

There were moments I had with the husbands/male partners at the end of those tours. I usually asked if they were there because their wives wanted the tour.

They all answered yes.

I’d often give a small nod and said that I hoped they were having a good time.

Yet,

sometimes the guests had preconceptions. Hopefully, if those preconceptions were, well, on the wrong side, the guests didn’t argue on the facts. And I think I tried to be nice when there were some real zingers out there, but I honestly can’t be sure.

That’s because guides, for the most part, are on their own with guests.

And while I thought I was pretty nice, those are only my memories and interpretations. Perhaps someone on the tours thought I answered things like a b****y a-hole.

As an example,

This one time I thought that I made a joke with a group. They were being slow and I said that,

Boy you folks are harder to move than 2nd grade school teachers.

yeah, that wasn’t a great line, but this is live, folks!

I said that because a week or two before this I was trying to move a group of women and one said,

Oh, I know it’s hard to move us. We’re all 2nd grade school teachers!

Apparently, this other group took what I said as an insult. Fortunately I didn’t have to handwrite an apology to them.

No: I never heard of any tour guide having to handwrite apologies to tour guests.

But on the other hand,

no one complained the year I was going through a really painful time when I know I was bitchy for at least half of that season.

I’d ended a relationship before the season started and was not in the best of moods.
I liked giving tours b/c they got me away from the pain for a while, but I was constantly on the verge of bursting into tears.

There were sometimes, though….

When things like this happened:

“My guide told me at [another Wright site]

“The back of Wright’s chairs were so tall because he didn’t want people to look at the back of his head.”

“He had a room at Taliesin for both his wife and his mistress.” 

“He designed uncomfortable furniture because he didn’t want people sitting too long.”

Or:

“It’s basically accepted that Wright was responsible for Mamah’s death, right?”

“Did Frank Lloyd Wright do a painting for Guggenheim or something?”

“Oh, I know that you guides all have some ‘script’ that you have to follow, but…?”

“No – he killed them all.”

“I heard that Joseph Stalin’s daughter is a bag lady living in London.”

OK: I’ve got to unpack that last one there:

Joseph Stalin’s daughter—Svetlana Alliluyeva—lived at Taliesin for a few years in the early 1970s.

She came into the Taliesin universe in 19701 when she was invited to Taliesin West by Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

Svetlana married William Wesley Peters soon afterward. Peters was the former son-in-law of Olgivanna and Frank Lloyd Wright. He had married their daughter, Svetlana (who died in a car accident in 1946).

Now, while marrying two women named Svetlana is probably not wildly unusual for people living in the former Soviet Union, it’s rather odd for people in the United States. 

Which is why

some people conflate all of the facts about Svetlana, and hear about Taliesin, and think that Frank Lloyd Wright married Stalin’s daughter.

After all,

some people think that Frank Lloyd Wright killed his second wife.

Back to the bag lady comment:

We were at the end of our tour and driving up to the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. I asked those on the bus if they had any other questions. And one woman said,

“I heard that Joseph Stalin’s daughter is a bag lady living in London.”

As it so happens

At that time, I was renting my apartment from Svetlana’s daughter. She lived on the ground floor with her mother, and I lived on the second floor.

So, my I answer to “I heard Joseph Stalin’s daughter…” was

“No. Joseph Stalin’s daughter is not a bag lady living in London.”

The woman on the bus replied, “Well, I read it in the newspaper.”

And I believe I replied, more or less that,

“No. Believe me: she lives nearby, I’ve seen her, and had tea with her in her apartment last week.”

And, happily, this happened to be true!2

Originally published August 5, 2022.
The screenshot at the top of this post if from the movie, Dave, from Warner Brothers. I am not posting this to make money off of the movie, or any of its stars.


Note:

1 Thanks, again, to the Administrator of Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, who gave me the correct year on Alliluyeva’s first visit. She has also helped me here, here, and I’m sure elsewhere if you search this blog.

