I know what you’re thinking: “Man, I’m real fucking tired of reading sentences on this here blahg that begin, ‘I know what you’re thinking.'”
But counterpoint: I know what you, our dear, sweet acolytes of sin and scandal, are thinking. How can your Aunt MRG, a connoisseur of (read: holder of a useless minor in) architectural history, a maven of mullions, a lover of lintels, an epicure of entablature, completely disregard the EXCEPTIONALLY SCANDALOUS life of the man who changed the face of American architecture 4ever, Mr. Frank Lincoln Lloyd Wright? How?! HOW??!?!
Welp, MRG doesn’t have an answer other than she only recently discovered that good ol’ FLW (which is ALMOST 3LW, GUYS) was REAL ADULTEROUS for a REAL LONG TIME and shit ended REAL BADLY after reading two-thirds of a shitty historical romance novel about it that her mom got for free at the end of a library book sale.
Before we get into it, I just need you to know that I wasn’t joking when I said shit ended badly. This might be the saddest, most emotionally confusing story we’ve ever done or will ever do. Go grab some tissues and cake to absorb your eye-rain and your mind-feelings, respectively. I’ll wait.
Okay, ready? Excellent.
Frankie was born in 1867 in Wisconsin to good, honest, hard-working prairie people. Mommy was a country school teacher and Daddy was a music instructor/itinerant preacher/salesman/smalltime mafioso (one of those is not true, but he was sort of a jack of all trades). Kind, pure, milk-drinking Midwesterners, they were. I’m over-emphasizing this because Midwesternism was really the ideological and aesthetic center of Frankie’s architectural schtick and also the psychological center of his adultery schtick. We’ll get to that.
When Frank was 14, MommyWright had had enough of DaddyWright’s occupational instability and subsequently, his inability to keep the bratwurst and head cheese on the table, and HE GOT SERVED with divorce papers and probably a complimentary glass of milk.
Thus Frank set forth into young adulthood from a broken home, which totally sucks in an almost Greek-tragedy/O. Henry kinda way, because ~*gEt tHiS*~ he wanted to be an architect. He wanted to un-break homes professionally. This is deep shit. So Frank kissed his Ma and his two sisters bye-byes, boarded the next train for Chicago, got a job at a mid-level architectural firm, and started sending checks home.
Frankie was sort of a prodigy. And really, he was the worst kind of prodigy: that pompous, unbelieveably innovative kind that can’t tolerate the what the plebians are consuming because it lacks soul and truth, or whatever. <architectural boner time real quick> In this case, what the plebs loved was cutesy, gingerbready, machine-made gew-gaws and whosy-whatsits that you could order from a catalog and nail on your house, the central structure of which probably came from a pattern book (which was essentially a cookbook, but for houses instead of food). Frank. hated. this. shit. and wanted to design houses that were beautiful and true and born from their surroundings, not ordered from page 52 of this season’s JCrew catalog. </architectural boner time> So he skipped around a couple more firms, working as a draftsman, and eventually settled at the firm of Louis Sullivan, who invented the skyscraper. Cool. Modern. Closer to Frank’s jam. You get it.
Also, around this time he marries Kitty Lee Tobin, who is a JAF-level beautiful ginger whom Frank meets at church (he’s still a good Midwesterner, you know). Believe it or not, she’s also a bit of a snooze. Wants to have babies to pass off to an Irish nanny, embellish hats, maybe prune an indoor topiary or two. Your basic 1890s lady-activities. But she’s nice. Nice and bland.
Professionally, Frank’s also doing ehh, just okay. He and Louis pal around for a handful of years in the way a curmudgeonly-but-talented-and-once-#1 older guy and an ambitious wunderkind are wont to do, but towards the end of his apprenticeship, Frankie designs a bunch of houses in secret. Like, he just has to. He’s an artist. This job has been more challenging than the last few, but he’s like, not growing anymore, you know? So he leaves Louis and sets out to fucking turn the architectural world upside-fucking-down.
He opens his own practice, starts getting commissions, starts doin’ his prodigal thang. And at just the right time: Chicago’s upper crust are reeeeeally looking to separate themselves from the ever-growing population of Muggles that comes with life in a burgeoning industrial city. I mean, this is when and where The Jungle took place. People are falling into meat grinders. Babies are drowning in sewage puddles. City life is becoming real gross, real smelly, and real real.
