Filed under: Patry Francis
Earlier this year, when my book tour took me to Oak Park, Illinois, I became enthralled by the homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The legendary architect lived, dreamed, and created in this stimulating, but serene community for many years. His wife, Catherine, was a well-known social figure in town, and their six children grew up there. In many ways, their presence remains. Wright’s famously unique “prairie houses” stand in contrast to elegant Victorians and turn of the century colonials on the tree-lined streets. With their hidden doors, and their brilliant use of light and shadow, there is something mysterious about those houses, something that beckons the observer closer, but closely guards the privacy of its inhabitants at the same time.
It was also in Oak Park that Wright fell in love with the Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. There the two began a clandestine, passionate affair that would eventually consume their lives, destroy two families, and end in mass murder.
I can imagine author Nancy Horan who lived in Oak Park for twenty-four years, walking those streets, haunted by its celebrated former occupants. I imagine her lingering outside the house Wright designed for the Cheneys, privately contemplating the exhilaration, the tumult and the endless anguish their seemingly unstoppable love had caused. She draws a gripping portrait of the charismatic, egotistical genius who was Oak Park’s most famous citizen, but it is clearly the dreamy Mamah who took possession of the author’s soul.
Loving Frank, the novel that took seven years to write, and which I suspected lived in Horan’s imagination far longer, is the result. It is a remarkably balanced look at the dreams and the follies, the genuine love and the sometimes astounding selfishness of the pair. Married to an exceptionally good man, Mamah had an enviable life, but she hungered for something she couldn’t explain or name–until she met the dashing architect.
Edwin Cheney indulged and spoiled his wife, encouraging her to take classes at the university, and to pursue her interest in the arts. He also provided her with a maid and a nanny for their two young children, freeing her from the drudgery and child-rearing that consumed the hours of most women in the early twentieth century. When he learned of the affair, the devoted Cheney was heartbroken, but willing to forgive. By then, however, Mamah is too deeply ensnared, both by love, and by her growing sense of freedom, to turn back.
Ironically, it is only at the end of the story that the couple seems to find some peace and acceptance in the idyllic Wisconsin refuge named Taliesin whch Wright designed for them. After years of separation, Mamah has begun to reconnect with her children, and to enjoy long summer visits with them, and Wright’s career has begun to flourish again.
The horrific tragedy that ends both the novel and several characters’ lives is so jarring and violent that if this were a traditional novel, it would feel tacked on and false. But being a biographical work, it is simply what happened: as inexplicable, final and senseless as a fine morning that is abruptly interrupted by an earthquake.
As a writer, I began the novel, imagining how the author had been haunted by the tragic figure of a woman who lived in her town and walked its streets, a woman who would not let her go until she told her story. As a reader, I finished it similarly haunted. It will be a long time before I forget Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
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