An evening with ‘Mr. Wright’

The "fellowship" logo at Taliesin West.
The “fellowship” logo at Taliesin West.

Forget the genius part.  Forget that he was an architect and a famous one.   It didn’t take me long to realize last weekend I had little in common with the late master, Frank Lloyd Wright.   While admiring his creative mind, I  didn’t much like “Mr. Wright” the person, as depicted anyway in a guided tour of his “winter camp,” Taliesin West.

Nebra and I had driven the 33 miles east from our home in central Phoenix to Taliesin on a Friday night for the 7:15 tour, a first visit for me.  We eased the Civic up the soft turns to the high mesa beneath the McDowell Mountains and paid our $35 per at the bright and attractive and well-stocked bookstore.  It was there we met up with our guide, “Paula,” who led our group of 20 out into the darkness of the grounds.

We trundled along after Paula and her flashlight.

Thousands of city lights twinkled back at us from below the patio and reflecting pool, a grim reminder of how fast this area of Scottsdale has grown since Wright built this outpost in 1937.  An old architect who is said to still live on the property recounted peering out into the darkness for the first time way back when.  “I counted five lights,” he is quoted to have said.

Among our guided stops:

  • A petroglyph with several symbols.  Wright interpreted one of these, interlocking “L’s with one upside down, as “fellowship.”  It became the symbol Taliesin West.  “Taliesin,” we learned, is Welsh for “bright brow.”
  • The living room, done up in Cherokee Red, Wright’s favorite color.   He was much influenced by Asian cultures.  For instance, several chairs in the room could best be described as wooden origami with padding.
  • The bedrooms of Wright and his wife, small cubicles and uncomfortable-looking with a walk-in closet built for kings.
  • The Cabaret, a funneled acoustic room, where films were shown and music played.  Many of the films were brought in from Hollywood by Wright’s grand-daughter, the actress, Anne Baxter.
The interlocking "L" held special meaning for Wright.
The interlocking “L” held special meaning for Wright.

Our guide had admirable stamina as well as  command of all things Wright.  She chattered away incessantly for most of the two hours, mixing “facts,” family lore and conjecture.  She referred to the master as “Mr. Wright” so much it became irritating.   I would have preferred she use the journalistic neutral  “Wright,” but of course that is not what she’s paid to do by the Wright Foundation, which manages the place and operates the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.  Wright died here in 1959 at age 91, still productive to the end.

It was mildly interesting to know that the school is capped at 35 students who each pay $30,000  a year.  That includes housing in, yes, tents around the property and moves twice a year, autumn and spring, between this place and the Taliesin II in Wisconsin.

I also enjoyed hearing the master architect was not infallible.  For instance, he loved redwood and used it for many of his constructions at Taliesin West.  Trouble was the redwood dries up in the desert and rots.  Much of the redwood is replaced now by steel.

A portrait of the master.
A portrait of the master.

Superficial Americans fall in love with celebrities like Wright and movie stars.  They forgive them their sins, while grasping tightly to the human frailties of those not so fortunate.

The master, for example, abandoned his first wife and children to take up with Mamah Borthwick, a married woman with her own brood.  That much I do not hold against Wright or any other person.

Mamah became the great tragedy of Wright’s life, we were told.  She was murdered along with six others in 1914 at the original Taliesin, in Wisconsin, by an axe-wielding servant who also burned the place to the ground.

One of the goofy Asian ornaments seen around Taliesin.
One of the goofy Asian ornaments seen around Taliesin.

What turned me off about the Frank Lloyd Wright story, as told to us by our guide, was this.  He was a tax cheat and far too materialistic for my taste.  He spent money on grand pianos and flashy cars, money that did not exist, and left his third wife, Olgivanna, to clean up the mess. She was forced to sell 140 pristine desert acres of the original 640 to stay afloat.

He struck me as self-absorbed almost beyond belief.

I think you can admire a person’s work and at the same time hold that person accountable for missteps.

