the taliesin fellowship

Mr. Wright's People
Mrs. Wright's People


For a disclaimer, I have to admit that I hold a prejudiced point of view on this subject, but I will at least try to be objective in the presentation of a discussion on this issue.

The Wright's daughter, Iovanna, returned in June of 1949 from Paris where she had been studying for a time with Mrs. Wright’s mentor, Georgi Gurdjieff, (Curtis Besinger, Working with Mr. Wright, What It Was Like, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 200-201). This was the beginning of my third year in the Fellowship, and I suppose that I had been aware of Gurdjieff and his influence on Mrs. Wright, but his presence, or lack thereof, had no outward influence on me or the Fellowship at that time. Iovanna’s presence was pretty much the same.

Iovanna was always the princess or maybe Juliet in her balconied bower, but with no power, or role, in the hierarchy of the Fellowship, and hence was not even a minor player, in the daily life of the Fellowship. She was always just always there. I suppose that instinctively I never really trusted her and kept my distance; unearned privilege has its own cross to bear; the princess syndrome. I always felt sorry for Iovanna. Being a very ordinary progeny of two extraordinary people like Frank Lloyd and Olgivanna Wight was no easy role to play, but she had no choice in the matter. She was born to the part. 

Spring of 1949 the dynamics of her role would change. She was thrust into the limelight as the dance master of the Movements. I use the phrase, dance master, figuratively because that appellation is misleading. The movements were part and parcel of the Gurdjieff dogma and I don’t pretend, or desire, to understand the true significances of the movements to the initiated. The movements were presented to the Fellowship as coordination exercises, designed to make one more graceful in his or her physical movements. That sounded something worth trying out. We can all afford to be a bit more graceful. So I joined the Movements and moved my way through a year or so of self improvement by moving to the movement of the Movements. This was pretty serious stuff from Iovanna’s point of view, but from my uninformed point of view, I have to admit that I enjoyed participating in the exercises, partly as a matter of entertainment. After an evening session in the desert I was so stimulated that I couldn’t sleep for hours. But I always saw Iovanna as a mere puppet with Mrs. Wright in the background pulling the strings of a marionette. Nonetheless, it also had its comic moments.

One evening we were doing the Sword Dance and I was standing behind Heloise. In this routine the right arm is held straight up in the air and on command the arm is brought straight down in a rotary motion simulating removal of a subjects head with a sword. My fingers just clipped the derriere of the celebrated Heloise. On a repeat the same thing happened. And you guessed it, the third time around the same thing happened again. This tine Heloise burst into laughter and was summarily banished by Iovanna. This was serious stuff and no laughing matter. Another time we were asked to simulate humility and I thought that hanging my head and looking at the floor was adequate. Others were groveling on the floor, which was probably the preferred position.

Concurrent with the beginning of the Movements in Wisconsin in 1949, Mr. Wright was persuaded to read aloud from the writings of Gurdjieff in the living room at Hillside on Thursday afternoons. Attendance was mandatory. The readings lasted for two sessions, and the power of persuasion having waned, they were discontinued. Gurdjieff was a difficult read at best, and it was burdensome, to say the least, to attempt to understand what he was talking about. The situation was rendered moot anyway, except by the true believers, by Mr. Wright’s not continuing the readings. However, I did have an intellectual curiosity about such matters and did buy the Gurdjieff book All and Everything, along with corollary texts by Rudolph Steiner and P. D. Ouspensky, which I enjoyed reading. I found Gurdjieff to be unreadable, but then I was not, and had no desire to be, one of the anointed.

At the beginning of the next year, 1950, in Wisconsin I had come to the conclusion that the Movements were a device used by Mrs. Wright to install her philosophy into the framework of the Taliesin Fellowship. Having decided that this was not something in which I could to willingly participate, I decided to leave the Movements group. I was required to explain my decision to Mrs. Wright, not Iovanna, and gave here some lame ass excuse, which she clearly understood to be what it was. We all experience these protocols by which society functions.

