- Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright by Priscilla J. Henken
In 1934, American expatriate author Gertrude Stein returned to the U.S.A. for the first time since moving to Paris in 1905. Accompanied by her companion, Alice B. Toklas (whom she had secretly married in 1908), she toured the country giving talks to promote her new (and perhaps most enduring) book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
When she spoke at the University of Wisconsin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was in the audience (she said he looked familiar, but could not remember why). Apparently, Frank, Gertrude and Alice had met earlier in Paris, at which time (as this diary notes) his impression was that Stein was "the most unattractive, uninteresting and dull person he had ever spoken to." She dominated the conversation, he recalled, while the mute compliance of Alice gave new significance to her name—she was, of course, reported Wright, "Alice be talkless." In Madison, Wright invited the pair to return with him to Taliesin, his famous home and school nearby, en route to their next engagement. But they demurred (exchanging nudge-nudge glances), for the reason, they said, that they liked to travel by airplane. "We want to fly to Milwaukee," they said.
This book is called Taliesin Diary because its primary text is the diary of an American Jewish woman who lived (along with her husband) with Wright and his wife Oglivanna, their family and student apprentices for nearly a year at Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin. The diarist was Priscilla Henken, a New York-born high school English teacher, who traveled to Taliesin in October 1942 with her husband, research engineer David Henken. Together, they "slaved" as apprentices in Wright's Taliesin Fellowship until she left (apparently rather abruptly) in August 1943 to return to teaching in New York, while her husband stayed on until later.
I have read dozens of published diaries, from which I have concluded that not all diaries are worth reading. But this one is fascinating, largely because it is candid (albeit often painfully so) and well written. It is especially honest about the corrosive influence of Wright's third wife Oglivanna (they had married in 1928), who, by more than one account, was the Rasputin of Taliesin. In page after page, do not be surprised to be taken aback by the abrupt and usually damaging ways in which Mrs. Wright ("La Dame") jostled to assert control over the apprentices, her aging husband (he was in his seventies then and incapable of standing up to her) and others who were living and/or on the staff at Taliesin.
The earlier entries in the diary are the most engaging, largely because its diarist was energized and hopeful then. Initially, both Priscilla and her husband were fully committed to working with Wright. But as time passed, both she and I (the reader) began to sense a "perfect storm." So many things were happening then: the U.S.A. had entered World War II and young men were threatened by the draft. Some of the male apprentices at Taliesin were pacifists and refused to report to the draft board, while others had applied to be conscientious objectors. As time went on, Wright's Spring Green School was rumored to be a safe haven for opponents of the war—along with free love advocates, atheists and socialists, even communists, God forbid.
As reported in this book, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent out a directive that year advising that Wright's school should be closely watched because it "contained no classrooms" and "appeared to be a religious cult." According to Hoover, the Taliesin Fellowship "held dances to the moon, told the students how to think and if a student did not attend certain meetings, [End Page 507] which had nothing to do with the study of architecture, the student would be dismissed from the school." In light of allegations that Hoover himself was...