It has been 66 years since Paul Hendrickson rode his bicycle down South Harrison Avenue in Kankakee, Illinois, and discovered a distinctive house he later learned was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Hendrickson has led a life full of discoveries, during two decades as a senior lecturer in Penn’s English Department, and three decades as a reporter and feature writer mainly for The Washington Post. Along the way he has also researched and written six nonfiction books; his latest and longest released this month is “Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Speaking last week at Kelly Writers House, he explained his decision to spend seven years researching and writing a book about Wright, a much-chronicled architect, to an Arts Café packed with colleagues, students, and friends.
The project, he said, brought him full circle to his “boyhood Frank Lloyd Wright,” the B. Harley Bradley House he noticed that spring day in 1953 as he pedaled past on his maroon JC Higgins three-speed bike, a Spalding baseball glove hooked to the handlebars.
“It seemed to come down from Mars; it vaguely repelled me, beckoned me, fascinated me,” Hendrickson said. “Something got into my imagination, something got into my consciousness, and it only took six-and-a-half decades to loop around and find me as a writing project.”
That house, built in 1900, a unique precursor to what became Wright’s signature “prairie style” home, is a touchstone for Hendrickson, situated on the same street as the house where he grew up.
Writers House, on Locust Walk, is another place Hendrickson treasures, having taught a class there every year since the first Advanced Non-Fiction Workshop in the spring of 1998. Other courses he has taught include Writing from Photographs, Long Form Journalistic Writing, and Documentary Writing. He won the Provost’s Teaching Award in 2005.
“I have long felt that when we are at our best as students and teachers something almost holy goes on within these walls, and I am willing to take out the almost,” he said. “This little jewel that you feel you can almost nest in the palm of your hand in this huge pre-professional university has always represented for me a kind of true north.”
Al Filreis, faculty director of Writers House, described Hendrickson as “the eminent obsessive reporter,” who has written an “amazing” book.
“This is a book about how, and the only way that Paul Hendrickson was able to make a new story of this old story is to focus on not just the how of Wright but the how of this reporter,” Filreis said.
“How Hendrickson goes and gets the story is not something that is hidden behind the book, it is in the book, it is crucially part of the book,” he said. “As you read the book, you are trying to get to Wright, but you have to go through Hendrickson to get to Wright. And Hendrickson is a good guide.”
Hendrickson’s approach is as a journalist, questioning previous accounts, delving deeply into critical moments in Wright’s life. It’s not a cradle-to-grave biography but rather “storytelling pockets in a life that might stand for the oceanic whole of that life,” he said.
Wright’s life of 91 years, from 1867 to 1959, was one of “disaster and disarray, much of his own making,” Hendrickson said. “So much of Frank Lloyd Wright’s history was attended by the Gothic and the tragic, encircled by it, pursued by it.”
Wright designed more than 1,100 buildings—churches, schools, offices, banks, museums, hotels, medical clinics, a synagogue, an automobile showroom, a skyscraper, and even a Phillips 66 gas station—but overwhelmingly his creations were houses.
“I wondered if it wasn’t possible to start thinking about this supreme artist and insufferable man through a slightly different and softer lens,” Hendrickson said. “He wished to create dignified human spaces that would be around long after he was not.”
Wright’s own house, Taliesin, built into a green hill on the bend of a river in a Wisconsin valley, was the site of the most tragic event in his life. “Rebuilt and rebuilt again,” Hendrickson said. “Yes I am already nodding toward a four-letter word…fire.”
The book starts at Taliesin on Aug. 15, 1914, describing the murder of seven people, including the woman Wright loved, by an employee who then set the home on fire. Wright was not there that day. “We know so much but simultaneously know so little (about that moment), which in its way is much like Frank Lloyd Wright himself, riddles wrapped up inside of riddles,” said Hendrickson, whose reporting includes new information about the tragedy.
So much of Wright’s life is to be questioned, especially since Wright himself was not honest about the details, Hendrickson said. Wright wrote in his autobiography that his father abandoned the family and left them in poverty. Actually, his mother drove his father away when Wright was 18.
“It was hiding in plain sight, his deep longing for his father,” Hendrickson said, which he discovered in Wright’s own words through his largely ignored Sunday fellowship talks, off-the-cuff sermons, preserved in Columbia University’s architectural library. “I was knocked flat.”
Remorse, shame, secret haunting are not ideas associated with Frank Lloyd Wright, “but what if our ideas are wrong, have long been wrong, or at least are not wholly correct?” Hendrickson said.
“I don’t really have another name for the thing I am trying to get at except the word humanity,” he continued. “The problem is when you are a writer in search of that humanity and wish to make a case for it, you have to be willing to keep kicking away all the refuse of a life. Well, that is the book I have tried to write.”
There was a moment along the journey of his reporting, about three years in, when Hendrickson said he faltered. “I was thinking I disliked him more than I liked him,” he said of Wright. “I was panicking that this man’s ego and arrogance were driving me away.”
But he said was being pushed forward by something Wright himself once said: “I believe that in the search for the answer lies the answer.”
Searching is the essence of Hendrickson’s reporting and writing. His first book, published in 1983, is entitled “Seminary: A Search” a memoir about his years studying to be a Catholic priest. A “narrative nonfiction writer,” his other books have deeply examined the lives of others, including Ernest Hemingway and Robert McNamara.
Support for his research and writing include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Among many the literary awards his books have garnered, Hendrickson has the rare distinction of being a three-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, which he won in 2003. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Award.
In further evidence of the depth and breadth of Hendrickson’s reporting for his books, the final section of “Plagued by Fire” is an “Essay on Sources,” from Page 520 to Page 574, a personal bibliography that details his interactions during the research that took him to cities and towns across the country as he traced the arc of Wright’s life.
“I’ve never read anything like this, and I’ve read a lot of books,” Filreis said, prompting a ripple of laughter through the crowd at Writers House.
“So you get to the end of the Wright story and you realize that this is a story about an indefatigable brilliant researcher whose subjectivity is completely in the work,” Filreis continued, “and you realize you have gone on a journey with Paul Hendrickson to figure out arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century. It is quite a twosome.”
Al Filreis is the Kelly Family Professor of English, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, and faculty director of Kelly Writers House.