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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Nancy Horan, a former journalist and longtime resident of Oak Park, Illinois, now lives and writes on an island in Puget Sound.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Mamah stood. She moved slowly as she bundled up in her coat, slid on the tight kid gloves, tucked strands of wavy dark hair under her damp felt hat. She had a clear view of Frank beaming at the audience. She lingered there in the last row, blood pulsing in her neck, all the while watching his eyes, watching to see if they would meet hers. She smiled broadly and thought she saw a glimmer of recognition, a softening around his mouth, but the next moment doubted she had seen it at all.
Frank was gesturing to the front row, and the familiar red hair of Catherine Wright emerged from the audience. Catherine walked to the front and stood beside her husband, her freckled face glowing. His arm was around her back.
Mamah sank down in her chair. Heat filled up the inside of her coat.
On her other side, an old woman rose from her seat. “Claptrap,” she muttered, pushing past Mamah’s knees. “Just another little man in a big hat.”
Minutes later, out in the hallway, a cluster of women surrounded Frank. Mamah moved slowly with the crowd as people shuffled toward the staircase.
“May-mah!” he called when he spotted her. He pushed his way over to where she stood. “How are you, my friend?” He grasped her right hand, gently pulled her out of the crowd into a corner.
“We’ve meant to call you,” she said. “Edwin keeps asking when we’re going to start that garage.”
His eyes passed over her face. “Will you be home tomorrow? Say eleven?”
“I will. Unfortunately, Ed’s not going to be there. But you and I can talk about it.”
A smile broke across his face. She felt his hands squeeze down on hers. “I’ve missed our talks,” he said softly.
She lowered her eyes. “So have I.”
On her walk home, the snow stopped. She paused on the sidewalk to look at her house. Tiny iridescent squares in the stained-glass windows glinted back the late-afternoon sun. She remembered standing in this very spot three years ago, during an open house she and Ed had given after they’d moved in. Women had been sitting along the terrace wall, gazing out toward the street, calling to their children, their faces lit like a row of moons. It had struck Mamah then that her low-slung house looked as small as a raft beside the steamerlike Victorian next door. But what a spectacular raft, with the “Maple Leaf Rag” drifting out of its front doors, and people draped along its edges.
Edwin had noticed her standing on the sidewalk and come to put his arm around her. “We got ourselves a good times house, didn’t we?” he’d said. His face was beaming that day, so full of pride and the excitement of a new beginning. For Mamah, though, the housewarming had felt like the end of something extraordinary.
“Out walking in a snowstorm, were you?” Their nanny’s voice stirred Mamah, who lay on the living room sofa, her feet propped on the rolled arm. “I know, Louise, I know,” she mumbled. “Do you want a toddy for the cold you’re about to get?”
“I’ll take it. Where is John?”
“Next door with Ellis. I’ll get him home.”
“Send him in to me when he’s back. And turn on the lights, will you, please?”
Louise was heavy and slow, though she wasn’t much older than Mamah. She had been with them since John was a year old—a childless Irish nurse born to mother children. She switched on the stained-glass sconces and lumbered out.
When she closed her eyes again, Mamah winced at the image of herself a few hours earlier. She had behaved like a madwoman, cranking the car until her arm ached, then racing on foot through snow and ice to get a glimpse of Frank, as if she had no choice.
Once, when Edwin was teaching her how to start the car, he had told her about a fellow who leaned in too close. The man was smashed in the jaw by the crank and died later from infection.
Mamah sat up abruptly and shook her head as if she had water in an ear. In the morning I’ll call Frank to cancel.
Within moments, though, she was laughing at herself. Good Lord. It’s only a garage.
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you think that Mamah is right to leave her husband and children in order to pursue her personal growth and the relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright? Is she being selfish to put her own happiness and fulfillment first?
2. Why do you think the author, Nancy Horan, gave her novel the title Loving Frank? Does this title work against the feminist message of the novel? Is there a feminist message?
3. Do you think that a woman today who made the choices that Mamah makes would receive a more sympathetic or understanding hearing from the media and the general public?
4. If Mamah were alive today, would she be satisfied with the progress women have achieved or would she believe there was still a long way to go?
5. In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare writes, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments. Love is not love/That alters where it alteration finds. .." How does the relationship of Mamah and Frank bear out the sentiments of Shakespeare’s sonnet? What other famous love matches fill the bill?
6. Is Mamah’s story relevant to the women of today?
7. Is Frank Lloyd Wright an admirable figure in this novel? Would it change your opinion of him to know that he married twice more in his life?
