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     The most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Unaccountably, the details of that shocking crime have been largely ignored by Wright’s legion of bi      The most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Unaccountably, the details of that shocking crime have been largely ignored by Wright’s legion of biographers—a historical and cultural gap that is finally addressed in William Drennan’s exhaustively researched Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders.      In response to the scandal generated by his open affair with the proto-feminist and free love advocate Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright had begun to build Taliesin as a refuge and "love cottage" for himself and his mistress (both married at the time to others).       Conceived as the apotheosis of Wright’s prairie house style, the original Taliesin would stand in all its isolated glory for only a few months before the bloody slayings that rocked the nation and reduced the structure itself to a smoking hull.      Supplying both a gripping mystery story and an authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, Drennan wades through the myths surrounding Wright and the massacre, casting fresh light on the formulation of Wright’s architectural ideology and the cataclysmic effects that the Taliesin murders exerted on the fabled architect and on his subsequent designs. Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the American Association of School Librarians, and Outstanding Book, selected by the Public Library Association


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     The most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Unaccountably, the details of that shocking crime have been largely ignored by Wright’s legion of bi      The most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Unaccountably, the details of that shocking crime have been largely ignored by Wright’s legion of biographers—a historical and cultural gap that is finally addressed in William Drennan’s exhaustively researched Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders.      In response to the scandal generated by his open affair with the proto-feminist and free love advocate Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright had begun to build Taliesin as a refuge and "love cottage" for himself and his mistress (both married at the time to others).       Conceived as the apotheosis of Wright’s prairie house style, the original Taliesin would stand in all its isolated glory for only a few months before the bloody slayings that rocked the nation and reduced the structure itself to a smoking hull.      Supplying both a gripping mystery story and an authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, Drennan wades through the myths surrounding Wright and the massacre, casting fresh light on the formulation of Wright’s architectural ideology and the cataclysmic effects that the Taliesin murders exerted on the fabled architect and on his subsequent designs. Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the American Association of School Librarians, and Outstanding Book, selected by the Public Library Association

