A THIS AMERICAN HOUSE EXCLUSIVE
Hope Rogers can be forgiven for not remembering her one meeting with Frank Lloyd Wright—she was just four years old at the time. It was 1928, and her world-famous great-uncle had materialized at a family reunion hosted by Hope’s parents, Frank and Frances Heller Sankot, on their farm near Belle Plaine, Iowa. Hope’s grandmother, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wright Heller, was also there that day to greet her half-brother, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose stellar career—and much-publicized scandals—Lizzie had closely followed, even though the two siblings had not remained in close contact through the years. But as Hope was later told, “Frank took such a fancy to my 11 year old brother, Herb Sankot, that Frank said he ‘wanted to take Herb back to Taliesin with him and make an architect of him.’ Whereupon Lizzie told her brother he ‘was not a fit person to raise a child.’ They had a terrible argument, both probably saying unforgivable things so that Frank later left Lizzie out of his autobiography and she came near leaving Frank out of hers.”
Not only was Elizabeth Wright Heller left out of Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography, but she has received scant mention in the many biographies and writings about her half-brother that have appeared in the 95 years since their last encounter. Meanwhile, any mention made of the father they shared, William Cary Wright, has typically acknowledged his musical influence on his famous son, but has also dismissively characterized him as a drifter who ultimately abandoned his family. Some recent scholars—including Paul Hendrickson in his 2019 book Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright—have taken aim at righting this misperception by pulling William Cary Wright more fully out of the shadows to which he has long been consigned. But Hope Rogers, who celebrated her 99th birthday this February, remains the indefatigable caretaker and champion of her great-grandfather and grandmother’s legacies, hopeful that both will more widely and lastingly find their “Wrightful” places in the extraordinary story of their famous family.
William Cary Wright was a composer and teacher of music—and also at times a minister, lawyer, and doctor—from whom both Lizzie and her half-brother Frank learned piano and developed a lifelong appreciation for music. Frank Lloyd Wright would often cite the tremendous inspiration and impact of Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms on his work, once stating, “Never miss the idea that architecture and music belong together. They are practically one.” His father “is still a grossly underappreciated force in shaping Frank’s creative method,” says the music historian David Patterson, who in 2013 produced the first CD recording of a selection of William’s music. “The lessons that he taught about music were especially potent, working their way into Frank’s fundamental notions of architecture” (Patterson 2013).
Hope’s own lifelong relationship with her great-grandfather William’s musical legacy began early, as her mother, Frances, sat at the family piano and played her to sleep with William’s compositions “Pictured Rocks” and “Floating on the Bay.” Hope’s own induction into the family’s musical tradition began not long after that fateful 1928 family reunion, when on the way to school one cold winter day she knocked on her grandmother Lizzie’s door, looking to warm up. She had seen little of her grandmother in her earliest years, owing to Lizzie’s disapproval of Hope’s father being a Catholic. He took her dismissal in stride, remarking about their annual Christmas dinners that Lizzie served “hot tongue and cold shoulder.” But in the little girl who materialized on her doorstep, Lizzie soon found the ideal torchbearer for the family’s musical legacy. At almost seventy, Lizzie sat five-year-old Hope down at her upright piano and, under a portrait of William Cary Wright, began instructing her out of William’s Golden Monitor book of musical theory and from William’s sheet music. In just a few years, Hope would be sending her grade school classmates marching out of school and their way home while she “thump[ed] out” her great-grandpa’s “Over the Mountain March” on the classroom piano. After high school, Hope would pay her own way through business college by playing saxophone in a local band. Lizzie, meanwhile, would put Hope’s secretarial skills to use, commissioning her to type the autobiography she had written between 1929 and 1940. Upon her grandmother’s death at age 89 in 1950, Hope would become the caretaker of Lizzie’s manuscript, the raw and remarkable memoir of a resilient survivor of childhood abuse (meted out by the hands and tongue of her stepmother, Anna Lloyd Jones) who ultimately became a hardscrabble, pioneering Iowa farmwife.
In 1976, Hope Rogers wrote and privately published Grandpa Wright, a biographical booklet about her great-grandfather, William Cary Wright, incorporating some elements from Lizzie’s then-unpublished memoir. Hope and her daughter Mary later generously donated Lizzie’s original manuscript, along with rare daguerreotypes of the family and a collection of William’s compositions, to the State Historical Society of Iowa, and also donated other materials to the Wright on the Park organization in Mason City and the Marion Heritage Center and Museum in Marion, Iowa.
In 2019, with the assistance of the Iowa historian and author Paul Juhl, along with Mary Bennett of the State Historical Society of Iowa, Hope and Mary published Elizabeth Wright Heller’s memoir as The Architect’s Sister: The Story of My Life. Hope’s earlier biography of her great-grandfather, however, has only been seen by few eyes—two of them belonging to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous granddaughter, the actress Anne Baxter, and others belonging to the occasional Wright scholar—since its limited publication in 1976. Anne Baxter’s copy of Grandpa Wright managed to get into the hands of the venerable journalist and New Yorker architecture critic Brendan Gill, prompting him to contact Hope in 1986. His 1987 book, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, drew upon Hope’s biography of her great-grandfather as well as Lizzie’s autobiography to at last portray William Cary Wright in a much fairer light, and to give welcomed and long overdue acknowledgment to the families of his children with Permelia Wright.
