Reviewed by Ron Ortiz
Many books have been written about the famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Most of them covered his architecture and his other works. Wright himself, who even wrote his autobiography, wrote some. His son, John Lloyd Wright, wrote a biography on FLW after his death. Scholars have documented Wright’s life and his work in hundreds of publications. Yet very little information chronicled his relationship with Mamah Cheney.
In her first novel, Nancy Horan, a former journalist and long time resident of Oak Park, Illinois pursues Mamah Cheney, who she was and what her life was like during her clandestine affair with Wright. In this historical story, the author blends fact and fiction together in brilliant fashion. Horan stays as close as possible to the historical records, relying on letters, newspaper accounts and other correspondence, especially communications from Ellen Key, the Swedish feminist, for whom Mamah Borthwick Cheney translated.
Make no mistake. This is a love story and the author gives full weight to the love and passion that Wright and Cheney felt for each other. While scholars have largely relegated Mamah to a footnote in the life of America’s greatest architect; Horan chose to illuminate Cheney’s influence on Wright. Through this novel, the reader learns about Martha (Mamah) Cheney, an early feminist who was ahead of her time, highly educated and fluent in six languages. Mamah met FLW when he was commissioned to build a house for the Cheney’s in Oak Park. She became intrigued with the architect and then obsessed, abandoning her husband and two children to run off with Wright.
After a year together in Italy, the two returned to condemnation in Oak Park and Spring Green, Wisconsin, where the first Taliesin home was built. The pair paid a terrible price for their love. The scandalous affair ruined Frank Lloyd Wright’s career for many years. It also ruined Mamah’s reputation. In 1914, it ended in tragedy. To say more would give away an amazing story.