The Women | Chapter 11 of 41

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10560 Views | Add a Review

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On the day he met Olga Lazovich Milanoff Hinzenberg, at a ballet performance in Chicago in the fall of 1924, Frank Lloyd Wright1 was feeling optimistic, buoyant even. It might have been raining that day—it was raining, gray pluvial streaks painting the intermediate distance like a pointillist canvas, stooped figures trudging along the streets beneath the shrouds of their umbrellas, sleet predicted, snow on the way—but his mood was unconquerable. He’d always thought of himself as a genial type, sunny and effervescent, one of those rare people who could transform the mood of an entire room simply by striding through the door, but the emotional upheaval of the past two years—since he’d come back from Japan, at any rate—had worn him down. Miriam was the problem, of course, or the crown and pinnacle of it. There were money woes, certainly. Insufficient commissions, fainthearted clients, and the deep-dwelling ignorance of his countrymen (and cowardice, cowardice too) in the face of the Fauvists, the Futurists, the Dadaists and the Cubists and all the rest of the ists and isms, Duchamp and Braque and Picasso, and worse yet, the soi-disant International Style of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Meyer and Mies—all the movements that had sprung up to make him feel antiquated and embattled. None of that helped. While he was in the Far East, the Europeans had been invading America.
But things were looking up. Miriam was gone now, gone since May, though every time he closed his eyes over a drawing or the pages of a book he saw her face, the tragic one she wore like a mask, rearing up in his consciousness till it dissolved in a swirl of dark bruised spots. Still, she was gone and Taliesin was at peace again. Three young couples—the Neutras, the Tsuchiuras and the Mosers—had been in residence, and there were musical evenings, good fellowship, the quiet of the fireside. And here he was, back in Chicago on business and stamping the rain from his hat and cloak in the vestibule of the theater, ripe for a little recreation.
A friend2 had asked him if he’d like to see Karsavina perform selections from “Sleeping Beauty,” “La Fille Mal Gardée” and “Les Sylphides” that afternoon and he’d jumped at the chance, though the prima ballerina’s best days were long behind her and her supramundane beauty was a whisper of what it had been. He wanted to be seen about town, if only to shake some of the lint off the moth-eaten blanket of rumor and outright lies the scandalmongers had laid over him—he’d be opening an office here again at the first of the year and needed to make his presence felt. All right. Fine. The rain fell in the street, the door swung open and shut on the premonitory breath of winter, people crowded the lobby: men in fancy dress or the suits they’d worn to church, women swathed in furs and pearls, their voices sailing away from them to chime and chirrup like the disquisitions of the birds in the aviary at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Were people avoiding him? Wasn’t that—?
It was. Olivia Westphal, whom he’d once promenaded around Oak Park in his first car (the custom-made Stoddard-Dayton sports roadster that could hit sixty on the straightaway, a car he still dreamed of in the moments before waking, the “Yellow Devil” that had people leaping for the curb and cost him the very first speeding ticket ever issued on those sleepy equine streets), hoping to land a commission to build for her and her new husband (and she’d stabbed him in the back even then, opting to have Patton and Fisher build her an ornamented box of a place that was as insipid as a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes left out overnight. On the counter. In a puddle of soured milk). And what the years had done to her: she was a matron now, gone to fat in the face and upper arms, with a bulky squared-up figure that all but erased the curvilinear contours he’d once found so enticing. She looked him dead in the eye—recognized him, he saw that—and then looked away again.
And how did that make him feel? Belligerent. Angry. Disgusted. Let them ignore him, the prudes and the timid little rodents they were married to, afraid all their lives to break ranks, to live, to make the grand gesture, any gesture . . . but now his companion3 had him by the arm and was leading him toward a group of men in the very center of things—was that Robert? Oscar?—and he felt himself swell up till he could hardly keep his cane from pirouetting across the floor. What he didn’t notice—nor did his companion—was the tall dark sober-faced young woman slipping in through the door, her ticket clutched in one gloved hand, her purse in the other. She noticed him, though, her gaze roving over the crowd from the place she’d chosen in the corner—both wanting to be seen and at the same time striving for anonymity, unescorted at a matinee, unattached and at odds with her husband, a devotee of the dance and of what Karsavina had once been, a single woman out on a rainy afternoon. Olgivanna saw the same hats, shoulders, furs and jabbering faces he’d seen, a cotillion, a pecking order, society at large, and then all at once he was there and her eyes seized on him.
