'Loving Frank' and risking it all

Frank Lloyd Wright's married, intellectual lover steps out from the shadows in this debut novel.

There's a new literary policy in effect regarding great men and the women stuck behind them: Shoo the fellows out of the way.

Novels such as "Mr. Emerson's Wife" by Amy Belding Brown have used a combination of historical record and authorial imagination to pull intelligent, vibrant women out of the long shadows cast by the men they loved. Now, former journalist Nancy Horan adds another fascinating entry with her first novel Loving Frank.

When it comes to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, you have to be a little specific about the woman in question. Horan isn't focusing on any of the three Mrs. Wrights, but instead on the woman who was Wright's companion during the most tumultuous time of his long life: Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

Cheney met Wright in 1904 when he designed one of his "prairie houses" for her and her husband, Edwin. She was brilliant with languages – able to speak three by the time she was in kindergarten – and was a teacher and librarian before her marriage. Without these intellectual pursuits, Horan writes, the mother of two was grappling with depression.

As for her husband, Edwin Cheney is written as a decent, loyal, successful man, who was proud of his intellectual wife and wanted her to be able to take his love for granted. Unfortunately for him, she did.

"Sometimes I think the reason he and I have lasted as long as we have," she tells her older sister Lizzie, who lived with them, "is because you are at the dinner table to keep the conversation going."

In 1909, Cheney and Wright scandalized Chicago society by eloping to Europe, leaving behind nine children, two devastated spouses, and an architecture firm in shambles. (Clients canceled commissions because of the scandal, and new orders dried up.)

Horan isn't interested in a "true love conquers all" kind of tale, but instead an exploration of the human costs of moving outside society's rules – especially for an intelligent woman living at a time when women were classed, for legal purposes, with the insane.

While idealistic about her love for Wright, Cheney was realistic about her chances of getting a job in the US to support herself if the affair went sour: "No one wants Hester Prynne running the children's story hour."

Instead, she finds employment in Europe through a new and unexpected friend: Swedish feminist Ellen Key. Key's ideas on free love and women's rights feel like salvation to the ostracized Cheney, who becomes her translator, helping to bring her ideas to America.

Unfortunately, one of Horan's stumbling blocks is the love affair itself. When Wright and Cheney are gushing about their love being worth any cost, the passages carry the whiff of the Hallmark section. Happily, however, lines such as Cheney moaning to her journal that she's allowed the river of life to pass her by, and oh, how she longs to be swept up by the current, fade quickly into the background.

Horan excels at research, and does an admirable job of recreating the five or so years the two were together. She also manages to get at Wright's charm and sense of humor, as well as his monumental sense of entitlement. And she doesn't skim over Cheney's (and especially Wright's) flaws: The scene where Cheney essentially dumps her kids – leaving them stranded in Colorado with a friend who's still weak from childbirth is wrenching. Even from a distance of many decades, the story of her 6-year-old boy wandering around Boulder, desperately searching for his missing mother, carries a wallop.

The fact that Horan is able to make a reader care about Cheney after that is a testament to both her writing ability and the complexity of her heroine. (And partly it's because the press of the day made sure Cheney paid in full, publishing a sheaf of nasty articles calling her a "vampire.")

Cheney is too smart to think that being a "muse" for a brilliant man is going to fulfill her sense of purpose. And she's clear-sighted enough to see the damage they've done to their families (who get accosted by reporters on their way home from school) and honest enough to see that it will take years for her to make reparations to her children.

After reading a charge in an article that she spent little time with her children, Cheney is at first infuriated, since many women of her class just handed off their kids to nannies.

"But there was a deeper truth that she had not wanted to face and now she could not avoid it. Carrying on a love affair had been work. It had consumed her energy and preoccupied her mind all those years in Oak Park. Even in the presence of the children, her thoughts were about Frank.... It had been an obsession for so long that she had taken it to be normal. The children had been pushed aside, not physically, maybe, but certainly in her mind."

Eventually, the couple return to America. Edwin grants his wife a divorce (allowing her just one month with her children a year), but Catherine Wright refuses to divorce her husband. So the two live in seclusion at Taliesin, the Wisconsin home Wright designed, while he tries to salvage his career as an architect.

Those who have studied Wright's life know that he and Cheney don't get a happy ending. But the level of tragedy is so heartbreaking it's difficult to imagine that even the most yellow newspaper of the day could have felt any sense of vindication.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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