Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The dark side of genius

The Fellowship The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman Regan Books: 704 pp., $34.95

September 03, 2006|Jonathan Levi | Jonathan Levi is a founding editor of Granta magazine and the author of the novel "A Guide for the Perplexed."

IN 1933, Ernest Hemingway took a break from hunting kudu on the Serengeti to write the introduction to "This Must Be the Place," Jimmie Charters' memoir about his Parisian bar, the Dingo. "Once a woman has opened a salon, it is certain that she will write her memoirs," Hemingway wrote. "If you go to the salon you will be in the memoirs. Now a saloon, or bar, is different. You should expect to be able to go into a saloon or bar and pay for your drinks without appearing in the bartender's memoirs, and I was shocked and grieved to hear that Jimmy [sic] Charters was writing his. It is only a step from abolishing the right of sanctuary in the Republic of San Marino to permitting bartenders to write their memoirs."

Certainly there is no sanctuary left on the psychiatrist's couch. Sydney Pollack's fond documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry" is full of rippling anecdotes by Gehry's therapist. Now, with the publication of "The Fellowship," Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman's remarkable and horrifying biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, it is clear that there is no sanctuary for teachers. Friedland, a cultural sociologist, and Zellman, an architect, have tracked down and interviewed dozens of the apprentices who worked at the Taliesin Fellowship, the conservatory founded in 1932 by Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna, on his family's property in Wisconsin. And do these apprentices have stories to tell!

For many years, through much of the Depression, the fellowship was little more than a scheme to keep Wright and Olgivanna fed and housed. Wright, born two years after the end of the Civil War, was in a midlife slump. The architect of Tokyo's famed Imperial Hotel and designer of the revolutionary Prairie Houses was washed up. "The greatest designer of the 19th century," quipped the young architect Philip Johnson. To his cousin Richard Lloyd Jones, Wright was "a house builder and a home wrecker" for abandoning his first wife and their six children for a mistress who was subsequently murdered along with her two children by a crazed servant in 1914.

Wright met Olgivanna in 1924 at a ballet performance in Chicago. The 27-year-old Montenegrin beauty had recently sailed from France to America to scout out possible benefactors for her Russian guru, the charismatic mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Five years earlier, she had begun to follow Gurdjieff, hiking barefoot over the mountains of Georgia, abandoning her husband and infant daughter to sit at the feet of the master. To Olgivanna, Wright was another great man and Taliesin a rural paradise, the perfect New World haven for Gurdjieff. The fellowship would be molded around Wright, the American genius, the way Gurdjieff's Parisian academy was molded around the Russian. Wright told Olgivanna of Victor Hugo's "argument that the invention of movable type had enabled the book to dethrone architecture.... [Wright] would be architecture's redeemer, a T-square-wielding Dante who would dethrone the book and restore architecture to its rightful place." Olgivanna would be his Beatrice.

None of this was clear, of course, to the enthusiasts who applied to join the fellowship. These early apprentices received no formal instruction for their $650 annual tuition. Rather, they signed on for an indefinite period of indentured servitude, renovating Taliesin's outbuildings to have places to sleep, as well as planting and harvesting the crops. Eventually, as clients commissioned the projects of Wright's late, great period, the apprentices had a chance to observe at close hand Wright's genius as a designer and engineer, even to draft and supervise some of the work. "For the Wrights, the making of men and the making of buildings were driven by the same vision, the same compulsions," the authors contend. "Without the Fellowship, the landmarks for which Frank Lloyd Wright is best known today -- Fallingwater, Johnson Wax, the Guggenheim Museum -- would never have been created."

Perhaps. But whatever talents these young apprentices brought to Taliesin, the fellowship was not designed to encourage their independent growth. Wright never created architects of the first or even the second rank, the way his archcompetitor Walter Gropius did at Harvard University with such proteges as Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei and Paul Rudolph. Wright's arrogance and egotism -- "grandomania" he called it, at least when he recognized it in others -- were well known when he was alive and have been well documented since his death in 1959. Wright became the model for Howard Roark, Ayn Rand's overreaching architect-hero in her novel "The Fountainhead." Rand, who met Wright two years after the novel's 1943 publication, said of Wright's fellowship: "It was like a feudal establishment.... [The apprentices] were like medieval serfs.... We sat on a raised platform, high above the others, we ate fancy delicacies and they got fried eggs; it was a real caste system. The idea for all of it was his wife's."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|