We have also had the tremendous good fortune and honor to read those little-seen volumes, thanks to Hope and Mary Rogers. A few days after we gave a “virtual talk” for the Iowa Architectural Foundation in February 2021 in support of our book, This American House: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meier House and the American System-Built Homes, we received a lovely congratulatory note from Mary, who had tuned in for our presentation. To our absolute delight, we became fast friends, exchanging a flurry of emails and calls that soon looped Hope into the good fun of conversation among us all. We were thoroughly thrilled when Hope endorsed our book with the following beautiful review:
“The artistically enhanced pages of This American House by Loper and Schreiber flow delightfully with the same soul-satisfying creative energy as that flowing through the rooms of their Frank Lloyd Wright designed Meier House, itself. An organic triumph in book publishing, refreshing and rewarding.”
Mary and Hope soon graciously and generously gifted us rare copies of Grandpa Wright and The Architect’s Sister, and shared with us a bounty of family photos, all of which we instantly devoured. We quickly pledged our support in helping them bring these incredible stories and images to light at long last.
There is much more to be shared about Hope’s own extraordinary story. Her earlier book, Time and the Human Robot, is a stunningly poetic and poignant account of her journey through a mental health crisis in her younger life. This past November marked the 50th anniversary of her historic win as the first—and, to date, only—female member of the Benton County (Iowa) Board of Supervisors. Her great-grandfather William and grandmother Lizzie would be especially proud of her, as throughout her 99 years Hope’s passionate dedication to her musical inheritance has remained a sustaining thread. But for now, with Hope and Mary Rogers’s enthusiastic encouragement and permission, we’re honored to be presenting Grandpa Wright, Hope Rogers’s biography of her great-grandfather, here on This American House, along with a treasure trove of family photos, many of them never before seen.
by Hope Rogers
© Hope Rogers, 1976
We were pawing through our Uncle Charley Heller’s library at his home in Ladora, Iowa, where his lawyer had invited the heirs to choose whatever books they wanted prior to the auction “because books never sold very well.” My sister, Helen, paused before an oval portrait Uncle Charley had inherited from his mother when she died.
“Hope,” she said with inspiration, “why don’t you take Grandpa Wright? I think he belongs to you more than anyone else in the family.”
I glanced up from the six-inch thick dictionary Uncle Charley had left reposing on a bible stand, open to the page where Charley had verified his last word, to the oval portrait hanging on the wall above it. Like a huge cameo, open to dust, air and time, the picture of William Cary Wright, our grandmother’s father—composer, minister, doctor, lawyer, poet and all-around intellectual—was printed on curved cardboard, unglassed, its wooden frame painted wavy stripes of muted brown and tan.
His elegant snowy hair streamed backward from his domed forehead to the top of his clerical collar, his little heart-shaped face with its stubby white mustache turning downward with his compressed mouth above a fat, plaid cravat. Strange that he smiled downward, for his eyes, gazing up and beyond, interested, expectant, like a child’s, were definitely amused, with smile crinkled and eyes folded over with the merest trace of the oriental. His eyebrows, though handsomely arched, were not so thick as those of most men.
I knew the portrait well. It hung over Grandma Lizzie’s easy-action upright from the time when she first started pressing my fingers down on the piano keys and rewarding my efforts with a stale gingerbread cookie to the day she had to give up housekeeping. My first piano pieces were those composed by Grandpa Wright for beginners of his own. My first book of musical theory was William Cary Wright’s Golden Monitor, one of the books he wrote for his musical conservatory in Madison, Wisconsin.
I was fond of his compositions when I was a child, intrigued with their ornate cover lettering and their soft paper with its feeling and smell of oldness. His works had a simplicity in their carefully graded construction, but more than that, a spontaneous joy so contagious that by the time I was in sixth grade at Longfellow Grade School in Belle Plaine, Iowa, I chose above other composers my own Great-Grandpa’s “Over the Mountain March” to thump out every afternoon on Miss Wilcoxen’s square harpsichord piano while my classmates filed out of the room and down the creaking wooden stairs toward home.
Yet, nobody else in the family played Grandpa Wright’s music. Oh, Mother Frances did, sometimes, from my earliest childhood play me to sleep of an evening with “Pictured Rocks” and “Floating on the Bay,” her exquisite figure grown dumpy from frequent childbearing silhouetted in the twilight as she sat at our studio grand piano, her fingers playing from memory with a deft, sure touch. And of course, Grandmother Elizabeth Wright Heller did sometimes, far into her old age, play for me in her little Hollyhock Cottage in Belle Plaine her father’s “North Star Grand March,” “L’Agreeable Reverie,” and more difficult works.