Her first sensation was the thrill of recognizing a celebrated face in public, a jolt of the nervous system that carried with it a hint of self-congratulation, as if she’d come up with the solution to a puzzle in a flash of inspiration. The second thing she felt was that she absolutely must talk to him—a compulsion so strong she very nearly bolted through the crowd to him, though here she was an utter stranger and unescorted and unintroduced, but she suppressed the impulse out of shyness and a vertiginousness verging on panic: What could she possibly say to him? How would she break the ice? Get him to look at her even? And the third thing, a thought clamoring atop the other two and cloaked in a rush of hormonal flapping, was that he would know her on some deep unfathomable level, as if it were fated, as if they were reincarnated lovers out of the Mahabharata or Rice Burroughs—and more: that he would take her to himself, master her in a fierce blend of power and submission.4
Frank5 was oblivious. He was the center of attention, preening and performing for the little group that had gathered round him, old friends and fellows-well-met, joking, laughing, carting out one story after another and making his deadpan observations about this couple or that—and let them look, let them—when the start of the program was announced and Albert took him by the arm and they made their way to a box in front. As it happened, Albert slid in first, taking the seat adjoining a vacant one, and Frank settled in on his right. The lights dimmed. The conductor rose from the pit, his arms elevated over the score. And then, at the last minute, Olgivanna drifted gracefully down the center aisle, a moving shadow against the backdrop of the stage. The usher stood aside, the curtain rising now, the audience stirring, and here was her seat, and she barely had time to register the unremarkable figure beside her before the music began and the dancers appeared and she realized with a jolt that he was there, right there, one seat over from her.
For his part, Frank had glanced up as she slipped into her seat—a reflex of the human organism: there’s a movement, the eye goes to it—just as he would have glanced up at anyone, the cows from the lobby or the stuffed shirts they were with or even one of his sworn enemies. A glance, that was all, but he liked what he saw. She was hatless, with minimal makeup, her hair parted in the middle and drawn up in a chignon, a lace shawl clinging to her shoulders. He registered that—the simplicity of her dress and style, a kind of purity and faith in her own beauty that stood all the rest of the puffed-up, powdered and behatted matrons on their heads, and the way she’d moved, a tall young woman in her twenties, sliding into a seat at the ballet with a balletic grace all her own. He stole another glance. And then another.
There was movement on the stage now, a burst of applause as Karsavina appeared—her legs good still, her face less so—and its dying fall. He was conscious of silent effort, of women and men twirling and wobbling like bowling pins that won’t go down, and he understood immediately that this would be a mediocre performance by an artist in decline. A bore. A wasted afternoon. He bent forward to look past Albert. The young woman—she was a girl, really—sat quietly with her hands folded in her lap, her gaze fixed on the stage. Her carriage was flawless, from the way she held her shoulders to the swell of her breasts to the pronounced lines of her jaw and cheekbone in profile, the beautifully scalloped ear and the pale jewel that glittered at the lobe of it—minimalist, everything about her a studied composition of the minimal. But she wasn’t an American girl—he would have bet on it.
Ten minutes into the performance—or perhaps it was longer than that, perhaps it was twenty—he began to fidget. He wanted to get up and leave—they were just going through the motions up on the stage, tired motions, dead motions, and nobody in the audience knew any better—but he had an even stronger impulse to stay and somehow attract this girl’s attention because he knew her, knew her just by looking at her, and he wanted more, much more, contact, recognition, a glance, a smile. “They’re lifeless,” he murmured, leaning into Albert, his friend’s startled face hanging there in the glow of the stage like a jack-o’-lantern on a wire. “They’re dead,” he said, just loudly enough so that she could hear—and she did hear, he could tell from her reaction though she never shifted her eyes from the stage—“dead and dancing to the dead.”
At the intermission—at the moment the applause died and before she could get up and wander off by herself—he leaned across Albert and said, “I couldn’t help but notice your response—you agree, don’t you? That Karsavina might just as well have stayed in London for all the inspiration she’s showing here today? That she’d rather be in London. Knitting. Or whatever she does there.”
She turned her face to him then, her eyes fastening on his. He couldn’t know what he was saying, couldn’t know how his comment during the dance had echoed one of the dicta of Gurdjieff,6 her master, who had striven his whole life to awaken the race from the deadness of the material world and into the consciousness of the mystic truths that lay beyond it, or that she’d been one of Gurdjieff’s principal danseuses, or that she’d left Paris just three weeks earlier at his insistence after she’d nursed him through the worst of his injuries from the automobile accident that had nearly killed him, or how she’d chopped wood all afternoon every day so that he’d have enough fuel to keep warm through the blasts and contingencies of the winter—or even, on a more elemental level, that she agreed wholeheartedly with his assessment of Karsavina. “Yes,” she said, “you are absolutely right. This is a rote performance. An embarrassment.”
