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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