So I do not idolize “Mr. Wright.”  To give a just title to this little piece I might call it “An Evening with Frank.”

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Abra

For the dwindling number of film-goers of the Fifties who witnessed the first scintillating moments of James Dean on the screen, the death of Julie Harris on the 24th will not go unnoticed.

Harris played “Abra” as the female lead in Dean’s first film, “East of Eden” that came out in April of 1955.

I thought at the time that Harris was miscast.  And I still think that.   It was hard to believe in Abra, that she could command the attention, much less the love, of such a wild creature as Dean’s “Cal Trask.”  And, on reflection, maybe that was the point, to contrast Abra with Cal’s mother, “Kate,” who abandoned the family and later operated a whorehouse.

Harris’s Abra was dutiful, a good girl but her passion for Cal and his affection for her just didn’t click with me.  She had the vehicle to do great things with the role and didn’t grab the chance.

Among the cast’s leading characters,  Harris’s death leaves only Richard Davalos, now 82, the same age Dean would have been had he survived.   Raymond Massey (the Bible-strict father, “Adam,”) died in 1983; Burl Ives, who played “Sam,” the sheriff, died in 1995; and Jo Van Fleet, who won an Oscar for her Supporting Role in “Eden” as the hard-hearted mother, in 1996.

Harris died at her home in her home at Chatham, MA.  The reported cause, congestive heart failure.  She was 87.

Speaking with forked tongue

The description “forked tongue” comes from the highest of authentic sources.  The western movie, aka the oater.  It is a saying attributed to the American Indian when speaking of the White man.  In White man’s talk it means “speaking out of both sides of your mouth.”  It is all gibberish for saying one thing and meaning another.

We out here in the “independent” Wild West of Arizona don’t need the federal government for anything.  We’re pioneer stock.  That’s the talk from one side of the mouth anyway from our super-conservative legislature.

But just the other day wasn’t it our Republican governor, Jan Brewer, begging for federal dollars to alleviate damages caused by the Yarnell Hill Fire last June?  She’s instructed state officials to build up evidence, make a case, for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the much-reviled FEMA, which has already turned Brewer down once.

Even worse, Republicans state-wide voiced outrage of FEMA’s rejection.

This is why the Indians got it right.  White men, particularly Republicans in the West speakth with forked tongues.  These right-wingers want their Tea-Party base to think they hate the feds.  But they want the fed dollars even more.

Arrival of a rare book

Cover of the British hardback version of "The Glass Room"
Cover of the British hardback version of “The Glass Room”

No sirens blew.   Not even a ring of a doorbell.  But there was a certain fanfare attached to the arrival today of my $200 book.

I had gone to the front door just before 10 this morning to look for my young cat, Ares.  And there before my widening eyes was this great sack of baby blue with “Great Britain” written across it.

Immediately, I knew what it was.  It was my scarce Simon Mawer, “The Glass Room,”  the novel I had written about earlier this month.  I had to have it, knew it was ridiculous yet . . . . There it was.  All the way from Taunton, in Somerset, England.

Grabbing my Canon from the dining room table, I began shooting photos like the father of a new-born, click, click, click.

The sack at my door.
The sack at my door.

The novel, like most of Mawer’s work, is set against a great event.  In this case, it was the Holocaust and World War II.  The publication by Little, Brown had, it was reported, an extremely small first press run of around 2,000.   This first issue of the first edition is what makes “The Glass Room” valuable to collectors like me.   In other words you can have a first edition but not necessarily a first issue.

That Mawer also signed, lined and dated the book just two months after publication further heightened the value.  I suspect the book would be worth $75, maybe less, without the author’s hand-writing.

“It was as though they stood in a crystal of salt,” Mawer had inscribed it on March 3, 2009, supposedly at a book signing event at Toppings Bookshop in Bath.  I checked it out with Toppings and found it was not quite accurate. Mawer had a book signing, all right, but not in Bath.  It took place at the firm’s “sister book shop” in Ely, 70 miles north of London.