So the wealthies are like, “DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH MY HOUSE AS LONG AS IT’S EXPENSIVE AND NOT UGLY AND NO ONE ELSE HAS IT.” Lucky for Frank, that’s essentially his business plan to begin with. Lucky for us, one of those wealthies, Edwin Cheney, was married to the latest in what’s quickly becoming a recurring ForShame! character type — a stunning, strong, smart, other-positive-adjectives-that-begin-with-S SLAMmotherfuckingPIECE named Mamah. Pronounced like MAY-muh (I don’t like it either).
Mamah Borthwick Cheney was beautiful, had serious conviction, and held two Master’s degrees. TWO. OF. THEM. Basically, she was the anti-Kitty Wright. Well, she did have two kids and tried to play housewife for a while (after she got learned), which was a Kitty kinda thing to do. But she also went to lots of women’s rights meetings in town and did other cool things like translate German texts and stuff. She had intellectual and social and cultural interests outside of her house and family in a time when a lot of women really didn’t, is what I’m trying to say.
Another of her interests was Frank Lloyd Wright’s big ol’ dick.
It was really the perfect storm. In 1903, Edwin Cheney commissions FLW to get architecturin’ on their Oak Park property. But Ed (who, it should be said, seems to have been a pretty good guy) had a traditional 9-to-5 and therefore couldn’t make a lot of let’s-look-at-blueprints-type meetings with Frank. Mamah fucking hated housewifery, had free time, and was more than capable of talking business (gasp). So Mamah and Frank spent a lot of time talking about abstract things like his philosophy and her feminism and real, phallic-shaped things like columns and beams. You see where this is going. Notably, though, both Real History and that novel suggest that they totally didn’t fuck until the house was finished.
Meaning they sat across a desk from one another, having extremely hot brain sex, for YEARS before finally having extremely hot body sex.
Frank respected Mamah, with her feminism and her translationism, as his intellectual equal, and probably missed talking to her (and peeking down her shirtwaist, knowwhatimsayin) on the regular. So a couple years after the house is complete, Frank comes up with the idea to design the Cheneys a garage and also give Mamah neck massages until suddenly they make out and then woops everyone’s naked and then boom, adultery is official.
They manage to keep it a secret for a little while, but pretty soon the extremely bored housewives of Oak Park are gossiping/pearl-clutching/face-fanning at the thought of the douchey architect next door and the amoral feminist around the block boning each other. It becomes even bigger news when Edwin Cheney and Kitty Wright refuse to give their respective spouses a divorce, and Frank and Mamah (celeb name Framah) react BY GOING TO EUROPE TOGETHER INDEFINITELY.
He meets with Very Important Architects and gets a folio of his work published. She meets with authors and starts translating their work into English. They fuck in Paris. They fuck in Berlin. They fuck in Florence. They fuck allllllll over the EU. Eventually, Edwin (who, again, is a great dude considering) consents to the divorce, and Framah return after more than a year. Pearl-clutching is less vigorous. Kitty’s still pissed, though, and makes Frank’s personal and professional life in Chicago a nightmare.
So in 1911 Frank uses his mom’s money to purchase land in the Wisconsin countryside on which to build Taliesin, a home and studio and one of the definitive examples of American architecture. Also, Taliesin means “adulterous fuckpad” in Welsh (no it doesn’t) so it was the site of a LLLLOTT of boning, as it was meant to be Framah’s private retreat from the Oak Park Mean Girls (GUYS just realized Mean Girls takes place in Evanston, which is close to Oak Park. GUYS, Regina George is a Time Lord).
Anyway, it’s an architectural and personal triumph, since Frank thought the affair ruined his rep in America and the house was meant to be a giant, beautiful middle finger to all the nay-sayers. It was his most innovative structure yet and it was built solely for the purpose of continuing the affair that should have ruined his career. Oh Frank, you old so-and-so.
So Framah are fucking blissfully happy now, because they can be together and see their kids and she can keep being an intellectual goddess and he can keep being an architectural messiah and they can keep making out all the time and eating farm fresh Wisconsin eggs and just live a wonderful, quiet, happy, settled life.
Until, that is, MAMAH AND HER TWO KIDS ARE MURDERED WHILE TALIESIN BURNS TO THE GROUND.