Her voice captivated him. Soft, rhythmic, the beat of the phrases a kind of music in itself, and what was her accent? Eastern European of some sort—Polish? Romanian? He said, “She’s married to a diplomat, isn’t she? Running a school now”—he’d gleaned this from the program and added, redundantly—“in London.”
“The Royal Academy of Dancing. She helped to found it.”
“Yes,” he said, talking past Albert’s flaming face, “yes, of course. But let me introduce myself—and my friend here, this is Albert Bleutick—”
She dropped her eyes a moment, then came back to him. “But you do not need an introduction,” she murmured, and he felt the blood charge through his veins as if a ligature had been loosened. “Certainly, this is the case, no? But I am Olga Milanoff, known to my friends”—and here she paused to let him consider the freight of nuances the association was meant to carry—“as Olgivanna.”
Somewhere, somehow, Albert got lost in the shuffle, and Frank couldn’t really recall when or where it had happened—on the way to the tea dance to which he’d invited her or after they’d got there? No matter. From the moment the three of them left the theater at intermission till they hustled out into the drenched streets looking for a cab, he could think of nothing but the excitement of the affair at hand, the old libidinous fires restoked,7 the quickening pulse of possibility. Was he too old for this sort of thing? Was he wary, considering what he’d been through with Miriam—and before her, Mamah and even Kitty? If the thought crossed his mind, he dismissed it. Age was nothing to him—he was fifty-seven and fit as a farmer—and he was one of those sexually charged men who couldn’t live without a woman at the center of his life. Already, since the official break with Miriam, though she’d been dead to him for a year and more, he’d come very close to finding that woman in the bow mouth and satiric eyes of a certain lady novelist,8 and when that proved impossible on any number of scores, he’d moved a coed from the University of Wisconsin into Taliesin and his bed. But he wasn’t satisfied. Not yet. Not even approximately. He needed—complication. Love, yes. Sex, of course. But something more than that, something fraught and embattled, a relation to make the juices flow in every sense.
The sandwiches were soggy, the tea tepid. Albert disappeared. The orchestra played the old songs in the old dreamily civilized way of pre-war London (tango, yes, but delivered up in a rendition that was almost sedate) and stayed away from the jittery nonsense of the speakeasies. They talked for two hours and more. They danced and she was as light in his arms as a feather pillow. He let her know that he didn’t smoke or drink and she didn’t mind at all, even as so many of the other couples on the dance floor showed the obvious effects of alcohol and every time they looked up one man or another was spiking his companion’s tea with a clear liquid decanted from a flask. She agreed with him that jazz music was, for the most part, hyperactive. And yes, she did love Bach, one of her earliest musical inspirations when she was a girl in Montenegro.
He must have lifted his eyebrows—Montenegro?—because she informed him that this was a kingdom on the Adriatic and that she came from an exalted family of warriors and judges. “We are Serbs,” she told him, over-sugaring her tea, a cucumber sandwich arrested at her lips. “Do you know Serbs?”
“Oh, yes,” he lied, “yes, of course. Hundreds of them.” But he was smiling—his flashing eyes, his floating hair—and breezed right past it: “And I’m still waiting for my first Montenegrin commission. You don’t think the king over there might want a new palace? In the Prairie Style? Or how about a pleasure dome on the sacred River Alph?” His smile widening to clinch the joke. “Or is that in another part of the world?”
He dropped her that night at the apartment where she was staying with disciples exiled—like her—from Gurdjieff’s enclave in Fontainebleau, 9 and he was there the next morning, flowers in hand, to take her to breakfast. That was the beginning of a more elaborate dance, a waltz in three-quarter time that swept them through the corridors of museums, galleries and concert halls, with side trips to admire the houses he’d built in the city and in Oak Park, and which culminated in the inevitable invitation to Taliesin.