30 review for Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders

  1. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Addison

    I first learned of the terrible death of Mamah Borthwick because of the fuss over her gravestone. (And I swear I read an article about her original gravestone and the question of who placed it--certainly not FLW as one internet source claims: he would never have put her married name on it--but I can't find the dang thing.) I was intrigued, and thus pleased to come across Death in a Prairie House. This is an excellent book. Drennan has a lovely prose style, he puts his narrative together cogently, I first learned of the terrible death of Mamah Borthwick because of the fuss over her gravestone. (And I swear I read an article about her original gravestone and the question of who placed it--certainly not FLW as one internet source claims: he would never have put her married name on it--but I can't find the dang thing.) I was intrigued, and thus pleased to come across Death in a Prairie House. This is an excellent book. Drennan has a lovely prose style, he puts his narrative together cogently, and while he is sympathetic to his protagonists, he is dryly unimpressed with their rhetoric. And he has no illusions about Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was not a monster, but he was a narcissist of an exceptionally exalted degree. Anyone who can convince himself that in deserting his wife and six children he is actually doing what's best for them is a person with a gift. It's difficult to get any sense of Mamah Borthwick herself, and I'm not entirely sure if that's because she left none of her own writing except her translations or if the black hole of Wright's ego drained all the individuality out of her--or if Drennan, for all his careful distance, got sucked in, too, and couldn't manage to see Borthwick around Wright. Or some combination thereof. But she is definitely an absence at the center of the book, seen only from Wright's solipsistic perspective. In talking about Wright's first marriage, Drennan quotes Wright's autobiography: "Frank had long dreamed of an ideal mate, some 'intimate fairy princess,' as he put it, a 'muse [and] selfless helpmate' who would unconditionally adore him . . . and spur him on to professional glory" (Drennan 27). His first wife failed by doing exactly what he asked of her: "Catherine bored him: no longer the golden girl of the 1890s, she had made the fatal error of becoming a matron. While her love for and devotion to Frank remianed steadfast, the demands of childrearing and Oak Park social life had left her, Frank reckoned, intellectually moribund" (Drennan 39). So what he wanted was a woman who was his intellectual equal, but also a muse and selfless helpmate. And, unbelievable though I frankly find it, Mamah Borthwick seems to have been exactly that. She was working on translating a Swedish feminist named Ellen Key in the last three years of her life, which gives us a clue about both her intellectual abilities and her philosophical position, but she also seems to have been perfectly content to abandon her own children and to let Wright install her at Taliesin, to be there whenever he wanted her but uncomplaining (as far as we know from Drennan) when he wasn't, even though her life cannot have been comfortable, given the reaction in Spring Green and surrounding communities to learning that Wright had built a house for his mistress in their midst. Drennan analyzes what happened on the day of the murders (August 15, 1914) carefully and with an excellent eye for detail. It's odd that in every murder I've ever read about, there's always something that doesn't fit or can't be explained or doesn't seem to be possible. Either Julian Carlton was able to teleport, or he went without a pause from murdering Borthwick and her two children to serving soup to the six men who, in another moment, he would attempt to kill. He can't have followed the orthodox timeline of locking the six men in and setting the room on fire, then killing Borthwick and the children, then coming back to attack one of the men who had jumped out the window. As Drennan explains, the geography of Taliesin and the testimony of Herbert Fritz (one of the two survivors) make it physically impossible. But Drennan's alternate scenario requires, as he says, "a level of self-control in Carlton that is not so much inhuman as superhuman" (100). The facts we have can't be made into a story that makes sense. And yet it happened, whether we understand it or not. Seven people murdered and Taliesin burned (for the first time, but not the last). Drennan is also very careful and thorough in his discussion of the murderer Julian Carlton, who had been hired as Taliesin's butler that summer. After he finished butchering his victims, he hid in the asbestos-lined furnace, and when he was discovered, he drank hydrochloric acid, presumably in the belief it would kill him quickly. It didn't. He lingered in miserable agony for seven and a half weeks before he died, unable either to breathe or eat through the acid-eaten tissues of his throat. Carlton did not explain his motive before his death, but Drennan makes some good speculations. What we know about him before he came to Taliesin tells us that he was paranoid and prone to fits of violent rage. His wife was terrified of him. He hated Taliesin (ironically, he and his wife had given their notice and August 15 was their last day of work), and he seems to have clashed more than once with the draftsmen who also lived at Taliesin. One of them called him a "black son of a bitch" three days before the murders (Carlton was of African or West Indian descent), and Carlton did tell the sheriff that in a later confrontation the same man struck him. Although Drennen doesn't quite go so far as to hypothesize explicitly that that man, Emil Brodelle, was Carlton's intended target and the rest of it--the murder of Borthwick and her children, the setting of the fire, the murder of the other draftsmen and workmen--was simply an effort not to leave any witnesses, he certainly lays all the pieces out for that speculation to be made. But whether it was that or something else, the crime was clearly disproportionate to the motive. John Cheney was 12; his sister Martha was 8. Whatever may have sparked Carlton's fury, there's no way to make their murders anything but psychotic rage. The night after the murders, Frank Lloyd Wright buried Mamah Borthwick in the Unity Chapel cemetery. That sentence is literal. Although he had workmen dig her grave, he and he alone filled it in. He was buried next to her, according to his wishes, after his death in 1959. (He's not there any longer. When his third wife died in 1985, their daughter Iovanna had him exhumed, cremated, and interred with her mother's ashes in Arizona.) But he refused to put a marker on her grave. "'All I had left to show for the strugle for freedom of the five years past that had swept most of my former life away, had now [itself] been swept away,' Wright said. 'Why mark the spot where desolation ended and began?'" (Drennan 156). He claimed that Taliesin II was a "'memory temple' . . . dedicated to Mamah Borthwick" (Drennan 125), but it isn't. Mamah Borthwick is a footnote and Taliesin is a shrine to the glory of Frank Lloyd Wright. He considered her death only as it affected him--and his grief was sincere and devastating, no doubt about that--and apparently there was no one to protest. Both her children were dead (not buried with her, though they died with her--their father had them cremated at Graceland Cemetery), her ex-husband was starting a family with his new wife, and whether her parents and two sisters were still alive or not, they seem to have lodged no comment of any kind. Borthwick's existence separate from Wright had been entirely expunged. As an epigraph to his last, brief chapter--the history of Wright's life after Borthwick--Drennan quotes Ken Burns, "At some point, you have to forgive Frank Lloyd Wright for his excesses, his ego, his sensitivities, his horrible relations with his kids, and realize, on balance, that here was an extraordinary contribution to human history" (Burns qtd. in Drennan 154), and I'm sorry, but no you don't. Being a genius does not excuse anyone from the responsibility of being a decent human being. I agree that Wright was a genius and his influence on American art and architecture enormous, and I certainly don't think that we should go raze his buildilngs and ban his work from museums and libraries because he was a irresponsible narcissist. (Drennan's discussion of the Wright buildings that have been torn down, particularly the Imperial Hotel and the Midway Gardens, makes me want to cry.) But that doesn't mean we have to forgive him. We have to see him clearly. It's not clear when or how Mamah Borthwick's grave got its current marker. We don't know who felt strongly enough about her excision from history to make that very material protest. (John Ottenheimer, the man who designed and forcibly donated the second stone, said that in his seventeen years of residence at Taliesin, he never heard anyone mention her name. So much for the memory temple.) But someone did. That person--like John Ottenheimer, who is worried that the first stone is going to become illegible in another decade or so--is (or was) fighting uphill to remember the dead. And I feel strongly and irrationally that they are doing the right thing.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Susanne

    This is the story of how an ACTUAL CRAZY AXE MURDERER killed seven people - Wisconsin's worst act of mass murder until 2005, inspired a Thomas Wolfe story - as well as many an urban legend, and completely changed a style of architecture - yet most of us have probably never even heard of it. In fact, parts of what happened that day are still clouded with uncertainties. The author does a wonderful job of sifting through the various accounts, coming up with what seems to be the most reasonable reco This is the story of how an ACTUAL CRAZY AXE MURDERER killed seven people - Wisconsin's worst act of mass murder until 2005, inspired a Thomas Wolfe story - as well as many an urban legend, and completely changed a style of architecture - yet most of us have probably never even heard of it. In fact, parts of what happened that day are still clouded with uncertainties. The author does a wonderful job of sifting through the various accounts, coming up with what seems to be the most reasonable reconstruction, and presenting you with all the evidence for you to make up your own mind. I'm giving five stars because I actually cried at the end. Whatever your opinions about Frank Lloyd Wright, this book will make you feel for him. As an aside, just because I think this is interesting, the murderer would not be subject to the death penalty through the justice system even back then. According to the author, "Wisconsin enjoys the nation's longest uninterrupted history of an out-right ban on capital punishment."