I told you it was sad.
I mean, even if you weren’t on board with Framah because of the adultery and the child abandonment, and even if you didn’t care about their attempts to alter the American cultural landscape forever for all time, or that they eventually tried to do right by their respective families, you can still recognize that that shit is sad.
In 1914, Taliesin was almost-but-not-quite finished. Mamah and Frank were living there while construction was wrapping up. Mamah invited her kids to the loveshack for the first (AND LAST, SHIT) time. Frank had to go to Chicago one day to do a little work in his office. “Alright,” Mamah said, over a plate of organic, farm-to-table breakfast sausages made from jolly Wisconsin swine, “not like this is the last time we’ll ever see each another haha kiss kiss BUHBYE.”
Then Julian Carlton, a Barbadian dude who was either a vengeful butler or member of the crew finishing construction on Taliesin, set the house ON FIRE, trapped Mamah, her son, and her daughter in the burning dining room, and murdered all three of them with an axe. Four more employees die. The novel wants you to think that this Carlton fellow just really hated adultery, but that’s dumb, and in reality, no one ever figured out the motive. Your heart hurts as you contemplate the purpose of justice in a world full of madmen.
Frank moves on. He rebuilds Taliesin, starts dating another socialite, Kitty gives him a divorce, he marries said socialite, keeps on building, cements his reputation as the most important American architect there ever was, and generally forgets about Mamah. You wonder if life is just a series of futile actions and useless associations that inevitably end in suffering and loss.
Through hot tears of rage, confusion, and despondency, you choke down a hunk of that cake I told you to have ready. It is salty from your weeping, but still cake. You have channeled Liz Lemon, as I said you would. “Blerg,” you say. “Blerg those fuckers.”
You know who had the world’s most awkward funeral? Architect Louis Kahn is who. You know why? Because that’s where his wife, his two mistresses, and his three children met for the first time. WOOPSIES! Ok, probably they didn’t meet. They probably just avoided eye contact. But the point is, they were all there.
But before we get to the good stuff, I have to make a little disclaimer about this post: Lou Kahn is my favorite architect. Granted, I could probably only name you, like, 4 architects. But the point is, I have a really big boner for the architecture of Estonian-American modernist and notorious baby-daddy, Louis Kahn. And you’ll see why. Because we’re going to take a mini tour around the world to catch Kahn’s greatest hits — and I don’t just mean his bitches. Just shut up and indulge me, will you?
Now that I got that out of my system, (I totally didn’t, I want more. THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID) we’ll get to the juicy stuff. I’m not promising flying BUTTresses or anything (get it? it’s an anal architecture joke), but Kahn’s life was pretty salacious. And also errs a little on the side of tragic, so break out your Kleenex/KY cuz shit’s getting real sad/sexy ifyouknowhatimsayin.
We’re going to sort of breeze through Kahn’s early life (when he immigrated with his family from Estonia in 1906, moved to Philadelphia, worked as a piano player for silent films, drew pictures on the streets for extra cash, and burned his face with an apron full of hot coals when he was 3 that left scars on his face forever) and skip to the part in 1930 when he finally finds a nice Jewish girl to settle down with, Esther Israeli. In 1940, they have a little girl named Sue Ann.
TANGENT: Did I mention that Louis Kahn is For Shame!’s first latke-loving perp? Well, let’s just take a quick moment to call attention to the fact that this big-nosed builder is the first member of the tribe to grace the pages of our little blog. That’s right, in honor of Passover (why not?), we’re bringing you a special story of circumcised scandal! BUT I DIGRESS.
Moving on. After a rough stint in the 30s and early 40s of not getting any work except commissions from a few fellow yids in Philly, Lou gets an offer to teach architecture at Yale. And he’s like, “duh” and takes it. A couple of years later, he gets an offer from UPenn and lectures there until his death in 1974. He didn’t design too many buildings for being one of America’s most cherished modernist architects. But that was kind of what was so awesome about him; he designed, like, 6 famous buildings or something and all of them are considered masterpieces. The point is that throughout his life he was mostly known and admired in the field of architecture education.
We all know you can’t be great at everything, but you know what field he especially sucked at? Being a husband.
Here’s why. Aside from not being so great with money (uncharacteristic of our people, I know) and being in debt just about all the time, he also had a couple of passionate love affairs that sort of maybe resulted in him raising 3 separate families instead of the typical 1. (The whole 3 families thing might have had something to do with the debt, if you ask me.)
