He burned Frank Lloyd Wright’s house and killed his mistress — but why?

Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post:

On Aug. 15, 1914, a servant set fire to Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s sprawling estate in Spring Green, Wis. Julian Carlton also took up an ax and murdered seven people, among them Wright’s mistress, Mamah Cheney, and her two children. Wright was already famous, as this country’s preeminent architect, and notorious, for leaving his wife and children for Cheney, with whom he lived openly and, by contemporary standards, shamelessly. The massacre made headlines around the country, and though Carlton’s motives remain obscure and unknowable to this day, the carnage was held up by many as divine retribution for Wright’s marital misbehavior.

Paul Hendrickson, who has written an acclaimed biography of Ernest Hemingway, wants to get to the bottom of the abiding mystery of that tragedy. Why did Carlton do it? The author’s relentless pursuit gives his new Wright biography, “Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright,” a curiously obsessive quality, returning again and again not just to the events of 1914 but to other fires that bedeviled Wright’s career. Hendrickson is a dogged researcher and pursues every lead, even spending time in the jail cell where Carlton was imprisoned after his crimes and on empty lots where demolished Wright buildings once stood. He reaches as far back into Carlton’s past as documentary evidence will allow, looking to census accounts and tracking down an 1869 marriage certificate for his parents. He pursues every trail: from Alabama, where Carlton was born, to Chicago, where he lived for a while before heading to Wisconsin. Hendrickson even visits the site of Carlton’s home in Chicago, now torn down, and describes the house next door, which is still standing.

More here.