In the spring of 1951, I was off to New Hampshire to supervise the construction of the Zimmerman house, returning a year later as a more mature apprentice by having had “the glory of the thing”, as Mr. Wright described the experience. However, after that glorious experience, it was back to the routine life at the Fellowship. In the winter of 1952/53 I was again “serving the family” as we used to describe the kitchen helper who was designated to serve the family. When in Arizona I was on my way from the little kitchen to the cove where the Wrights had breakfast. I encountered Mr. and Mrs. Wright on their way from the family quarters to the cove and engaged in a furious argument. Mr. Wright was in the lead, and it was obvious from the expression on his face that he was very angry. He was saying, “You are not going to turn this into a Gurdjieff institute. Not while I am alive.” Mrs. Wright was following with “But Fraaank.” This was all I needed to make “serving the family” palatable. My gut feeling had been vindicated.

Later that summer in Wisconsin I had my first, and last, “consultation” with Mrs. Wright. These probably had been going on for some time but this was the first time I was subjected to the process. I was not asked if I chose to, but merely informed that I was to have a consultation with Mrs. Wright. It was to take place in the Wright’s dining room at Hillside probably while Mr. Wright was taking his after lunch nap. I don’t think that he had any idea that these sessions were occurring. In fact, one day while serving the family I heard Mr. Wright tell Mrs. Wright, “Stay out of the personal lives of the apprentices,” an admonition she obviously did not heed.

One of the two things that I remember from my session was that, “Sex is no more than blowing your nose.” OK, you go blow your nose, I’ll have sex, and “I'll get to Scotland before ye.” The other was that, “You can’t sublimate your sexual needs. What you need is an older woman,” with no further specificity. Thankfully, I was sent to New York shortly thereafter, never returned to the Fellowship, and thus, was not subject further sessions of the guru and the sex-lorn. These sessions were an outrageous invasion of the apprentice privacy by some one who was egregiously unqualified to conduct such a counseling session. It is one thing to voluntarily seek advice the advice of an elder, and quite another to have that option “thrust” upon you Malvolio style. Had Mr. Wright been apprised of what was going on, he would have put an end to it immediately. I think the reason no one brought it to his attention is that no one wanted to foster discord between Mr. and Mrs. Wright. Going wiht the flow was just more productive.

Later that summer Mr. Wright asked Curtis Besinger and me to come to the drafting room with him after a Sunday morning breakfast. He had the plans for the Usonian House at the 60 Years of Living Architecture exhibition at the site of the future Guggenheim Museum in New York on his drafting board. He made changes that took about 20 minutes and then tossed his pencil down and said, “Now fix them. We need too send them to New York tomorrow.” We did fix the drawing and in the process erased everything Mr.. Wright had done, leaving no visible trace of his work. They were printed on Monday and Ken Lockhart and Tom Casey drove then to New York in an old Ford station wagon that I don’t ever remember having previously seen. On Wednesday Robin Molny, Morton Delson, and I left in the tractor and trailer and drove to up state New York to pick up a small exhibition and then on to New York, arriving on Sunday.

We were probably lucky that it was a Sunday. None of us had the required skills to back the tractor and trailer into the 5th Avenue parking lot of the museum and we had traffic tied up in both direction in our attempt to do so. Pretty soon a police squad car came along and I thought; “Now we are in trouble.” Instead of being trouble, one of the officers took a turn at trying to back the truck into the lot with no more success than we had achieved, so he just got back in the patrol car and left the scene. We did finally manage the task and that was that.