2 I know this is true because I don’t usually drink tea and and I felt pretty good about having tea with her. 

Updated:

In the theme of “well, the guide told me…,” after I posted this, I read on a Wright page on Facebook that someone heard a Taliesin tour guide tell people that the Guest Bedroom of Taliesin housed Eleanor Roosevelt and Elizabeth Taylor (on separate occasions, of course). I posted as calmly as I could that, um, NO.

Those two women never stayed there.

That this was a case of

“the telephone game of tour guiding”

[I should copyright that term]

I’ll show you why I call it that:

Lady Bird Johnson, then First Lady of the United States, was invited to Taliesin. It was during her whirlwind “Crossroads USA tour“. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright invited her, but the Crossroads USA tour went so quickly (7 states in 4 days), that she didn’t stay at Taliesin overnight. So, one First Lady got confused with another First Lady.

In addition,

movie producer Mike Todd and then-girlfriend (later wife), actress Joan Blondell stayed at Taliesin in the late 1940s.

Todd later married Elizabeth Taylor. SO: Todd coming to Taliesin + (later-)wife = Todd’s later wife, Elizabeth Taylor, actually coming to Taliesin.

whew. Now everything will be fine and no one will ever get anything wrong on tours again.

Looking (plan) northwest, Taliesin's living room

“I’m just a tour guide”

A photograph looking (plan) northwest in Taliesin’s Living Room. Wright’s Bechstein piano is in the background. There’s a photo of him at this piano, here, at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation website.

In 1994, when I was 26, I started giving tours at Taliesin. But, “I’m just a tour guide” is something I usually never said to people. I didn’t want them to feel obligated to say, “Oh, no! You’re much more than that!”

On the other hand, I was worried they wouldn’t say that at all.

Although, early on in my employment, I absorbed huge chunks of Frank Lloyd Wright information. This was definitely related to the fact that I was nearing graduation for my MA and primed for ingestion of data.

And yet, while I settled on telling people that I was “solely a tour guide”, for years this wasn’t really true.1

My years in the tour program:

1994-2002, in addition to being able to do many of the types of tours at Taliesin (sometimes all), I:

  • Worked as a clerk in the bookstore,
  • Was a Taliesin House Steward,
  • Did deep cleaning at Hillside (on Wednesdays), and,
  • In a pinch, drove the guides in a small shuttle bus holding 14 tour guests (ok, well I only did one whole day that one time).

You can read my thoughts on that first year, here. But, really, I was mostly in tours until the end of 2002. And usually one-day-a-week from 2004-2019.

Tour guiding is a long, complicated thing which I don’t feel I have the wherewithal to address (and how I became “the Historian” is another story, here).

In fact,

Over the years I periodically started writing / adding to an unpublished book about being a tour guide. But I have not completed it. In part this is due to my “voice”. While trying to be funny, I sometimes unintentionally sound misanthropic. The title of my proposed book is an example: What Time Does the 1:30 Tour Leave?

See? Funny, but can be interpreted negatively.

Still, over and again I (and other staff) have marveled at those who wonder why someone would “only” be a tour guide. This statement implies that those asking / wondering can’t figure out “why” you would do something “that doesn’t pay that much”. No, it doesn’t pay much in money (moolah, cheddar, greenbacks).

What Taliesin tour guiding pays is ineffable

The Taliesin estate in Wisconsin is one of the most complex works of art in the world which was designed / worked on / advanced by someone who is, by most counts, one of the greatest architects in human history.

Not that Wright is the best architect who’s ever lived

I’m just saying that, if you came up with a list of 25 people throughout the entire globe in all of human, built history (at least 6,000 years), Frank Lloyd Wright’s name is on the list. And yet Taliesin Preservation pays people to bring visitors through these spaces.1 It’s puzzling to me that anyone wouldn’t see that as something incredible.

Although I’ve got to think that the reason others feel that way is that they never experienced someone in their 70’s or 80’s telling them after their tour, that they’ve been waiting their entire lives to come to Taliesin. And some other things below.

