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FLLW


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Yesterday, October 15, 2007, while in the attic with my husband laying in big pink batts of insulation I found a letter stuck between the rafters. The letter was folded and crammed into a too small envelope. It was addressed to *************** Apparently it was never mailed. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’ll let you be the judge. Dear John, Today I returned from the retrospective of Frank Lloyd Wright’s windows utterly exhausted. I shouldn’t have gone, but just like those many years ago I was enticed by something strong and brilliant. How could anyone resist? All considered you would think it would be easy for me. Desire is a questionable emotion often cross-eyed and knock-kneed. Now that I am older and the years have washed away those awful roarings, I will make a lasting document of truth. I was born in Chicago at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, 6:59 a. m., on May 30, 1908. My big saucer eyes of smoky green edged in dark blue recorded everything. I was curious, a questioning child, amazed by the slightest wonders of the world. My mother told me I walked at nine months, a new talent of mine she was unaware of until I tumbled down the stairs one day. The real reason she didn’t know of my advancement was because less than a month after I was born I was promptly given over to my aunt. Hush, hush, this was a family secret until I was in my 40s. I attended my aunt’s funeral, and my uncle, a favorite of mine, calmly blurted out, “Your aunt loved you so very much. When you lived with us she went shopping nearly daily buying you lacy dresses and leather shoes and bonnets with ribbons. I called you cupcake back then.” When I questioned him about living with them he assured me it was indeed the truth, but he quickly zippered his lips when he realized (I am guessing because of my quizzical expression) I had absolutely no prior knowledge of this abandonment. My childhood was as unremarkable as any. My mother constantly accused me of making up my own language, one different yet totally understandable. Well I do believe as long as it’s comprehensive, it is communication which is language. And all children have similar outbursts of creativity. My parents thought I had a propensity for running away. From the age of six I took journeys. The first was a mere mile and a half. I went to a schoolmate’s house, my friend, Elizabeth’s. I did tell my mother it was just around the corner, so yes, that was a lie. But I wasn’t running away, abandoning my family, I was just visiting. They didn’t have to call the police. I overstayed past dark and arrived home to an empty house, except my older brother was there and he said I was in “exponentially dire straits.” So I hid under my bed until father arrived home. He said I wasn’t truly in trouble, “Young lady just never do that again.” But of course I did. There was a new world to explore. Sleeping never came easy to me. Mother allowed me to read myself to sleep. Every book was a journey too, an inward one. Yet even today I can’t always separate the book stories from my real-life adventures. I guess they have all become real. When I was eight, having already shown some random skill at drawing fantastical birds in pastels on velour-coated papers, my mother gave me permission to decorate my room all by myself. My friend, Jared, helped me lug a highboy out of the basement. With a small saw I cut off the legs. Down at Dickinson’s Hardware I bought a can of red lacquer and some very stylish black pyramidal Art Deco-styled drawer pulls. My aunt commented that the piece resonated a Japanese expression. (She would know since uncle does business overseas.) For the walls I chose yellow paint, the yellow seen in those dramatically beautiful sunsets, usually twisted into yellow, slightly bordering on pale orange. Oil paint stays tumescent for a long time and right then is when I received the idea to throw golden glitter glass into the paint. It worked marvelously. I remade my bed with the crocheted coverlet that once belonged to grandmother. How could one part with majestic peacocks done in lace? The polished wooden floors were covered with a piece of zebra pelt. (This was in my brother’s room until he spilled India ink on it and my mother salvaged this little throw-rug piece. Mine now.) And I painted a shelf for my bears made out of koala-bear skin. They were a present from Edgar, a friend of my parents who hugged me too tight and had breath that reeked of whiskey. I found a can of paint in the most stunning blue. I think it is the same color as a beautiful