Mamah Borthwick Cheney

by | Dec 5, 2003


I’m fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a radical artist who dared to be great at all times. But like any genius, he was also but a man, sometimes susceptible to the lower impulses. After attaining much success in his architecture practice, marrying well, and raising six children, Wright grew restless. He looked to a client’s wife and neighbor in Oak Park, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Mamah held a Masters degree from Ann Arbor and was an outspoken suffragist, feminist, and free-love advocate. She also translated foreign texts on these subjects. Mamah was also said to be quite beautiful. For certain, she deeply enchanted Wright, as he dropped everything–family, reputation, and career–to flee to Europe with her.

Upon returning to the states, Wright built Taliesin on his maternal ancestor’s land in south central Wisconsin. In part, as a defense against Chicago and the conventional values held universally therein. Taliesen also was a natural refuge, a place in the sun where Wright and Mamah could live life their way, masters of their rural, but progressive kingdom. All was well until one day in 1914 when Wright was away in Chicago working on Midway Gardens, a household servant went mad and burned the place down, waiting at the one available door with an axe, where he murdered each escaping person, including Mamah and her two children, plus four others.

As Truman Capote knows, this kind of stuff really happens. Here again we see, no inventor of fiction can easily compete with sad reality.