In 1954, he had a daughter named Alexandra with Anne Tyng, a young architect who worked at his firm in Philadelphia. And in 1962, he had a son named Nathaniel with a collaborator landscape-architect, Harriet Pattison. Nathaniel grew up to be a really good roller-blader and filmmaker, who made a documentary about his father called My Architect.
I suppose the whole having three families thing never really erupted into a huge scandal, so maybe it isn’t entirely the stuff of For Shame! But mostly it wasn’t scandalous because Esther was very tight lipped about the whole thing, even after Lou’s death, and never made a big fuss about it. The three women knew about each other the whole time, though, and lived within a few mile radius of one another. Which must have made the midnight drives back to wifey’s house pretty convenient for girlfriends #1 and #2. What’s weird is they all probably shopped at the same grocery store. The kids probably chased the same ice cream truck. If the women had been friends, though, it would have been just like Jewish Sister Wives. But they never spoke. And Kahn’s obituary understandably only stated his wife and first daughter as his survivors.
Kahn died of a heart attack at the age of 73 (when his youngest child was 11…so he was 62 when Nathaniel was born. gross.) in the public bathrooms at Penn Station in New York City. He had just returned from a trip to Bangladesh where he was finishing up the National Assembly rooms and was at Penn to take the train back to Philly. It took police 3 days to identify his body because he had crossed out the address in his passport. Mysterioso? I think so.
In his documentary, Nathaniel Kahn talks about seeing his half sisters for the first time at the funeral. How’s that for a family reunion! OY VEY, that would have been uncomfortable! I would not have wanted to be the officiating rabbi at that funeral.
So even though it doesn’t seem like a BFS (Big Fucking Scandal) because Esther was a nice Jewish girl who kept her mouth shut, you better believe that having three goddam families (2 of them secret) in the 50s and 60s WAS a BFD (Big Fucking Deal). This architectural mensch was a bold motherfucker, getting what was his one baby-mamma at a time. Oh yeah, and like, defining American civic modernist architecture while he was at it. Not saying he was a great guy, he clearly was not the best husband (or boyfriend, for that matter), but he and his buildings have inspired countless architects (and probably adulterers) and remain some of the crowning achievements, masterpieces even, of American modernism.
I have to stop typing now because my boner for this man’s architecture is getting in the way of the keyboard.
Do you remember the days before women started to get all into suffrage and employment and shit? Good times, am I right? Those were the days of the 1910s Gibson Girl. The Gibson girl, with her long, curly locks plopped neatly atop her head, sporting her cover-all-but-still-sort-of-erotic-dress was, above all, a LADY. She enjoyed activities like sewing. And having unprotected, post-marital sex. And do you know how how the image of the Gibson Girl got off (ha!) the ground? I’ll tell you. A man named Charles Gibson drew a picture of a woman named Evelyn Nesbit (who ended up not being so into waiting ’til marriage, if you know what I mean) and called the picture “Gibson Girl.”
Yeah. Shit was that simple. He just drew this nice little picture of Evelyn, named it after himself, and a whole generation of women suddenly adopted this one image as the symbol of their collective, cultural identities. Pretty fucked up when you think about it. But then the 20s happened and shit got crazy and the Gibson Girl faded into obscurity. And then a really sad time happened called the 30s. Ah, the trajectories of history.
Yes, ok! We’ll get back to the scandal part because I know you’re just DYING to know what happens. Speaking of which, you know who was DYING to get into Gibson Girl #1, Evelyn Nesbit’s, lacy panties? Architect Stanford White of famed architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White is who. No, literally. He died. Because of getting into her panties. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Evelen Nesbit (sorry she’s not male, but at least she’s white, you racists) led a pretty unlady-like, un-gibson girlian life involving, as you may have gathered from the above teaser-paragraph, a sizable portion of scandalosity. When she was 16, in 1901, she and her mom moved into a tiny apartment on the Lower West Side. Since they were hurtin’ for squirtin’ (that means they needed money, right?), Evelyn convinced her mom to let her go into modeling to help pay the bills. She was really hot. Like really fucking hot. Like, I’m getting a tingling sensation all over just looking at these pictures of her. So, like a boss, she booked work straight away posing for artists and photographers. (She modeled in some of America’s first newspaper fashion advertisements and editorials!) When she first modeled for Charles Gibson, he did a drawing of her profile called “The Eternal Question.” It looks just like a question mark. He was really creative and not at all unoriginal with his titles.