gown I saw in a picture of the queen. The most extraordinary blue in the world; it’s found in rainbows too…if you look closely. The renovation went very well. My mother was quite furious about the highboy though. It seems it was some priceless antique and I had thoroughly demolished it. I only required a piece of real stained glass to be fitted into the three upper panes of the bay window to make this room truly shine. That did not happen. In art class, during Christmas time, we made gel sheets framed in Plaster of Paris for parental gifts. I made little windows to fit in the panes. Mother and father received a pastel of Charles, our beloved bloodhound. They were ecstatic. (Twelve years later I placed the drawing in my father’s casket as he had requested.) I loved dancing. When I was 14 my parents prohibited me to attend a dance alone. The dance was of superior importance to me. I decided I would rather die than live this expressionless life I was doomed to adhere to. In a snit I took 6 aspirin and a small swig out of mother’s cobalt-blue bottle of paregoric. It wasn’t even ten minutes later when I became horrified. What had I done?! I certainly did not want to die. I did not want to tell my parents of my stupidity. As soon as I gained the courage to be so bold to confront this true possibility of dead I quietly walked into their bedroom. “I swallowed too many pills.” I said standing at the doorway. Out of the darkness came my mother’s voice. “Call Dr. Barrie.” Now I felt even more stupid. My parents were having none of my willfulness. They didn’t even walk to the bedroom door. I called Dr. Barrie’s house and drowsily he answered the phone. Oddly he didn’t even scold me. He just told me to stay awake all night and drink plenty of water. I never tried to commit suicide again. Richland Center, Wisconsin is my familial home. We visited my grandparents every year, especially on Decoration Day. My father would mow our family plots and we would plant flowers we brought at a greenhouse in town. Afterward we would travel to Kruskopt Park and have a picnic. This tradition was never broken. From age 10 onward I spent summers in Wisconsin. Not entire summers, mine you, more like 6 week stretches. There wasn’t much to do beyond wallow in nature and I was accustomed to all of the diversions of city life. But I was a good walker and I spent time in Spring Green as well as neighboring communities. I never did walk all of the way to Madison as I had hoped to do. Spring Green was interesting because of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. My grandfather, born during the Civil War, and abhorrent of balderdash and haughtiness, would toss his fedora into the corner of the room at the mention of Wright’s name. “If cats could fly that man would be soaring in the next galaxy.” My father had caught my grandfather’s disdain and was allergic to Wright as well. I found him fascinating and read everything I could find about this anarchic fellow. His parents, William Russell Cary Wright and Anna Lloyd Jones Wright, had the audacity to divorce in 1885 when Frank Lincoln Wright was 18. No one divorced. It was barely legal. And how outright bold of those parents! I was entranced by their courage, yet I felt a twinge of pain for the future architect. I doubt other parents would even permit their children to pal about with the child of divorced parents. After all…it could be catching. I think they probably looked at Frank Lincoln Wright as if he carried one of those health signs: UNDER QUARTENTINE-DO NOT ENTER. FLW must have thought so too, as I saw in the paper that upon his parents divorce he promptly changed his middle name to Lloyd, his mother’s family name. The monogrammed handkerchiefs did not need to be changed. We had much in common. I too have changed my name at many of the intersections life has presented. I even read an article that stated that Wright’s mother had placed a postcard of St. Paul’s Cathedral above his crib, the seed of her inclination to have an architect in the family. My aunt had placed two art pieces above my crib: one a small postcard of “Woman and Child Bathing” by Mary Cassatt; the other a calligraphy of the rhinoceros story from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Auntie read all of the Just So Stories to me as my bedtime treat. I still adore them. A more important connection was that both Mr. Wright and I were born under the mischievous astrological sign of mercurial Gemini, the twins, Castor and Pollux, the dual personalities, sheer intellect, flirtiness, a boundless curiosity, strong opinions, and according to Madame Blavatsky, “a distinct smoothing taste for entanglements in love.” My