Mamah Cheney sidled up to the Studebaker and put her hand sideways on the crank. She had started the thing a hundred times before, but she still heard Edwins words whenever she grabbed on to the handle. Leave your thumb out. If you dont, the crank can fly back and take your thumb right off. She churned with a fury now, but no sputter came from beneath the cars hood. Crunching across old snow to the drivers side, she checked the throttle and ignition, then returned to the handle and cranked again. Still nothing. A few teasing snowflakes floated under her hat rim and onto her face. She studied the sky, then set out from her house on foot toward the library.
It was a bitterly cold end-of-March day, and Chicago Avenue was a river of frozen slush. Mamah navigated her way through steaming horse droppings, the hem of her black coat lifted high. Three blocks west, at Oak Park Avenue, she leaped onto the wooden sidewalk and hurried south as the wet snow grew dense.
By the time she reached the library, her toes were frozen stumps, and her coat was nearly white. She raced up the steps, then stopped at the door of the lecture hall to catch her breath. Inside, a crowd of women listened intently as the president of the Nineteenth Century Womans Club read her introduction.
Is there a woman among us who is not confrontedalmost dailyby some choice regarding how to ornament her home? The president looked over her spectacles at the audience. Or, dare I say, herself? Still panting, Mamah slipped into a seat in the last row and flung off her coat. All around her, the faint smell of camphor fumes wafted from wet furs slung across chair backs. Our guest speaker today needs no introduction . . .
Mamah was aware, then, of a hush spreading from the back rows forward as a figure, his black cape whipping like a sail, dashed up the middle aisle. She saw him toss the cape first, then his wide-brimmed hat, onto a chair beside the lectern.
Modern ornamentation is a burlesque of the beautiful, as pitiful as it is costly. Frank Lloyd Wrights voice echoed through the cavernous hall. Mamah craned her neck, trying to see around and above the hats in front of her that bobbed like cakes on platters. Impulsively, she stuffed her coat beneath her bottom to get a better view.
The measure of a mans culture is the measure of his appreciation, he said. We are ourselves what we appreciate and no more.
She could see that there was something different about him. His hair was shorter. Had he lost weight? She studied the narrow belted waist of his Norfolk jacket. No, he looked healthy, as always. His eyes were merry in his grave, boyish face.
We are living today encrusted with dead things, he was saying, forms from which the soul is gone. And we are devoted to them, trying to get joy out of them, trying to believe them still potent.
Frank stepped down from the platform and stood close to the front row. His hands were open and moving now, his voice so gentle he might have been speaking to a crowd of children. She knew the message so well. He had spoken nearly the same words to her when she first met him at his studio. Ornament is not about prettifying the outside of something, he was saying. It should possess fitness, proportion, harmony, the result of all of which is repose.
The word repose floated in the air as Frank looked around at the women. He seemed to be taking measure of them, as a preacher might.
Birds and flowers on hats . . . he continued. Mamah felt a kind of guilty pleasure when she realized that he was pressing on with the point. He was going to punish them for their bad taste before he saved them.
Excerpted from Loving Frank by Nancy Horan Copyright © 2007 by Nancy Horan. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
Blood at the Root
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