Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Five Historic Figures Who Behaved Badly (part five of five)

Five Historic Figures Who Behaved Badly

(part five of five)

Humanity has a notoriously nasty habit of glossing over the bad things that might upset them when concerning heroic historic figures. We seem to forget that they were human and had as many faults as they did graces. Every grade school kid learns how Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s early founders and left a legacy of wisdom and innovate invention that changed the country for the better but don’t know he was also a crusty old lecher riddled with sexual disease. In 1492 Columbus may have sailed the ocean blue but he also systematically wiped out the natives in search for gold. Let’s take a look at some other well known figures who were less than stellar human beings:

1. Frank Lloyd Wright

King of the architects, visionary and number one deplorable bastard.

The Good

Frank Lloyd Wright has been hailed as one of the greatest architects in history and rightfully so; his working life of over 70 years has given us cutting edge architectural innovation, beauty and enduring style. And merchandising. Plenty of merchandising. He was a prolific worker who constantly churned out designs, structures and ideas. His early life was something like out of a dime novel; doting mother, cold father who abandoned them and once he left childhood behind and sought his way in the world he hopped on a railcar with his worldly possessions in a kerchief and-wait, no that’s a different story. He took off to Chicago without telling anyone, with only a few dollars in his pocket, found the largest architectural firm he could find and landed himself a job with them.

The Bad

Wright must have been born under one hell of a lucky star because he arrived in Chicago right after the great fire that wiped out part of the city, so the need for buildings, and hence architects, was great.

He worked his way up the ladder, eventually finding himself in a partnership with Louis Henri Sullivan – a prominent architect of the time. Then, in what we call in layman terms a ‘dick move’ stabbed him in the back when the next large opportunity presented itself; the commission for the Larkin Administrative Building in Buffalo, New York. Wright claimed Sullivan’s designs as his own and lied his way into the commission. Not only did he lie he went way over budget. This would be a lifelong calling card of Wright; nearly every building, every home he designed would go over budget and the contractor would end up shelling out more than what they had bargained for.

‘Better be very careful,’ one client said of Wright ‘in your dealing with him. If he is sane he is dangerous.’

Wright was compulsive with his design and approach; the homes he created were meticulously detailed from the furniture to the flooring straight down to the napkin holders and what stationary the owner could use. If the hostess of the home was wearing a dress that clashed with Wright’s sensitive design palette, he would tell her to change it immediately. Woe betide you if you even thought about moving some of the furniture.

Two teachers who owned one of his prairie homes one day received a package in the mail that contained a vase and a hand written note from Wright saying, ‘I thought this would look perfect over the mantel piece’. It did, and they enjoyed it right up until two weeks later the bill arrived.

His overwhelming concern for his fellow man could best be summed up in the aftermath of the Tokyo Earthquake in 1923. The Imperial Hotel was one of the largest commissions of Wright’s career and stands as a testimony to his innovation; he was one of the early architects to take in account earthquake proofing buildings and designed it accordingly.

The city was leveled, thousands had been killed and in the frantic aftermath Wright’s burning concern was whether or not the building had been damaged.

The Ugly

Apparently talent and God-complexes run hand in hand but the ones who suffer the most are often the ones closest to you. If his numerous clients and associates got shafted then his family got torched and burned.

He married young to Catherine Tobin and set out immediately to have the biggest and grandest family in the Oak Park suburbs. He and Catherine popped out children like a horny conveyer belt of gestation and in no time had six of them.

From the start Wright treated his wife and children more like supporting actors in the theatre of his life rather than actual human beings he supposedly cared for. He would give tours of his home to prospective clients and prop his children around him like a Happy Families advertisement; however, when there wasn’t an audience he was cold and uninterested. He confessed he felt more paternal love for his buildings than he did his own flesh and blood.

He was more of a spoiled child himself than his children were; he wanted recognition and attention in every aspect of his life, even competing against his children for the affection of Catherine which turned to resentment when she couldn’t both raise six children and give him her undivided devotion. So he started an affair with the neighbor.

And he didn’t even bother to hide it; he didn’t care if his wife and neighbors knew and would escort his mistress in a yellow roadster down the street like an adulterous one man parade. The affair accumulated in an elopement that took him and his new lover to Europe for a year while he left Catherine and his six children in debt and with a grocery bill that reached over $900. This was in 1909 so in today’s terms it would be more or less $23,400.000.


Only towards the end of his life did he show any inkling of remorse; three days after Catherine died his son broke the news to Wright who asked tearfully why he wasn’t told sooner. His son replied,

‘Well, it wasn’t like you gave a damn about her when she was living.’


(Frank Lloyd Wright Dir. Ken Burns. Lynn Novick. Narrated: Edward Herrmann, PBS Home Video, 1998.)

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