mother and I would dress for a day in the city. At the Field Museum I discovered a traveling exhibit of glorious African Jewelry, and over in the wildlife exhibits I was entranced by the enormous python, so threatening and as luxurious as a feather boa. Norman, my father’s hunting friend in Texas, wore python boots. Was this a tragedy? Were the boots any less shameful than the armadillo handbag my aunt carried? And what about the mink collar, the little dried faces staring at you whenever you glanced at your mother? I adored the activity of Chicago, the long skyscrapers that placed me in cold shadows, lunch at The Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s, ice skating, going to the North Shores beaches, the sculptures, The Art Institute…I read that Wright had a show there the year before I was born. I was born too late. I needed to catch up. I wanted to have an orange dress covered with fringes just like my mother wore when she and father went dancing. The fringes had a life of their own. They shimmed back and forth as she walked. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to drink liquor. The taste of Weather’s butterscotch pastilles were my favorite (my father always seemed to have a roll) and I had decided that since I adored butterscotch, then scotch would be my drink of choice. Summers were Wisconsin. There was so much sky up there, endless, you could see a huge arc of a rainbow and you knew you could find the golden treasure at the end if you could only run fast enough, before the atmospherics changed. The faint newborn pastel light of dawn drifted into scorching sun and ended hot and violent in torchlight colors of strange fuchsias, scalding orange, and fierce yellows flinging away the tempering blues. On my walks I would often see a herd of deer, some in the fields eating, other prancing through the air, disturbed by the sight of a human. The pheasants…iridescent and finely shaped, raccoons…the face mask, but oh, those evil haunches, too much for me, And once I spied a black bear. Yet as much as I fancied the county it was Spring Green that drew my attraction. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin was located south of town but the town was residence to many other artists. And on the day I saw a woman dressed to the nines with two beautiful afghans on leashes, I was mesmerized. I asked the teller at the brick bank on the corner if she knew the identity of the woman. She replied, “That woman is Mamah Cheney. She lives with Mr. Wright at Taliesin.” And in a whisper she added, “They aren’t even married.” Jeepers Creepers! I thought they put you in jail for that. I had overheard father telling mother that Uncle Franklin could not be living with Stella until they married. “It’s just not done!” As I exited the bank I saw the striking woman getting into a bright golden car. A dapper black chauffer was holding the door and the dog leashes. Once the lady was seated, the man opened the back door for the dogs, went to the driver’s seat and in a whoosh they were gone. Mamah Cheney. I had read about her too. Let me get the Chicago Tribune article. All right. Officially she is Mamah Borthwick Cheney wife of Edwin Cheney, a neighbor of Wright’s in Oak Park, Illinois. The picture is that of a distinguished woman with fine features. She looks age appropriate. It is said she translates foreign erotica into English. She has three children: She lives the life of an intellectual. There is some speculation that Wright has found his intellectual equal. The couple was seen riding around Chicago in Wright’s yellow car, and they were seen openly making love in the house through the uncurtained windows by a group of neighbor children. Having this exposed in the newspaper must have been devastating to Wright’s wife, Kitty Tobin. Kitty, formally Catherine Lee Tobin, daughter of a wealthy businessman, had married Frank in 1889. They were both young and impetuous. She was 18 and he was 22. Wright’s mother Anna was not pleased, and she felt the girl should have taken better precautions. From Frank and Kitty’s union came 6 children: Frank, Jr (1890), John (1892), Catherine (1894), David (1895), Frances (1898), and Robert (1903). And now she had been moved into the studio while her home, the one Frank had designed and had built for her, was being rented out. Frank Lloyd Wright’s financial difficulties were legion. It didn’t help that he was accumulating speeding tickets the way most people collect pennies. The bright yellow car, a brand new Stoddard-Dayton, was a police target and so was Wright’s bohemian lifestyle. What was right for him when he was young was not right for him now. It was the Jazz Age. He needed