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He Contained Multitudes

Review of Plagued by Fire by Paul Hendrickson

The American Scholar, Autumn 2019 

In 1957, while in New York supervising the construction of the Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright agreed to be interviewed on television by journalist Mike Wallace. By this time, Wright was 90 years old, the author of several hundred buildings, and a global celebrity—one who played the role of the uncompromising artist to the hilt.

About 10 minutes in, Wallace noted that a younger Wright had proclaimed that he would be the greatest architect of the 20th century. Had he reached his goal?

Wright denied that he had ever said such a thing. Wallace pointed out he had said it on the record, multiple times. Outflanked (for once), Wright partially backed down. “You know, I may not have said it, but I may have felt it,” he told Wallace. “But it’s so unbecoming to say it that I should have been careful about it. I’m not as couth as I’m generally reported to be.”

Not as couth: was this a calculated note of false modesty, laid on to charm (as was Wright’s habit), or was it something closer to candor? In his new book, Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Hendrickson pushes back against the idea that Wright’s famous arrogance crowded out all feelings of shame, regret, humility, or sadness. Behind the superstructure of his ego, vulnerability was always “ghosting at the edges,” Hendrickson writes.

Yes, Wright peacocked around Chicago, and later Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Scottsdale, Arizona, in dandyish bespoke clothes, leaving unpaid creditors in his wake. He busted up two families (one of them his own) by running off with a married client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. He had a bitter break from his mentor, Louis Sullivan, wheedled money out of friends and patrons, and told constant fabrications. Hendrickson doesn’t deny any of this. But he avers that Wright possessed a “fundamental decency,” and that he was haunted by the gothic personal tragedies that unfolded throughout his life, yet he seemed to endure them—and push through them to new artistic heights—with an uncanny resilience.

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