Olgivanna Lloyd Wright: Devil or Angel?

Frank Lloyd Wright with his controversial third wife, Olgivanna.

It’s hard to know what to think of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s third wife. A documentary on her life calls her “A Partner to Genius.” Less generously, others who knew her—including family members—have called her a tyrant and a charlatan.

Wrote one such critic of Olgivanna’s reign at Taliesin West following Frank Lloyd Wright’s death in 1959, “This hierarchical system was appalling: the widow at the top, then the board of directors (a formality); then her own close inner circle, making all the real decisions; then working architects—the real working horses; at the bottom, students who paid high sums to be admitted, only to be sent the next day to work in the kitchen to peel potatoes….Mrs. Wright’s word was law. She had to be adored and worshipped and flattered as often as possible.”

They met at a dance performance at a Chicago theater in 1924. Both were married to other people at the time, but that didn’t stop them from somewhat scandalously shacking up together at Taliesen in Spring Green, Wisconsin. After divorcing their spouses and marrying in 1928, they moved “from the cool wooded hills of Wisconsin to the barren desert heat of the southwest following a bout of personal issues that would nearly end Wright’s career,” according to a history of Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Legal issues with his wife, ex-wife, and her children brought Wright to the brink of bankruptcy. After hiding for some time with his new wife Olgivanna Lazovich and her two children, Wright was finally able to pay off his debts and return to a better life. Just at this time, the Bank of Wisconsin denied him any further access to his Taliesin home and studio because ‘the premises were being used for immoral purposes.’”

Even after Olgivanna died in Scottsdale in 1985, she continued to have a strange control over the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright. Before her death, she planned the removal of Wright’s body from its Wisconsin grave, which was then cremated, mixed with her own ashes, and used in the walls of a memorial garden built on the grounds of their home at Taliesin West. The Wisconsin legislature prohibited the removal of his body, but nonetheless her plan was carried out successfully. What Olgivanna wanted, Olgivanna got. Even in death.

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  1. Allan’s avatar

    I am a traditionalist when it comes to death. I want my family in our family plot. That way I and others know where to go to pay respects or grieve. It is problematic having ashes tossed around. One colleague planted her mother’s ashes in her mother’s rock garden. She and her father did that because of the hours of joy the garden gave her mother. Then her father decided he couldn’t live in the house alone and put it up for sale. She practically dug up the whole garden because she didn’t want her mother in strangers’ hands.

    As for what happened to the Olgivanna and Frank Lloyd – that’s just ego on her part. She knew no one would remember her and pay respects, but using his reputation and ashes she could go to her death on second-hand notoriety. I’d be inclined to dig up the ashes and divide them again just out of spite.

  2. David’s avatar

    What to do with the ashes is always an issue (unless you toss them at sea). My stepmother put my father’s ashes in a bowling trophy he won and then, 10 years later, sold the bowling trophy for a dollar at a yard sale, not realizing his remains were still in them. God only knows where they are now.

  3. Allan’s avatar

    Oh you always have to one up. How nice was the trophy? It and he may yet show up on the Antiques Roadshow.

    Disposing of ashes at sea are not as easily done as you think. Many jurisdictions have regulations, if not prohibitions, against doing this. It falls under the concept of causing an indignity to a deceased person. Then there is a fear of attempt to conceal a crime.

  4. Brenda Warneka’s avatar

    Read my story about Olgiavanna Lloyd Wright in what is a more well-rounded look at her in the Olgivanna Lloyd Wright chapter I wrote in “Skirting Traditions: Arizona Women Writers and Journalists 1912-2012.” (Published by Arizona Press Women, all profits from the book go to scholarships.) At the time they met, Frank Lloyd Wright’s career was stalled and he had financial problems (“about penniless” as he put it). Olgivanna came up with the idea for Taliesin Fellowship, a boarding school where architectural students paid to study under her husband and also contributed to the work involved in keeping the place going (this was based on her earlier experiences at the Gurdjieff Institute in Paris) and for Frank Lloyd Wright to publish an autobiography, which became the most Fellowship’s most important marketing tool. She went on to develop her own personal persona as a writer and journalist. After Frank Lloyd Wright died, she did what critics said she would be unable to do–she kept going what is now the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. My story was reviewed by two people at Taliesin West who knew Mrs. Wright personally.

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