a woman who could propel his career into the stratosphere. Many people commented on the fact that he covered the back window of his cars. He didn’t like looking back. Straight ahead was the only way he knew. Always forward. (Which, curiously is the state motto of Wisconsin.) When Mamah Cheney strode down the sidewalks of Spring Green everything and everyone else merely evaporated. Anna, Wright’s mother had been moved out of Oak Park and installed in the new residence called Taliesin as well. On those summer visits my parents would drive by Taliesin. It arose slightly below the peak of one of the bluffs. The bluffs alone were sacred to me. Father had the stories about many of them, Indian stories. I looked for faces in the outcroppings. Here, just south of the Wisconsin River, a ribbon of work trucks made deliveries, and a low, long-slung house became manifest. It was the colors and textures of the surrounding bluffs, made of limestone and lumber from the forests. “I wished to be part of my beloved Wisconsin and not put my small part of it out of countenance. Architecture, after all, I have learned, or before all, I should say, is no less a weaving and fabric than the trees. And as anyone might see, a beech tree is a beech tree. It isn’t trying to be an oak. Nor is a pine trying to be a birch, although each makes the other more beautiful when seen together.” By the time I was 7 I was visiting the grounds of Taliesin on my never-ending summer walks. I gathered watercress and had a simple picnic before starting back home before dark. Workmen in big trucks traveled past me at the bottom of the hill near the water. Some of them waved. I especially remember a man who had an old pick-up with Nelson hand-painted on the door. When I asked what he was delivering, he said sorghum. Another truck spelled out Turnipseed. I didn’t know if it was a last name or they delivered seeds. The stark blaring black headlines of August 18, 1914 shook me into a hardened Degas “Little Dancer” statue. There was a tragedy at Taliesin. Was Mr. Wright dead? Quickly I scanned the page. Mr. Wright was in Chicago on business when a catastrophe happened. Now I devoured every word. On Saturday, August 15, 1914 an unfolding of gruesome events occurred at Taliesin, the “shining brow”, the lovenest for Frank and Mamah, the escape from the critical eye of the populace. The architectural hideout was under siege. As Mamah and her two children, John and Martha, sat down to lunch, Julian Carleton, son of the chef and servant, quietly bolted the doors and windows. He served six men in the other room their lunch, then promptly went outside and doused gasoline around the building. As the house began to burn, he took an axe and slashed Mamah, then the children. He went into the adjoining room and began whacking the men. They tried in fury to escape. A man making a delivery saw one man come out of a window falling lifelessly to the ground. The driver immediately turned around and headed to town to get the police. Meanwhile as the slaughter continued two men, young Herb Fritz, and an older man, Billy Weston, smashed through another window and escaped. Billy Weston helped extinguish the blaze, which nearly destroyed the entire residential wing of Taliesin. Seven people were dead as the ashes smoldered into the winds whipping through Wyoming Valley. Julian Carleton, from the West Indies, was found coiled into the fetal position inside the furnace. He had drunk acid and could not speak. He died before going to trial. No one ever found out why he did it although there were rumblings that he was underpaid and overworked. Wright had found out about the tragedy while still in Chicago when he phoned Kitty in another plea for a divorce. Supposedly he had been busy and hadn’t read the newspapers. Kitty informed him that his lover was dead. Wright immediately left for Taliesin with his son John. The newspapers carried the minute details. I had overheard the particulars of the burial rite. The children were taken back to Illinois, to their father. Mamah was placed upon a buckboard and covered with flowers. Wright and others (no information here) along with some of his workmen including Herb Fritz, walked beside the horse-drawn cart to Unity Church cemetery (owned by the Lloyd-Jones) a few miles south (and viewable from Taliesin) to Mamah’s final resting place beneath an evergreen tree. Within a week Wright began rebuilding Taliesin. When the profundity of death slaps you in the face, the only thing to do is immerge yourself in something, anything to release your mind from the sorrow. A year later, Taliesin had risen as a brilliant golden eagle from the ruins strewn helter-skelter