  3. 5 out of 5

    Curtis Seven

    This is an academic book from the trade press at University of Wisconsin Madison. It explores a part of Frank Lloyd Wrights life that is often not talked about which is when seven people were murdered in house. This is a Wisconsin story through and through and I'd argue it's impossible to understand Wright completely without looking at this. I've just started it and will revisit the review when I mark it read but it's one of those book I know is good the minute I start reading it. Sometimes such This is an academic book from the trade press at University of Wisconsin Madison. It explores a part of Frank Lloyd Wrights life that is often not talked about which is when seven people were murdered in house. This is a Wisconsin story through and through and I'd argue it's impossible to understand Wright completely without looking at this. I've just started it and will revisit the review when I mark it read but it's one of those book I know is good the minute I start reading it. Sometimes such a book may lose momentum later on but it's certainly well done at the beginning.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Deanne

    A lot of the book seemed to be taken up with the background of Wright himself, we are told about his childhood and marriage for the first 4 chapters. The murders themselves, seven in all and quite horrific are covered in one chapter, the culprit in another and then back to Wright. Prefer books on true crime to be about the crime, the victims and the killers. This just seemed to be a book about Wright, and what I can gather a not very likeable character at that.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Joan Colby

    The writing is dry and irritatingly academic. Drennan focuses on details more than narrative. He doesn’t get to the murders, which are supposed to be the theme of the book, till midway through; in fact, more attention is paid to Wright’s father’s history, probably because there is more researchable material. There’s a good deal of filler and the Notes comprise almost a third of the short volume. I found “Loving Frank” to be disappointing and this book even moreso

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    For those, like me, who know very little about Frank Lloyd Wright, this book is a great introduction to him, because it is as much a brief biography as it is a study of the 1914 murders at his Wisconsin home. Probably that is because there is not enough information known about the murders (even when you try to debunk conventional theories and come up with your own chronology as the author here does) to fill out a book. This is not the book to read if you want to hold on to a perception of FLW as For those, like me, who know very little about Frank Lloyd Wright, this book is a great introduction to him, because it is as much a brief biography as it is a study of the 1914 murders at his Wisconsin home. Probably that is because there is not enough information known about the murders (even when you try to debunk conventional theories and come up with your own chronology as the author here does) to fill out a book. This is not the book to read if you want to hold on to a perception of FLW as not only a great architect but also a great human being. What one finds here is a deeply flawed, confused, and arrogant creative genius who was totally out of step with the times in which he lived and who fell back on idealistic rationalization to justify his choice to abandon his wife and children for the wife of one of his clients. In addition to giving me a better feel for who FLW was and what were some of the key drivers in his life, the book did an excellent job of placing the "prairie" style of architecture in a broader social context and explaining what the style was attempting to say about life and family. It also helps one see how and why FLW's work changed in nature after the events of August 1914. This book is a very quick read and a great introduction to Wright. [Note: If you already know a lot about Wright, you may want to skim this book, skipping over a lot of the biography, and focus more on the murders and their impact on Wright, a topic which the author says has received only limited treatment in other works about FLW].

  7. 5 out of 5

    Fishface

    This is a very interesting read about what apparently still stands as Wisconsin's worst mass murder, the 1914 axe murders at Taliesin, the home Frank Lloyd Wright designed and lived in with his mistress and protégées. The author -- a VERY flowery writer who won't trifle with words like "talk" when he can use "palaver" instead -- complains that no biography of the architect does more than glance off this enormous turning point in Wright's life and work, and he attempts to set the record straight This is a very interesting read about what apparently still stands as Wisconsin's worst mass murder, the 1914 axe murders at Taliesin, the home Frank Lloyd Wright designed and lived in with his mistress and protégées. The author -- a VERY flowery writer who won't trifle with words like "talk" when he can use "palaver" instead -- complains that no biography of the architect does more than glance off this enormous turning point in Wright's life and work, and he attempts to set the record straight once and for all, clearing away a century of baseless theorizing and going to the source: the eyewitness accounts of the day. Two important characters in this story -- Gertrude Carlton and Edwin Cheney -- remain shrouded in mystery at the end of this little book, but Drennan does a fine job of explicating just about everyone else, including Wright's very complicated parents who had nothing at all to do with this terrible event. Well worth your time. Bring a thesaurus.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    I actually skimmed this book and read certain portions of it. Not because it is not good or not interesting, but I don't have time right now to read all of it. I was very interested in details of the death of Mamah, Frank's mistress, because I recently read the book Loving Frank. There's some pictures in here which are appreciated. There is quite a bit of detail about what happened that day. The author presents a number of viewpoints and tries to find which one sounds the most likely. Definitely a I actually skimmed this book and read certain portions of it. Not because it is not good or not interesting, but I don't have time right now to read all of it. I was very interested in details of the death of Mamah, Frank's mistress, because I recently read the book Loving Frank. There's some pictures in here which are appreciated. There is quite a bit of detail about what happened that day. The author presents a number of viewpoints and tries to find which one sounds the most likely. Definitely a book I might revisit when I have more time.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Christa

    I thought I knew about Frank Lloyd Wright, until I read this. Part biography, part true crime novel.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Dettmann

