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Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders Paperback – Unabridged, August 21, 2008

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Editorial Reviews


"Death in a Prairie House is a compelling argument in support of the theory that the Taliesin tragedy profoundly affected not only the future lives of those directly involved (not the least of whom was considered to be the most influential and gifted architect of the time), but likely, the whole course and development of modern architecture."—Craig Jacobsen, Taliesin Preservation, Inc.

"The thoroughness of Drennan's research combined with the clarity of his logic and writing style paints a complete, colorful picture of the tragedy. He painstakingly addresses all of the questions and theories that have puzzled many for more than ninety years."—Carla Lind, author of The Wright Style: Re-Creating the Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright and Lost Wright

"A fascinating, insightful examination of a Wisconsin 'crime of the century,' a bizarre and tragic event that changed Wright's life, his career, and perhaps even American residential and architectural design.”—Bill Christofferson, journalist and author of The Man from Clear Lake

Book Description

     The most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Unaccountably, the details of that shocking crime have been largely ignored by Wright’s legion of biographers—a historical and cultural gap that is finally addressed in William Drennan’s exhaustively researched Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders.
     In response to the scandal generated by his open affair with the proto-feminist and free love advocate Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright had begun to build Taliesin as a refuge and "love cottage" for himself and his mistress (both married at the time to others).
      Conceived as the apotheosis of Wright’s prairie house style, the original Taliesin would stand in all its isolated glory for only a few months before the bloody slayings that rocked the nation and reduced the structure itself to a smoking hull.
     Supplying both a gripping mystery story and an authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, Drennan wades through the myths surrounding Wright and the massacre, casting fresh light on the formulation of Wright’s architectural ideology and the cataclysmic effects that the Taliesin murders exerted on the fabled architect and on his subsequent designs.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press; 1 edition (August 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0299222144
  • ISBN-13: 978-0299222147
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #113,838 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William R. Drennan, author of _Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders_, is an Emeritus Professor out of the University of Wisconsin System. He now teaches English literature part-time at Appalachian State University, having retired to a mountain cottage in Blowing Rock, NC, in 2007.

He received his B.A. in English (1966) from the University of Florida and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the University of South Florida (1983) and was a seminarian at Yale, studying the English Renaissance lyric there under the luminous Thomas M. Greene.

He enjoyed a twenty-six-year career in the UW System, mostly at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County, in the virtual shadows of Wright's Taliesin, and is the author of dozens of published scholarly articles. His out-of-the-classroom passions include the Philadelphia Phillies, the Green Bay Packers, Martin guitars, and golf in the North Carolina mountains. And, of course, his beloved wife Beth and three remarkable children. Oh, also three dogs-- Bambi, Jack, and Midey--accrued largely because the aforesaid three remarkable children have yet to produce progeny.

Currently attending an evangelical Anglican church, his own theological background is grounded in Eastern Orthodoxy.

He's a happy man, all told.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

78 of 81 people found the following review helpful By Anita Ashland on April 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is a book sure to please both Frank Lloyd Wright scholars and those that enjoy reading true crime.

The first half of the book is a biography of Wright's life up until the murders at Taliesen. There are several mysteries explored here. Why did Wright's mother nearly suffocate him with her love and attention? Why did his father leave the family? Why did Wright, a champion of family values and a doting father, abruptly run off to Europe with the neighbor lady and nearly destroy his career in the process? Love and morality in Wright's life appeared to have about as firm a foundation as Taliesen, which had to be built three times.

The remainder of the book provides the details of the horrific murders at Taliesen and tries to uncover the motive of the murderer, Julian Carlton. Drennan shows us how the murders affected Wright both emotionally and professionally. In the epilogue he intrigues us with a description of how Wright's style dramatically changed after the murders and how it may have influenced architecture in America at large.

Drennan has an elegant, clear writing style, reminiscent of the best classic British detective fiction. The book does not disappoint and remains thought-provoking long after the turn of the last page.
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115 of 124 people found the following review helpful By E. Jarolin on April 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Here we have a book that is part biography, part architectural analysis and part true crime expose'. It can be said that it provides a reasonable overview of Wright's early 'first career', his flight to Europe with the wife of a client, the ensuing scandal and his need to construct a rural redoubt, Taliesin, as a shelter from society at large. Discussion of his publicly stated rational for these actions as well as speculation as to the real reasons is provided.

All of this is prologue to the crime that is at the heart of this book: the murder of Wright's 'soul mate' Mamah Borthwick Cheney, 6 others and the destruction by fire of Taliesin. The aftermath is also here. The capture and ultimate fate of the murderer, the effect on Wright, the man, and his later architecture. Wright devotees will find the occassional nugget of new information, but much of this ground has been mined before by other biographers. Drennan's conclusion that Wright's architecture subsequently turned almost fortress like is easy to accept, psychologically a neat fit and upon closer examination wrong. The factors that caused Wright's abandoning of the Prairie style were in place before the tragedy and played out well after it.

What we are really to be interested in here, judging by the hatchet on the dust jacket, is the crime. A horrendous crime indeed, involving enough blood, gore and roasted flesh to do a Hollywood slasher movie proud. A detailed reconstruction of the murders is put forward, with various alternatives presented. The perpetrator's motive, thin as it was, is also discussed. Oddly, given that this is a book at least partially about architecture, no floor plan of the crime scene is provided.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Benjamin J. Bromley on May 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover
William Drennan blends brutal murder, sensational scandal, exhaustive research and thought-provoking theory in this important book. A clear style and a flair for the mot juste make this book both scholarly and page-turning.

At last, an author has had the courage, persistence and skill to delve into Wisconsin's crime of the 20th century. It's a wonder no writer previously tackled this topic, given that it involves a horrific killing that claimed the paramour of America's foremost architect, as well as his signature home design, Taliesin. We're all fortunate Drennan accepted the challenge.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By lesismore on May 20, 2009
Format: Paperback
My first exposure to Frank Lloyd Wright came in fall of 2003, when I took a tour of his Spring Green estate Taliesin. I was pulled in by the beauty of the landscape and the design, but also by the story that it had been rebuilt twice - the first time as a result of a servant who burned half the house and murdered seven people, Wright's mistress among them. A gruesome story, and yet one that garnered no questions on the tour and got as much time as the design of the drafting room.

The actions of the murderer Julian Carlton and their impact on Wright now have the necessary coverage though, thanks to William R. Drennan's "Death in a Prairie House." Drennan, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County, has written a solid book that gives novices a picture of the famous architect and scholars a new look at his lowest point.

Drennan starts with the blueprints of Wright's life, showing how his family's Unitarian roots and his own Emersonian free spirit contributed to his architectural maturation. After years chafing under suburban comfort he entered into an affair with feminist thinker Mamah Borthwick Cheney, constructing Taliesin as their love nest. This piece was shattered by Carlton's hatchet and gasoline, and Wright's style - artistically and personally - was never the same afterwards.

Drennan's research is exhaustive, going over interviews, newspaper articles, memoirs and even decades-old gossip to piece together the full picture of Wright. He shows the opposition of Spring Green's moral residents to Wright's "sinful" ideals, how racism played a part in Carlton's motivations and suggests the killings were what removed the "prairie house" community design from his homes.
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