One of my favorite literary sub-genres is biographical fiction. Such books are rooted in fact, but the author brings the details to life and fills in the blanks with his or her imagination. The Paris Wife, which tells the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley, is one of my favorites, and I recently picked up (and can’t wait to dig into) The Aviator’s Wife and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I’m realizing as I’m writing this that the common thread among these titles is that they focus on the women behind certain illustrious men and give them a long-overdue and much-deserved moment in the spotlight. I can’t help but wonder what a psychoanalyst would have to say about that . . .
Loving Frank falls into this category as well. Written by Nancy Horan, it recounts the bittersweet tale of Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright. The star-crossed lovers had a scandalous affair that shocked Chicago society back in the early 1900s. They ended up leaving their respective spouses for each other and, though they enjoyed a brief season of happiness, everything eventually ended in tragedy.
Through the mitigating lens of time’s passing, the fact that Wright and Cheney had an affair hardly seems salacious by today’s standards, but the manner in which their relationship ended will forever be positively jaw-dropping. I was aware of the outcome when I picked up Loving Frank and expected the book to devote ample pages to that chapter in their story. But Horan instead focuses on Cheney’s inner turmoil as she breaks up her family in order to be with Frank, and the fleeting but utopian little world they shared before everything came crashing down around them.
Horan does an impeccable job of bringing Mamah Borthwick back to life, making Loving Frank a work of fiction that reads like nonfiction. You can feel her anguish as she chooses her own happiness over that of her husband and as she fights for her children even though she knows she’s turning their lives upside-down. She paints Cheney as a flawed woman who is fully aware that she is actively making mistakes, but that only makes her an exceedingly sympathetic character.
Mamah eventually took up residence at Taliesin, Wright’s painstakingly designed estate in Wisconsin. On August 15, 1914, she was one of seven people murdered with an axe by Julian Carlton, a male servant who went on a rampage before setting the home’s living quarters on fire. Her two children were also among the dead. Wright was working in Chicago at the time of the incident.
Loving Frank ends with this tragedy and infers Wright’s ensuing guilt and anguish, as well as his resolve to move forward (he eventually rebuilt the property and, as we all know, went on to become one of the world’s most innovative, accomplished, and well-known architects). But, despite its lurid ending, the story is ultimately one of love in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges; investing in a relationship without losing one’s sense of self; and an utterly relatable search for the happiness that seems to be forever in the offing, just out of reach, but somehow always worth the fight.