The Taliesin Tragedy, August 15, 1914

Posted by George Pudlo on December 5, 2011 at 6:10 PM


Perhaps the most intriguing and dramatic chapter of Frank Lloyd Wright's personal life came in the summer of 1914, when 7 people, his mistress and her children included, were murdered and Taliesin burned to the ground. 

The story began more than a decade earlier, when Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Cheney to build a house for them in Oak Park, only several blocks away from where Frank Lloyd Wright lived with his wife Catherine "Kitty" Wright (nee Tobin). Mamah Borthwick married Edwin Cheney, a handsome traveling salesman turned wealthy manufacturer, and Edwin desired a house that reflected his new financial status. Frank Lloyd Wright, at that point, was an in demand architect for the wealthier residents of Oak Park, IL. Mamah would have been aware of Frank Lloyd Wright and his modern houses, particularly because Mamah and Kitty were both members of Oak Park's women's club. Busy with his career, Edwin left the responsibilities of working with the architect to Mamah. What started off as a professional relationship quickly developed into an infatuation and emotional affair.

Frank and Kitty had married young. He was twenty-two, and she still in her teens, when they wed in 1889, the same year Wright built his Oak Park home on Forest Avenue in Oak Park. By the time the Cheney commission occurred in 1903, the Wright's had six children running around their shingled house. Wright, just as preoccupied with his career as Cheney, and Kitty, busy tending to their family, grew apart. After the Cheney House was completed, Frank and Mamah continued to meet, and emotional affair led to physical affair. 

The two would often be seen galavanting through Oak Park in Frank Lloyd Wright's convertible. Rumors spread throughout the tight knit Oak Park community, although Kitty remained somewhat oblivious, or at least selectively ignored what was happening. By 1909, Wright tired of his life in Oak Park. He loved his children, but admitted to loving his role as architect more so. Wright had been communicating with Berlin publisher, Ernst Wasmuth, to publish a portfolio of his entire collection of work up until that point. And in October of 1909, Wright departed for Europe to work on the portfolio. Mamah, also departed for Europe. Wright and Mamah did not stay with one another, most likely because Frank Lloyd Wright's nineteen year old son Frank Lloyd Wright Jr, and one of Wright's employees, joined him to work on the Wasmuth Portfolio. During this year in Europe, Wright settled in Florence, Italy, even though the publishing office was in Berlin, Germany. Mamah worked out of Leipzig, Germany where she translated poetry. The two met often. 

Upon their return to the States one year later, Wright was still unable to reconcile with his wife Kitty. Edwin had filed for divorce from Mamah by this point, and Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick (she took back her maiden name) then moved to Spring Green, Wisconsin, to the land of the almighty Lloyd-Jones'. Frank Lloyd Wright's mother Anna gave him a piece of the land that her family had owned for generations, and Wright built his second home and studio, Taliesin, which he would maintain for the rest of his life. 

The illegitimate relationship between Frank and Mamah was a public scandal, often making headlines in the Chicago Tribune. Taliesin became known as the "Love Bungalow". Neighbors in Spring Green were reluctant to accept the woman. Back in Oak Park, Kitty remained with their six children, only in smaller quarters. She refused to divorce Wright, claiming he was under a strange influence and that he would return. Wright, not wanting to entirely abandon his family, converted their Oak Park home into two rentable apartments to subsidize the living costs of the family, while converting the studio into living quarters for the family, where Kitty remained until 1925. 

As time passed, Frank and Mamah's relationship was gradually tolerated by the Spring Green community, and they even grew to respect the charming and artistic Mamah. By 1914, the two lovers had everything they wanted. Frank Lloyd Wright was still in high demand as an architect, and they were finally at peace in their nature inspired Taliesin home. Being that Spring Green was a rural community of mostly famers, Wright would take frequent trips to Chicago, where he still maintained an office.

On July 27th, 1914, the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Midway Gardens opened to the public, despite still needing a few final touches. This geometric beer and music garden was located in the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. Wright was living there temporarily while they added the final touches, when on August 15th, he received a phone call indicating there had been a fire at Taliesin. He grabbed his son John, who was assisting him at the Midway Gardens, and the two quickly raced to Union Station to travel back to Madison, and then on to Spring Green. 

Coincidentally, Edwin Cheney ended up being on the same train car as Frank and John Wright. He had also been notified of the fire because his two children with Mamah were visiting Taliesin for the summer. The two had no idea of the extent of the fire.  By the time they arrived at Taliesin, it was in black ruins. The tragedy was unconceivable. And this was no accident. 

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick had household servants that assisted in the daily routines of Taliesin. One of these servants was named Julian Carlton, an immigrant from Barbados. His wife Gertrude was the cook. And up until the event that transpired, they were considered to be mild mannered servants. But while Frank Lloyd Wright was in Chicago, Mamah fired Julian and Gertrude because of strange behavior on Julian's part, and the servant snapped. He poured gasoline around the perimeter of the Taliesin home, and locked all of the doors and windows shut, with only one exit. After lighting Taliesin on fire, Julian Carlton brutally murdered  Mamah and her two children with a shingling axe to an unrecognizably mutilated state.

In all, seven people would perish: Mamah Borthwick, Wright's beloved mistress; John and Martha Cheney, the children of Edwin Cheney and Mamah Borthwick; Tom Brunker, David Lindblom, and Emil Brodelle, all employees of Mr. Wright; and a thirteen year old boy, Ernest Weston, the son of a draughtsman.

When Wright and Cheney arrived at Taliesin, it was all over. 700 neighbors had come to help and were making their way back to their farms. Half the house was missing, and Frank was left with nothing. Only his studio survived. As for Julian Carlton, he was discovered hiding in the basement furnace. The neighbors who came to help, searched for Carlton and planned to lynch him, but the sheriff took him into custody. He died a few weeks later in jail; he had tried to kill himself by drinking acid the night of the tragedy. Gertrude was released after they could not prove she had anything to do with the massacre. 

Mamah was burried at Taliesin, where Wright would be burried nearly half a century later in 1959. The children's remains were taken back to Oak Park by Edwin. While most people would have surely abandoned the property, Wright rebuilt, almost immediately. He changed the appearance of the location where the disaster happened, so as to not be constantly reminded, but he used leftover debris mixed in with the new materials so Mamah's memory would live on. 

Categories: Frank Lloyd Wright Biography, Taliesin

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Reply Henry
11:20 PM on May 5, 2013 
I did not know.
Reply Bubaloozy
10:04 PM on February 12, 2014 


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