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Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright

by Priscilla J. Henken
W.W. Norton, New York, 2012
272 pp., illus. 30 b&w photographs. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 978-0-393-73380-8.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa, USA

roy.behrens@uni.edu

In 1934, American expatriate author Gertrude Stein returned to the U.S. for the first time since moving to Paris in 1905. Accompanied by her companion, Alice B. Toklas (whom she had secretly married in 1908), she toured the country giving talks to promote her new (and perhaps most enduring) book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

When she spoke at the University of Wisconsin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was in the audience (she said he looked familiar, but could not remember why). Apparently, Frank and Gertrude and Alice had met earlier in Paris, at which time (as this diary notes) his impression was that Stein was “the most unattractive, uninteresting and dull person he had ever spoken to.” She dominated the conversation, he recalled, while the mute compliance of Alice gave new significance to her name—she was of course, reported Wright, “Alice be talkless.” In Madison, Wright invited the pair to return with him to Taliesin, his famous home and school nearby, enroute to their next engagement. But they demurred (exchanging nudge-nudge glances) for the reason, they said, that they liked to travel by airplane. “We want to fly to Milwaukee,” they said.

This book is called Taliesin Diary because its primary text is the diary of an American Jewish woman who lived (along with her husband) with Wright and his wife Oglivanna, their family, and student apprentices for nearly a year at Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin. The diarist was Priscilla Henken, a New York-born high school English teacher, who traveled to Taliesin in October 1942 with her husband, research engineer David Henken. Together, they “slaved” as apprentices in Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship until she left (apparently rather abruptly) in August 1943, to return to teaching in New York, while her husband stayed on until later.

I have read dozens of published diaries from which I have concluded that not all diaries are worth reading. But this one is fascinating, largely because it is candid (albeit often painfully so) and well written. It is especially honest about the corrosive influence of Wright’s third wife Oglivanna (they had married in 1928), who, by more than one account, was the Rasputin of Taliesin. In page after page, don’t be surprised to be taken aback by the abrupt and usually damaging ways in which Mrs. Wright (“La Dame”) jostled to assert control over the apprentices, her aging husband (he was in his seventies then, and incapable of standing up to her), and others who were living and/or on the staff at Taliesin.

The earlier entries in the diary are the most engaging, largely because its diarist was energized and hopeful then. Initially, both Priscilla and her husband were fully committed to working with Wright. But as time passed, both she and I (the reader) began to sense a “perfect storm.” So many things were happening then: The U.S. had entered World War II, and young men were threatened by the draft. Some of the male apprentices at Taliesin were pacifists and refused to report to the draft board, while others had applied to be conscientious objectors. As time went on, Wright’s Spring Green School was rumored to be a safe haven for opponents of the war—along with free love advocates, atheists, and socialists, even communists, God forbid.

As reported in this book, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent out a directive that year advising that Wright’s school should be closely watched because it “contained no classrooms” and “appeared to be a religious cult.” According to Hoover, the Taliesin Fellowship “held dances to the moon, told the students how to think and that if a student did not attend certain meetings which had nothing to do with the study of architecture, the student would be dismissed from the school.” In light of allegations that Hoover himself was a “cross-dresser” whose domestic soul mate was (allegedly) another man, it was especially annoying to find that Hoover reported that “there were homosexuals attending the school.”

This review is a small sampling of the rich and loony goings-on that took place at Taliesin in the months while Priscilla Henken was there. Any number of other Wright apprentices and students has written memoirs about working with him, some from the same time period. But this one is more explicit and, therefore, more disturbing than the others.

Now and then I was surprised by some of the entries: For example, Priscilla Henken reports that on one occasion, when Wright was lecturing in Madison, he was complemented afterwards by a woman in the audience. “Don’t you remember me?” she asked. He did not, but it turned out that it was his first wife, Catherine, with whom he’d had six children.

I knew that one of Wright’s apprentices, Wes Peters, had eloped with Mrs. Wright’s daughter (Wright’s stepdaughter) Svetlana. They had been ostracized at first but were gradually welcomed back into the fold. But I hadn’t realized that Wes’s father, Frederick Peters, was the newspaper editor in Evansville, Indiana, and had heroically opposed the Ku Klux Klan. Or that Wes’s sister, Margedant Peters (editor of Poetry magazine), was married to S.I. Hayakawa, U.S. senator, university scholar, and a controversial figure in the Vietnam anti-war protests at San Francisco State University. The film actress Anne Baxter was Wright’s granddaughter. And one of Wright’s sons, John Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs.

In addition to the diary, there are brief supplementary essays (by other authors) about various aspects of life at Taliesin, contemporaneous photographs, and (my favorite) interesting and informative comments in the margins.

The presumed subject of this book is (of course) the revered architectural genius and his school at Taliesin. At the end, however, one is left with the sneaking suspicion that the show was stolen (then and now) by Mrs. Wright, who is described by Priscilla Henken as “an imperious woman trying to command adults with an elementary school teacher’s manner.” Sadly, the aging Mr. Wright appears to be kindly, but hapless and hopelessly henpecked. In Welsh, “Taliesin” means “shining brow.” But, in reading this book, you are more likely to conclude that Frank Lloyd Wright’s brow, in later life, was not so much shining as “beaten.”


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