Loving Frank

More than just about “loving Frank,” this is the story of Mamah Borthwick’s turbulent journey toward self-discovery.

For “career day” in seventh grade, my classmate Chase invited his father to speak to our class about architecture. I can’t recall what he said, or even in what type of architecture Mr. Robison specialized, but that day, I decided I wanted to be an architect. By then and for various reasons, I was already enchanted by Ansel Adams, James Dean, Hemingway, and Picasso. Quickly, I added Frank Lloyd Wright to my list of hero-crushes. The dream of designing Wright-esque structures held sway all the way up until the day I left high school, halfway through my senior year. After that, well, it was like tossing a rock into a river; its course was irreversibly altered.

Although somewhere along the river-course I became an inventor of stories instead of storeys, architecture has always retained a certain amount of real estate in my heart. Last week, my sister and I happened to be passing through southwestern Pennyslvania, and we took a detour to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater house, which was designed in 1935 for his clients the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh. It was glorious in person, situated within nature, hovering above a 30’ waterfall. I could wax poetic about the house, but I’d rather tell you about the book I picked up afterward at the souvenir shop: Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan.

Loving Frank is the fictionalized recreation of the love affair between FLW and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and the tumultuous life they shared between 1907 and 1914. Mamah was a scholar, a freethinker and an outspoken champion of the Woman Movement whose liberal ideas about marriage and love were ahead of her time. When she met FLW, she found her intellectual and spiritual equal. From the beginning, they took “breathtaking risks” to nurture their relationship—including the decision to leave their families in order to live a public life together.

The moral dilemma notwithstanding, what captured my attention was how beautifully Horan translated Mamah’s internal struggles onto the page. The way the brilliant but deeply flawed FLW inspired her to imagine herself as her own sovereign being, the way she found purchase against convention, the emancipation, the soul-awakening, the love, but also the doubt and guilt and regret. FLW emerges as a self-centered megalomaniac who must do battle with his own demons, and Mamah must decide whether to leave him or to stay and help him fight. All along, her joys—when she has them—are dampened by the sadness of having chosen against her children.

Mamah’s story ends in 1914 with a jarring, unexpected swing of a madman’s axe, but the concepts she embraced continue even to this day: whether the individual pursuit of happiness should take precedence over the familial, whether passion takes precedence over reason, whether a woman can “have it all.” In her book, Horan doesn’t make moral judgments, but rather she intelligently and compassionately illustrates the course one woman’s life took after she made a particular choice—not unlike tossing a rock into a river and seeing how the water flows around it. Having written novels that deal with dark subjects, I appreciate how Horan allows the reader to arrive at their own conclusions about the rightness or wrongness of Mamah’s decisions.

That’s the beautiful thing about reading—and writing—about the lives of invented (or partially invented) people. It allows us to try out our own unexpressed emotions, to undertake deep journeys into our souls, to test our own moral mettle within the safe confines of paper covers. Horan’s unobtrusive narrative and skillful construction make Loving Frank an ideal story in which to do just that.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, “Fallingwater,” in Mill Run, PA.