So, right after she settles into modeling life, and starts performing as a chorus girl in big vaudeville shows. So big famous architect and womanizer Stanford White sees her in one of these acts and he’s like, “Evie, come play on my swing.” And she’s like, 16 and she doesn’t know what’s going on, so she’s like, “is that, like, a euphemism for something?” And he’s like, “no, really, check it out, it’s literally a red velvet swing that I like to push girls on while they’re not wearing many clothes slash totally naked. cool?” She was like, “I like swings (because I was a child just a few years ago) but I don’t think so, mister.” So they didn’t really do anything the first time she visited his creepy fucking apartment in a tower overlooking Manhattan, complete with (1) a red-velvet-draped room with a plush swing hanging from the ceiling and (2) a room that had mirrors for walls.
I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Long story short, they see each other for a while, and at the risk of using my least favorite word which starts with a V and ends in an IRGINITY, she loses it to him and later claims in her memoirs that he’s the only man she ever really loved. But they didn’t get married, they just did it a bunch. OH! Did I mention that when this was happening she was 16 and he was 47? Yeah. At least he was under 50, though. Am I right, ladies?!
It gets better still. She’s working as a chorus girl now, she’s like 17, and this major cutie, John Barrymore starts sending her flowers backstage. And he’s her age, so that’s an improvement, at least. But White (who’s creepily acting like a surrogate father) and her mother don’t like Barrymore so they are in cahoots now and send Evie off to a boarding school (run by Cecil B. DeMille’s mom. Weird.) Barrymore proposes but she declines his offer because…
Then she meets another fucking mensch of a man. A real winner if ever I saw one. That Evelyn could really could pick ’em. Henry Kendall Thaw was an abusive kabillionaire motherfucker who carried a pistol around (in case anyone looked at his main bitch the wrong way), was obsessive about the minutia of Evie’s relationship with White, and enjoyed jerking off while whipping women (like Evie) and the occasional pubescent teenage boy. WITH A WHIP. In case that wasn’t clear. Like I said, a great fucking dude. So she married him. Cuz why not?
I’m getting to WHY NOT, so keep your panties on.
So the adorable (disgusting) couple is out for a lovely evening at the Madison Square Garden roof theatre (which White designed, NBD) to see a performance of Mam’Zelle Champagne. During the song “I could love a million girls,” our prince of a man, Thaw pulls out his good ol’ pistol that he was always packing, and shoots White in the face 3 times, screaming either (1) “You’ve ruined my life” or the even more interesting (2) “You’ve ruined my WIFE.” No one knows for sure what he said, but the people who were there swear he said “wife.” This goes back to our Gibson Girl theme which is that bitch was supposed to be emBODYing a certain social ideal of femininity. Not bumpin’ and grinding her pre-marital, 16-year-old BODY all over a 47 year old, if ya know what i mean.
Thaw went to court, plead temporary insanity and got away with it because Evelyn was bribed by Thaw’s mommy to testify that White had raped her and that Thaw was merely avenging her honor. She did it, but never got any of the one million dollah that “Mother Thaw” had promised her. Thaw was incarcerated in a mental hospital in 1906 and then judged sane in 1915 and let go. Like, into the world. Into society. Where people live.
During Thaw’s comically limited time in the hospital, Evelyn had herself a baby. WOOPS! She went to her grave swearing the baby was her husband’s, but I’m going to go ahead and call Bull Shit on that one since he was sort of kind of locked up in a mental institution for the “criminally insane.”
Like many Gibson Girls, Evelyn adapted to the 20s poorly. She did get herself into the talkies performing in a few films alongside her little son (who later fucking won WWII, NBD). But she was never quite the hot little thing that she was during her Gibson Girl Golden Years. Her later life was marked with numerous suicide attempts, an addiction to morphine, and a whole lot of alcohol.
On the bright side, the woman had excellent choice in men, though. And by excellent I mean really horrible.
We want to give a shout-out to reader, sex-scandal-enthusiast, and our main bitch, Lauren for SUGGESTING THIS SCANDAL.