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Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

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Sunday
Jul082012

The FBI’s File on Frank Lloyd Wright

When I researched a project years ago with Freedom of Information Act expert Michael Ravnitzky, he showed me a copy he had acquired of the FBI’s file on the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It included a wealth of detail on several themes (real or imagined by the FBI) in Wright’s life that I found fascinating. So here, for what it’s worth, are some of my notes from that FBI file on a couple of the investigations that the FBI initiated against Wright. 

First, though, a bit of background. In 1923, Wright married Miriam Noel, an actress and artist. They proved to be a wretched match. Just three months after their wedding, Noel left Taliesin, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and refused to return.

Wright in 1926, when the FBI was dogging him for Mann Act violationsWright sued for divorce. Soon he struck up a relationship with Olga Milanov, a 28-year-old Montenegrin mystical dancer and the mother of a 7-year-old girl. Milanov moved in with Wright at Taliesin in 1924 and bore him a daughter, Iovanna, the following year. Noel heard stories about this new woman in her husband’s life, ended their divorce negotiations, and vowed never to free Wright. Throughout 1926, she harassed Milanov, tried to break her way into Taliesin, and finally swore out a warrant of adultery against Wright at the courthouse in Baraboo, Wisconsin. 

Wright told the press: “Legally, I am wrong, but morally I am right, just as right as Jesus Christ ever was.”

The charge of adultery led Wright to flee Taliesin with Milanov and the children. They headed for Minneapolis. Using false names, they briefly stayed in that city before renting a cabin on the shore of nearby Lake Minnetonka. Two months passed peacefully, but on the night of October 20, 1926, county deputies appeared at the cabin and took the entire family into custody. Wright spent two nights in the Hennepin County Jail and was charged with violating the Mann Act, a federal statute prohibiting the transport of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Wright told the press: “Legally, I am wrong, but morally I am right, just as right as Jesus Christ ever was.”

From Wright’s FBI File

Investigating adultery

After federal officials charged Wright with violating the Mann Act, Bureau agents attempted to track Wright’s movements from Wisconsin to Minnesota to establish that he crossed state lines with Milanov. At the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis the agents obtained testimony from the staff that Wright and Milanov had spent a night in adjoining rooms after registering as F.W. Wilson and Anna Richardson of Madison, Wisconsin. Continuing to follow the trail, agents found that the pair had spent the next night at the Old Orchard Hotel near Lake Minnetonka before renting their lakefront cabin. 

During the November 1926 federal hearings in which Wright was charged with the crime, an enterprising Bureau agent attempted to interrogate Wright at his temporary residence in the Minneapolis Athletic Club. Notes the case report: “Agent asked him whether or not he cared to talk. Subject replied, ‘Sure, I will; what kind of questions are you going to ask me? The only thing I have done is to bring [name redacted by FBI] over from Wisconsin, to earn them a living.’” After phoning his lawyer, Wright refused to say more.

Finally, says a later case report, United States District Attorney LaFayette French, Jr., ultimately declined to continue the Mann Act prosecution, deeming the evidence insufficient to warrant further action. 

Postscript

Frank Lloyd Wright married Olga Milanov in 1928, and they remained married until Wright’s death 31 years later. “You know, in 1926 I landed in jail here,” he said during a public appearance in Minneapolis in 1956. “Nothing came of it, though. It was just meant to embarrass me — and it did.”

A charge of sedition

Wright next fell under the FBI’s scrutiny in December 1942, when federal judge Patrick T. Stone publicly accused him of obstructing America’s effort to fight World War II by persuading his architecture apprentices to apply en masse for conscientious objector status. Judge Stone had sentenced one of those apprentices, Marcus Earl Weston, to prison for refusing to report for induction. In a memo dated December 17, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover asked his Milwaukee bureau to look into the judge’s charges. 

Agents from Milwaukee converged upon Spring Green to examine Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship. 

The FBI already knew about Wright’s sentiments on international affairs. A citizen informant warned Hoover that Wright “has been sounding off in the worst possible fashion and ought to get his knuckles severely rapped. He’s been making speeches to the effect that we ought to let Japan have what she wants in Asia, they’re really nice people, etc.”

Agents from Milwaukee converged upon Spring Green to examine Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship. Taliesin from the air. Photo by Jeff Dean, from Wikimedia CommonsAccording to a clipping from the New York Herald Tribune preserved in the FBI file, 19 young architects were then studying Wright’s concepts of organic architecture as part of the Fellowship, which had been founded in 1932. The apprentices paid $1,100 a year for their experience, and they were also responsible for helping farm Taliesin’s 200 acres, making wine and bread, and maintaining the property. 

An agent noted in a case report dated March 3, 1943, that two years earlier 26 Taliesin fellows had petitioned the draft board in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, for conscientious objector status. “Petitionists claimed their work as architects in a constructive field was more vital to interior defense than service in the army,” the agent wrote. The draft board denied the request.

Interviewed by the agent was a member (name redacted) of the Dodgeville draft board, who observed that Wright “was regarded by members of the fellowship as somewhat of an idol, a tin god, or a master, who could do no wrong. They believed in his ideas of organic architecture and felt that as long as they were together, serving under this master, they could do no wrong and were more or less immune to local restrictions and laws.” 

Finally an FBI agent interviewed Wright. “Subject vehemently denied in any way influencing, counseling, or aiding members of his fellowship to claim conscientious objection and opposition to military service and pointed out that members of his group were serving in the armed forces at the present time,” the agent wrote. “He readily admitted his influence in the environment of the Fellowship necessarily had a great deal to do with the boys in their claims.... [The draft law] was in reality destroying their Fellowship, scattering them throughout the world, and completely destroying the one thing in which they believed most sincerely.” 

Hoover received this report and forwarded it to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge. On April 6, 1943, Berge replied: “It is our view that the facts do not warrant prosecution under the Sedition Statutes and we are requesting no further investigation at this time.” Hoover would not let go of the case, however. On July 17 he received a report from Special Agent in Charge H.T. O’Connor containing new evidence damaging to Wright. An informant (name redacted) had revealed that Wright once declared that “none of ‘his boys’ would have to go to war under the conscription act except over his dead body.” Hoover sent this information to Berge, who again declined to prosecute Wright.

Postscript

Marcus Earl Weston, one of three Taliesin Fellows who received prison terms for refusing conscription into the armed forces, served six months of a three-year sentence at Sandstone Federal Prison in Minnesota and then was assigned to work with conscientious objectors in the hospital kitchen at the University of Michigan. During the 1990s, as a retired architect living in Spring Green, Wisconsin, he acknowledged that many people believed that Wright influenced him to resist the draft. “Mr. Wright was opposed to the war, there was no question on that,” he said. “But he didn’t try to influence the boys to become conscientious objectors. When the draft was first passed, a couple of the boys got together one evening to compose a letter to send to the local draft board, asking that we be left alone. It was passed around and practically all of the fellows signed it, including myself. It went to the draft board, and it was like waving a flag in front of a bull. After war was declared, most of the fellows went into the service. I was the first one who stood by my convictions and refused to go.” 

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Reader Comments (4)

This is a fantastic read. Thank you.
July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily Boots
Thanks, Emily, for your kind words.
July 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterJack El-Hai
Found this link on the FLW Preservation Facebook page, very interesting. The world of early Taliesin would've been an amazing place to be. Thanks.
July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Brinker
Greg, thanks for following that link and for leaving your kind comments.
July 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterJack El-Hai

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