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Frank Lloyd Wright, the legendary American architect, was 92 when he died in 1959. By then, he'd stamped an original life on buildings, and had been lauded and vilified, often in equal amounts. A new novel imagines a most scandalous and little-known part of Frank Lloyd Wright's history.

NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says a love affair is chronicled in the book called "Loving Frank."

SUSAN STAMBERG: In 1909, Frank Lloyd Wright of Oak Park, Illinois, married with children, ran off to Germany with a neighbor, the wife of a client. Novelist Nancy Horan introduces her.

Ms. NANCY HORAN (Author, "Loving Frank"): My name is Mamah Borthwick. Mamah is a nickname for Martha and is pronounced - May-mah. It's a name that that puzzles when first encountered. People ask, is that mama like mother?

STAMBERG: Mamah was a mama. She and her husband Edwin Cheney had two young children. She abandoned them all for the besotting and besotted Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright.

Ms. HORAN: I think what he saw in Mamah was a very attractive woman, a woman with a great deal to say, curious about the world in the way he was.

STAMBERG: Mamah became intrigued then obsessed with a man who was re-inventing architecture.

Mr. FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT (Architect): I'd like to have architecture that belonged where you see it standing, and was a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.

Ms. HORAN: He wanted to create an architecture that was true, something that emerged like a plant from the Earth. He was bent on cutting connections to the past that belonged to somebody else.

STAMBERG: He spoke about working true and did that at his drawing board. But novelist Nancy Horan thinks Wright felt he wasn't living true in his marriage, and so he fled with Mamah. Such a scandal, especially for a proper turn-of-the-20th-century woman. What was she thinking?

She tells herself, or anyway you have her tell herself in the novel, that leaving her husband and children for Frank Lloyd Wright was an act of love for life.

Ms. HORAN: Mm-hmm.

STAMBERG: What's that?

Ms. HORAN: I think Mamah Cheney was a woman who had a hole in her soul. She was a woman who had unrealized potential that she wanted to explore and experience.

STAMBERG: Highly educated, fluent in several languages, Mamah longed for more in life. To her, more looked a lot like Frank Lloyd Wright. But the two paid a terrible price for their passion and individualism.

Ms. HORAN: It ruined Frank Lloyd Wright's practice for many years afterwards. It ruined Mamah's reputation.

STAMBERG: The ending in 1914 was tragic, wrapped in destruction. To say more now would give away an amazing story.

Was it the worst thing she could have done, loving Frank?

Ms. HORAN: Oh, what a question. I think it's the thing she did. I think it's gray. I think that Mamah was a flawed person. You can certainly view what she did as a selfish act. You can also view it, however, as a form of self-preservation in terms of what she needed to do for herself.

STAMBERG: Selfish, self-preserving - those terms apply as well to Frank Lloyd Wright, who has been called a lot of things: genius, of course, narcissist.

Ms. HORAN: Arrogant. He viewed himself, in a sense, as a prophet, and a person who had gifts that other people didn't have. And, in fact, that part of it was true. It was how he treated other people, particularly the smaller people, the people who believed that he would pay his bills and in fact only paid part of them.

STAMBERG: So he built up massive debts, often to pay his own workmen.

Ms. HORAN: Massive debts.

STAMBERG: He liked to test people, too. And I want to play you a clip of tape from a profile I did, in 1994, of his granddaughter, Elizabeth Wright Ingraham. Her father was John Wright, who's an architect.

STAMBERG: Yes.

Ms. HORAN: She, too, is an architect. She told a story from the 1930s when she was around 14. She said the family was sitting around the living room listening to a recording of Beethoven.

Ms. ELIZABETH WRIGHT INGRAHAM (Granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright): There we sat and listened to it. And it finished, and my grandfather said, that was lovely. Oh, what a lovely piece of music. Let's play that again. And we all thought that was a good idea. We sat and everybody was there, all the apprentices and his family, and we listened again. It was the lovely the second time. And there was this rather pregnant feeling in the air that something was about to happen. And I remember sitting there with my eyes somewhat wide-opened and he said, you know, he said, I think I'd like to hear it again. And at this point the seat was too hard, everything seemed out of sync, and we sat and listened to it the third time.

And it stopped the third time, and lo and behold, of course, you just knew what he was going to do. He was going to test that room. And he said, you know, and before he could get the words out of his mouth, his wife leapt up said, I cannot stand one more time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. INGRAHAM: And he laughed and he said, well, you see, if you don't speak out, you cannot expect to change anything.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: So, Nancy Horan, you like that story?

Ms. HORAN: I like it. I'm surprised he invited people to stop him, basically. He really wanted things his way. But I suspect that Mamah Cheney was a little bit different from the other women in his life.

STAMBERG: She would have said, we've already heard that, Frank.

Ms. HORAN: You know, it's interesting though, I mean, you mentioned Elizabeth was the daughter of John Lloyd Wright. He wrote a book about his father, and it was really his words that kind of gave me permission to imagine Frank as something more than a colossal egotist. And what he said about Mamah and about his father was that something in him died with her, a something that was lovable and gentle that I knew and loved in my father.

STAMBERG: Nancy Horan's novel is called "Loving Frank," a mix of imagination and fact, including letters Horan discovered in a Swedish library.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can read an excerpt from that novel at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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