    If you want to learn about Frank Lloyd Wright, this is the book for you! It was pretty shocking learning about the history of Wright, his mistress, the fire, and the murders, and actually reading about his life, rather than just thinking about him as a faceless architect who designed some houses. I never realized how generally horrible he was. But I must say, Wright and Mamah were actually pretty far ahead of their time with free love. I was also surprised at how many obscure words the author us If you want to learn about Frank Lloyd Wright, this is the book for you! It was pretty shocking learning about the history of Wright, his mistress, the fire, and the murders, and actually reading about his life, rather than just thinking about him as a faceless architect who designed some houses. I never realized how generally horrible he was. But I must say, Wright and Mamah were actually pretty far ahead of their time with free love. I was also surprised at how many obscure words the author used, that I don't generally encounter while reading - list is below under quotes. Thoughts/Quotes I liked as I read through the book: p. 3: (lol, Wright referring to his house as a mere "cottage".) p. 7 (What!? How can the murders only warrant one paragraph in a biography?): p. 8 (Hey, Wright's father was briefly superintendent of a school district!) p. 9 (I like their family motto): These theological outcasts even flaunted a suitably defiant, if presumptuous, family motto: "Truth against the World" - meaning, of course, their truth. p. 10: (Lol, nice description of Anna): ...Brendan Gill quite nakedly asserts that the "single irremediable error" of William's checkered life was his union with "the ambitious, half-mad, sexually cold, and drearily self-righteous Anna Lloyd Jones." p. 12: (Lol): A recent biographer truly observes that the proud and talented William "excelled at everything but turning a profit." p. 12 - (Their family was in Richland Center for about 3 years). p. 16: ...his (Frank's) real take on farming: "It's all pulling tits and shoveling shit." p. 36: (Lol, Wright is modest, as always): In 1891, he designed the Charnley House in Chicago, modestly dubbing it "the first modern house in America." p. 43: (Wow, in addition to his mistress, Frank had an additional 2 wives, as well?!) (p. 164 - actually 3 wives?!) p. 51: Lol, Frank left his 13-year old son with a $900 grocery bill. How is it possible to get it that high, especially in 1909? Did they only eat caviar? p. 53: Lol, the preacher at home is literally preaching to the choir - Frank and Mamah are a continent away from the sermon. p. 56: Wow, Frank is really committed to returning to his wife, Catherine...not! "he and Catherine would no longer share normal marital relations, but that they would at least be together and put up a good front for the sake of his children and, more centrally, of his work. Further, he would give up Mamah, though not his love for her, and he would remain her protector." p.57: Wow, dramatic much about Mamah's fate? He's really good at abandoning people: "...and so abandoning the source of his infatuation to whatever fate may hold for her - probably a hard, lonely struggle in the face of a world that writes her down as an outcast to be shunned - or a craven return to another man [i.e., Edwin], his prostitute for a roof and a bed and a chance to lose her life in her children." p. 69/70: Um, ok...wow: "Moreover, he continued, his abandonment of his children would prove to be good for them in the long run. If he had stayed at home in Oak Park, he would no doubt have yielded to the temptation of molding the children in his own likeness; as things stood now, they were free from his dominant personality, with "room in which to grow up to be themselves." "When they get a little older," he added, "I hope they will see me in another light." Further, Wright said that by leaving he had spared the children the miasma of "coldness and falsehood in the atmosphere they breathed." 'I haven't abandoned my children or deserted any woman," Wright asserted, "nor have I eloped with any man's wife." All this, of course, would have come as news to Edwin and Catherine. But Wright explained himself: "Mrs. E. H. Cheney never existed for me. She was always Mamah Borthwick to me, an individual separate and distinct, who was not any man's possession." p. 71: Again, wow: "As for the general aspect of this thing," he mused, "I want to say this: laws and rules are made for the average. The ordinary man cannot live without rules to guide his conduct. It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules, but that is what the really honest, sincere, thinking man is compelled to do. And I think when a man has displayed some spiritual power, has given concrete evidence of his ability to see and to feel the higher and better things of life, we ought to go slow in deciding he has acted badly." ...When the interview appeared on page one the next morning, the article was coyly and provocatively headed, "Law for Ordinary Man." p. 73: The audacity of this man: "Here were four people," Wright begins, "a wife and a man [he means Catherine and himself] and a husband and a woman [i.e. Edwin and Mamah] who had each...assumed earlier in life the responsibilities of marriage. Then the thing happened which has happed to men and women since time began - the inevitable." The subtext is clear: one can hardly be faulted for succumbing to the ineluctable. "As soon as the situation developed its inevitable character," Wright continues, tactically maintaining the passive voice, "a frank avowal to those whose lives were to be affected by a readjustment to meet the new conditions which had arisen was made." p. 74: Lol: Wright fittingly conclues this second effort with an ardent appeal to be left alone: "And now that all have worn their hearts for daws to peck at, may not the matter be left in privacyt to those whose concern it chiefly is?" (Possibly Wright could ahve done better here than to quote from Iago, the arch Machiavellian villain in Shakespeare's Othello. p. 77: "The glory of Wright's whoppers," Brendan Gill dryly observes, "is that they pay no heed to mere pedestrian verisimilitude." P. 101: Wright remains a deeply controversial figure on his home turf. "Frank Lloyd Wrong," one repeatedly hears the great man called. P. 101: (Hmm, I wonder if I know this librarian?) ...in Wright's own birthplace, Richland Center (city motto: "From Farming to Frank Lloyd Wright"), another librarian recalls that her parents had confidently assured her throughout her childhood that Wright had hired Julian Carlton to kill Mamah, of whom the architect had purportedly tired. p.102: "Except for a very few close friends, the townsfolk and other close towns showed, throughout most of his lifetime, utter disdain for him. It was only when he was dead and buried that they all opened their arms and claimed him, now world famous, as 'their son, their neighbor.'" And even that qualified acceptance is often still tainted by scorn. p. 107: Lol, when Wright hears the Taliesin is on fire with Mamah and the children there, and goes to catch the next train out, "And then the unthinkable. There on the platform, suitcase in hand and waiting patiently for the same train, was Edwin Cheney. There was nothing for it but to approach him and offer to shake hands. Edwin responded: he clasped the hand of the man who had run off with his wife and at whose house she and his children lay murdered. p. 112: And who cares (About the telegram that Wright supposedly recieved from Mamah that read: 'Come as quickly as you possibly can. Something terrible has happened.' [...] the possibliity seems remote that any such telegram was ever sent. Still, Wright is quoted at least twice - to the effect that he received the telegram. The story has proved durable and is endlessly repeated. This puzzling and irksome missive, therefore, must finally be filed vaguely under the heading "Who Knows?" p. 120: Another motto! What is this, Game of Thrones? "Mineral Point Tribune (motto: "Home First, the World After"). p. 121: Lol, Wright compares the Taliesin (and Mamah) to a cow: "...One of the cows was Taliesin's prize Holstein, Maplecroft, "a thoroughbred worth several hundred ordinary cows." [...] Abruptly, lightning struck the tree, killing Maplecroft but sparing her "comparatively worthless" companions. "Why peerless Maplecroft?" Wright then asks. "Why Taliesin?" p. 123: Lol, I'd like to see a newspaper today title something "The Rivals and the Love Bungalow", like the Chicago Tribune did when showing the Taliesin, Frank, and Edwin. p. 125: Lol, what an attack on marriage certificates! "You wives with your certificates for loving," Wright cautions pointedly, "pray that you may love as much and be loved as well as was Mamah Borthwick!" p. 136: Lol: "He (Owen King) once telephoned Wright, informing him that the great man owed him money. "Are you worried about it?" Wright asked. "Yes, I am," King replied. "Well, then, why should both of us worry?" Wright said brightly, and he hung up. p. 150: Wow, $50 seems like great money to act as a counsel for Julian Carlton, especially compared to the $1 the sheriff got for arresting and transporting Carlton. p. 155: Huh, Wright held a grudge against architects who imitated his designs for 45 years: "...an essay that has been characterized as "an unrelievedly morose diatribe" against the new architecture, by which Wright primarily meant the work of his host of imitators, parasitical hacks (in his view) who had stolen his ideas without attribution or due reverence. The problem at the time with "the prairie house bandwagon," says Twombly, was that "everyone was climbing on board, but few recognized Wright as the driver." And Wright was infuriated. Back in the 1890s, he himself had entered into the profession "alone, absolutely alone," he said, and he expected similar individuality from his competitors or, failing that, full credit for his trailblazing efforts in organic architecture. And Wright never relinquished this bitter animosity toward his ostensible colleagues; he railed at them for the next forty-five years. Wright's "belief in the existence of a conspiracy to exploit and discredit him," Twombly speculates, "may have been a manifestation of mild paranoia. Certainly he displayed suspicious symptoms....[U]nless Wright received unqualified praise and total credit for the prairie movement, he suspected treachery and evil intent." p. 156: lol - "...democracy for Wright was now no more than "the Gospel of Mediocrity," a social construct designed to crush the iconoclast by failing to ground itself in "the absolute individualist as the unit of its structure." In democracy's place, Wright seemed to call for a kind of wild, anarchic libertarianism, in which such an "individualist" would be freed from the constraints of all lawyers, creditors, politicians, and moralizers - specifically, the kinds of people who sought to restrain him and Mamah. p. 164: lol - "F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover - the bureau kept a lengthy file on Wright - censoriously alleged in a memo that the Taliesin Fellowship was conducting "dances to the moon' and regularly [was] brainwashed by a bald-headed Soviet mystic...at the Scottsdale center." Neat words: p. 5 - bucolic p. 7 - ennui p. 8 - bon vivant p. 17 - palaver p. 19 - apocryphal p. 20 - consanguinity p. 25 - sagacious p. 26 - unalloyed p. 26 - precocity p. 30 - penury p. 33 - tabula rasa p. 33 - hubristic p. 35 - treacle p. 46 - denouement p. 46 - pontifical p. 52 - belle dame sans merci p. 61 - apotheosis p. 68 - triptych p. 71 - sententiously p. 72 - jeremiad p. 75 - unctuously p. 75 - peccadilloes P. 76 - Palliative p. 76 - hegira p. 77 - obfuscating p. 77 - verisimilitude p. 88 - endemic p. 88 - cachet p. 102 - rapacity p. 111 - elocutionist p. 119 - hegira p. 120 - sententious p. 123 - inchoate p. 124 - pestilential p. 155 - apotheosis p. 155 - hegira (again) p. 156 - apostrophizing p. 157 - consanguinity p. 164 - ecumenical p. 165 - mores p. 166 - leitmotif

