This was an extraordinary book. The way that the main characters, Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright lived their lives defied the social mores of the time, and had me questioning the wisdom of staying in a failing relationship when one has met her true life’s mate. Mamah left her husband, her home and her children in order to be with Frank. But was he Mr. Right? The way he’s depicted in this book shows him to be an epic narcissist with the temperament of a spoiled child. He seemed to believe that creative geniuses were not bound by the morality of the masses. In order to nourish that genius, his behavior might occasionally fall outside the confines of what was expected of mere mortal men. After all that Mamaw gave up to be with him, I wonder if she ever experienced true happiness, and in the end, was it all worth it?
In Germany, where Frank had gone to publish a book of his architectural designs, he and Mamaw were invited to an evening at the opera with the publisher, Wasmuth and his wife. The program that night was Mefistofele by Boito. When Mefistofele tempts Faust, Mamah began to cry, for she knew what was coming next in the story, and how it reflected on her own recent choices, for she had recently begun to fear that madness was “brewing outside the golden circle that she and Frank had drawn around themselves… And yet… and yet. How could she, how could anyone condemn Faust, so desperate for a piece of happiness that he would sell his soul in order to say, “Yes, for a brief moment, I was truly alive.” The You Tube clip below is Faust musing on what’s important to him: the search for knowledge and good. Whie I may be cooler to prefer Carreras or Domingo, I loved the brief moment in my life when Pavarotti’s voice was at its prime. In the winter we used to put the top down, crank up the heat, and blast Nessun Dorma on a CD driving down Route 1 from Newburyport to Malden. Come to think of it, those were moments early in our relationship where I felt truly alive.
Mamah became friends with Ellen Key after hearing her speak in France. Key was a Swedish feminist whose writing spoke to Mamah:
“Great love, like great genius, can never be a duty: both are life’s gracious gifts to the elect. There can be no other standard of morality for him who loves more than once than for him who loves only one: that of the enhancement of life. He who in a new love hears the singing of dried-up springs, feels the sap rising in dead boughs, the renewal of life’s creative forces; he who is prompted anew to magnanimity and truth, to gentleness and generosity, he who finds strength as well as intoxication in his new love, nourishment as well as a feast- that man has a right to the experience.”
Mamah abandoned Frank in Italy to spend two months in Leipzig learning Swedish, so that she could translate Key’s work into English. At the conclusion of the course, Mamah visited Ellen at her home on Lake Vattern. At their final meal together before Mamah left to join Frank in Italy, finally, they were served butter cake for dessert. Ellen, who had been careful to live an austere life in order to prevent her critics from attacking her on moral grounds, approached the cake with relish: “Oh,” she said, lacing her fingers together like a child at an unexpected treat. While Mamah picked at her dessert, she watched Ellen eat her slice with abandon, then chase the remaining crumbs around her plate with a fork.”
Swedish Butter Cake
2 C plus 2 T sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 C lightly salted butter (only) at room temperature
1½ C granulated sugar
2 large eggs
¾ C milk
1 tsp almond extract (or vanilla extract)
confectioners sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350º F. Grease a 13×9″ pan. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. In a standing mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth and well blended. (scrape sides)
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Alternately add the dry ingredients and milk, beating after each addition, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down sides of the bowl and the beaters. Stir in the almond or vanilla extract.
Spoon batter into the prepared pan, leveling the top, then spread the batter slightly toward the pan edges. Bake in the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes or until center of cake tests done and toothpick shows no batter and top is golden brown.
Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then run a knife along the edges to loosen cake. Dust cake with confectioners sugar or frost the top.