I say “supposedly,” not 100 percent sure that Mawer signed the book.  Authentication can be tricky.  I perhaps trust too much but the bookseller has a good rating.  And he typed out a note at my request to give me the history of Mawer’s signing as he knew it.  I have that much anyway.

And I’m sure it’s a first issue.  Those things are well-known in the book trade.  Like in the case of this publisher its firsts have the following designation on the copyright page:  “First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Little, Brown.”

Signed, lined and dated.
Signed, lined and dated.

Mawer has signed at least two other books I’ve read about with the same “crystal of salt” inscription.  It comes from page 64 of my paperback edition of  “The Glass Room.”   It is a sentence within a paragraph describing the principal figures, Viktor Landauer and his wife, Liesel, as they enter for the first time the “glass room” of their new house in Czechoslovakia.

The book arrived h in a plastic protective cover, and with great care I placed “The Glass Room” in my glass-door bookcase.  The icing on the cake would be if Mawer would win a noted literary prize such as the Man Booker Award in Britain.  Only then, perhaps, would this little investment pay for itself.

Our monsoon

In no way can you realistically compare the monsoon season in Arizona with the one in, say, Bangladesh.  Although our monsoon describes the rainy season, it is more humidity than rainfall.  We swelter, day and night, but rarely wade in anything other than our own sweat.

Thunderclouds to the north as seen from Metro Center.
Thunderclouds to the north as seen from Metro Center.

One of the benefits of our monsoon is the beauty of the thunderclouds that appear on our horizons.  Mostly these clouds gather in high places, above the Mogollon Rim and the Mazatzals to the north and the Sierra Anchas and Superstitions to the east.  While gather they do, the fierce-looking thunderclouds do not always have the strong heart to venture down into central Phoenix’s inferno.  Today, while admiring the clouds, I also noticed the temperature at 113 F.  That is record heat for this date.

Looking east in central Phoenix.
Looking east in central Phoenix.

When in 1979 I moved to Phoenix from the Great Plains, I so missed the rain that I chased storms.  I would see those giant thunderclouds and quickly hop into my little green Datsun and head out.  I particularly recall one of my adventures to find the rain.   I traveled north on Interstate 17 and ran into rain 40 miles away near Black Canyon City.  It was so heavy that I could not see the road 20 yards in front.  Headlights made matters worse.  What I remember most about that trip were the zillions of little toads that emerged out of nowhere and began hopping about the pavement and squishing under the tires.

I hope today’s thunderclouds give us a much-needed visit.   We’re in a drought while other places, like Kansas this year, are inundated.  But I will not chase.  Killing toads put a damper on my enthusiasm.

Notes from behind the wheel

For many years now in short bursts, I have jotted down notes as I drive along the roads of America.  I balance a notebook on my right knee, the foot below firmly pressing the accelerator.   I scribble quickly with a pen, my head bobbing like a crazy cork to check traffic.  Dangerous, I know.   It is the Old World version of texting while driving.

There is no rhyme or reason to do the note-taking other than personal quirk.

The notes mostly deal with mileage between various places along the way, data in most cases you could pull from a Rand McNally.  It’s a habit that probably originated with the monotony of driving.   The note-taking somehow makes me feel good.   And that is the main thing.

Here is a sample taken from page 45 of my “Kansas Trip 2013” notebook.

“Welcome to Flint Hills” [sign] 15.7 [miles from Topeka] — Fort Riley 55.0 — Smoky Hill R 57.8 — Jct City 59.5 — Abilene 81.1 — (2 fires N of Salina) — Dole-Specter sign re boyhood home (Russell) 165.5 . . . . ”

The notes are often put aside on returning home, but always preserved, languishing for years untouched in a filing cabinet.  But once in a while datum finds its moment in the sun.  It happened just a few days ago.

A Facebook Friend, Marlene, recently posted her disgust of Kansas rest areas. She was “appalled at how run down, poorly maintained and dirty the KS facilities were. They did not make me proud of our beautiful state, and they do not reflect a positive image of our state to people passing through.”