8. What about Edwin Cheney, Mamah’s husband? Did he behave as you might have expected after learning of the affair between his wife and Wright?
9. Edwin’s philosophy of life and love might be summed up in the following words from the novel: "Tell her happiness is just practice. If she acted happy, she would be happy." Do you agree or disagree with this philosophy?
10. "Carved over Wright's fireplace in his Oak Park home are the words "Life is Truth." What do you think these words mean, and do Frank and Mamah live up to them?
11. Why do you think Horan chose to give her novel the epigraph from Goethe, "One lives but once in the world."?
12. When Mamah confesses her affair to her friend Mattie, Mattie demands, "What about duty? What about honor?" Discuss some of the different meanings that characters in the novel attach to these two words.
13. In analyzing the failure of the women’s movement to make more progress, Mamah says, "Yet women are part of the problem. We plan dinner parties and make flowers out of crepe paper. Too many of us make small lives for ourselves." Was this a valid criticism at the time, and is it one today?
14. Why does seeing a performance of the opera Mefistofele affect Mamah so strongly?
15. Why is Mamah's friendship with Else Lasker Schuler important in the book?
16. Ellen Key, the Swedish feminist whose work so profoundly influences Mamah, states at one point, "The very legitimate right of a free love can never be acceptable if it is enjoyed at the expense of maternal love." Do you agree?
17. Another of Ellen Key’s beliefs was that motherhood should be recompensed by the state. Do you think an idea like this could ever catch on in America? Why or why not?
18. Is there anything that Frank and Mamah could have done differently after their return to America that would have ameliorated the harsh welcome they received from the press? Have things changed very much in that regard today?
19. What part did racism play in Julian Carlton’s crime? Were his actions the product of pure insanity, or was he goaded into violence?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If I disliked Mamah (and I did), why do I feel so shocked and bothered? Nancy Horan does an amazing job, starting with her exhaustive research, in bringing these two characters back to life with all their warts. The enigma for me is that a woman depicted as being ahead of her time in espousing women's rights would sacrifice everything dear to her for the "love" of a man. With her intelligence and many wonderful gifts, Mamah could have lead a rich and exciting life; but instead, she ended up living a life secluded from the things and people she loved most. Whether it was her intention or not, the author does a good job of showing how decisions we make based on our own needs and gratification can have far reaching and unexpected consequences for those close to us and even for peripheral persons in our lives. The ending was unexpected and jarring. I loved this book for many reasons which surprised me because, as I said, I could not like Mamah or Frank. A great bood for discussion!
We read this book for our book club, as we mature women all agreed it was a very good book. We liked the historical pictures, newspaper clippings, and the fascinating insight the author delved into concerning the architectural works of the brilliant Frank Lloyd Wright. While loving Frank, and walking away from all she had by way of traditional motherhood and marriage, Maymah portrays a woman who is progressive, yet scandalized. One of the better books for a provocative discussion over coffee, for those of us who lived the women's rights movements, and still bemoan the glass ceiling... still discussing women's issues, as we venture along the way to the next rural homemakers club! Read the book.
What a terrific read! I love non fiction that sounds like fiction!! Truth is more horrific and unbelievable than anything that can be made up!! Loved it!! Another fabulous read that has many of the elements here, conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose, a woman seeking to find her own niche, her own creative calling, escape from a heartless, muderous husband.....courage, exotic locations, brilliant, compelling, rich in detail.......JUST FABULOUS ALL AROUND!! Should be on every woman's book club list!!!
Loving Frank charts the affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and his "muse" Mamah Borthwick Cheney from 1907 to 1914. It follows the couple through their travels in the Midwest and Europe as they search for a home-- or at least a place where they won't be persecuted outright for their affair. Centering on the tragic figure of Mamah, the book offers insights into both characters, Frank Lloyd Wright's growth as an architect during the period, and the time itself. Nancy Horan does a great job of painting a picture of the world Frank and Mamah were forced to navigate near the turn of the 20th century. In a strictly puritanical culture that censored women of a certain class who attempted to be anything other than wives and mothers and certainly did not support divorce, the two of them were virtual pariahs for much of their time together. Horan's research is meticulous and her recreation of Mamah Borthwick Cheney impressive, especially as nearly all of Mamah's writing was destroyed when she died. She does take a few glaring creative liberties as she details Mamah heartrending several of the bohemian literary lights of the age, but it's an excellent way to introduce these people as fascinating subjects in their own right. One small disappointment in Horan's research is that she does little to make the reader understand how truly extraordinary and privileged Mamah's life leading up to her first encounter with Frank truly was. She had access to automobiles and education, the opportunity to travel and live on her own away from her parents, and many other significant privileges and opportunities available to few women in her day. For me, the book presented an interest dynamic whereby I detested the main characters, more for their thoughtless self-absorption than for any flaw in their execution, but was engrossed by the story itself. Even though I read it for a book club, I would have finished it anyway if only to see what happened next. An excellent read for anyone interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, the history of Chicago, or looking for an account of an insider in the early American Woman's Movement. Highly recommended.