on a Wisconsin hillside. Over the next few summers I never saw Mr. Wright’s red car fly down the hill from Taliesin. I believe the newspapers reported that he was in Tokyo working on Imperial Gardens or maybe it was Germany where Ernest Wasmuth did the first portfolio on his architectural designs. It has been a long time ago and the memory occasionally jumbles events once vividly etched. The man despised by my family held a fascination, an intrigue, a revolt. I wanted to touch a finger to his hand, the hands of creation. He was ancient, over a half-century of a man. I wanted to see if he was withered. I wanted to see if my one touch had any power. Could this mountain of a man, of a bigger-than-life human being, both esteemed and a threat to the morality of society around the world, be real? He had become, in my eyes, a rare diamond out of the shadows of Africa. And I was Nancy Drew. I made friends with some of the other rural teens, sort of. They would tell stories, which I assume were very imaginative since everyone else would laugh. I didn’t understand their humor. Actually I didn’t know what they were talking about…milking cups? I’m not one to laugh merely to join the crowd. Each time I trekked over to Taliesin I ventured a bit closer to the house. First it was the top of the bluff, soaking in the pastoral panorama. Curious I sauntered straight up to the building for a peek into the stable. Mighty, the horse my grandparents gave me two years earlier was one of the draws to get me back to Wisconsin each summer. I love horses, especially Appaloosas. Climbing through the hills in early spring I spied spring beauties, pink shooting stars, and my favorite…green sculptural Jack-in-the-pulpits rising out of the deep moist woodland. The ground was layers and layers of richly-scented decomposing leaves from the oaks and maples, interspersed with an occasionally stand of pines. When you walked in the forest each footstep sunk nearly a foot deep. I liked the soaring sharp-shinned hawks, the intense blue of the indigo buntings (people from the city call them bluebirds), and oh the treacherous wild Wisconsin River incised with shape-shifting sandbars. Father warned me never to stand on the downriver side of one. They are an illusion of strength; they are undercut. If you fell in even a good swimmer like me would be helpless in the powerful lashing currents. Often I would tear old newspapers into squares, tuck them into my leather notebook, and press wildflowers between the sheets. Grandfather would help me with the names…both the common name and the botanical one. I hand-lettered each page. Occasionally there were people in residence. I don’t know who they were. By dress you could tell some were workmen, a black lady carried groceries, others drove fancy cars and wrapped themselves in Paris millinery. They didn’t seem to notice me. I once read in a book that if you held your breath and stayed very, very still you would be invisible. Quite often I employed that mind-bending technique. During the harsh winter of 1922 my mother died of pneumonia. The doctor had misdiagnosed the problem, and operated on her for appendicitis. My father was inconsolable. He drifted. He stopped talking. They took him to a special hospital for a rest. It was the summer of 1923 when I first brought my sketchbook to Taliesin. Over winter I had taken drawing classes from Mrs. Burdett, a wonderfully effervescent woman who summered in Europe and had stacks of sketches, oils, and even architectural drawings of vistas from across the sea. Taliesin would be my Europe. I would draw the countryside…flora and fauna. I would capture the architecture. I might even sketch a milking cup. I tucked my T-square under my arm, gathered up pencils and charcoals, slid the strap of my portfolio over my other arm and bee-lined to Taliesin. I found a perfect spot in the sun and began. That day I learned the value of a hat, and to take along a tweezers. Then I wouldn’t have had to wear those three wood ticks home. The second day I went closer to the building. I wanted to do a close-up, something more detailed, precise, and surely more accurate. That is when it happened. Mr. Wright walked out of the door and headed straight toward me. I was worried. The jig was up. He explained to me, quite directly, that I was on private property and that I should leave immediately. He saw the T-square as I was packing up and asked if I did blueprints. “Not yet.” I answered. “I am only an apprentice.” He queried further. “An apprentice to whom?” “Myself.” I answered. He stepped back. Then I told him about Mrs. Burdett. And can you believe it? He actually knew her! She is a friend of the Carlyle’s and the cousin of Rebecca Barrington. He said I could stay and I could come back on these conditions: 1. I must come alone. 