I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current. So writes Mamah Borthwick Cheney in her diary as she struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years earlier, in 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives. In this ambitious debut novel, fact and fiction blend together brilliantly. While scholars have largely relegated Mamah to a footnote in the life of America's greatest architect, author Nancy Horan gives full weight to their dramatic love story and illuminates Cheney's profound influence on Wright. Drawing on years of research, Horan weaves little-known facts into a compelling narrative, vividly portraying the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual. Horan's Mamah is a woman seeking to find her own place, her own creative calling in the world. Mamah's is an unforgettable journey marked by choices that reshape her notions of love and responsibility, leading inexorably ultimately lead to this novel's stunning conclusion. Elegantly written and remarkably rich in detail, Loving Frank is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman, a national icon, and their timeless love story. Advance praise for Loving Frank: "Loving Frank is one of those novels that takes over your life. It's mesmerizing and fascinating-filled with complex characters, deep passions, tactile descriptions of astonishing architecture, and the colorful immediacy of daily life a hundred years ago-all gathered into a story that unfolds with riveting urgency." -Lauren Belfer, author of City of Light "This graceful, assured first novel tells the remarkable story of the long-lived affair between Frank Lloyd Wright, a passionate and impossible figure, and Mamah Cheney, a married woman whom Wright beguiled and led beyond the restraint of convention. It is engrossing, provocative reading." --Scott Turow "It takes great courage to write a novel about historical people, and in particular to give voice to someone as mythic as Frank Lloyd Wright. This beautifully written novel about Mamah Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright's love affair is vivid and intelligent, unsentimental and compassionate." --Jane Hamilton "I admire this novel, adore this novel, for so many reasons: The intelligence and lyricism of the prose. The attention to period detail. The epic proportions of this most fascinating love story. Mamah Cheney has been in my head and heart and soul since reading this book; I doubt she'll ever leave." -Elizabeth Berg From the Hardcover edition.
Horan's ambitious first novel is a fictionalization of the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, best known as the woman who wrecked Frank Lloyd Wright's first marriage. Despite the title, this is not a romance, but a portrayal of an independent, educated woman at odds with the restrictions of the early 20th century. Frank and Mamah, both married and with children, met when Mamah's husband, Edwin, commissioned Frank to design a house. Their affair became the stuff of headlines when they left their families to live and travel together, going first to Germany, where Mamah found rewarding work doing scholarly translations of Swedish feminist Ellen Key's books. Frank and Mamah eventually settled in Wisconsin, where they were hounded by a scandal-hungry press, with tragic repercussions. Horan puts considerable effort into recreating Frank's vibrant, overwhelming personality, but her primary interest is in Mamah, who pursued her intellectual interests and love for Frank at great personal cost. As is often the case when a life story is novelized, historical fact inconveniently intrudes: Mamah's life is cut short in the most unexpected and violent of ways, leaving the narrative to crawl toward a startlingly quiet conclusion. Nevertheless, this spirited novel brings Mamah the attention she deserves as an intellectual and feminist. (Aug.)
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1 . Interesting story
Posted July 16, 2009 by Polly , AnaheimI knew of Frank Lloyd Wright, but not the story of his affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. I read the book because of Mr. Wright, but I enjoyed the compelling story of the strong and loving woman that was Mamah. Since I didn't know my history, the end was certainly a shocker. It was a good read.
August 06, 2007
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Excerpt from Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
Mamah Cheney sidled up to the Studebaker and put her hand sideways on the crank. She had started the thing a hundred times before, but she still heard Edwin's words whenever she grabbed on to the handle. Leave your thumb out. If you don't, the crank can fly back and take your thumb right off. She churned with a fury now, but no sputter came from beneath the car's hood. Crunching across old snow to the driver's side, she checked the throttle and ignition, then returned to the handle and cranked again. Still nothing. A few teasing snowflakes floated under her hat rim and onto her face. She studied the sky, then set out from her house on foot toward the library.
It was a bitterly cold end-of-March day, and Chicago Avenue was a river of frozen slush. Mamah navigated her way through steaming horse droppings, the hem of her black coat lifted high. Three blocks west, at Oak Park Avenue, she leaped onto the wooden sidewalk and hurried south as the wet snow grew dense.
By the time she reached the library, her toes were frozen stumps, and her coat was nearly white. She raced up the steps, then stopped at the door of the lecture hall to catch her breath. Inside, a crowd of women listened intently as the president of the Nineteenth Century Woman's Club read her introduction.
"Is there a woman among us who is not confronted--almost daily--by some choice regarding how to ornament her home?" The president looked over her spectacles at the audience. "Or, dare I say, herself?" Still panting, Mamah slipped into a seat in the last row and flung off her coat. All around her, the faint smell of camphor fumes wafted from wet furs slung across chair backs. "Our guest speaker today needs no introduction . . ."
Mamah was aware, then, of a hush spreading from the back rows forward as a figure, his black cape whipping like a sail, dashed up the middle aisle. She saw him toss the cape first, then his wide-brimmed hat, onto a chair beside the lectern.
"Modern ornamentation is a burlesque of the beautiful, as pitiful as it is costly." Frank Lloyd Wright's voice echoed through the cavernous hall. Mamah craned her neck, trying to see around and above the hats in front of her that bobbed like cakes on platters. Impulsively, she stuffed her coat beneath her bottom to get a better view.
"The measure of a man's culture is the measure of his appreciation," he said. "We are ourselves what we appreciate and no more."
She could see that there was something different about him. His hair was shorter. Had he lost weight? She studied the narrow belted waist of his Norfolk jacket. No, he looked healthy, as always. His eyes were merry in his grave, boyish face.
"We are living today encrusted with dead things," he was saying, "forms from which the soul is gone. And we are devoted to them, trying to get joy out of them, trying to believe them still potent."
Frank stepped down from the platform and stood close to the front row. His hands were open and moving now, his voice so gentle he might have been speaking to a crowd of children. She knew the message so well. He had spoken nearly the same words to her when she first met him at his studio. Ornament is not about prettifying the outside of something, he was saying. It should possess "fitness, proportion, harmony, the result of all of which is repose."
The word "repose" floated in the air as Frank looked around at the women. He seemed to be taking measure of them, as a preacher might.
"Birds and flowers on hats . . ." he continued. Mamah felt a kind of guilty pleasure when she realized that he was pressing on with the point. He was going to punish them for their bad taste before he saved them.
Her eyes darted around at the plumes and bows bobbing in front of her, then rested on one ersatz bluebird clinging to a hatband. She leaned sideways, trying to see the faces of the women in front of her.
She heard Frank say "imitation" and "counterfeit" before silence fell once again.
A radiator rattled. Someone coughed. Then a pair of hands began clapping, and in a moment a hundred others joined in until applause thundered against the walls.
Mamah choked back a laugh. Frank Lloyd Wright was converting them--almost to the woman--before her very eyes. For all she knew five minutes ago, they could just as well have booed. Now the room had the feeling of a revival tent. They were getting his religion, throwing away their crutches. Every one of them thought his disparaging remarks were aimed at someone else. She imagined the women racing home to strip their overstuffed armchairs of antimacassars and to fill vases with whatever dead weeds they could find still poking up through the snow.