After reading this book, I did a little research on Frank Lloyd Wright. He must have been quite a character with charism coming out his pores! He had several women in love with him over his life time. I read this book on a recommendation from my sister. I knew nothing about it. I had studied Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture in college and thought it might be of some interest. Well, I couldn't put it down. I won't go into any detail, because I don't want to give anything away. I do have a warning. Do not read anything about this book. Do not do any research before hand on the characters, or it will spoil the ending.
IT WAS INTERESTING TO READ A LITTLE ABOUT HIS LIFE AND HOW ODD HE WAS FOR SOMEONE SO CREATIVE, KEPT ME ENTERTAINED
A little slow at times but definitely worth it
This novelization of the true relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress is a revelation of the roles of women in early 20th century America. The writing is accomplished, subtle and never boring. As the old saying goes, "truth is stranger than fiction". Really you couldn't make this up.
I finished Loving Frank late last night and well into this morning, I'm still pondering the book; 320 pages of an evenly paced reading U-turns at the remaining 30 pages with a plot twist I did not see coming and left me finishing the book with my chin on the floor and tears in my eyes. The story is based on the 7 year love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his married clients, Mamah Borthwick. Apparently there is very little historical documentation about Mamah's life, and certainly less about the love affair. To this end, Nancy Horan has done an amazing job of writing an exhaustive love story. One also gets a nice insight to the historical setting; early 20th century America/Europe in the throws of cultural transition, the women's suffrage movement, and the advent of Wright's groundbreaking "organic" architecture. At face value this makes for a well paced, historical fiction novel. Although I truthfully didn't like any of the characters in the book, least of all Wright, I could appreciate their torment in carrying on what at the time was a scandal of the highest order and I very much the story taken as a whole. However, the ending was just so shocking that I can honestly say I've finished this book completely dumbfounded. I cannot summarize Loving Frank in one word, but I will encourage others to read it. Rating: 4 our of 5 Stars Suggested With: Iced tea and a quiet summer afternoon.
Loving Frank introduced two central personalities. Frank Lloyd Wright is someone I've known of, but was never particulary interested in. My main lack of interest in him, was due to the fact that I never particularly cared for his style of architecture. Mamah Borthwick was someone I've never heard of; however, after reading Loving Frank, I feel I knew her intimately. This book took subjects I had no past interest in, and brought them to life in a very enjoyable fashion. I can't say I always agreed with her choices, but I understood how she came to make them. I was particularly interested in how difficult those choices made her, and his, life. Nancy Horan has done an admirable job of combining history and fiction, and I look forward to another novel she may write.
I did not know what this book was about when our book group picked it. I did not know much about Frank Lloyd Wright and his philandering. It was a very good story with wonderful characters that brought you back to an earler time in Amermican history. I was amazed that we could look up some really old articles in newspapers to verifty that this scandal had actually occured and verifty that there was press coverage. It is a combination of love story and adventure, with a tragic ending. It reads like fiction and is based on fact, which makes the story all the more fascinating.
The only drawback I think was the beginning......slow to get into. BUT, once you're there, you're hooked! I couldn't wait to 'stop' somewhere in my day to read!!!
Who was the woman who gave up her home and family when she chose to live with Frank Lloyd Wright? This novel answers that question with honesty and crisp detailed writing that brings the past alive. Of course, I knew the basic story: she was a client, between them they had nine children, Wright's wife did not allow a divorce, creating a scandal which gripped Chicago at the turn of the century. I did not know that Mamah Borthwick Cheney spoke multiple languages and learned Swedish to translate Ellen Key's essays imploring women to live an authentic life by being true to their emotional and intellectual nature. Had Mamah been less of a self-contained and highly educated intellectual she probably would have found the isolation manifested by the scandal more difficult to experience. Ah ... and the ending. Shocking.
