Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review | Taliesin Diary

Cover of Taliesin Diary (2012)

Priscilla J. Henken, Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright. New York, Norton, 2012. 272 pp., illus. 30 b&w photographs. Trade, $34.95. ISBN 978-0-393-73380-8.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens

IN 1934, AMERICAN expatriate author Gertrude Stein returned to the US for the first time since moving to Paris in 1905. Accompanied by her companion, Alice B. Toklas (whom she had secretly married in 1908), she toured the country giving talks to promote her new (and perhaps most enduring) book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

When she spoke at the University of Wisconsin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was in the audience (she said he looked familiar, but could not remember why). Apparently, Frank and Gertrude and Alice had met earlier in Paris, at which time (as this diary notes) his impression was that Stein was “the most unattractive, uninteresting and dull person he had ever spoken to.” She dominated the conversation, he recalled, while the mute compliance of Alice gave new significance to her name—she was of course, reported Wright, “Alice be talkless.” In Madison, Wright invited the pair to return with him to Taliesin, his famous home and school nearby, en route to their next engagement. But they demurred (exchanging nudge-nudge glances) for the reason, they said, that they liked to travel by airplane. “We want to fly to Milwaukee,” they said.

This book is called Taliesin Diary because its primary text is the diary of an American Jewish woman who lived (along with her husband) with Wright and his wife Oglivanna, their family, and student apprentices for nearly a year at Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin. The diarist was Priscilla Henken, a New York-born high school English teacher, who traveled to Taliesin in October 1942 with her husband, research engineer David Henken. Together, they “slaved” as apprentices in Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship until she left (apparently rather abruptly) in August 1943, to return to teaching in New York, while her husband stayed on until later.

I have read dozens of published diaries from which I have concluded that not all diaries are worth reading. But this one is fascinating, largely because it is candid (albeit often painfully so) and well written. It is especially honest about the corrosive influence of Wright’s third wife Oglivanna (they had married in 1928), who, by more than one account, was the Rasputin of Taliesin. In page after page, don’t be surprised to be taken aback by the abrupt and usually damaging ways in which Mrs. Wright (“La Dame”) jostled to assert control over the apprentices, her aging husband (he was in his seventies then, and incapable of standing up to her), and others who were living and/or on the staff at Taliesin. more>>>

See also: Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016).