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I Forgot My Best Excuse

Ohhhhh...I forgot.  I have been somewhere else.  It's part of why I wasn't writing.  I bought one of these...

I absolutely love it.  I get the NY Times every single morning, magically delivered through cyberspace.  I also get the UK Daily Telegraph.  And books...Oh MY the books!  I've downloaded the complete works of Dickens and Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, just because I could and they were all free.  I've got Pride and Prejudice and Little Women.

I've also started an online book club with some gals I know.  We all met online about twelve years ago.  I am leading the first discussion.  The book I chose is Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.  It is about the infamous love affair between famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Martha Cheney, both married to others.  It takes place in the early 1900s and caused an uproar.  Below is a review from thr New York Times.

Notes on a Scandal
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By Nancy Horan.

362 pp. Ballantine Books. $23.95.

In “Ragtime,” his fable of social change in early-20th-century America, E. L. Doctorow sent a stuffy paterfamilias on an expedition to the North Pole, leaving his docile wife behind in New Rochelle. In the Arctic, the man was disgusted to encounter uninhibited Eskimo women coupling lustily with their husbands. Watching one of them in flagrante, he thought nostalgically of his seemly spouse and doubted whether the Eskimo wife even deserved the name of woman. But while he was off finding the True North, his wife was undertaking her own journey of discovery, setting her sensuality aflame with the teachings of Emma Goldman. Upon the explorer’s return, he sensed with alarm that the orbit of his “moral planet” had shifted. In their marital bed, his wife was “not as vigorously modest as she’d been.” To him, her liberation felt like a punishment from God. But what did it feel like to her? Would changing mores permit her to leave a man she had outgrown and still keep her good name?

“Loving Frank,” an enthralling first novel by Nancy Horan, is set at the same time as Doctorow’s modern classic — the decade before World War I — and recreates its weld of fact and fiction, wrapped around the core theme of female self-actualization. Unlike the wife in “Ragtime,” however, the woman under scrutiny in Horan’s book actually lived, and the world’s reaction to her liberation is known. The “Frank” of Horan’s title is the architect Frank Lloyd Wright; the “Loving” came from a woman who has been all but erased from history’s rolls: Mamah (pronounced MAY-muh) Borthwick Cheney, a learned, lovely woman who scandalized Chicago when she left her husband and two young children to flee to Europe with Wright — who left behind a wife and six children of his own. The two fell in love in 1907, while Wright was building a “prairie house” for Mamah and Edwin Cheney in Oak Park.

If guilt were calculated by the sheer number of abandoned offspring, Wright’s rap sheet would have been longer than Mamah’s; but Mamah was more vilified because she was a woman. (Horan weaves lurid contemporary press accounts into her narrative as proof.) In society’s view, Wright was merely misbehaving, while Mrs. Cheney was doing something far more shocking: acting like an unnatural mother.

Horan prods readers to consider an uncomfortable question: Were Mamah’s feelings unnatural? Edwin Cheney didn’t think so; he granted her a divorce and allowed her access to their children. Wright didn’t think so; he wanted to marry her, but his estranged wife, Catherine, refused to divorce him. Compelling the reader’s sympathy, Horan evokes the image of Mamah, sunk in depression after the birth of her second child, recording a quotation by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her diary: “It is not sufficient to be a mother: an oyster can be a mother.” Mamah wanted more. “For as long as Mamah could remember,” Horan writes, “she had felt a longing inside for something she could not name.” A few months after the diary entry, that longing acquired a name: Frank Lloyd Wright.

Public outrage followed Frank and Mamah across the Atlantic in 1909, endangering the young architect’s career and destroying his companion’s good name. Wright’s legacy has been retroactively protected and buttressed by his work, but Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s reputation didn’t survive their romance — and neither did she. Horan follows the couple as their relationship travels from its anxious, ecstatic beginnings, past doubts and compromises, through renewed hope, and on to its tragic close. The conversations she invents between Mamah and Frank, as between all of the characters, proceed with unforced ease, enfolding multiple layers of their personal and professional lives, touching on poetry, translation, architecture, idealism, love and family.

At a distance of a hundred years, these conversations can hardly be actual, but Horan makes them plausible and engrossing. In France, desperately wishing to ease her guilt over leaving her family, Mamah seeks solace in the feminism of the Swedish suffragist Ellen Key. (Key later authorized Mamah to translate some of her work into English.) Reading Key’s book “Love and Marriage,” Mamah tells her lover in excitement: “She says that once love leaves a marriage, then the marriage isn’t sacred anymore. But if a true, great love happens outside of marriage, it’s sacred and has its own rights.” Exhilarated, she continues: “The human race will evolve to a higher plane where there won’t be a need for laws regulating marriage and divorce.” Cynically but not unkindly, he responds, “So if we can just hang on for a millennium or two, it’ll all work out.”

Upon the couple’s return to America, Wright built a refuge for them in the hills of southwestern Wisconsin — his famous Taliesin — hoping to escape censure and prying eyes. But their bid for privacy failed, and reporters besieged them. Grieved by the sanctimoniousness of the “birds of prey” who flocked round Taliesin, Wright released an impassioned defense of Mamah to the local press in the summer of 1914, but by then it was far too late to save her. She was “noble,” he explained, and “valued womanhood above wifehood or motherhood.” Their life together was not hedonistic, he argued, because “the ‘freedom’ in which we joined was infinitely more difficult than any conformity with customs could have been. Few will ever venture it. ... You wives with your certificates for loving — pray that you may love as much or be loved as well!”

nd yet, few of Mamah’s closest friends and relations, watching her bond with Wright deepen, had much love to spare for her. Mamah’s older sister, Lizzie, whom Mamah left to care for her children when she decamped with Wright, scorned her sister’s judgment. “Do you realize what you gave up for Frank Wright?” Lizzie asks. “The kind of life most women — most feminists — dream of.”

Even Ellen Key, whom Mamah regarded as her mentor, sent a letter to Taliesin, urging her to leave Wright for the sake of her children. “It has been my belief and expressed philosophy that the very legitimate right of a free love can never be acceptable if it is enjoyed at the expense of maternal love,” Key wrote. To Mamah (in Horan’s depiction), this defection was both devastating and intellectually dishonest: “It struck her that Ellen Key’s ideas were inherently self-contradictory.” How could a woman who believed that staying in a loveless marriage was “tantamount to prostitution” tell her to return to one? In her response to Key (drawn from one of only 10 letters from Mamah that Horan was able to find) she explained that she had made “a choice in harmony with my own soul and what I believe to be Frank Wright’s happiness.” As for reuniting with her children, she added, “that cannot be just yet.” Was such single-mindedness admirable or chilling? Where would this love have led Mamah, if fate had allowed it to continue?

A century after pathbreakers like Emma Goldman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ellen Key struggled to raise female consciousness, there is still no satisfactory answer to the question of how a woman dedicated to her own self-expression can fulfill the tradition-bound, justly demanding needs of her children when presented with a competitor for their love. The problem Ellen Key wrestled with in her philosophy, and that Mamah could not solve in her life, had no solution in 1907 and still has none in 2007. In “Loving Frank,” bringing the buried truths of the ill-starred relationship of Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright to light, Horan only increases her heroine’s mystery. Mamah Borthwick Cheney wasn’t just any woman, but Horan makes her into an enigmatic Everywoman — a symbol of both the freedoms women yearn to have and of the consequences that may await when they try to take them.

Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.


 I've read about half of the book so far and can't put it down.  I've been researching discussion questions for our online group.

So that's another great excuse for neglecting this blog for a bit.  I'm back now.  I am thrilled with my Kindle.

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