There are very few books that I place in my top 5, all-time favorites, however, I believe that 'Loving Frank' has made it's place within my top 3. For Ms. Horan's first novel, she has made her mark in the literary world as truly a superb and gifted writer. From page one, she lulled my conscious into the year of 1907 and kept me there, page after page, an amazing fete within my range of reading. This book left me reeling for hours after I finished the very last word. I promise it will remain a favorite among readers both far and wide and is structurally embedded in the souls of those who venture into it. Bravo to Ms. Horan and thank you for enlightening the readers with an insight into the life of this remarkable woman, her struggles, her inner demons and her strengths. Let me also state, that in no way would I have chosen the roads that Mamah had chosen or made the decisions that she had made, for I am entirely of a different sort. Believing that my children will always be first in my life and in my soul, I can still appreciate the road she travelled and the heart and love which she encompassed for her self and the man she gave up all, for. Also, I have a new understanding of the man Frank Lloyd Wright was, and how easy it may have been to fall passionately and dedicatedly in love with such a personality. A 'Book Club' must read!
This was a great semi-biographical book about Mamah Cheney and her love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. If you enjoyed The Paris Wife and Z, you will love this! I couldn't put it down!
When I started this book, I had cursery knowledge of Frank Lloyd Wright, and knew nothing of his personal life. I knew of Martha Borthwick Chaney from her translations of Swedish Feminist Philosophy in passing footnotes in grad school. I rarely am captivated by novelized biography (historical fiction is a whole other matter: that I love) but this story is intriguing on many levels. Expectations of the property roles of women, abstract/modernism, 'free love', archectecture breaking the expected molds. Both Wright and Borthwick had the means to live as they chose. One could imagine what might happen if they hadn't. And the press was ruthless even in those days...... This isn't an easy book. Read the source info and acknowledgements to see how difficult it was to write. Its a really good read
It was a book club pick fascinating and a true story viewed by the side that no one hears about.
I wasn't very excited when my book club chose this book. I couldn't imagine a book about an architect being interesting. Was I ever surprised to find that it was more a love story and about the consequences that people must deal with as a result of their actions. It was even more compelling due to the fact that it was created out of actual events. Almost everyone in our book group looked up Frank Lloyd Wright when they were finished reading. It was an excellent book to generate thought and discussion.
I am not a huge reader and I couldn't put this book down. The ending is ABSOLUTELY mind blowing! I don't want to give anything away but it's shocking!! I loved the historic part to this book as I didn't know much about Frank.
Nancy Horan's historical novel about Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick is a fascinating read on several levels -- it's insight into the origins and philosophy of Wright's architectural style; it's historical perspective of the Woman Movement experienced by Borthwick; and, finally, it's honest portrayal of their love story and it's effect on their families. I think Ms.Horan has a bright future as a novelist, and look forward to her next book.
I loved this book! I could not put it down until I finished it. I then gave it to my best friend who also could not put it down and dropped it in the bath tub! Needless to say I bought myself another copy because it is too good a book to not have a copy! I knew some things about Frank Lloyd Wright but this book made me want to research and read more. Even though the book is written as fiction it is based on the facts of the time.
Historical fiction and the author's first book. Well written and interesting story told from the perspective of the other woman in his life. Good book for a book group because of the historical time period and the issues of equality and monogamy that it raises. Of course, it also has loads of interesting information about architecture and art and the development of Wright's style. A good read.
As an Architect I have read just about all the books written on FLW. Death in a Prairie House, which I read just before Loving Frank, was one of the best written for his life up to his change in life's perspective. I thought that Nancy Horan did a great job in mixing the facts available with a theorized fiction of how Mamah and FLW played out their agonizing affair. It seemed as if each knew that it all was to be doomed but kept on going thru with the "play" right up to the final curtain! In my mind it changed FLW's life in a way that gave him complete freedom to be in his own world without constant interference from the masses. This made him the icon he became in architecture. The question remains as to whether he would have gotten that far without the affair and sudden death of (his) Mamah. I personally beleive that he would not have acheived the fame without the changes that it made in his own mind. Breaking free of commonness into another realm is not easy to do by ones self. In a time period when other methods for freedom of mind where not available, FLW used this method. He was in charge of his own destiny from the beginning of his life. He sought fame. He used other people to get it and as far as we can figure out, did not care about the consequences. Mamah was being used by him; she did not have much choice because she was a weaker person. These have been my thoughts all along and Horan put them into a story that is truly remarkable. The depth of her insight into both lives is to be applauded. Great Work!
This book was impossible to put down. I knew of Frank Lloyd Wright before reading this book. Mostly that he was a famous architect. I had no idea what was awaiting me in the pages of this book. It has it all. History, love,passion, conflict, scandal,drama and oh my God the tragedy! I could not put this book down. It haunted me for days and then I stumbled upon The Women by T.C. Boyle which filled in some of the gaps and answered some of my questions about FLW's first and subsequent wives. This is a must read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.