It was December, a week before Christmas. An arctic front had advanced across the Great Lakes and the skies were stripped of color. She packed her bags—a few things only, an outfit or two for jaunts through the country, formal wear for dinner—and she came alone on the train through the whitening stubble fields and forlorn villages of Illinois and Wisconsin, having arranged for her daughter to stay behind in Chicago with her estranged husband.10 She would remember that journey all her life, the sense of enclosure and security the coach gave her as the snow ran against the windows and she ate the sugared buns she’d brought with her and sipped coffee from the cup of her thermos, the world reduced and tranquil. Though she had a book with her—a bound manuscript Georgei had given her when she left Paris—she never opened it. She hardly noticed the other passengers, didn’t speak a word to anyone. She was wrapped up in something complex, something that brought her deep, into the deepest part of herself, and as the coach thumped and jostled and ran smooth over the uninterrupted stretches, she leaned into the window and watched the ghost of her reflection run along with it.
Was she trading one guru for another, was that it? A luminous middle-aged magus of inner sight for an equally luminous middle-aged wizard of outward form and structure? Inner for outer? Was she choosing this man—and she whispered his name aloud: Frank, Frank—because he was the supreme deity of the field in which Vlademar was a mere toiler, Vlademar whom she’d married too young, at eighteen, to know any better and who was divorcing her because he refused to allow her to express herself in any way at all? Was going off with Frank Wright any different from going off with Gurdjieff—to dance, to serve, to absorb the radiance with her mouth, her fingers, her heart and mind and spirit? Or was it simply a father she was looking for, a father to replace the one she’d lost? No matter, because there was one surety in all of this, one thing she knew without stint: he was hers if she wanted him. And this journey, this weekend ahead, would settle that once and for all.
He was there waiting for her at the Spring Green station, his automobile idling at the curb, the exhaust spectral against the backdrop of the new-fallen snow. There was snow in his hair, snow salting his beret and his coat and his long trailing scarf. “Olgivanna,” was all he said, and then he was embracing her there on the platform for anyone to see while his chauffeur—one of the workmen from Taliesin, Billy Weston—held open the door of the car for her. She felt the floorboards vibrating beneath her, caught a scent of the exhaust mingled with the soap Frank used, and then Billy Weston put the car in gear and they were moving. In a matter of moments the town fell away behind them and they were out in the countryside, trees heavy with snow, the road paved in white, smoke coiling away from farmhouse chimneys and livestock trampling the yards in dumb display. It was as if they’d gone back in time.
She gazed at Frank. Held tight to his hand. He talked the whole while, the words spilling out of him, every turning in the road or glimpse of a barn’s faded red flank a cause for celebration, his voice so melodious and rich it was as if he were singing. She watched his eyes, his lips, the flutter of his tongue against the roof of his mouth: he was singing and she was his audience. She was almost surprised when Taliesin drew into sight, the lake in front of the house capped white atop the ice, and the house itself clinging low to the ground and huddling beneath its own weight of snow and the forest of icicles depending from the eaves. It was like something the ancient Celts might have built, or the barrow men before them: mystical, out of time, as ancient as the dirt it stood upon and the stone pillars that supported it. What did she say as they wound their way up the drive? That it was beautiful, magical? Or no: that it was living art. That was what she called it: living art.
There were introductions—to the Neutras, the Mosers and the Tsuchiuras—and a brisk walk around the courtyard to get a sense of the scope of the place, and all she could think of was a Japanese village set down whole here on the side of a mountain in the hills of Wisconsin. Inside, the place was elaborately decorated for Christmas—wreaths and cuttings and dried flowers, a spangle of silver balls, art everywhere, and cheer, good cheer and tidings of the season.11 And then she was installed in one of the guest rooms and changing for dinner while he fidgeted outside the door, talking, always talking, one subject bleeding into another, her snowy journey reminding him of the winter excursions he made back and forth from Fiesole to Berlin in the days when he was putting together his portfolio and how the sun had struck the walls of the villas in Italy and how the amber stone of Taliesin reminded him of it, and how was her daughter? Would she be all right without her mother for a few days? When she emerged, he handed her a glass of mulled cider and escorted her through the maze of rooms, showing off the fine things he’d collected—Japanese prints by Hiroshige, Hokusai, Sadahide; Ming vases; marble heads dating to the Tang Dynasty; Genroku embroidery and Momoyama screens—all the while discoursing on the cleanliness of the Japanese culture and the simple organic elegance of its architecture. “And their sex practices,” he said, standing before the fire now in the big low-ceilinged room that commanded views of the hills and valley beyond, “very clean, very civilized. And open.”
She wanted to tip her head back, look him in the eye and ask just how he’d managed to acquire his knowledge—there was heat in the air and they’d be together tonight for the first time: that was the unspoken promise that had brought her all the way out here on the train—when the Tsuchiuras entered the room. She’d only had a moment to chat with them when she arrived, an exchange of the formal pleasantries—Kameki was an architect who’d worked with Frank in Japan and Los Angeles both, as she understood it—and now here they were, dressed for dinner and bowing.
