I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I saw Loving Frank by Nancy Horan at a used book store recently and it jumped out at me because I had been drawn to the same book at the library. When I flipped through it, I discovered it is about Mamah Borthwick Cheney‘s love affair with Frank Llyod Wright. I really knew nothing before reading this novel about the famous architect’s life, and certainly not that he left his wife for another woman. Intrigued, I purchased the novel and took it home.
This novel, published in 2007, is written from Mamah’s point of view. It carefully follows what little is known about the love affair, without changing the order of all but one event. Nancy Horan apparently did very careful research into these events, even locating letters written by Mamah Borthwick Cheney to Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist philosopher very influential in Europe at the time, and drawing upon a master’s thesis by Anne Nissan on Frank Llyod Wright and Mamah.
Mamah first met Frank Llyod Wright in 1903, when she and her husband, Edwin Cheney, commissioned him to build a house for them in a suburb of Chicago. Four years later, she reconnected with him, and they began an affair. The novel explores what may have happened between then and the tragic murder of Mamah and her two children in the summer of 1914. After about a year of meeting clandestinely, Mamah followed Frank to Germany and then Italy. They spent roughly a year in together Europe, during which time Mamah met Ellen Key and became her translator for American audiences. Mamah stayed in Europe, learning Swedish in order to translate directly from the original Swedish, while Frank Llyod Wright began building a home in the Wisconsin valley where he grew up. Mamah then moved in with him, after securing a divorce.
Mamah was an early feminist, who as a young woman fought for the right to vote and to have a fulfilling job, and then insisted upon the right to love Frank, whose wife refused a divorce. Abandoning her children to follow Frank was one of the most difficult decisions Mamah ever made. She struggles with this issue throughout the novel. She also deals with the disapproval of most of the world, and very public shaming through newspaper articles about her affair with the famous architect, and struggles with him over his bad handling of finances. Her ex-husband eventually allowed her children to visit during summers and holidays, which helped ease some of her guilt.
Many people believe Mamah was the great love of Frank Llyod Wright’s life, and one of his biggest influences, despite the sparse evidence that still exists. Her tragic death, axed and then burned along with her children and several others by a crazed employee she had just fired, inspired a long letter from him to the editor, which is reproduced in the novel, and shows his strong feelings.
Despite the incredible drama inherent in this story of a very public love affair considered incredibly scandalous and its horrible ending, this novel is understated. It often drags, especially in the last third, as their lives in Wisconsin settle down into a pattern. Mamah pretty much stayed on the farm, supervising the household and avoiding the public eye. No great conflict inhabits its pages. Even the conflict with Julian Carlton, the fired servant who commits the awful murders, occupies only a few pages, as it probably did in real life. As a probable reconstruction of the life of a very brave woman who was willing to give up her social standing and her children to follow her Frank, it is very interesting, but, as a novel, not always. I found myself wondering towards the end if the author couldn’t have wandered a little more from the known or else left out some of the boring parts in order to improve the story.
Still, all in all, I enjoyed this novel. I grew up taking flute lessons next door to Grady Gammage auditorium (we called it the toilet bowl, being irreverent kids, for its shape), which was designed by Frank Llyod Wright near the end of his life, and built after his death, and have always had an unexplored curiosity about this famous man.