Architect of desire: Frank Lloyd Wright's private life was even more unforgettable than his buildings

While Frank Lloyd Wright designed some of the most beautiful buildings of the 20th century his personal life was falling down around his ears. On the 50th anniversary of his death, Marcus Field tells a tale of axe murder, madness, drugs and redemption

March 1985: a grave in a dank, mossy cemetery near Spring Green, Wisconsin, is quietly opened, its contents removed and the earth piled untidily back into the ground. Only a handful of people know the body of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is being taken from its resting place of more than 25 years to be cremated in nearby Madison. The papers requesting the exhumation had been signed by Wright's daughter, Iovanna, by his third wife Olgivanna, whose dying wish had been that the ashes of their two bodies should be mixed together and interred at Taliesin West, their winter home in Arizona nearly 2,000 miles away.

"Grave-robbing" is what Wright's son David called it when he found out. After the news became public, local officials wrote to Arizona to ask for the return of the remains. "Much more than ashes have been taken from Wisconsin – the citizens of the state have lost one evidence of our history, spirit and genius." Another of Wright's sons, Llewellyn, described the act as a desecration, while his granddaughter Elizabeth Wright Ingraham said: "I tried to sit on the fence, but I thought it was a gross miscalculation." But Iovanna stood firm and the ashes remained stored for several years in Arizona until a memorial garden was finally built.

Today, Taliesin West is the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and a major attraction for fans of the architect's work. But the memorial garden is not on the public tour and there are no plans to mark the 50th anniversary of Wright's death on 9 April this year. All discussion about whether the ashes should be returned to Wisconsin has been shelved. Instead, there is a desire to move forward.

"We have a duty to protect and preserve Wright's work," says Phil Allsopp, the British CEO of the foundation since 2006. "But we also have a duty to play a role in debates about the sustainability of the environments we make for ourselves. Architecture's influence on our environment is virtually nil. We want to change that." To this end, the school of architecture Wright established now runs accredited BA and MA courses and a popular summer school, while a major exhibition opening at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in May will explore, says Allsopp, "how buildings can work with nature, how they can fit into the landscape".

Allsopp believes the foundation can become like Harvard or Yale, an intellectual powerhouse known for the quality of its ideas rather than the sensational stories of the guy who gave it his name. But escaping from the shadow of a man once described as "perhaps the greatest American of the early 20th century" is easier said than done. Of course Wright's buildings are iconic – 10, including the Guggenheim, which has its 50th birthday this year, are on a tentative list for World Heritage status. But even these magnificent buildings struggle to compete with Wright's life for sensation value. '

The myth-making began in his lifetime – he was a skilled self-publicist who basked in scandal, and enjoyed the speculation that he was the inspiration for Ayn Rand's 1943 bestseller The Fountainhead. But since his death, aged 91, in 1959, the legend has only grown. There have been biographies and memoirs, as well as exposés such as The Fellowship, which delved into the cultish community Wright built around himself. Novelists have also returned to the field, the latest being TC Boyle with The Women, out last week. But can anything in fiction be more extraordinary than the facts?

Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867 of Welsh stock. His preacher grandfather, Richard Lloyd Jones, had crossed the Atlantic in 1844, bringing his wife and children with him. The Lloyd Jones family settled in Helena Valley, a fertile slice of the Midwest close to Chicago, and this sublime landscape became not only an enduring influence on Wright's work, but also the site of Taliesin, his beloved home. "I turned to this hill in the Valley," he later wrote, "as my grandfather before me turned to America – as a hope, and a haven."

Wright's apprenticeship in the offices of several prominent Chicago architects served him well and he soon made his mark. In 1889, aged just 22, he designed and built a house for himself and his young wife, Kitty, in Oak Park, a new suburb on the edge of the city. It is a handsome example of the Arts and Crafts style, but in its first incarnation there is nothing to suggest its owner was anything other than a modern member of his profession. Soon, however, telltale signs of Wright's character show through. In 1893, after he was sacked from his job for moonlighting, he set up his own practice and began to extend the house to accommodate his growing family and office. His additions included a barrel-vaulted playroom entered, for dramatic effect, through a low, dark passage. His studio is a single-storey building of Japanese inspiration, which he built around a tree, an early example of how he incorporated nature into his work. His son John later recalled life with Wright at this period: "He was an epic of wit and merriment that gave our home the feeling of a jolly carnival."