The pipe scaffolding frame for the exhibition building was well under way and David Henken, former apprentice and general contractor for the house, had the walls framed and was ready for the roof. By this time, the end of the first week Curtis Besinger and an additional 10 or 12 apprentices had arrived to assist in the construction of the house and pavilion. We needed all the help we could get. However, three weeks from the day they had left Taliesin, Ken Lockhart and Tom Casey left New York and returned to Taliesin. Why? I had not been aware that Mrs. Wright was planning a demonstration of the Movements at the theater at the Art Institute of Chicago a couple of weeks after Mr. Wright’s exhibition was due to open in New York. Tom and Ken made a conscious choice to return to Taliesin to serve Mrs. Wright’s interests instead of staying in New York and serving Mr. Wright’s interests. It was their choice to make. They were not employees or indentured servants but free willed apprentices capable of making choices, and they made their choice. Mrs. Wright made a similar request of Besinger some where along the line and he politely declined her request by telling her that he had to stay in New York until Mr. Wright’s exhibition had opened, which he did. Mrs. Wright came to him on opening night to inform him that she had tickets for the two of them to return to Wisconsin the next day, which they did. Besinger gives a full account of this incident in his book Working With Mr. Wright, What It Was Like (Cambridge Press, 1995).

Wr. Wright’s exhibition was a resounding success and Mrs. Wright’s demonstration was a dismal failure.

It was exciting to be in New York and to be working on one of Mr. Wright’s buildings. We were much too busy to take much notice of Ken and Tom’s absence, and it didn’t dawn on me until much later that their decision to return to Taliesin signified a split of the Fellowship into two camps. It is not my intent to present a history of what I see as the split of the Fellowship into Mr. Wright’s people and Mrs. Wright’s people, but to present the two incidents that demonstrated to me that the split had occurred. Myron A. and Shirley L. Marty in their book Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship (Truman State University Press, 1999) give a fascinating account of the fellows in residence at Taliesin in 1994/96. On page xi of the Introduction they quote apprentices as speaking “admiringly” of Mr. Wright and expressing “reverence” for Mrs. Wright. I find the use of the word “reverence” very disturbing when applied to Mrs. Wright, but it does help define the way her followers see her. It is the Marty’s choice of words, but I think they demonstrate the way the respective apprentices felt about Mr. and Mrs. Wright. On the same page they quote McCarter expressing his opinion of Mrs. Wright and the later work of Mr. Wright, and I would also tend to agree with his assessment. The interview with Suzette Lucas on pages 262/62 of the same book is particularly illuminating as to an understanding of what the Taliesin Fellowship had become by 1996.

All of Mr. Wright’s people were weeded out of the Fellowship by the process of attrition by 1964. Thereafter the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and what remained of what might be called the Taliesin Fellowship was populated entirely by Mrs. Wright’s people, with the possible exception of Joseph Fabris, who was always his own man. Of the major players, Besinger left the Fellowship on August 22, 1955. Sometime later, I asked him in a letter his reason for leaving to get a response in his own hand and not conditioned by publication constraints. He did respond and it was simply that he had no future at a Fellowship dominated by Mrs. Wright. He was not one of her people and simply did not count. Speaking about Besinger, one day when I was “serving the family” Mrs. Wright said to Mr. Wright concerning Besinger that, “You can’t makes a silk purse of a sows ear.” It was intended that I would overhear this comment. Besinger simply did not fit the model of a courtier to the Court of Olgivanna. But he did go on to be a beloved professor of architecture for 25 years at the University of Kansas. He also received a seldom awarded honor from the University for his contribution to humanity. He was no sow’s ear.

Jack Howe and Curtis Besinger were mainstays in the drafting room. Between the two of them, they probably accounted for 60 to 70 percent of the income from the architectural practice. Jack and Lou Howe left the Fellowship in 1964. John Hill in his oral history says that “Jack was not going to take orders from anyone and was invited to leave.” Lu Howe sees their departure very differently. They had been discussing with Mrs. Wright the possibility of leaving the Fellowship for a couple of years, and finally made the decision to leave in 1964. Lu is very circumspect about their reasons for leaving the Fellowship. I’m sure that John Hill’s version represents Mrs. Wright’s position and Lu Howe's view represents the Howe’s position. Louis Wiehle also left in 1964 for similar reasons; Mrs. Wright’s interference in the drafting room. Jack and Louis were the last of Mr. Wright’s men, and with their departure an epoch came to an end.

The major question not addressed in the foregoing is, ”what was the magic that made the Taliesin Fellowship such a unique experience?” It was surely corollary to, but not necessarily the same as, the quality that imparted beauty to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I don’t have a ready answer to that question.