I remembered stopping once at a rest area in Kansas during my trip last month and finding no such disgusting facilities.  Trouble was I couldn’t remember where.  I began searching my notebook, hoping to solve the mystery.

Being of a certain age, I note the all-important rest areas with an “R.A.”  As I flipped through the notebook pages, I found the R.A. I had in mind.  It was on the back of page 48:  “R.A. 78 [degrees F.] 105.0 [west of Hays].  The item was circled which meant I had used the facilities there.   The location was 5 miles west of Colby, KS.

That little note jogged my memory.  I remembered the stop.  Two men, possibly a father and son, coming out of the men’s toilet.  Nearby, college kids, traveling in two cars, milling around the place, some snacking, laughing, loud talk.  I assumed they were headed to the mountains of Colorado for holiday.  I had no clear picture of the men’s restroom, but I’m certain if it had been horrible I would’ve made a note.

So I was able to reply to Marlene’s lament, though I doubt she appreciated my input that seemed to contradict her assertion.

Anyway you never know when a note from behind the wheel will come in handy.

The photo isn’t always what you think

Dufy's "Indoors With The Window Open"
Dufy’s “Indoors With The Window Open”

The photographer focuses on his subject and shoots.  But it is not always the photographer’s subject that catches the viewer’s eye.

I recently rediscovered this phenomenon on Facebook, not once but twice.

Nebra posted a photo that I took of her.  The focus was a skirt Nebra was modeling.  It had a thin green design on a cream background.  It was important to Nebra because it once belonged to her mother who has been dead for many years.  Nebra was proud of the skirt and spread it out with her hands so the pattern could be seen more clearly.

But it was not the skirt that grabbed the eye of “Andrea.”

This Facebook Friend of Nebra’s looked past the skirt to a colorful painting, a print actually, by Raoul Dufy that hangs on our diningroom wall.  Andrea wanted to know more.

It's the fork, not the cake
It’s the fork, not the cake

Dufy did the painting in 1928 from his apartment’s double-windows overlooking the Bay of The Angels at Nice, in France.   One window on the left is a faraway look at the Nice coastline apparently a night, or during a storm.  The right window shows a closer view of the same coastline in bright sunlight.  I’ve searched for symbolism but so far have come up with nothing satisfying.  I purchased the print because it made me feel happy and as a reminder of a great trip we took years ago to the Riviera.

In her comment, “Andrea” did not mention Nebra’s skirt.

The second example came after I had posted a vignette and photo about my addiction to a certain chocolate cake.  The photo was a close-up of a scrumptious three-layer cake on a plate set atop a deli table in Phoenix.  But it was not just the cake that amused my Friend “Paul.”

This flower bed cropped from larger photo.
This flower bed cropped from larger photo.

What “Paul” noticed was the fork, partly seen behind the cake.  And the smudge of icing nearby.  From that he had drawn an accurate conclusion:  I had been unable to control myself before shooting the photo and had taken a bite into that wonderful universe of decadent chocolate.   Very perceptive by “Paul” but something I might expect from a good journalist.

I too have found my eye wandering, even in my own photos.

Not long ago, for instance, I photographed scenes from the Desert Botanical Garden, on the east edge of the city.  In one photo, I concentrated on a small cluster of beautiful flowers with a green-barked palo verde tree as the centerpiece. But as I looked at the photo, my eye was drawn to a small cluster of purple flowers with blue centers, set in a field of varying greens.  I ended up cropping the photo and making these purple flowers my desktop background.  Now, here in the heat of midsummer, the scene makes me feel cool and comfortable.

Deadwood given life by sunlight.
Deadwood given life by sunlight.

Also I recently shot a photo of some deadwood in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve where I hike.   But what caught my eye was dying sunlight shining through the deadwood’s scaling bark, giving it “life.”  I cropped it and have a satisfying photo.

All of this may be much ado about nothing.  But to me it is interesting.  And, I’ve found, that it is often life’s little things that touch the soul most.