Such a choking muddle of words suggests the biographer’s impassioned commitment to a subject he has failed to understand fully, because he so identifies with it, and has so immersed himself in it that his research could be continued ad infinitum, sprawling out horizontally to include anyone, anything, and any place Frank Lloyd Wright came near in his long lifetime. Biography as Möbius strip, inchoate, disorganized and disjointed, repetitive and exhaustive, for a torrential excess of words is finally a loss for words in awe of the extraordinary person “by almost universal acclaim … the most original architect the United States has produced … [and] one of the most creative architectural geniuses of all time” (Lewis Mumford).
The frustrating thing is that Hendrickson has clearly done a lot of research and largely knows his stuff, even if it takes him off on lengthy tangents, such as racial politics in the south or the sexual infidelities of a cousin, then into a sprawling mess of conjecture, innuendo and diversion. Has so much investigation ever been done to produce so little convincing evidence? It may be impossible to libel the dead, but Hendrickson certainly gives it a good go. Perhaps the telling line comes incidentally. He recounts how a group of Japanese tourists turned back for one last glimpse at Fallingwater as they left — and were so moved that they burst into tears. That’s what you really need to know about Frank Lloyd Wright. All the rest means nothing.
Hendrickson discusses enough major works, plus a sprinkling of his favourite minor ones, to give the novice reader a sense of what made Wright special. He finds in the work the same generosity of spirit, the same vaulting ambition, and sometimes the same absurdity and kitschiness, that he finds in the man.
The real achievement of this painstakingly researched, hugely digressive, wildly overwritten but ultimately moving book is that it persuades us that this vastly gifted but desperately flawed man might actually have been loveable. Given the titanic scale of his failings, that is quite something
Paul Hendrickson, whose previous book was a study of another oversize American figure, Ernest Hemingway, is riveted by what he calls Wright’s “life of Old Testament disaster and disarray”, and has written not a biography but a “biographical portrait”. While Wright extolled the “definitely decorative value of the plain surface”, Hendrickson’s proclivities are for the baroque. This is the most mannered book you are likely to read: self-referential, full of what-a-clever-boy-am-I writing, spattered with show-off phrase-making, and achingly self-aware... Hendrickson’s curlicues are, however, really an act of homage. He sees each event in Wright’s life as momentous, even though every existence, however exalted, has its longueurs and banalities. What his overheated treatment does press home is just how remarkable the architect was.
Hendrickson has no argument with Wright’s reputation as an architect of genius, an assessment that rests on five or six buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and Fallingwater, the sublime house perched over a waterfall in Pennsylvania. What he really wants to challenge is the legend of the “strutting, self-seeking, self-centred charmer” who helped himself to other men’s money and their wives, causing heartache and misery all around, then attempting to justify it by saying he preferred “honest arrogance to hypocritical humility”. Was there a capacity for regret, sadness and shame beneath that monstrous ego?
This book is not the place to begin if you want to know more. It is egregiously over-written with silly authorial interpolations such as “Then let it be arbitrarily stipulated”, or “Another kind of swirl, the swirls of what if”. Furthermore, it is perhaps 200 pages too long, because the author persists in drowning us in pointless paragraphs and unnecessary detail about marginal characters or incidents. This is detail masquerading as depth, a common fault in certain types of American journalism.
Hendrickson was a writer for the popular Style section of the Washington Post, latterly teaching writing workshops at the University of Pennsylvania. His easy-going and conversational manner disguises impressive research in a sprawling book about a sprawling life. It is an amiable and enjoyable read if, on occasions, a little too nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Unfortunately, the lines are set to a length that makes the reading of it physically uncomfortable.