As Wright's designs became more experimental – his elongated, open-plan Prairie Houses are of this period – so his appearance and behaviour changed. He began to sport broad-brimmed hats, a red-lined cape and a cane; an ensemble that became his customary dress. One Spring Green resident remembered him coming into the bank in his suit and Stetson, but with bare feet. "You could do this," he said to the wide-eyed manager, "if you weren't so strait-laced."

In 1909, the extent of Wright's midlife crisis really began to show. At 42, he left his wife and six children and ran away to Europe with Mamah Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. His impetuosity, especially where women were concerned, affected him all his life. "I am a house divided against itself by circumstances I cannot control," he wrote to his mother in 1910.

In 1911, the couple returned and began to build what the local paper termed "a love bungalow" in Helena Valley. Soon they were living in such open adultery that the papers demanded an explanation. Wright issued a statement: "It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules. But that is what the really honest, sincere thinking man is compelled to do."

The "love bungalow" turned out to be Taliesin, named for a Welsh bard, and was one of Wright's greatest achievements. The free-flowing house embraces courtyards and gardens, and hunkers down against the hills of his childhood. "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything," he later explained. "It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other."

But, just a few years after its completion, on 15 August 1914, tragedy struck. It was a Saturday and Wright was working in Chicago when Cheney sat down to lunch with her two children and several workers from the estate. Julian Carlton, a servant who had recently been threatened with dismissal, was due to serve them. Instead, he poured paraffin around the building, locked all the doors, set fire to the house, then proceeded to hatchet seven of the nine occupants to death. Cheney and her children were among those killed. Carlton survived, but later died in custody after drinking acid.

Wright was devastated. "All I had left to show for the struggle for freedom of the five years past that had swept most of my former life away, had now been swept away," he later wrote. But he wasted no time in rebuilding Taliesin, making it more elaborate than ever. He threw himself into his work and spent the next decade building the luxurious Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Site workers there were astonished to see the diminutive architect arrive in velvet suits, cuffed trousers and high-heeled shoes. Wright loved the culture of the country and assimilated many ideas from its buildings.

Yet, after returning to Taliesin in the early 1920s, he struggled to find work. News of the international style, epitomised by Le Corbusier, had arrived in America and Wright, now in his fifties, seemed washed up. "You see I am bad, bad to the core, so what's the use," he wrote to a friend of his financial worries. For a while he tried working in LA, where his son Lloyd had a successful practice. There he designed Ennis House, a Mayan-looking structure that appears in Blade Runner; and Hollyhock House, an enormous folly for an oil heiress which had a sitting-room so large that the fireplace had a moat. But Wright was not a city lover and soon returned to Taliesin.

In November 1923, after his divorce from Kitty became final, he married Miriam Noel, a bohemian clairvoyant and fantasist whom he first met in 1914. She addressed him as "Lord of my waking dreams" and he wrote to her, "I had not loved you much until I began to understand my hungry need... and your gifts came to me in the dark like a ray of hope." Their marriage was short and tempestuous, and after her behaviour became increasingly erratic, Wright discovered she was a morphine addict. Later, in the divorce proceedings, he was accused of beating her and calling her "vile, vulgar, indecent and abusive". She, in turn, admitted drawing a knife on him and threatening to use a gun.

Noel and Wright were already estranged by December 1924 when a new, exotic addition joined the Taliesin household, a place where Wright's assistants lived in a proto-hippy community, growing their own vegetables and making music together in the evenings. Olgivanna Hinzenberg, a mystic and dancer from Montenegro, had followed her first husband to Chicago to sue for divorce. She already had a daughter, Svetlana, but was soon pregnant with Wright's child.

