(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Meryle Secrest is a British-born reporter, editor, and biographer who has written books about Romaine Brooks, Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, and Salvador Dalí. In producing this text, she not only consulted Frank Lloyd Wright’s family and associates but also pored over a depository of more than one hundred thousand items indexed by the Getty Center Archives for the History of Art and Humanities in Santa Monica, California. Her printed notes span thirty-eight pages, her selective bibliography five, and her acknowledgments eight.

The result is a lively life story that features the five women who played prominent roles in Wright’s career and provides a number of vivid anecdotes. Regrettably, however, Secrest’s expressed knowledge of her subject’s achievements is severely limited, even though the publisher’s blurb calls her an art critic. She makes little effort to analyze Wright’s buildings in detail or to assess his national and international place in his profession. As a romantic narrative of a complex, zestful, willful, and indomitable individual, however, Secrest’s book often makes for good reading. It succeeds as a popular biography even as it falls short as a scholarly and critical interpretation.

On his maternal side, Frank Lincoln Wright was descended from a Unitarian clan committed to freedom of thought and stubborn insistence on what were often considered to be renegade opinions. His mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, tall and handsome, loved to ride horses and impressed people as impulsive, erratic, and headstrong. She married William Carey Wright, a gifted and alluring man who lacked staying power in the pursuit of any calling. The oldest of four children, Frank received the full force of his mother’s starved emotions. She convinced him that he was destined for greatness and excused him from such mundane tasks as making his bed or picking up his clothes. Such treatment bolstered the boy’s self-confidence but also encouraged an egotistic unconcern for the feelings of others.

In 1884, when Frank was seventeen, his ill-matched parents were divorced. He never saw his father again and failed to attend his funeral in 1904. The Lloyd Joneses became his family, and in the late 1800’s he changed his middle name from Lincoln to Lloyd. After one year of studies at the University of Wisconsin, he found his first architectural job with a Chicago firm, starting at eight dollars a week.

Catherine Lee Tobin was sixteen years old to Frank’s twenty when they met. She was tall, stately, elegantly slim, well-bred, gentle, and dependent. Against Anna Wright’s wishes, the couple was married in 1889. Frank moved to Louis Sullivan’s flourishing firm that same year, absorbing his employer’s “form follows function” philosophy, learning from the group’s talented architects, then establishing his own practice in 1893. By 1895, when Wright had finished building his own house in Oak Park, Illinois, his style had become unified, minimal, and boldly uncompromising. Secrest liberally quotes various authorities rather than providing her own analysis of Wright’s work. She does vividly describe Wright’s extraordinary, mesmerizing charm, which often procured clients even though they considered his buildings somewhat bizarre. Throughout his life, Wright was willing to spend extravagant sums for clothes, cars, and horses even as his bills for necessities often went unpaid for months. In his twenties, he adopted the costume he was to don for the rest of his life—cane, swirling cape, and broad-brimmed hat, to suit his aquiline face.

Between 1894 and 1911, Wright designed 135 buildings, lectured widely, published many articles, and became world-famous. Secrest declines to describe many houses in detail, stating that it is beyond the scope of her book and has been done elsewhere. She does say that Wright “was able to weave house and grounds into a single flowing and interpenetrating design” and that he rejected the concept of rooms as a series of boxes, instead positioning them on the diagonal and turning the corners of houses with windows. He loved to open up interior spaces with cathedral-ceilinged living rooms while avoiding both attics and basements, with a strong bias against storage space. He built long and wide roofs that often extended far beyond their masonry support, angling them so as to protect the house from the harsh summer sun while letting winter’s sunlight come in. Aesthetic considerations predominated.

In 1908, Frank Lloyd Wright, at the height of his success and influence, decided to end his marriage, abandon his wife and six children, and leave Chicago. Secrest suggests several explanations. His wife’s absorption in her children caused her to neglect her husband’s needs; moreover, she had begun to assert herself against his close control, as she changed from an insecure young woman into a confident matron. The architect also had fallen in love with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. He saw himself as a reincarnation of Taliesin, a legendary Welsh seer and magician, the artist as a superman above ordinary laws and customs. In 1909, Wright...

(The entire section is 2093 words.)