2. I was to never enter the house. And 3. I wasn’t to talk to the servants. All of these rules would be strictly enforced. As he walked away the most overwhelming thought I had was this: Frank Lloyd Wright was not the 5’ 11” I read somewhere. He was the same height as me, about 5’ 6 ½”. (Later I had a growth spurt and ended up tall like my parents at 5’ 10”.) Why I thought he was at least 6’ tall. An icy, shivery wind blew in from the north as I marched down the hill. I was extremely lonely that summer, wretchedly heartbroken over the loss of my dear mother. I wasn’t even sure I could survive. My reddened eyes worn thin from crying jags barely focused on the paper. I prayed to trees. Mr. Wright caught me crying one day and asked why I was making a fuss. When I told him the circumstance he told me that he too had lost his mother in February. He crossed one leg over another, looked out to the countryside and said, “Mothers are the stern of the ship. Without them we could sink into oblivion.” I could see tears welling up in his eyes, pregnant pools of sorrow. From that day onward I was allowed to draw in the gardens and on his private terrace. Mr. Wright was drinking. His words carried the sweetly sour air of cognac, or perhaps it was another liquor, one I couldn’t quite recognize. And I suppose I have to admit that on that first occasion, the time the invitation into his study was offered, I should have thought more of it. I was enthusiastic to see the interior of this great home, a villa really. I was keen to peek on his shelves to see what he was reading. Would any of his plans be out? I was a 15-year-old adolescent exotically curious through tear-stained eyes. I walked in the door. By August I was showing. I could see the disappointment in my grandparent’s eyes. I told them it was a boy who had been hitchhiking through the area on his way to Minneapolis. It was tacit…I had ruined the family name. They shipped me off to my aunt. The one thing I always admired about my aunt was that she didn’t care what other people thought. One time we came home to find her sprawled on a blanket with a fellow kissing him like crazy. So what if it was her new husband. Behavior like that was not tolerated in society. My aunt immediately took me to the doctor. After the exam he spoke to her, not me. “Yes she is definitely pregnant, about 3 months along. Her hymen has been broken yet oddly there are no signs of intercourse.” I had lost my hymen the summer before, on Mighty. Mr. Wright and I had never truly had sex. I was naked on the bottom. He was above me with his pants pulled down. I felt his hard penis against my thigh. I opened my eyes when he asked me if I had “knowledge” of men. When I whispered, no, scalding syrup burst between my legs and he collapsed upon my body. No one moved for a long time, probably 2 minutes. I can still see the texture of the wood in that ceiling. Auntie’s darling cupcake had become burnt toast. For all of my aunt’s boldness she still saw fit to sent me to a home for unwed mothers. It was there that my daughter was born. I wasn’t permitted to name her or even see her. I do remember the echo of her small whimpery cry as they carried her down the hall. I have never told anyone beyond my grandparents and my aunt about her. They never mentioned her ever. It was as if I was never pregnant, as if my daughter never existed. Inside my head I named her Ione Victoria. She would be as strong as an Ionic pillar and always victorious. I have never ever forgotten her, my child of virgin birth. After Mother’s death my mind played tricks on me and I would suddenly find myself in the middle of a full-blown conversation with me dead mother. She came at night, in my dreams, too. Father…well he simply melted away like the snowmen I used to build, all solid and present, then water, evaporating to nothing. I have often thought about the consequences of giving up my daughter. Perhaps the fates knew I would be alone before I reached adulthood, that age of freedom…21. The little girl and I would have been strong together, a family. We would have had each other. I consider it a profound loss, a catastrophe, a scar of society. And Mr. Wright? I read he married the woman I had seen at Taliesin. The union took place at midnight November 23, 1924 on a bridge overlooking the Wisconsin River. She was Miriam Noel, a sculptress and a morphine addict. And his last wife, 33 years his junior, Olgivanna, a Gurdijeff dancer, spent his final days with him. They had a daughter. I dare not sign this. You know very well who I am.