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kaitlin Daugherty

    I got really obsessed with Spring Green and FLW this summer, so this was the perfect read to satiate that obsession. It goes into gruesome detail about the murders at Taliesin, but also gives context to their lead up. I think it walks the line of historical, investigative writing and voyeuristic, but overall lands on the right side. I very much enjoyed reading this as a deep dive into an event that, in some ways, changed the trajectory of modern architecture. The thing that stops me from giving I got really obsessed with Spring Green and FLW this summer, so this was the perfect read to satiate that obsession. It goes into gruesome detail about the murders at Taliesin, but also gives context to their lead up. I think it walks the line of historical, investigative writing and voyeuristic, but overall lands on the right side. I very much enjoyed reading this as a deep dive into an event that, in some ways, changed the trajectory of modern architecture. The thing that stops me from giving this book a higher rating is the discomfort I felt throughout knowing that the man responsible for the murders was a Black man and being overly (or maybe not) aware of how the author treats this and him. Drennan certainly addresses in some parts the overt and more subtle forms of racism Carlton faced during his time in Spring Green. But he also uses verbatim some of the scathing reporting of the time while, in my opinion, not doing enough to condemn it. Then again, 2007 and 2021 feel lifetimes apart in how we talk about race, so perhaps I expect too much. If you're looking for a nuanced perspective of race in rural Wisconsin in the early 1900s, this is not the book for you. If you're willing to grapple with a historical text reliant upon racist and biased reporting of it's day to inform the author and the reader, you'll certainly walk away with a chilling understanding of a pinnacle event of Frank Lloyd Wright's life.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Laurine

