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Sex, love and murder are at home in Frank Lloyd Wright's life, as T.C. Boyle writes in 'The Women'

It all begins with a house.

For acclaimed novelist and short story writer T.C. Boyle, the foundation for his just-published novel, The Women, was the house he lives in.

"I've been thinking about this book for 16 years, ever since we moved in," he says by phone from Montecito, Calif. "I added it all up and I've written 12 other books in the meantime. Everything in its time."

The house in question, known as the George C. Stewart House or Butterfly Woods, was designed in 1909 by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright, who died in 1959 at age 91, is America's best-known architect. His Prairie School designs and concepts of organic architecture are almost as legendary as his stormy, sometimes tragic personal life.

Boyle knew who he was, of course, but didn't realize how much interest there still is in Wright until he moved into one of his houses.

"We have locked gates or these people would be living in the house. Folks come by and they are adamant (about wanting to see the house). It's like birdwatching, like a life list," he says.

"I didn't realize the extent of it until I began researching this book. Right now it's freezing cold in the Midwest and there are people lined up to get into Taliesin. It's a cult."

Hilltop drama

Taliesin, Wright's estate near Spring Green, Wis., is the house at the heart of The Women. Wright built it in 1911 along a hilltop — its name is Welsh for "Shining Brow" — in a valley settled by his maternal ancestors.

He conceived it as his grand country estate, a workplace for and example of his architectural principles, and a home with the lover for whom he left his first wife. It would burn down twice and be the scene of the greatest tragedy of Wright's life.

Writing a novel based on a historical figure is nothing new for Boyle, 60. His subjects have included breakfast cereal inventor and high priest of health John Harvey Kellogg (The Road to Wellville) and controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle).

"The problem with focusing on a figure like that — Kellogg, Kinsey, Frank Lloyd Wright — is they're all gurus," Boyle says. "They're narcissistic personalities with enormous egos. They are not necessarily good or nice people.

"Of course, novelists are like this, too," Boyle says with a laugh. "Maybe there's something about genius and what it produces that requires that."

Wives and lovers

Getting at that tension in Wright's personal life was what led Boyle to focus his story on the man's wives and lovers.

He did considerable research in order to write the book. "I've heard there are a thousand books about Wright. But there are 10 good biographies. As I was doing the research, I kept thinking, what if we interviewed the women?"

The women of the title are Wright's second and third wives, Maude Miriam Noel and Olgivanna Milanoff, and the best-known of his lovers, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients and the woman for whom he built Taliesin.

Wright's first wife, Kitty Tobin, and formidable mother, Anna, are minor characters. "I wanted to write about the women who were part of his life when it exploded" into fame and scandal, Boyle says. Wright's romantic and business travails became tabloid fodder in the first part of the 20th century, "like the O.J. trial or Brangelina."

Murder, he wrote

The most notorious incident associated with him is the mass murder that occurred at Taliesin in 1914, a crime Boyle re-creates in harrowing detail. While Wright was in Chicago, a recently hired worker at the estate, Julian Carlton, set fire to the house and used an ax to murder Mamah, her two young children, three of Wright's staff and the child of another worker.

Boyle employs an unusual strategy for constructing his plot: Each of the novel's three sections moves the story backward, from Wright's marriage to Olgivanna in 1928 to the murders in 1914.

"Telling the story backward gave me two things," he says. "You know death is coming, but you're not traumatized by it yet."

It also allowed him to explore the arcs of Wright's romances. "We've all had this experience of falling in love and regarding the beloved as the perfect creature. That's what is great about Miriam — we see her as this crazed avenging monster, then we go back and see her all soft and seductive and in love."

Wright's long affair and short marriage with Miriam were fraught with melodrama, which Boyle has a lot of fun with. "I just love her. She was the craziest woman who ever lived. The great thing about their mating was that they both had this grandiose view of themselves."

Serial cravings

Although Boyle sees some parallels between himself and Wright, there are differences. "We're both creative artists, but for me to work I need absolute peace and tranquility. . . . He couldn't work without chaos.

"I've been married since 1974 to my college sweetheart," Karen Kvashay, with whom he has a daughter and two sons. "That's another reason I wanted to write about Frank Lloyd Wright — his serial relationships and his need for that."

Boyle says that when he writes history-based novels he strives for accuracy, but he emphasizes they are fictional, and his motives are different from a biographer's.

"Take a journalist who writes a story about a man who raised goats," he says. "One day he killed them all except one, and he married that one. That tells you what happened, but not how or why. That's why I love fiction."

To get at the how and why of Wright's life, Boyle also had to visit Taliesin, which is so pervasive in the novel it almost becomes another character.

In 2006, during his spring break from teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California, Boyle and his wife went to Taliesin "and nearly froze to death. They gave us this special tour, and it was very nice."

A year and a half later they returned. "This time they made us sleep in the house, in Frank Lloyd Wright's bed. Of course, the ghosts were howling and beating at the walls."

Or maybe it was just the plumbing. Wright houses, famed for their beauty, are infamous for leaky roofs and other structural problems.

Taliesin, Boyle says, was "always in need of repairs, it was crumbling all the time," even when Wright was living in it.

He knows from personal experience. "Our house was listing to the east. We had to jack it up and pour a foundation."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

The Women

By T.C. Boyle

Viking, 451 pages, $31

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Sex, love and murder are at home in Frank Lloyd Wright's life, as T.C. Boyle writes in 'The Women' 02/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 10:50pm]
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