It’s the summer doldrums here, gossipwise—that sad season between the last of the overhyped spring events and the return of nonstop calumny after Labor Day. Those about whom we might fruitfully comment seem to have decamped, or perhaps there’s merely been an outbreak of discretion and fair play. Either way, the result is the same: It’s Frank Lloyd Wright to the rescue.
Can you feel the scandal brewing? For months now, since the Post’s Page Six got the jump on the competition with a wee item, tongues have been flapping (with greatly varying degrees of accuracy) about a forthcoming book that threatens to do to Wright’s reputation—that great edifice of myth and omission maintained for half a century by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation—what the Starr Report did to Monica Lewinsky’s. Or what Richard Meier’s Building the Getty did to his own. Or, a mite less hysterically, what Franz Schulze’s damningPhilip Johnson: Life and Work might have done to old PJ had anyone bothered to read it and hold “the dean” to account.
But we digress. Breaking the news about the book, Page Six, God bless it, focused on the low: allegations of anti-Semitism and the “love/hate” relationship between Wright, his last wife, Olgivanna, and the many overtly and covertly gay apprentices with whom they surrounded themselves in their various Taliesins. As a suggestion of what other treats might be found within, The Post also mentioned a meat-cleaver murder attempt by Wright’s drug-addicted daughter (and last living heir) Iovanna. Picking up the thread, in early July the Associated Press ran wide and deep with a story on the Foundation’s preparations for a spin war in advance of the book’s September publication date. According to the AP, officials in Scottsdale “fear enrollment could fall” at Taliesin (no comment!) and are pushing back against the book preemptively, as the guilty do, citing alleged errors.
Good stuff, sure. There’s just one problem: all of this totally misses the point. The book in question, The Fellowship by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman(ReganBooks, 2006), isn’t a lighthearted smear; as far as this only somewhat lapsed Wright scholar can deduce, it’s good history. And a ripping read. I have it right here, in fact, all 664 obsessively footnoted pages of it. And if I did not also have here a copy of the nondisclosure agreement I signed to get my greedy hands on the galleys, I’d happily entertain you with some of the tragic and hilarious (and substantiated) stories of violence, ribaldry, and mental manipulation perpetrated by Mr. and Mrs. Wright and Georgi Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian guru under whose sway Olgivanna fell when very young and whose mind-bending influence she never could quite shake. Not that she tried very hard; what The Fellowship makes sparklingly clear is that the greatest American architect of all time, so long imagined standing alone as a generative, form-giving genius, was in truth whipsawed throughout his life by tepid intellectual winds of dubious quality and provenance, from the politics of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh to Gurdjieff’s abusive, sex-fueled, quackery-ridden personality cult (examined in minute and fascinating detail in the book), which Olgivanna almost succeeded (or did she?) in installing as the true philosophy at Taliesin.
Perhaps that’s why the diehard Wrighties are digging in for a fight?