Still, to get back to this post on tour guiding, I wanted to write about things I learned about Taliesin’s history while giving people tours (my current state of not giving tours, and not being the hired historian, is not my choice, by the way; Covid-19 and all). While nothing jumped out at me, what has risen, instead, are the memories of unique moments with guests. Small things that have stayed with me for years. I mentioned one above: the elderly woman who told me that coming to Taliesin was something she’d waited for her whole life. But there are others.

Some stories from tours:

One time, I had taken my group to the room next to Taliesin’s Drafting Studio and directed them toward Taliesin’s front door. We were in the area of the photograph below:

"Front Office" at Taliesin, March 2004

Photographer: Keiran Murphy
Looking west in Taliesin’s “Front Office”, which is next to Taliesin’s drafting studio.

While speaking, I suddenly noticed a woman crying at the back of the line. As a guide, I wanted to make sure that nothing was wrong, but I also didn’t want to stop everything and single her out, saying, “Excuse me: I see that you are crying. Are YOU OK?”

I kept my eye on her and it turned out that she was fine; smiling moments later when she walked by on the way to Taliesin’s front door. I understood immediately that she cried. . . well, because of the beauty of Taliesin. Its enormity had made her burst into tears.

Here are a few other moments:

  • One time I was in Frank Lloyd Wright’s bedroom when someone, with a tone of amazement and discovery, said that Taliesin was as much of an idea as it was a reality (Wright using the building as an experiment). I could hear in her voice that she was coming to this conclusion while articulating that (I tried to tell people but I can’t be sure if it always came across). A photograph of the room is through this link (she was talking to me at the desk in the background).
  • I had a boy who had just turned 12 walk confidently telling me everything about the house and all about Wright’s philosophy (it should come as no surprise that the boy’s 12th birthday present was taking a tour at Taliesin).
  • I also had another 12-year-old on a “tour-as-birthday-present”, a girl with a friend, asking me if I studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the bemused looks on people’s faces around me as I told her (I hope) politely that, no, he was a lot older than me and died before I was born.

Then there were outdoor experiences:

Looking across the Taliesin valley, with the building at Mid-ground
Photographer: Keiran Murphy

The photograph above is one of the distant views that would be seen on the Taliesin Walking Tours that were given through the 2005 tour year (there’s a “Driftless Landscape tour” at Taliesin that they have now). I had my own unique experiences on these tours. Some memories of these experiences are below:

  • being chased by mosquitoes (including one hitting my lower eyelid under the frame of my glasses!);
  • being chased by Canada geese; and
  • smelling cow manure while the farmer was fertilizing the fields. Sorry: it IS Wisconsin so sometimes you gotta smell our Dairy air, y’know.

Other interesting moments on the Walking tour:

  • Seeing a Red Tailed hawk that lived on the estate one summer: it would take off when you walked close to it (I don’t know where it spent its time otherwise);
  • Spotting a fox that lived on the Taliesin estate for a few years;
  • The afternoon I went with my group on a drizzly day to an island on the Taliesin pond. We stood outside as a rain shower came, and the pond looked like diamonds as the water droplets hit its surface;
  • And finally, there was a Blue Heron that stayed by Taliesin’s waterfall that was scared up every time our shuttle drivers went past it
    • hopefully it will be there again when the pond is refilled (work started on the dam in late 2019)
      • A Facebook Live event took place in 2020 that explains the work.

Lastly, another impression from someone on a tour:

One time an Italian gentleman and his partner went through Hillside (Was she his wife? She was a woman around his age.) They didn’t speak a lot of English, which is my major language. I remember the gentleman really well because, as we sat in the Theater at Hillside he said, “there is so much geometry here. . . . But it is so free.”

I looked around the Hillside theater room with his eyes. I could see the “geometry” he mentioned, with round seats (constructed in metal) sitting at an angle, and the a boxed-design on the north and south window walls. And I agreed with him wholeheartedly.

Hillside Theater Foyer, September 2005.
Photographer: Keiran Murphy

I took the photograph above in the Hillside Theater Foyer. The Hillside Theater is in the background.
Originally posted July 5, 2021


1. After 2002,

I began to work more as the historian for Taliesin Preservation, doing research in projects (this preservation work now done by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation).