Frank Lloyd Wright, the egotist and architectural icon who helped usher in modern American architecture, was famously possessive of the homes he designed. As recounted in Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, a towering new biography, he would occasionally slip into his residential commissions when the owners were gone and tinker with the rooms, moving a stray knick-knack, rearranging furniture, and “destroying the unauthorized objects.”
It was a repeated display of supreme confidence, and a selfish, god-like act of control. Wright—who infamously told the owner of one of his designs who deigned to complain to him about a frequently leaking roof to “move the table”—was addicted to attention, seemingly unable to let others walk by and not appreciate his genius.
With that kind of pomp and circumstance in mind, Plagued by Fire, a nearly 600-page tome digging into Wright’s life in an effort to showcase his humanity, is pitch-perfect. Author Paul Hendrickson took arguably America’s most well-documented architect—who has his own foundation protecting his legacy and work—and unearthed a trove of new details
But Hendrickson’s style, a continual recounting and dialogue with the reader—constantly letting them know how the author went deeper than those who came before him, tried so very hard to unearth a new clue, has been more rapacious about getting at the real truth—can seem showy, and it grows a bit tiresome after hundreds of pages of analysis, research, and occasional deep dives into Wright ephemera.
The book is a director’s cut of Wright’s life, from a biographer and very active narrator thrilled with the tiniest details of a resident of one of the architect’s buildings, a winding genealogical search for the family of Wright’s homicidal black servant, or the way a famous critic described one of his soaring designs. His search for more details often ends in spit-fire lists of provocative, unanswerable questions.
Take one of the book’s early detours, a detailed look at the somewhat tragic life of architect Cecil Corwin, who Wright befriended early in his time in Chicago. As Hendrickson skillfully details, Wright, who only interacts with him for a flash during his quick rise in the Chicago architectural world, never forgets Corwin, who gets a seemingly oversized role in his autobiography, and a brief exchange of letters decades after they meet. Hendrickson infers (but, as he notes, can’t prove) that there may have been a homosexual attraction between the two men. It’s far from the only example of Hendrickson dangling a salacious, yet not completely verifiable, loose thread from the tapestry of Wright’s long lifetime, littering breaks in the narrative with a rapid-fire list of suggestive questions.
Hendrickson has to be congratulated for his dogged detective work, for bringing a cast of supporting characters to life, and for turning employment records and newspaper clippings into copy with energy and thrust. Wright was just the subject of a worldwide celebration for his 150th birthday, so to unearth new details, avenues of exploration, and ideas, is commendable.
There’s also the matter of the title, heavy with what could be biblical judgement, and how that tragedy is artfully carried through the biography. Children abandoned for lovers, homeowners who meet their own fateful twists after paying for a Wright design, and plenty of fire and brimstone.
A detailed retelling of the terrible murder at Taliesin, where Wright’s mistress, lover, and fellow traveler on what he calls a “spiritual hegira” gets butchered along with six others as the compound is reduced to ashes, gives the story weight. Papers of the day turned the tragic mass murder into a tawdry moral lesson: the Ogden Standard wrote that “the two urns of his soul-mate’s children in a Chicago creamatorium” suggest Wright’s belief he could live by his own code were false.
But at the end, Plagued by Fire reads like a search for a Rosebud that really isn’t there. That the architect is a selfish genius who, over the course of his life, tossed aside dozens of people who cared for him deeply, isn’t a new observation. The hidden humanity, like the remaining piece of Wright’s Midway Gardens the author visits in Chicago, may be obscured and in many ways forgotten, but it’s not wholly unexpected: he pushed clients, wives, children, the truth of his relationship with his father, as far as he could, naive or uncaring of the consequences. Reconstructing the precise details of the painful dismissals or discarded relationships doesn’t alter our core understanding of the architect. And using the autobiography of Wright as proof that he had remorse and guilt later in life isn’t revelatory, especially considering the architect was a master of rewriting his own history and engaging in blunt self-promotion.
Early in the book, during the Chicago and Oak Park era of Wright’s life, Hendrickson talks about architectural events where Wright, supposedly among equals, hogs the spotlight and dominates the proceedings. It’s that instinct—to push his vision, his fame, his architecture above all others and all else—that is the lodestone of Wright’s life. For those versed in the details and debates about America’s most famous architect, Plagued by Fire offers more fuel, more secrets, more crooked familial bonds, and more details to entertain and obsess over. But for less studied and more casual readers, presenting the complete picture doesn’t always offer the clearest view.