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Many Masks

Posted: Thu Oct 06, 2005 8:03 pm
by Me
I have occassionaly seen criticism of Brendan Gill's "Many Masks" in this forum. I have read both Gill's book and Secrest's book and enjoyed different aspects of both books. What is is particularly that some of you dislike about Many Masks?

Many Masks

Posted: Fri Oct 07, 2005 6:41 am
by pharding
Personally I did not find Many Masks disturbing. I have lived in Oak Park for 26 years. FLW's personal fiscal irresponsibility and affairs are legendary in Oak Park. I have heard stories from the children and/or grandchildren of business owners about FLW stiffing their parent or grand parent business owners who unwisely extended him credit. What he did to his wife and children is well documented and nauseating. FLW fired his own son who was working for him in Tokyo. He stiffed employees who trusted him for payment. He stiffed taxing agencies in Wisconsin. It is understood that FLW did not conform to conventional norms of society. Nothing in the book was surprising to me or out of character in my opinion. Some may be offended that Many Masks further exposed FLW as a flawed person. Personally I view him as a flawed person and the Greatest Architect of All Time. His unrestrained desire to push beyond conventional architectural limits extended into his personal life.

Posted: Fri Oct 07, 2005 9:03 am
by rgrant
"Many Masks" says more about Brendan Gill than Frank Lloyd Wright. I gave Gill a tour through Hollyhock House shortly before the book was published. Throughout the tour he rambled on about Wright as if he knew all there was to know about the man and his architecture. But repeatedly I heard in his comments whole passages taken almost verbatim from the classic books about Wright, as if he had read everything and committed it to memory. It became obvious over the course of the tour that he knew nothing about Wright's life that anyone who read Smith, Twombley, Manson or any number of other reputable writers on the subject would not know. It was also obvious that he knew nothing about Wright's architecture, or architecture in general. (Edgar Kauffmann, Jr., on the occasion of Gill's being named architecture critic for the New Yorker wrote the editor: "You have just hired the Louella O. Parsons of architectural criticism.") What's wrong with Masks is not that it doesn't flatter Frank Lloyd Wright, but that it does not even try to get the story accurate or the assessment of the architecture credible.

I have a theory about Gill: In addition to writing Masks to establish his credentials as a worthy architecture critic and to make money, he was using the opportunity to get back at Wright for some perceived slight. In the 50s, Gill wrote (without a byline) the About Town column for the New Yorker. It's just a "who's in town and what are they up to?" gossip column. One thing Wright understood was the value of publicity, and in the 50s, during construction of the Guggenheim, he was in and out of New York often, so I can imagine that he made sure that his name got into print whenever possible. By cozying up to a young writer in a propitious position with ambitions of greater glory, he was able to use Gill to get mentioned in this important magazine. Perhaps when Gill moved on to other jobs, Wright cut him off, or something of that sort, and Gill was put in his place as just someone Wright used for his own purposes.

This may sound far-fetched, but it is not the only such incident. Gill and Joseph Campbell were famously antagonistic toward one another, almost to the point of coming to blows. When Campbell died, Gill wrote a witheringly mean-spirited obituary. He did the same for Kauffmann, making it sound like such a nice, sweet eulogy, while actually stabbing Edgar in the back and twisting the knife. I don't know if he had a run-in with sculptor Louise Nevelson (who had a knack for whittling egotistical windbags like Gill down to size), but she also got nailed in her coffin. And it is worth noting that "Many Masks" did not come out until the famously litigious Olgavanna was safely dead. I think Gill was a small-minded, bitchy old queen who went for the jugular post-mortem. If the lot of Gill's victims have met up somewhere for a cocktail party in the great beyond, I'm sure they are still shunning the garrulous Gill.

The reason that "Many Masks" is popular is that Gill was also an excellant writer. He should have stayed with fiction, however. At the same time his book came out, another biography was published by Harvey Einbinder, who was at the opposite end of the spectrum. His primary job was to write biographical sketches for encyclopaedias. I still don't know if Einbinder's Wright biography is accurate, because it's so dull, I can't read it without falling asleep. It could put Sominex out of business. Gill's is an easy read, and that is why it has become so popular, while Einbinder's was remaindered a week after it was released. If you want a more accurate and readable biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, you will have to wait, because it has yet to be written.

Posted: Fri Oct 07, 2005 12:15 pm
by Paula
I agree with pharding - I think FLlW was a flawed person but the greatest architect of all time. I've always wondered why so many people find it hard to appreciate and respect his work while questioning his life choices. I would love to have been a client but would not like to have been his wife or credtior.


Posted: Fri Oct 07, 2005 1:54 pm
by JimM
rgrant: Enjoyed your informed post. I have often questioned the distain for Gill on these posts just as Paula has. I think any curious person should consider sources when discussing Wright, and your comments were illuminating and informative.

I did not concern myself with architectural inaccuracies in his book (they are found elsewhere and everywhere, many from the loyal legions), but did feel he had an entertaining and accurate take on things normally taboo to discuss in Wrightdom. I have always been fascinated by the encouragement of the myths by those quick to criticize the acknowledgement of shortcomings in Wright's personality; as if it has any affect on the certainty of his architectural genius.

I really enjoyed the book, and if its agenda was for reasons other than to cite Wright's undisputed and troubled personna, so be it-his greatness is not threatened. My question would then be, how does one justify such scathing criticism while not condemning the architectural and personal "whoppers" (to quote Gill) still spewed by many past and present who should know better?


Posted: Fri Oct 07, 2005 2:22 pm
by DamiensGreve
That was a wonderful, insightful piece of writing from someone who met Gill. Thanks. My problem with Gill is that the book seems to say so much more about Gill than it does about Wright. Although it is one of the most fun biographies to read on the man.

Posted: Fri Oct 07, 2005 2:37 pm
by rgrant
My only reason for addressing Gill's book at all is because it is widely read, not only by people who have an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright, but by people who have never encountered him before. The problem with the book is not that it is irreverent, but that it is inaccurate. Wright had his faults, no one can deny that, and the same can be said for many of the most creative persons throughout history. Ibsen, Moliere or Michelangelo, to name a few, make Wright look downright benign by comparison. And if the whole truth about Wright made him out to be a monumental ass, it would be of no consequence to the value of his art. But creating new myths about a person shrouded in myths, some of his own making, does not lead to enlightenment. And that defeats the purpose of a biography. (I tend to regard Wright's own autobiography as not so much a chronicle of his life, but as a text book on architectural design, albeit a rather abstract, "through a glass, darkly" one.)