Review by Annette Gallagher Weisman
St. Petersburg Times, September, 2007

A novel about Frank Lloyd Wright’s extramarital relationship mixes fact and fiction.

The intensity of Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s love for Frank Lloyd Wright was like an addiction. The renowned architect and his mistress were so enamored with each other they disregarded the mores of a century ago, abandoning their spouses, children and responsibilities in Illinois to live together in Europe – a major scandal then.

It makes one wonder about the kind of love that could withstand the vicious gossip, humiliation and alienation that surrounded the couple for years, not to mention their families’ heartbreak.

Nancy Horan’s new historical novel about the relationship, Loving Frank, is an operatic love story that reads like nonfiction at its best. Horan, a journalist, meticulously documents the passionate affair that began in Chicago in 1907, two years after Frank built a home for Mamah and her husband, Edwin.

Mamah (pronounced May-mah) was a feminist and an intellectual who considered her husband a good person, but dull. She was smitten by Frank, who was well-known for his organic architecture, especially his signature Prairie House.

In Horan’s novel, he is, in Mamah’s eyes, “a life force. He seemed to fill whatever space he occupied with a pulsing energy, that was spiritual, sexual and intellectual all at once.”

Frank is also an arrogant liar who doesn’t pay his bills and is egocentric to the nth degree. But still she loves him. While Frank married three times, it has been said that Mamah was the love of his life.

In Loving Frank, he tells Mamah he was born the same month and year she was, June 1869, which makes her feel that their union was preordained. Discovering later Frank is two years older, Mamah asks him why he lied. He brushes it off: “You seemed so happy about it.”

Another of Frank’s faults is his sense of entitlement. When Mamah confronts him for the first time about unpaid bills, he is wearing a new Italian hand-tailored suit, which he excuses by saying, “Beautiful objects stimulate me. … We’re in Italy. We’d be insane not to buy clothes here!”

Because of the scandal, it becomes hard for Frank to find work. He tries several avenues to pay his debts, but he puts his needs and desires before his creditors. He is also responsible for six children with his first wife, Catherine, who refuses to give him a divorce.

Horan doesn’t portray Mamah, who walked out on her two young children, as a sympathetic figure either. A particularly moving scene occurs when Mamah fully realizes that her obsession with Frank means that long before they left for Europe, she wasn’t emotionally present for Martha and John: “Two years in a child’s life is the distance between stars.” Recalling her departure, she asks herself, “Did I even look back at them?”

It is Mamah’s hope that in the long run her children will benefit from having two sets of parents. She believes that one’s own unhappiness plants the seeds of unhappiness in one’s children. As a disciple of the Swedish philosopher and feminist Ellen Key, Mamah believes that love between two people who are not married can be moral, whereas a loveless marriage is immoral.

When they return to the United States, Frank builds a dream house for himself and Mamah, Taliesin. Living there on Frank’s family property in Spring Green, Wis., they make their first small inroads as a couple.

Mamah becomes the official translator of Key’s works, and Edwin, now remarried, allows her children to visit her. Frank is given an important assignment to design Chicago’s Midway Gardens. Life finally begins to look hopeful for the two lovers who, for seven years, have endured financial struggles and social isolation.

Because this book is a compilation of both fact and fiction, it’s hard to separate the two. After reading the last heart-in-mouth pages, one feels robbed of the anticipated ways a relationship like this might end, perhaps finding solace in the fact that Loving Frank is a novel – as if Horan could possibly have made up the harsh outcome.

Annette Gallagher Weisman is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.