A Frank Lloyd Wright Situation

LORELAI: Mom, you know, if you’re not a little nicer to your help, you might find yourself in a Frank Lloyd Wright situation … Mrs. Wright apparently had this major problem with her help. She was very rough on them and they totally hated her. So this guy who had worked for her forever, he had finally had enough … Anyhow, Mrs. Wright invites this whole posse of people over for dinner and they’re all sitting around eating, and Mr. Disgruntled Servant Guy goes outside and locks all the doors and windows and douses the whole house in gasoline and sets the place on fire … So the house is on fire, and people are freaking out, so they run to the doors but the doors are locked, so a few of them try to get out through the windows, but Mr. Angry-Puss is standing outside with an ax hacking them to death and so they all died.

Lorelai refers to the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). It’s often been speculated that he was one of the inspirations for the character of Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead.

Although Lorelai typically gets her facts a little mangled, the seemingly outrageous story she relates about him is essentially true. The woman involved wasn’t Wright’s wife, but the woman he had left his wife for and was living with in a domestic partnership that was considered scandalous at the time.

Her name was Mary “Mamah” Borthwick, a translator who had left her husband and children to be with Wright in 1909, living together since 1911 (after her divorce came through), in a house Wright built for Mamah in Spring Green, Wisconsin, called Taliesin (“shining brow” in Welsh).

In 1914, their recently-hired servant Julian Carlton, a man from Barbados who was mentally unstable, set fire to their house and murdered seven people with an axe as they fled the burning structure. The dead included Mamah Borthwick, her two visiting children, aged 8 and 12, a gardener, a draftsman, a workman, and the son of Wright’s carpenter. Carlton attempted suicide straight after the attack, and starved himself to death in jail despite receiving medical attention.

Julian Carlton never did give a motive for his actions, but there’s some evidence that he had disputes with the workmen, and that he knew he was about to lose his job. There’s no evidence that it had anything to do with Mamah Borthwick herself, and the victims, apart from Borthwick and her children, were not dinner guests, but workmen employed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The devastated Frank Lloyd Wright rebuilt the house in Mamah’s honour, but it burned down again in 1925 after being hit with a lightning storm. It was rebuilt again, and this third version of Taliesin is now open for tours and events.

[Photo shows Taliesin as it was in 1911]

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