    On a scorching Saturday afternoon in August 1914, an unthinkable tragedy strikes legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His soulmate Mamah, along with 6 other adults and children, is brutally murdered in the house he built to shelter their happiness. The house itself, Taliesin, is largely destroyed by fire. Having read no prior biographical material on FLW, I had few expectations for this book, and fully expected it to play on the shock value of these terrible events - which would have been ok, On a scorching Saturday afternoon in August 1914, an unthinkable tragedy strikes legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His soulmate Mamah, along with 6 other adults and children, is brutally murdered in the house he built to shelter their happiness. The house itself, Taliesin, is largely destroyed by fire. Having read no prior biographical material on FLW, I had few expectations for this book, and fully expected it to play on the shock value of these terrible events - which would have been ok, as I do like true crime stories. Instead, it is a well written and documented, surprisingly scholarly work. It does delve into the details of the murders, but also gives a good intro into FLW’s life and work, and examines the impact of the tragedy on his subsequent designs.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    this is a short introduction to the topic. It was interesting, but I don't think there is a lot of material to go on the actual mass murder. There is just a lot we don't know about the murderer. I was left wanting to read more about Wright as I knew nothing about him before this. If you are reading it as an ebook, the book ends at about the 70% point and the 30% remaining is notes. I was surprised at how quickly it wrapped up and ended. this is a short introduction to the topic. It was interesting, but I don't think there is a lot of material to go on the actual mass murder. There is just a lot we don't know about the murderer. I was left wanting to read more about Wright as I knew nothing about him before this. If you are reading it as an ebook, the book ends at about the 70% point and the 30% remaining is notes. I was surprised at how quickly it wrapped up and ended.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Hollis

    How could a book about an ex murder be boring? Because that's like 5 pages. How could a book about an ex murder be boring? Because that's like 5 pages.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Shirley Zimmerman

    Always Interesting- FLW I read this book to learn more about the murders at Taliesin and I did learn more but not enough. Perhaps this is all there is to know.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Linda Lipko

    I read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan a few years ago and wanted to see if by chance Frank Lloyd Wright might be painted with a kinder palate, perhaps shades of pastel instead of grey and dark black. Alas, Frank remains a very complicated, narcissistic, sociopathic, intelligent user. When Frank left behind a wife and six children to run away with his mistress, he never looked back. Likewise his lover Mamah Borthwick, left her husband and her two children. Long a feminist and free spirit, it appeared I read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan a few years ago and wanted to see if by chance Frank Lloyd Wright might be painted with a kinder palate, perhaps shades of pastel instead of grey and dark black. Alas, Frank remains a very complicated, narcissistic, sociopathic, intelligent user. When Frank left behind a wife and six children to run away with his mistress, he never looked back. Likewise his lover Mamah Borthwick, left her husband and her two children. Long a feminist and free spirit, it appeared that moving with Frank and shedding her previous life was easy. Frank could not comprehend the down right animosity and disdain the neighboring communities of Spring Green, Wisconsin would have for him. Adding fuel to the fire, Frank spoke freely to the newspapers and stated that while lessor men, not as intelligent as he, needed rules to follow because basically, they were not capable of their own decisions, he was superior and was destined to a higher order and calling. Using the transcendental writings and thoughts of Emerson, Frank justified his behaviors. Borrowing huge sums of money, with no intent of return from those he could charm, and in addition taking advance large commissions long before he even started projects, Frank was indeed a huckster. With no care of how his actions impacted on those who needed to be paid for services and materials, Frank told them not to worry about it, because he didn't worry at all. Building an exquisite prairie house where Frank and Mamah could live, townsfolk called it their den of sin. Taliesin stood for a mere few months until a very tragic, horrific event occurred. Julian Carlton, the only black servant, was in his mind sorely mistreated. In particular, one of the builders was indeed incessantly cruel. Known for fits of bad temper, in August of 1914, while Frank was away supervising construction of a massive garden and edifice, Carlton brutally took a hatchet to the back of Mamah's head. In addition, he meted the same treatment to her children who happened to be visiting at the time. Her ten year old daughter and twelve year old son died as a result. Setting fire to Taliesin while co-workers were locked into a room, Carlton then hacked them when they tried to escape. In the end, the toll was seven who lost their lives. Grief stricken, Frank took a train back to Spring Green to see that most of his beautiful house was in ashes and to observe what was left of the bodies. So hated in the community, at first there was speculation that he was responsible because perhaps he grew weary of his lover. Within a year, Frank remarried. After reconstruction of Taliesin it again suffered a fire. Frank's legacy of unique cantalevored structures still exists today. After the fires, Frank's houses were designed more like fortresses made of concrete. While it is easy to judge the man and his self absorption, likewise, it is not difficult to admire his creations and unique architectural achievements.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Eric_W

    Short historical account of the Taliesin murders. If you have read Loving Frank A Novel I suggest reading this concurrently. Or perhaps afterwards. Historically-based novels always bring out a thirst in me to find out what really happened. Wright was not a very nice man, but even so, his flight to Europe with the wife of a client remains puzzling and Nancy Horan's novel provides as reasonable an explanation as anything else since we have very little about her. Wright himself barely noted her exi Short historical account of the Taliesin murders. If you have read Loving Frank A Novel I suggest reading this concurrently. Or perhaps afterwards. Historically-based novels always bring out a thirst in me to find out what really happened. Wright was not a very nice man, but even so, his flight to Europe with the wife of a client remains puzzling and Nancy Horan's novel provides as reasonable an explanation as anything else since we have very little about her. Wright himself barely noted her existence in his notes. The murders themselves, a servant/employee ran amok killing Mamah and her children as well as some other construction workers, may well have had an enormous influence on changing Wright's architectural style, which became much more fortress-like.This is an excellent companion book to Loving Frank. It provides a wealth of factual detail that supplements Horam's excellent novel. The irony is that apparently people in southern Wisconsin still believe that Wright was the murderer in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Clearly his years of stiffing the local merchants did not help his reputation. The author suggests that the fire and murders at Taliesen were far more important than the mere facts of the case. "The murders involved the century's single most important residential design and the country's most celebrated and distinctive architect." Mahma was well on her way to becoming a prominent feminist. The fire also destroyed Wright's folio of drawings, which, Drennan suggests, set back Wright's fame in the United States by years. Drennan proposes more importantly, that because of the fire, Wright's designs became "more insular, more labyrinthine, even more fortress-like. . . [and:] the slaughter at Taliesen may well have exerted a significant influence on American residential design throughout the remainder of the twentieth century." (p. 6) Lots of information, but only 3 stars because it felt a little rushed and could have provided more detail, I think.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Yvonne Frazier

