Over the Thanksgiving holiday, RM and I had the opportunity to visit the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. I’ve wanted to visit Fallingwater for years, but I never made it there—until now.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Fallingwater, Frank designed the home for the Kaufmann family—owners of the department store—in 1935 and finished the home in 1937. It was designated an historic landmark in 1966 and was listed on Smithsonian’s list of 28 places to see before you die in 2008.
The timing of our visit was especially perfect because I recently finished the historical fiction book, Loving Frank, which tells the story of Frank’s love affair with Mamah Borthwick. If you haven’t read the book and you don’t want the ending spoiled, then you shouldn’t read further OR Google anything about Mamah Borthwick. I really do think the book is best experienced if you don’t know how it ends. That’s the spoiler alert, folks. Read on at your own risk!
Loving Frank tells the story of the scandalous love affair between Frank and Mamah Borthwick (Mamah Cheney at the time), the wife of one of Frank’s clients, from 1907-1914. Not much is known about Mamah, so the author hinges the story on a handful factual events and information, largely creating a work of fiction told from Mamah’s point of view. Together, Mamah and Frank leave their spouses and children for Europe but eventually have to come back to reality, only to find that their reputations have been tarnished in Chicago society. Frank returns to his family, mostly due to the fact that his wife Catherine will not grant him a divorce.
Mamah, on the other hand, is steadfast in her decision to leave her marriage and views it as a form of feminist liberation, convincing herself that she will be happier with Frank, and by extension, her kids will be happier as well. What Mamah finds as she slowly gives up her own intellectual pursuits and becomes more engulfed in her romance with Frank, is that she has sacrificed her relationship with her children, almost to the point that it is irreparable. The author does a fantastic job of painting the picture of a woman who slowly starts to feel the regret of choosing the instant gratification and tempting passion of a love affair over her maternal love for her children.
In 1914, Mamah finally begins to rebuild her relationship with her children while they are visiting the home Frank built for her in Wisconsin when her and her children are brutally murdered by their cook. A tragic end that I certainly did not see coming!
While I didn’t agree with Mamah’s or Frank’s choice to leave their families, I couldn’t help but feel compassion for them. They found happiness in each other and had a way of making the other come alive. Who doesn’t want to feel that way? Interestingly, I found the ending of this book strikingly different from the story we often read in books today and increasingly in our culture. For example, I would argue that books-turned-movies, Eat Pray Love and Wild, encourage the same type of “feminist liberation,” Mamah was searching for in the early 1900s. Yet in these modern stories, everything magically works out for the better in the end. The women find happiness after leaving their husbands to pursue their own interests. We all applaud and admire them for it. We give them book deals, million dollar movie deals, and Golden Globe nominations for the actresses portraying them. Is it possible that after more than a hundred years women are still searching for the same things, just with a different backdrop? And at what cost? Would we feel the same way if it were men who left their wives in pursuit of liberation and being true to one’s self? Would we applaud them or would we call them jerks?
If Mamah were alive today, would she tell us that she would have chosen differently? Maybe. Maybe not. Part of me hopes she would for the sake of her children and husband, but if I’m honest, the other part of me loves her romance with Frank—eccentric, self-centered, talented Frank. –And we all love a good tragedy, don’t we?
As RM and I walked the grounds of Fallingwater, I imagined Frank walking those grounds, so many years ago. Did he think of Mamah as he designed the home? Did he miss her? Or was Mamah merely a distant memory, as he went on to marry two other women after Catherine finally granted him a divorce in 1922. At the time of Fallingwater, Frank was married to his third and final wife, with whom he stayed married until he died in 1959.
Have you read Loving Frank? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think Mamah ultimately regrets her choice to leave her family for Frank? Should she have chosen differently? How do you think women’s approaches to marriage and love affairs have changed (or haven’t changed) over the past 100 years? Did Mamah and Frank really love each other or was this lust? How has learning of Frank’s multiple affairs and marriages following Mamah’s death impacted your view of his relationship with and feelings toward Mamah?