October 23, 2007
A married woman meets a dashing and prominent man, also married. They fall in love, forsake their spouses and families and run away together, reaping the censure of a public too confined in their narrow bourgeois morality to see the higher calling that the romance embodies. Before they can fully realize the happiness for which they have sacrificed so much, however, their love is tragically and violently shattered. Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
It is the stuff of fiction—including Anna Karenina. Most recently, it is the stuff of Loving Frank, a first novel by Nancy Horan. Loving Frank is based on the early twentieth century love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the greatest American architect and one of the greatest of all American artists, and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who met Wright as he designed and built a home for her family.
From start to finish, as Horan tells it, the Wright-Borthwick* relationship is a romance between romantics. Although married and the mother of two young children, Borthwick, a “learned, lovely woman,” wants more, and longs “inside for something she could not name,” as reviewer Liesl Schillinger puts it in a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review. Horan traces the love between Wright and Borthwick from its “anxious, ecstatic beginnings, past doubts and compromises, through renewed hope.” They flee together to Europe, where their conversations “touch on poetry, translation, architecture, idealism, love and family.”
At first, Mamah, from whose perspective the story is told, is troubled by her betrayal of her marriage vows. But she takes solace in philosophy. “Once love leaves a marriage,” she quotes a Swedish suffragist to Wright, “then the marriage isn’t sacred anymore. But if a true, great love happens outside of marriage, it’s sacred and has its own rights.”
And her love for her children? What are its rights? Sacred enough to compel her to be with them? “That cannot be just yet,” Borthwick wrote primly. And a century later, laments Schillinger, we still have “no satisfactory answer to the question of how a woman dedicated to her own self-expression can fulfill…the needs of her children when presented with a competitor for their love.”
Wright and Borthwick may well have been the great love of each other’s lives. But the real Frank Lloyd Wright tempered his love with pragmatism and even manipulativeness. Less than a year after he had left his wife, Wright returned to his home in Chicago, “stating that he did not want the beauty of their relationship soiled by too much daily contact,” writes Meryle Secrest in her biography of Wright. The negative publicity** that followed his elopement had reduced the income from his practice, and in the hope of raising funds from a backer, he needed, Secrest writes, “to present a façade of repentance and reform…He never intended to see Mamah again,” Secrest says Wright told his backer, “while jumping on the first boat to Europe the moment he had some money in his pocket.”
The Wright-Borthwick romance was ill-starred. They had five years together, living peacefully at Taliesin, the home and atelier that Wright built in southern Wisconsin. In August, 1914, while Wright was away on business, Borthwick and her children (who by this time spent summers with her), and other members of the Taliesin household, were killed in a ghastly murder. “Her soul has entered me,” Wright wrote shortly after the tragedy, “and it shall not be lost.”
That Frank Lloyd Wright—the real Frank Lloyd Wright—makes only cameo appearances in Loving Frank, and then only as a dreamer struggling to come to terms with a crass world. When Mamah, transplanted to southern Wisconsin, discovers that Wright is in the habit of not paying his bills to the small local merchants he patronizes (pun very much intended), a habit that lasted his entire life***, she chastises him only because his chiseling will give satisfaction to “people who want us to fail.” When she discovers that he has lied to her about his age—Wright was also a habitual dissembler about matters large and small; he even had a stock response to being caught: “Well, there you are.”—she accepts his romantic explanation: “I was a man in love. What can I say? It was a soul confession.” “It wasn’t the first time she had caught him in a lie or distortion. He romanticized things,” she reflects. “He loved imbuing everything with a little drama. It made life so much more interesting.” So habitual and unembarrassed a fabricator was Wright that he even had a stock response to being caught in a lie: “Well, there you are.”
Although Horan depicts Wright as shattered by Borthwick’s death, another Times reviewer, Janet Maslin, describes Wright as “show[ing] many signs of being impervious to loss. Three weeks after the tragedy at Taliesin, Prof. William Drennan has written, Wright hosted a party for rural mail carriers. “We are told,” reported a local newspaper, “that this was one of the most successful and enjoyable meetings the assembly has held.” Eight months later he began a torrid affair with a stranger who had sent him a letter of sympathy after Mamah was killed.
The point is not that Wright was a bad man whom Horan portrays as a good one. But the actual events of his life, both during and after his relationship with Mamah, show him to be a more complex man than the love-struck romantic depicted in Loving Frank. And that complexity casts the story of Mamah and Frank in a completely different light.
To be fair, Nancy Horan, a former journalist, does not present Loving Frank as biography. The very first words on the cover are “A Novel.” But if Loving Frank is only “a novel,” why populate it with real people—or, to be precise, characters who bear the names of real people? Why not write a real novel, populated with fictional people and events, as Ayn Rand did when she based the architect in her novel, The Fountainhead on Wright, but called him not Frank Lloyd Wright but Howard Roark?
“To get at truths of the heart,” the author has told an interviewer, applying her “own understandings about love, motherhood, loss, and the need to find one’s personal strengths,” and seeing the similarities between “the struggles of early twentieth century women [and] those of women today,” which include the search for fulfilling work and “the need to bring money into the household.”
The perils of getting at the truth of early-20th century hearts with 21st century sensibilities, however, are illustrated by the fact that, even in Horan’s telling, neither of those late-20th century/early 21st century imperatives seem to have played any role in Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s decision to leave her family for Wright. And is there not in any case an element of presumption in her assumption that a first-novelist, living a century later, can peer through the prism of her own time and experience, unaided by letters or other explanations from Wright and Borthwick themselves, and penetrate to “the truths of the heart,” not of fictional characters she has invented, but of real people?
There is another, less enchanting, purpose served by building a work of fiction on a scaffold of real events: to aid the suspension of disbelief that fiction requires by borrowing the believability of real events and real people and applying it to characterizations and emotional perceptions that might otherwise seem implausible. Or, to borrow from Gilbert and Sullivan, to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
Horan says that she found the historical framework of the Wright-Borthwick affair “liberating.” But history should not be liberating. History is a discipline. It imposes on the historical storyteller the duty to reach an understanding of why historical actors acted as they did that is consistent with what is known about them. It does not grant writers the freedom to make up for the absence of historic materials by inventing interpretations based on the experiences and mores of their own era or their own lives and bolstering their interpretations with invented correspondence and conversations.
Fiction should not be the continuation of history by different means. Fiction is all-seeing and all-knowing. History recognizes that there are things that cannot be known. To treat them as inseparable diminishes them both.