    This was a good book. It provided me with all of the information I was looking for in the background of this story. I gave it three stars only because it was a bit drier than I had hoped, and also I feel too much time was spent on FLW's parents and his early years. I would have preferred less of that. Overall though, it was a fascinating read, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the sad story. This was a good book. It provided me with all of the information I was looking for in the background of this story. I gave it three stars only because it was a bit drier than I had hoped, and also I feel too much time was spent on FLW's parents and his early years. I would have preferred less of that. Overall though, it was a fascinating read, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the sad story.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Natalie

    What an intriguing read! I was hesitant about getting this book when I visited Oak Park, Ill. and the Frank Lloyd Wright house there, only because it looked like a low-budget endeavor. However, I was very impressed with Drennan's writing style and depth of research in this book. One thing that bothered me was that Drennan seems quick to dismiss some theories about the Taliesin murders, but it isn't clear if that is due to his own opinions or the fact that the bulk of the research he had done led What an intriguing read! I was hesitant about getting this book when I visited Oak Park, Ill. and the Frank Lloyd Wright house there, only because it looked like a low-budget endeavor. However, I was very impressed with Drennan's writing style and depth of research in this book. One thing that bothered me was that Drennan seems quick to dismiss some theories about the Taliesin murders, but it isn't clear if that is due to his own opinions or the fact that the bulk of the research he had done led him to a particular conclusion. In the latter case, it would have been nice to hear why the research bent one way versus another, especially considering most of the "research" on the murders came from the (biased) media. Wright's psychological and religious idiosyncracies are developed very well in this book, and it has intrigued me to see more of Wright's work. One question I had was whether Catherine was ever suspected as being linked to Carlton, the killer? She seems like a rather deulsional character with her outlook on Wright's public affair and she seems a little too "perfect" in her little Oak Park life. Was there a reason she was never identified as having played an indirect part in this?

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tracy St Claire

    I have lived in Chicagoland almost all of my life. I am a Unitarian. I have toured the Wright homes and studio in Oak Park, currently living a little more than an hour from Taliesin, and I knew none the stuff covered in this book. The subject matter was riveting, because as a true crime drama it has everything, and that it all happened to a man so famous makes it unbelievable. The book is well-researched with copious notes and an index. The first two thirds of the book do not mention the tragedy, I have lived in Chicagoland almost all of my life. I am a Unitarian. I have toured the Wright homes and studio in Oak Park, currently living a little more than an hour from Taliesin, and I knew none the stuff covered in this book. The subject matter was riveting, because as a true crime drama it has everything, and that it all happened to a man so famous makes it unbelievable. The book is well-researched with copious notes and an index. The first two thirds of the book do not mention the tragedy, just set the stage (a very big stage) for what happens. This makes the book a mini-biography of the likes and loves of Frank Lloyd Wright, with just the last part being the tragedy that happens. The attention to detail and making sure this book is as correct as possible is appreciated, but even though the subject matter was riveting, the flow of the book was slow at times and kind of boring. If I wasn't familiar with these houses, churches, towns and Unitarianism, it would have been even more boring, I suspect. I was interested in the architecture aspects of his life, but although it was integral to the plot, the soap opera back story made me want to skip ahead through those parts. Highly recommended!

  21. 4 out of 5

    Randy Ladenheim-Gil

    I read Loving Frank perhaps ten years ago and found it a slog, though I was fascinated by the conclusion, and the murders at FLW's home in Wisconsin. I bought this book slightly after that but didn't have a chance to read it until now. I'm fascinated by historical murders, so I'm glad I finally got to it. I have to say I still don't find FLW interesting in any way, and Mameh was a lot less sympathetic here, but I suspect she wasn't particularly sympathetic in real life, so that's as it should be I read Loving Frank perhaps ten years ago and found it a slog, though I was fascinated by the conclusion, and the murders at FLW's home in Wisconsin. I bought this book slightly after that but didn't have a chance to read it until now. I'm fascinated by historical murders, so I'm glad I finally got to it. I have to say I still don't find FLW interesting in any way, and Mameh was a lot less sympathetic here, but I suspect she wasn't particularly sympathetic in real life, so that's as it should be. Drennan probably did a good job with Wright's life to and after the Taliesen murders, though I found myself doing some skipping here and there because really, I was there for the massacre, and he did a great job with that. Do I feel as I now know what really happened? Nope, but Drennan is honest with the fact that there are things we'll never know. I was impressed with his solid research. Worth the read for me and would be even more worthwhile for anyone more interested in FLW than I am. What a bunch of uninteresting folks the Wrights, etc., were, though, and how selfish he and Mameh were. Her poor children!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Koeeoaddi

