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Tuesday, September 27

Gapers Block

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The most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright's celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. The details of that shocking crime have been largely ignored by Wright's legion of biographers — a historical and cultural gap that is finally addressed by William Drennan, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin — Baraboo/Sauk County, in his exhaustively researched Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders (University of Wisconsin Press).

Join Drennan at one of two book signings on April 28. From 10am to noon he will be at Robie House, 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, then from 1:30pm to 3:30pm he will be at Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Avenue, Oak Park. At both venues Drennan will answer questions for his absorbing new book.

Q: Have you found that the idea of "artistic license" plays a role within the biographer's craft? Or is "artistic license" something that has no place in biography?

Drennan: At the very beginning of the project, I may have been so naïve as to have thought of myself as a purveyor of objective fact, a transcriber of mere reality. It didn't take long, however, to realize that writing any biography involves committing an act of fiction. I never wittingly lied, of course, and I tried to keep the facts straight. But which facts? Ah, there's the rub: out of the mountains of available material, the biographer inevitably picks and chooses, sifts and winnows, includes and excludes. What finally emerges from these series of selections is a theme or thesis, argued to the exclusion of all other possible themes and theses. In that sense, then, cobbling together a biography becomes as imaginative and factitious an exercise as fiction writing.

Q: The artist must be publicized, no doubt. However, it increasingly seems as if one's personality, the artist's personality, substantiates his or her work as art. As a biographer, do you believe art could exist apart from the artist? Could art be better if the artist were absent?

Drennan: The danger here is not so much one of the cult of the personality as it is the temptation to forge a facile, one-to-one identification between the artist on the one hand and his or her production on the other. My beginning literature students, for example, typically want to make such an equation between, say, Jonathan Swift as a biographical figure and the persona he adopts in "A Modest Proposal," which assumption leads to an utter misreading of Swift's text, of his satiric aims.

But that point conceded, sometimes the artist himself insists that the audience should identify him quite closely with his work. Take, for example, the confessional poets (Lowell, Plath, Snodgrass, and so on) who often make the cartography of their own emotional illness the subject matter of their poetry. I think, all in all, that Wright was an artist of this latter sort: again and again in his writings and speeches, he invites his audience to see his buildings and designs as extensions of his own imperial self. He called his houses his "children." Not for nothing is Taliesin referred to as Wright's "[auto]biography in wood and stone." In my book, I quote approvingly from William Cronon, who observes that "Wright himself clearly believed his architecture to be an organic expression of the very personality that, in many ways, seems so problematic."

For Wright, the idea of art divorced from the artist would be an alien concept, I think — as troubling and problematic to him as the deus absconditus is to the orthodox theologian.

Q: At what point, if any, during your writing of Death in a Prairie House did the magnitude of what you were bringing to light take on a disquieting tone? I guess I'm asking if at any point during your writing of the book did you get a bit freaked?

Drennan: It turns out that I developed (or always had) a high threshold for the blood, gore and human terror that is intimately tied up with the sensationalistic aspects of the crime. This is not a point of pride, but there you have it. What did disturb me was the rapacity of many folks in southwest Wisconsin to believe the worst about Wright; this fact became all too evident during my field work. And I was dismayed as well by the endemic racism of the contemporary journalistic coverage of the crime — not just in Wisconsin, but as far away as cosmopolitan New York.

At a recent book signing in Baraboo, two lovely women, smiling and gracious, came up to talk with me. They turned out to be the daughter and grand-daughter of Herb Fritz, a draftsman at the first Taliesin and one of only two survivors of the massacre. I thought to myself, "Wow, if Herb Fritz, way back in 1914, hadn't flung himself through a window just in time, these two women would not be here." In some ways, that experience moved me more profoundly than did the recounting of the crime itself. The abstract had become concrete. And therefore real.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to

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