But before the birth of the baby, tragedy struck again at Taliesin. In April 1925, an electrical fault caused a fire that burnt the house to the ground. It was insured for $39,000, enough to pay for the rebuilding but not to cover the loss of Wright's art collection, which was valued at around half a million dollars. His home was ruined and he was broke again, but he remained steadfast. "I suppose it's just a question of how much punishment one can stand," he wrote to a friend.

Then, after the birth of his daughter Iovanna on 2 December, yet another scandal broke: when Miriam heard about the birth, she tracked Olgivanna to the hospital, demanding to see "my husband's baby" and later tried to have Wright arrested under the Mann Act, designed to prevent the trafficking of immigrant prostitutes. He could have been forgiven for giving way under the pressure, but Wright rallied and soon staged the most remarkable comeback in architectural history.

In 1928, the year he and Olgivanna were married, the pair decided to invite paying students to live at Taliesin and study Wright's holistic approach to design by following his daily routine. By 1932, a small group had enrolled and the Taliesin Fellowship was born. It was a strictly unconventional education, and the architect expected his apprentices to work in the fields, cook and listen to the renditions of Bach and Beethoven he played on a Steinway grand in his studio. Indeed, Wright's vanity was legendary – he was once overheard singing "I am the greatest" to himself – which didn't make him easy to work for. One apprentice, the Austrian Rudolph Schindler, described Wright in a letter to his friend the architect Richard Neutra, thus: "He is devoid of consideration and has a blind spot regarding others' qualities. Yet I believe, that a year in his studio would be worth any sacrifice." And on meeting Wright himself, Neutra wrote: "He is truly a child, but not a well-behaved one."

When questioned about his vanity, Wright justified himself by saying: "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose honest arrogance." Even those who suffered under his firm hand – his son John described "a lifelong struggle to avoid being destroyed" – agreed that Wright had saving graces. "He had so much life and energy; it shaped everyone around him," said his son-in-law Wes Peters.

The arrangement at Taliesin helped support the household during the Depression. It also led to some of Wright's most important commissions, including Fallingwater, the exquisite house he built over a waterfall in Pennsylvania for Edgar Kaufmann, the father of one of the Taliesin Fellows.

Fallingwater revived Wright's career, and during the last 25 years of his life he designed as many buildings as he had in the busy period from 1893 to 1911. The Guggenheim, the perversely round building in a city of straight lines, is probably the most memorable. But it is Wright's winter home near Phoenix that is the most beautiful. In 1937, he bought several hundred acres in Paradise Valley and built a "desert camp" where his school could relocate for the cold months of the year. Wright christened the house Taliesin West and its open-plan living quarters are furnished with rugs and low-slung chairs like a Bedouin tent. Seventeen of the original men and women who helped build it continue to live there today.

Wright and Olgivanna ran Taliesin West as a community loosely based on the teachings of George Gurdjieff, the Armenian guru with whom Olgivanna had lived and studied before she met Wright. As well as a belief in the value of creative work, Gurdjieff's teachings called for daily forms of dancing, making Taliesin the subject of much derision. All this continued under Olgivanna's supervision after Wright's death, and later under the watchful eye of Wright's ageing apprentices.

For decades, Wright's reputation suffered, with the teaching at Taliesin regarded as crackpot and his buildings preserved as historic monuments rather than living architecture. But with increasing interest in low-energy, low-impact buildings, schemes such as Taliesin and Taliesin West are relevant again: both Wright's homes were built using local materials and were designed to be cool in summer and warm in winter without relying on mechanical ventilation.

There will also always be a fascination with the private life of a man who lived so large. The novelist Boyle, for example, became interested in Wright after he bought a Prairie House designed by the architect in 1909. His new work tells the story of Wright's three wives and Cheney, and after months of research, Boyle feels he understands his subject better. "Was he just a womaniser? I don't think so. He needed challenging, attractive women by his side. He could only create with his back against the wall and his relationships were essential to his work." As to whether his novel rakes up old dirt, Boyle is adamant that the architect's genius will always win through. "My book only adds to the sum of the legend. What really matters is that he made great buildings. Nothing can detract from that."

'The Women', by TC Boyle, is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99. Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward is at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 15 May to 23 August

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