Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who designed more than 1,000 structures and is widely recognized as the most influential architect of all time, was also an interior designer, writer, and educator. He believed in designing buildings in harmony with the environment, a philosophy he called “organic architecture,” perhaps best exemplified by his Fallingwater (1935), which has been characterized as the best work of architecture in American history.
He also developed the model of the “Usonian home,” his unique vision for American urban planning free of previous architectural conventions. His work includes original and innovative examples of many building types including offices, churches, schools, skyscrapers, hotels, and museums, and he also designed many of the interior elements of his buildings, such as the furniture and stained glass.
Though Wright’s anti-Semitism was generally known, he struggled to keep it under tight control because many of his important clients were Jewish. However, when provoked, he would often resort to anti-Semitic invective; for example, he critically categorized some of his drafting room companions as “Jews” and when a Jewish apprentice came in over bid, he snapped: “Let your beard grow back and go on being a rabbi.”
His vituperation extended to making anti-Jewish remarks about his colleagues; for example, irritated that architect Albert Chase McArthur had married a Jewish woman, he always referred to their son as “Jew boy.” He vociferously accused Jews of being “warmongers” and publicly ratified Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford’s blaming the Jews for America’s entry into World War II.
It is therefore ironic that two of Wright’s most famous works were designed for Jews: Fallingwater for Edgar J. Kaufmann and the Guggenheim Museum for Solomon Guggenheim. Also ironic is that one of his most recognized works is Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, considered by many critics to be his most beautiful and expressive house of worship. Wright described the building as a “luminous Mount Sinai,” and the structural and decorative elements of the building were designed to reinforce its relationship to Jewish ceremony and events of the Jewish faith.
However, Wright made a point of declaring, “I will design an American synagogue for Jewish Americans, but I will not design a Jewish synagogue.”
Wright’s colorful personal life often made headlines, most notably for the 1914 fire and murders at his famous Taliesin studio in Wisconsin. In a November 9, 1946 letter from and about Taliesin, exhibited with this column, he writes:
Meyer Levin did something on Taliesin in Coronet when we were just starting this cultural enterprize [sic], and it might be nice to have the progress we’ve made recorded now, but we are leaving for our camp in Arizona on the fifteenth. Now is a poor time to photograph Taliesin Midwest so perhaps next June?
Wright is referring to the December 1937 issue of Coronet (also exhibited here) in which Levin wrote the feature article on Wright and the rebuilt Taliesin, which he describes as “a little Utopia, a Shangri-La.” In the article, which reads almost like a love letter to Wright and his work, Levin discusses Wright’s recent construction projects and the architect’s thirty apprentices who comprise the “Taliesin Fellowship.” The prose is accompanied by lovely drawings of several of Wright’s buildings, including specifically the “House for Edgar Kaufmann” (i.e., Fallingwater).
Levin, who greatly admired Wright, later wrote The Architect (1981), a masterwork in which he revisited early 20th century Chicago in a fictionalized treatment of Wright’s life.
Considered one of the most important Jewish writers and filmmakers of his time, the eclectic Levin (1905-1981) was a noted chronicler of contemporary Jewish life who dedicated his life to Jews, particularly Holocaust survivors, and to Jewish causes, particularly Israel’s struggle for birth and survival. As a war correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, his special mission was to uncover the fate of concentration camp prisoners. He was one of the first Americans to enter Dachau, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, and Buchenwald and report on the atrocities he witnessed there. He later joined the Haganah underground in Palestine and his film The Illegals, which detailed the smuggling of Jews from Poland to Eretz Yisrael, is to this day acclaimed by film historians as a brilliant early example of cinema veritè, combining improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil hidden truths.
Levin worked on a kibbutz near Haifa and his first novel, Yehudah, was about kibbutz life. He went on to write several Jewish works, including Beginnings in Jewish Philosophy, The Story of Israel, An Israel Haggadah for Passover, The Story of the Synagogue, The Story of the Jewish Way of Life, and The Jewish Heritage. His massive 1972 novel The Settlers told the story of the Jewish pioneers in Eretz Yisrael in the early years of the 20th century.
Many of his books were set among the Russian-Jewish immigrants in Chicago he knew so well, including Citizens (1940), a novel framed against the 1937 Chicago steel strikes about a Jewish doctor and the victims of a police massacre.
Levin famously became entangled in lawsuits with both Nathan Leopold, of the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, and Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father.
In Compulsion (1956), his less-than-subtle fictionalization of the case of Leopold and Loeb, who were convicted of the murder of young Bobby Franks in 1924, Levin, who had been a classmate of both murderers, wrote a sympathetic treatment of Leopold credited with playing a significant role in his parole in 1958. Even here, however, Levin could not escape his preoccupation with the Holocaust, as he analyzed the protagonists from the perspective of the Shoah and ultimately cast them as a paradigm for Nazi Germany.
After its publication, the paroled Leopold brought a $1.5 million damage suit against Levin, alleging that that the dramatized account had unjustly appropriated his name for profit. The case was dismissed, with the court ruling that the First Amendment protected Levin’s fictionalized narrative.
Levin proved less successful, however, in a lawsuit he filed against Otto Frank – the father of Anne Frank – and the producers of the 1955 film “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Having immediately recognized Anne’s diary as a true voice of the Holocaust, Levin embraced it as his path to achieving what had become his life’s purpose from the moment he’d entered the concentration camps: to somehow make the unfathomable Holocaust real to the world. Among the first to focus on the significance of the diary and to recognize its literary and dramatic potential, he played a key role in publishing and publicizing Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in America (1952) after most New York publishers had rejected it. After Otto Frank granted him exclusive rights to adapt The Diary for a stage production, Levin drafted a script – many Holocaust deniers insist that the original diary itself was actually written by Levin – and became consumed with the desire to see his play performed.
However, Otto wanted Anne to be remembered as a positive symbol of hope rather than as a wretched Holocaust victim and, unhappy with Levin’s emphasis on the “Jewish elements” of his daughter’s story, he replaced Levin with other screenwriters. In Obsession (1973), Levin chronicled what he perceived to be conspiracies against him by powerful Broadway cabals, assimilated Jews, and others who, seeking to strip the Shoah of its inherently Jewish character, desired to make Anne a heroine with universal appeal.
Levin, sick with outrage over the attempt to play down Anne’s Jewishness, waged an obsessive battle to regain the rights to stage her story. To the dismay of much of the Jewish world, he sued Otto Frank in 1957. The case was ultimately settled after much acrimony with Otto paying $15,000 to Levin who, in turn, assigned all his rights to his Anne Frank script, and any interest he had in the diary, to Otto.
We end with a thought-provoking contrast, particularly for Jews: On the one hand, we have the anti-Semitic Frank Lloyd Wright, whose name and important contributions to architecture will be remembered forever; on the other hand, there is the incredibly talented Meyer Levin, one of the leading literary lights of the 20th century whose life and soul were spent fighting for Jews and Jewish causes but who, sadly, has already been largely forgotten.