FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
By Ada Louise Huxtable
Viking -- 251pp -- $19.95
The Good A concise, fresh look at the productive life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Bad With several new Wright biographies around, it's hardly the definitive work.
The Bottom Line A worthy addition to the compact "Penguin Lives" series.
Despite his oft-repeated credo of speaking "truth against the world," Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most prodigious liars of the 20th century. He was, moreover, a deadbeat dandy, a shameless mooch, and a very public home-wrecker twice arrested and jailed under the Mann Act, which forbade transportation of women across state lines "for immoral purposes."
Whether in his beloved Wisconsin hills, his adopted Arizona desert, or in his mid-1950s suite at New York's Plaza Hotel, he lived as an American Baron, with his basic needs and vast pile of unpaid bills largely taken care of by backers. Through it all, he maintained what he called an "honest arrogance" that went hand-in-hand with his nearly unquestioned title as the greatest American architect. In a career that stretched from Benjamin Harrison's Presidency to the next-to-last year of the Eisenhower Administration, Wright's was a life lived long and large.
It's the genius of the Penguin Lives series to match such a subject with a most appropriate biographer, The Wall Street Journal architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. In 251 short pages, Huxtable manages to synthesize the considerable research into Wright and his work, to mediate the conflicting versions of Wright's "truth," and to bring a fresh point of view to his prolific final two decades. This Frank Lloyd Wright is a welcome, enlightened addition to the library of Wrightiana.
Wright's life was marked by well-practiced eccentricities and personal tragedies, including the 1914 ax murder of his lover and her children by a deranged servant. In counterpoint, there is that compelling body of work, most of which survives as evidence of both his genius and his perseverance. The shooting star of the last years of the 19th century -- breaking "the box" of the Gilded Age house with his vision of an open, organic architecture -- had neither clients nor commissions by the end of the 1920s. Then, in the depths of the Great Depression, he began shaking "out of his sleeve," as he often put it, such designs as Fallingwater, his Pennsylvania masterpiece. Such a rebound, coming even as he was pushing 70, represents one of the great professional and artistic resurrections. And it's the stuff of grand biography.
This is one of at least six new Wright titles in the past year alone. Not that it was an anniversary year: Wright, in 2004, would have turned 137 -- although the compulsive fibber in him would likely have admitted to only 135.
By Ray Hoffman