    A riveting, read in two sittings book, but not a great book. It was a more sympathetic portrait of Wright than I expected and yet there seemed to be a lot of (academic?) agenda simmering just underneath the narrative. There's quite a bit of pursed lip head shaking, tsk tsk-ing and vaguely pejorative characterizations of other accounts of the crime, the murderer and his motives. I kept hoping he'd expand or include some primary sources, like court transcripts or witness statements, but though the A riveting, read in two sittings book, but not a great book. It was a more sympathetic portrait of Wright than I expected and yet there seemed to be a lot of (academic?) agenda simmering just underneath the narrative. There's quite a bit of pursed lip head shaking, tsk tsk-ing and vaguely pejorative characterizations of other accounts of the crime, the murderer and his motives. I kept hoping he'd expand or include some primary sources, like court transcripts or witness statements, but though the book appears to be meticulously researched, he buries his sources in the copious footnotes chapter. It really is a wonder these murders aren't the first thing we associate with Frank Lloyd Wright -- a testament his genius, I suppose, that when we hear his name we think of Falling Water, prairie houses and geometrical stained glass, not seven hacked and burned human beings and a ruined work of art.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Author summarizes many biographies and other sources on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright and then details his affair with Mamah Cheney and her murder at Taliesin along with 6 others in August, 2014. Bought it at the Kentuck Knob house in PA near Fallingwater. A lot of it is based on summaries and quotes from various newspaper articles of the time, and it gets a bit long in parts, but I really would not need to (nor want to, probably) read a whole long bio of Frank and yet I now know more about him Author summarizes many biographies and other sources on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright and then details his affair with Mamah Cheney and her murder at Taliesin along with 6 others in August, 2014. Bought it at the Kentuck Knob house in PA near Fallingwater. A lot of it is based on summaries and quotes from various newspaper articles of the time, and it gets a bit long in parts, but I really would not need to (nor want to, probably) read a whole long bio of Frank and yet I now know more about him than I did. Author places him in context of the Arts and Craft movement and mentions that Elbert Hubbard of the Roycrofters in Buffalo, NY visited FLW several times in Oak Park. We have been to two lovely FLW homes in Buffalo and stayed at the Roycroft Inn there, which is part of the philosophy of the Arts and Craft movement and so ties in with that. Part of my 2016 FLW Retirement Project.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rob Baker

    Detailed (sometimes a bit too much so) account of the events leading up to and away from the horrible murders at Wright's Taliesen home in Wisconsin. This book is a great companion piece to "Loving Frank", the best-selling, fictionalized account of the life of Mamah Borthwick and her extramarital relationship with Wright (the two works don't always strictly agree on everything that happened). It's also fascinating (and heartbreaking) to learn, among other things, how the murders changed Wright's Detailed (sometimes a bit too much so) account of the events leading up to and away from the horrible murders at Wright's Taliesen home in Wisconsin. This book is a great companion piece to "Loving Frank", the best-selling, fictionalized account of the life of Mamah Borthwick and her extramarital relationship with Wright (the two works don't always strictly agree on everything that happened). It's also fascinating (and heartbreaking) to learn, among other things, how the murders changed Wright's architectural work, which is purportedly very different before and after. Not a good first read for people who know little about Wright, but an excellent addendum for those who have a lot of background about him and his work already.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Along with Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, I bought Death in a Prairie House by William R. Drennan during a visit at Taliesin West. I've been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright for a long time but knew little of his personal life. The most important thing that I learned from Drennan's academic work on Wright was why Wright's architectural designs had changed so dramatically and why Wright was so accomplished in his later years while the rest of us generally slow down. Along with Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, I bought Death in a Prairie House by William R. Drennan during a visit at Taliesin West. I've been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright for a long time but knew little of his personal life. The most important thing that I learned from Drennan's academic work on Wright was why Wright's architectural designs had changed so dramatically and why Wright was so accomplished in his later years while the rest of us generally slow down.

  26. 5 out of 5

    CJ

    This book was interesting to me as a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was fairly dry and not super detailed. For someone who didn't know anything about this chapter in Wright's life, it was a bit lacking and slow to get to the point. Only recommended for fans of Wright who want to get more info on the events surrounding his personal life that seem to have affected his architectural style. This book was interesting to me as a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was fairly dry and not super detailed. For someone who didn't know anything about this chapter in Wright's life, it was a bit lacking and slow to get to the point. Only recommended for fans of Wright who want to get more info on the events surrounding his personal life that seem to have affected his architectural style.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Janice

    This is a terrible book! The author's style is tedious - filled with confusing bits of conjecture and annoying vocabulary choices. The best part was the Epilogue. (Which is followed by pages and pages of notes and the bibliography.) The bottom line is no-one really knows what happened that day or what the motive was.... Pass on this one! This is a terrible book! The author's style is tedious - filled with confusing bits of conjecture and annoying vocabulary choices. The best part was the Epilogue. (Which is followed by pages and pages of notes and the bibliography.) The bottom line is no-one really knows what happened that day or what the motive was.... Pass on this one!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tamelyn Feinstein

    Well. I certainly didn't learn about THIS in Art History. Frank Lloyd Wright, the Arts And Crafts movement, Stickley, Prairie Style architecture -- yes. Free Love, adulterous affairs, and gruesome axe murders? No. This definitely would've livened up some of those class lectures. Riveting story, extensively researched and very well written. Well. I certainly didn't learn about THIS in Art History. Frank Lloyd Wright, the Arts And Crafts movement, Stickley, Prairie Style architecture -- yes. Free Love, adulterous affairs, and gruesome axe murders? No. This definitely would've livened up some of those class lectures. Riveting story, extensively researched and very well written.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Barb

    This read more like a doctoral dissertation that a book. It seemed more like an analysis of Frank Lloyd Wright's mind and his behavior. Any mention of the Taliesin murders did not occur until literally half-way through the book. This read more like a doctoral dissertation that a book. It seemed more like an analysis of Frank Lloyd Wright's mind and his behavior. Any mention of the Taliesin murders did not occur until literally half-way through the book.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Holly Ristau

    I've been a fan of FLW for many years, but didn't know anything about his life or the murders until this book. It's easier to admire genius from afar! Am now reading a fictional account about him and his love affair that is often more believable than his actual life was. I've been a fan of FLW for many years, but didn't know anything about his life or the murders until this book. It's easier to admire genius from afar! Am now reading a fictional account about him and his love affair that is often more believable than his actual life was.

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