Those whose work we admire often are treated as though they can do no wrong. Frank Lloyd Wright certainly gets reverential treatment today, whether through retrospectives of his work, during tours of facilities he designed, or in long-term museum displays. Read what Wright had to say about himself and you also find that he was most impressed. Many of his apprentices were, too.
Professor Drennan does us the favor of helping us see the rest of what Wright was like . . . and it was often wrong.
A few years ago, my wife and I took a Wright vacation that enabled us to begin in the Chicago area and then move north into Wisconsin to see Taliesin and many of the works done by Wright in that state. In those brief few days, we could see that Wright had undergone some pretty amazing metamorphosis from the humble, practical elements of his Oak Park home and studio to the massive, unchurch-like but inexpensive, Unity Temple, to the magnificence of Robie House to the grandeur of grounds, view, and dominance of Taliesin. During the tours, a few words were mentioned about Wright taking off for Europe with the wife of one of his local clients . . . and a grisly murder ending the escapade. But as little was said as possible about these events.
When Death in a Prairie House came out, I couldn't wait to learn more. And Professor Drennan satisfied my curiosity about Wright's wandering off with a married woman, abandonment of his own family, and how it all ended in bloodshed and fire. Although Professor Drennan's specialty is English, he does a competent job of sifting through the evidence and correcting mischaracterizations that have grown up over the years.
That's the strength of the book. The book's main weakness is that it doesn't do enough to include Wright's work as an architect, especially after the Taliesin murders. You get this sense from the book of Wright as permanently closed off in his design work. But you could argue differently . . . that the seeds of the box-like designs were always present. Unity Temple has to be argument number one in favor of that view. The California boxes look a lot like Unity Temple. In addition, in those pre-air conditioning days, keeping sunlight out was a helpful way to keep interiors cool during the 100 degree plus days. At night, the air cools off in California and that cool air can be captured to keep the day pleasant if there aren't too many windows. Later, Wright designed the Usonian Style, a home meant to be built inexpensively by the owner. That, too, was boxlike, but mainly as a cost-saving measure. Taliesin West is just as grand in its own way as Taliesin was . . . even though Wright was broke when he built it. In the 30's, Wright developed a master plan for the whole United States in creating ideal communities. Also, Fallingwater and the Guggenheim were in Wright's future. Did the murders change him, or did they serve as a pause and change of focus into something he was always interested in? I suspect another scholar, who is involved in architecture, will have to answer those questions.
But it's clear from this book that Wright was such a narcissist that he allowed his ability to succeed as an architect to be harmed by his extended dalliance with free-love advocate, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. I thought that the final irony of the murders was that the fire destroyed the copies of Wright's designs that would have extended his influence decades sooner. Although Professor Drennan dismisses this point from the view of the murderer, there certainly is a moral in this story about the wages of sin that Wright and his lover paid.
Death in a Prairie House is well written, thorough in its exploration of the background to the murders and the events themselves, and a good story overall. I recommend you read it, particularly if you are a fan of Wright's architecture.