Introducing Roger Friedland’s The Fellowship, an Architectural Book like No Other
by David Obst
Roger Friedland, a UCSB professor of religious studies and sociology, just pulled off a major literary coup. He’s written a book that will not only satisfy the academic rigor of his colleagues, but will also be a sure-fire bestseller full of sex, lies, and architecture.
Co-written with architect Harold Zellman, Friedland’s new book The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship is a mesmerizing account of the drama, scandalous sexual escapades, spiritual journey, and artistic achievements of a man many believe was the foremost architect of the 20th century. Published last month by Regan Books, the book’s already been selected by the Book of the Month Club, cited in Vanity Fair, and hit the New York Post’s infamous Page Six. So just who is Professor Roger Friedland?
Born in New York City 59 years ago, Friedland was part of the vast post-war migration to the West Coast. Once here, he benefited from an excellent public school education, attending Palisades High School and the University of California, Berkeley. He got his doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, and then came back west, landing his first real job at UCSB. Despite offers from schools such as Harvard and Yale, he’s still here, 25 years later, married to his wife, Debra (also an author), and the father of two 14-year-old daughters, Hannah and Sarah. The whole family, incidentally, just came home to Santa Barbara after two years in Italy, where the professor was a Fulbright scholar teaching at the University of Rome.
Friedland and Zellman’s 10-year opus on Frank Lloyd Wright originally began when the two teamed up as Getty scholars to examine a modernist cooperative community built in West Los Angeles after World War II. While researching Crestwood Hills, the two traced its origins back to two men, an architect and a violist — both of whom had been apprentices at Taliesin, an architectural commune set up in 1932 in Wisconsin by Wright and his wife, the mysterious Olgivanna.
Taliesin was created to be an experimental center for both architecture and living. Staffed by young, eager, and mostly male architects who wanted to learn from the master, it quickly evolved into a “cult of genius,” a place where Olgivanna, Wright’s third wife, could promote the teaching of Georgi Gurdjieff. This bald, mustached, charismatic Russian trickster/guru claimed his eyes could not only penetrate a man’s psyche, but also bring a woman to orgasm from across a room. For the next 30 years, Taliesin became a place where Wright would not only get free in-house labor, but his wife would be able to have total sway over the mental, physical, and sexual lives of the architect’s devoted followers.
Friedland and Zellman were able to crack the hitherto impenetrable world of Taliesin. The book shows how many of the hundreds who came to study there were transformed by the Wrights into willing instruments of Olgivanna’s will, how she was able to exert total emotional and sexual control over many of Wright’s protégés. Frank Lloyd gave his wife the ultimate gift — her own live-action dollhouse. The stories of Olgivanna toying with that dollhouse are riveting, particularly those about Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, who became a virtual slave of the Wrights and complained that her experience at Taliesin was emotionally scarring.
In addition, The Fellowship depicts how the Wrights created one of the few safe havens for homosexuals of their era. Taliesin became one of the great closets in American history. Gay men could be safe there at a time when overt homosexual activity was still dangerous in our country. However, a number of them paid quite a price.
The best sections of the book, however, are about Wright. The authors’ insights into who Frank Lloyd really was are both insightful and pretty scary. Wright was the Mel Gibson of his era, but his anti-Semitism had to be kept under control since a majority of his clients were Jewish. Not only did Wright publicly endorse Charles Lindberg and Henry Ford’s political charges blaming the Jews for America’s entry into WWII, but when provoked, Wright would resort to anti-Semitic screeds. For example, when an apprentice came in over-bid to construct an exhibition, Wright sniped: “Let your beard grow back and go on being a rabbi.” The apprentice, while Jewish, was not a rabbi.
Friedland and Zellman also have done ground-breaking work on Wright’s sexual ambiguity. The architect fought a life-long struggle with his own manhood and even identified himself with Socrates’s bi-sexual lover, Alcibiades, a code-word for gay-leaning men. Additionally, many of Wright’s closest male friends were homosexuals, to one of whom he once confessed, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” What the authors do best is abjure the accepted myths about Frank Lloyd Wright and his profusely talented archetypical legacy. They show us with exquisite detail what it was like to live and create some of America’s most famous monuments. The Fellowship is a true guilty pleasure, a book that you can read to feel smart about yourself, but one that also amuses and titillates as much as the latest Us Weekly.
Roger Friedland will sign The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship at Chaucer’s Books, this Sunday, September 10, at 3 p.m. Call 682-6787.