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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Scandals

While Frank Lloyd Wright’s brand of Organic Modernism proved appealing to progressive clients in Cincinnati, Wright himself did not seem so attractive. Only in the last half-decade of his life did he receive commissions in the city. From 1954-59, he designed three residences for Cincinnati: the Boulter, Tonkens, and Boswell Houses. Wright’s frequent public scandals from 1909-1927, and their unflattering appearance in national newspapers, including some in the Cincinnati papers, may have cost him potential jobs in the rather conservative city, even among Modernist-oriented clients. Cincinnati commissions came to Wright only in the last few years of his life when his scandals were forgotten and he became indisputably America’s most famous architect.

A brief summary of Wright’s “newsworthy” scandals:

Cincinnati newspapers are highlighted in red; and other city papers are highlighted in yellow

In 1909, Wright began an adulterous affair with Mamah (Borthwick) Cheney, the wife of Edwin H. Cheney. The Cheneys had been the architect's clients for a house built in 1903 in Oak Park, Illinois, not far from Wright’s own home-office. Wright left his wife and children in Oak Park and went to Berlin, where Mrs. Cheney joined him.

The Spokane Press (November 13, 1909)

The Spokane Press, November 13, 1909. ProQuest Historical Newspapers

Between 1912 and 1914, while still legally married to his first wife Catherine, Wright moved Mamah Borthwick (by then divorced from Mr. Cheney) into Taliesin, his combined home and office near Spring Green, Wisconsin. They lived together there, unmarried, for three years.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Aug 6, 1911)

Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 6, 1911; ProQuest Historical Newspapers

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In 1914, a mentally imbalanced servant set Taliesin afire and attacked its residents with a hatchet. He killed seven people, including a number of Wright’s draftsmen and his mistress, Mamah Borthwick and her two children by Mr. Cheney.

The Pensacola Journal (August 21, 1914)

The Pensacola Journal, August 21, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers

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In 1914-15, while still legally married to his first wife Catherine, Wright began an affair with Maud Miriam Noel and moved her into the rebuilt Taliesin.

The Grand Forks Daily Herald (November 12, 1915)

The Grand Forks Daily Herald, November 12, 1915; ProQuest Historical Newspapers

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In 1922, Wright finally divorced his first wife, Catherine. He married Miriam Noel in 1923.

In 1925, while still legally married to his second wife, Miriam, Wright began living with Olgivanna (Lazovich) Hinzenberg, with whom he had an illegitimate child, Iovanna.

In 1926, Wright’s second wife, Miriam, brought legal action against him. This forced the architect and his mistress Olgivanna into hiding. Simultaneously, Olgivanna’s former husband, Valdemar Hinzenberg, pursued the couple in order to gain legal custody of his and Olgivanna's daughter, Svetlana, who had stayed with her mother. Wright was accused by the authorities of violating the Mann Act [a U.S. Federal law passed in 1910 that made it a felony to transport any woman or girl for prostitution, debauchery, or other "immoral” purposes—though the law’s intent was not to criminalize consenting sexual behavior between adults]. Wright and Olgivanna were arrested in Minnesota, though the charges were later dropped. Also in 1926, Wright’s bank attempted to foreclose upon Taliesin, which was mortgaged. In the face of all this, Wright and Olgivanna departed for California together.

The New York Times (July 17, 1926)

The New York Times, July 17, 1926; ProQuest Historical Newspapers

In 1927, Wright’s second wife, Miriam, pursued him and Olgivanna to California and attempted to have them arrested. In the same year, another fire at Taliesin destroyed much valuable art. Also, a part of Wright’s art collection was auctioned to pay his debts. In 1927, Wright’s wife Miriam finally granted him a divorce, which allowed he and Olgivanna to marry. This occurred in 1928. After this, Wright's life at Taliesin settled down and he and Olgivanna began taking live-in architectural pupils and apprentices. Olgivanna helped Wright to reorganize his life and contributed to his highly productive architectural practice.

The New York Times (July 12, 1928)

The New York Times, July 12, 1928; ProQuest Historical Newspapers

The New York Times (July 15, 1928)

The New York Times, July 15, 1928; ProQuest Historical Newspapers

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