“Isn’t that right, Tsuchiura-San?” Frank asked, his expression gone sly.
Another bow. There was a burst, as of gunfire, from a knot in one of the logs laid across the fire. “I am sorry, Wrieto-San, but I haven’t heard you. We are only now here.”
“I was telling Olgivanna of the sexual openness in your country—the clean, healthy view women and men alike take of the amorous functions . . .”
Both the Tsuchiuras—they were young, her age, and the realization came to her in a flash—burst into laughter.
For the first time since she’d met him, Frank seemed at a loss, but he was quick to cover himself. “What I mean is, in contrast to our prudes and puritans, the timid and fearful little people who want to set the rules for everybody else—”
“Like Prohibition, you mean,” Olgivanna put in and she was soaring, already soaring on the heady currents of the place, the company, the conversation.
“Yes, well,” Frank said, leaning over to poke at the fire, “you know that I don’t approve of drinking—I’ve seen too many good men ruined by it, carpenters and draftsmen too—”
Again the Tsuchiuras laughed—and she, giddy, joined in. “A dime a dozen, Wrieto-San,” Kameki said, hardly able to draw breath he was laughing so hard, “all these drunken draftsmen. But not Tsuchiura Kameki, not a good honorable Japanese draftsman—”
“And Prohibition isn’t at all such a bad . . .” Frank began, but he looked at the three of them and trailed off, laughing himself now. “But maybe”—he gave a broad wink as he set the poker back down against the unfinished stone of the fireplace—“it’s the Swiss and Austrians we have to watch out for, what do you think, Kameki?”
The Neutras and Mosers had just strolled into the room, talking animatedly in German, and Werner Moser, picking up on the last phrase, said, “And what is this we Austrians and Swiss are being accused of?”
“Sex,” Kameki said. “Good, clean, open—and what was it, Wrieto-San, civilized?—sex.”
More laughter. Laughter all around, though Dione Neutra seemed puzzled until Frank broke in, his expression sober suddenly—or earnest, that was it. Earnest. He’d enjoyed the joke—he was the soul of levity, the single most ebullient man Olgivanna had ever met, and he encouraged jocularity in his associates and apprentices—but now, settling back into the role of the Master, he returned to the point he’d been making. For her benefit. “Now you know perfectly well I was talking of the Japanese—what would you call it?—freedom in sexual matters; that is, the acceptance of sex as a vital and necessary function, uncluttered, or, or unencumbered, by the mores of the church and politicians. And so clean. The kimonos, the celebration of beauty and ceremony—the tea ceremony, for instance. And this spills over into all aspects of society.”
“You’re speaking of the geisha,” Olgivanna heard herself say. All around her the room was held in suspension, the fire radiant, the Christmas wreaths capturing the light, the vast planes of the windows opening onto the night and the drifted snow beneath. Geisha, she thought. The courtesans with their clogs and kimonos and lacquered hair. Was that what he wanted?
“Women of the floating world,” Kameki said in a soft voice.
Frank moved into her, put an arm round her waist, the heat of him like a second fire, like a movable furnace. “Yes,” he said, “the geisha. But not one of them—none I’ve ever seen, anyway—could match the beauty and grace of you.”
And then someone said, “Here, here,” and they were all lifting glasses of cider and he was staring her full in the face, swept up in the rapture of the moment. She closed her eyes for the public kiss, the stamp and seal and imprimatur of her new master, and she felt so transported she let the image of Georgei—wizened, pale, sunk into the graying sheets and the fortress of his mind—fade until it was nothing at all.
And then—and then there was dinner, bountiful honest food and the sort of conversation that lifted up the world and all of them but Frank speaking English with an accent, Japanese, German, Montenegrin—and when they gathered round the fire afterward and Dione played her cello and sang Schubert in the voice of an angel descended, she felt so natural, so at home, that she got up and danced for them all. She knew the song12 only vaguely, but that didn’t matter because there was a deeper rhythm at work here, an enchantment that intoxicated her. She let herself go deep into the spirit, the harmonious movement, the trance of the Sufi mystics, everything Georgei had taught her, and she brought it all to the surface of her being, right there, right there in Taliesin in the big room before the fire that snapped and breathed in the crucible of creation—and not for an audience in a theater somewhere, but for him, for him alone.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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