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The Scandalous Life and Deaths of Frank Lloyd Wright

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

We've chosen to pair Frank Lloyd Wright, "America's Greatest Architect " to many, with the Mint Julep, a quintessential American cocktail. (click here for the recipe) While his most famous works, the Guggenheim and Falling Water are considered masterpieces of modern architecture, they are not technically, modernist. (FLW's work clearly favors form over function, which would put it at odds with modernism.) It’s clear from his statements that he certainly didn’t consider himself a modernist and that he hated modernism or as it was then known “The International Style”. In 1953 he published a statement accusing the Museum of Modern Art of acting as “professional publicist” for the dreaded International Style which he denounced as an “evil crusade” and “totalitarianism”. (1) He also accused the museum of “ a sinister attempt to betray organic American architecture” of which he obviously saw himself as a proponent. The reason for these accusations was that the museum had the temerity to put together a show on post-war architecture (which I can only surmise) he was not a part of.

Almost as well known for his feuds as for his architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright was never one to hold back. He had strained relationships (to put it kindly) with clients, museums, and of course other architects. He had a decades-long beef with Rudolph Schindler, another modernist architect who had worked for him, which only ended on Schindler’s death bed, when his estranged wife begged FLW to write him. His relationship with Walter Gropius was only slightly better, they were described as “frenemies” by Lolly Mitchell, a former TAC employee and close friend. Curiously Philip Johnson did include him in his ground breaking show “The International Style” at the Museum of Modern Art, which introduced modernism to America in 1932. However this was more a marriage of convenience. Philip Johnson realized that the exhibit was heavily weighted toward European architects and needed more US architects, and FLW whose career was somewhat stalled at the time recognized the immense marketing potential. He agreed to participate, but had this to say (to Philip Johnson) about the exhibition:

“In short, Philip my King, a strange an undignified crowd you are, all pissing through the same quill or pissing on each other. I am heartily ashamed to be caught with my flap open in the circumstances.”(1)

Unsurprisingly, FLW’s personal life was equally as messy as his professional one. His first wife was the Chicago socialite Catherine Lee Tobin. They were married in 1889 and had six children. However in 1903 while working in Chicago, Wright fell in love with a client’s wife, Martha Borthwick Cheney ( known as Mamah- pronounced Mayma) and the two embarked on a relationship- hardly what one would call a smart business move. Martha’s husband divorced her but Catherine would not grant FLW a divorce until 1923. FLW and Mamah continued their relationship despite this, scandalizing the city of Chicago. The negative publicity affected FLW’s career for some time and the two abandoned their families ( and Wright’s practice!) and fled to Europe together in 1909. They returned to start a new life in Wisconsin where FLW built the first Taliesin. Their happiness was cut short by Mamah’s brutal murder (as well as that of her children) and the arson of Taliesin in August of 1914. The unstoppable FLW moved on with his life, rebuilding Taliesin by the following December and becoming involved with Maud Miriam Noel. After multiple years together the two were finally able to marry in 1923. (After Catherine finally granted him a divorce.) Alas the marriage did not last long and Maud moved out. Undeterred, FLW moved on yet again and met his last wife Oligivana, a 20 something dancer from Montenegro, while they were both still married. In 1925 Olgivanna moved in with Wright to Taliesin East (in Wisconsin) and gave birth to their daughter Iovanna. They wed in Ranch Santa Fe California in 1928. Believe it or not this marriage actually stuck. According to her 1985 New York Times obituary, Olgivanna ran both Taliesins and the FLW Foundation for decades after his death and was an “outspoken defender” of his work, life, and legacy. Perhaps this accounts for why, until recently, there was so little written or mentioned about the shocking violence that took place in 1914 at the first Taliesin. Go figure…

That 1914 massacre has, in fact, been described as one of the biggest mass murders to take place in the state of Wisconsin. As someone who did her best to contain any negative information about FLW’s personal life or work, it seems plausible that Olgivanna didn’t want the episode explored or even discussed. The original Taliesin East in Wisconsin was built in 1911, as a place for FLW and Mamah Cheney to live away from the scrutiny and censure over their unorthodox living arrangements. (Don’t forget that they were un-married and living together while FLW was technically still married to his first wife, Catherine.) The locals however were just as scandalized as the people of Chicago and referred to the compound as the “Love Cottage”. On August 15 in 1914, while FLW was away in Chicago , a handy-man/servant named Julian Carlton brandished an ax and brutally killed Martha, her two children and several other people in the house. (The architecture practice was run out of the house so there were quite a few people working there at the time.) He then locked the doors to the house, and set it on fire. As people trapped inside attempted to flee the burning building, Carlton patiently waited outside and let the would-be victims come to him. In Chicago, FLW was told there had been a terrible accident and immediately took a train from Chicago to Wisconsin. He was not informed of the mass murder until he arrived in Wisconsin. His cousin Richard Lloyd-Jones, a journalist in Wisconsin met him on the platform. Eight people died including Carlton himself who had swallowed muriatic acid the day of the murders but died weeks later. Despite questioning he never gave a reason for his rampage. At the time, this episode of shocking violence was portrayed as just retribution for the “immoral” or unconventional lifestyles of FLW and Mamah. But it would appear from the facts, that Carlton was attempting to kill everyone in the building – not just Mamah and her children. None of the theories that have been floated, from anger over a sudden firing, to racist (Carlton was black) remarks, or religious disgust at their "immoral" living arrangement, could possibly justify such an act. It seems clear (to me) that this was a tragic episode of what we would classify today as workplace violence caused by mental illness.

What is equally curious about this episode is that while FLW seems to have suffered little (if any) emotional trauma from this event, it profoundly affected his cousin Richard Lloyd-Jones for the worse. Paul Hendriksen makes the case in his book, “Plagued by Fire: The dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright” that this event was a pivotal moment in Lloyd-Jones’ life, encouraging his already racist viewpoint to harden into racial hatred. So much so that in 1921, Lloyd-Jones published an editorial in the Tulsa Tribune that many believed inspired the 1921 Greenwood Massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Even today, there is almost no mention of this brutal murder on the Taliesin website, except for one very brief sentence. “In 1914, arson destroyed the living quarters of Taliesin – one-third of the house – and seven were murdered.” Like Frank Lloyd-Wright himself, the official history instantly moves on to the re-built Taliesin.

Don't miss the post on Olgivana- It's a doozy! Check it out here

Sources and Notes (1) Letter from Rene d’Harnoncourt to Museum of Modern Art Staff staff, June 19, 1953 MoMA archives

(2) Franz Schulze, pp.83

Paul Hendriksen, Plagued by Fire: The dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd -Wright, Alfred A Knopf, 2019*

Christopher Klein, ‘The Massacre at Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Love Cottage” ‘ June 2017

Franz Schulze Philip Johnson Life and Work, University of Chicago Press 1994 *Prior to reading/purchasing this book you may want to read Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s review/rebuttal in the New York Times:


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