I’d once discovered in one of Grandma Lizzie’s closets the old portable melodeon her father had used as a circuit riding minister, and nothing would do but that I had to see it set up in the bedroom. Though my mother’s mother was a spry little woman, her white hair youthfully cut and curled, she was gasping for breath by the time she finished setting up the melodeon and pumped the pedals that inflated the long-dead bellows to belch forth a few of the old time hymns that must have been, formerly, some of its regular fare.
As I sat on the floor, watching her feet rather than her hands, both of us were transported in the dusk to a romantic bygone era of horse’s hooves, when the circuit riding minister often carried with him a doctor’s kit, for he had also studied medicine.
I’d listened to tales of Great-Grandpa Wright at my grandmother’s little house that had formerly been a Baptist parsonage—before the church burned down, leaving a blackened hole in the adjacent lot—and I remembered the issues of Woman’s World stacked haphazardly on a caned chair, the covers of which, usually children, had been illustrated by Grandma Lizzie’s younger half-sister, Maginel Wright Barney. Frequently, the round oak table was strewn with newspapers featuring some new deed or thought of Frank Lloyd Wright, Grandma Lizzie’s famous half-brother.
Inevitably, however, as I interrupted the writing of her memoirs on my way home from school, Grandma’s memories dwelt upon the cruelty of her stepmother, details of which were so vivid that even in her seventies, my grandmother still woke in terror from nightmares that her stepmother was chasing her again with a butcher knife.
Eventually, I became custodian of Grandma’s memoirs. I had set about the typing of that 132-page single-spaced manuscript when I started business college, but before the work was finished, the first of my white-haired mentors had to give up housekeeping and finish her remaining years in the home of her son, Lloyd, on the Iowa farm near Ladora where she had come as a bride. With her went the commission I was to receive for typing four copies of her life history. The paper ran out, the carbons wore thin. I spent my five-dollar advance for more supplies and two looseleaf notebooks to preserve at least two copies of her work. I never did receive the other five.
For these reasons—or some of them, I suppose—my elder sister, Helen, believed the portrait of Grandpa Wright on Uncle Charley’s wall belonged to me, spiritually, above the blood claim of others more closely related. As I took down the portrait, surprisingly lightweight, and tossed it into the car with Uncle Charley’s dictionary, one of the few books I chose, I reflected upon the dozen or so other white-haired mentors I had known: friends, teachers, employers I remembered with tenderness for their individuality, their stores of experienced wisdom, their unselfish sharing of what they knew.
Is there anything as exciting as an old person? A person who has lived long enough to have something to say? I’ve always been drawn to them, and they, recognizing in me a potential to become either a thistle or a rose, graciously nurtured my hunger for learning and my thirst “to know” with a patient, extraordinary interest.
William Cary Wright, my great-grandfather, was a Baptist minister and a small man, physically. He was not so small as his father, the Reverend David Wright, who was a very small man indeed—so small he had to stand outside the pulpit of his son’s Pawtucket, Rhode Island church, where, my grandmother remembered, her father’s father told the congregation he’d always heard that “children should be seen and not heard, but he’d have to be heard and not seen if he stood in the pulpit.”
This diminutive stature may have left its mark on modern architecture, for William’s son, Frank Lloyd Wright, claimed he scaled down his houses to fit a normal man (himself), about five feet, eight inches tall. When someone suggested that all of Frank’s work might have been quite different in proportion had he been but three inches taller, Frank is said to have answered, “Probably” (Wright 2005, 141).
Certainly Grandpa Wright possessed the rich, resonant voice essential for memorable preaching and singing, either a bass or a baritone or both, for in his career as a singing instructor he had probably acquired a wide range. Everyone who has written of William seemed to love to hear him sing. One of the last requests of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Richard Lloyd-Jones, was that “Mr. Wright” should sing a hymn. How many other dying and dead must William have launched to another existence with his mellow voice a midwife of the soul? I think too of the choirs he must have been able to train, coaxing Midwest pioneer throats as well as those in Rhode Island and Massachusetts to sing in such manner as to have “twice prayed!”
Frank Lloyd Wright was to look back upon the songfests of his family as “happy riots” where no one could tell where singing left off and laughter began. Frank also mentions in his memoirs his father’s cultivation of that wondrous voice with careful intonation, pauses, and inflection as he paced his study of an evening, reciting Poe’s “The Raven” over and over (Wright 2005, 49).
Yet the voice that praised God in word and song on a Sunday morning was also a voice of correction that sternly demanded obedience and right action of his six living children—extracting from them as well as himself a strict adherence to the Word—and then, of course, the voice was not so much enjoyed as feared.
William came by his dedication to the spirit understandably, for he was born January 2, 1825 in a Baptist parsonage, of a long line of ministers stretching back to the Reformation in England. After he began his ministry at Lone Rock, Wisconsin, he progressed to ever-larger congregations in Richland Center, Wisconsin; McGregor, Iowa; and on to Rhode Island and Massachusetts where, incidentally, two of his ancestors had been governors.
This rare access to pipe organs enabled him to perform in the deserted churches his favorite Bach offerings solely for the appreciation of his God, himself and whatever child he was using to pump the bellows. His son, Frank, describes being overcome at the age of seven with the faraway beauty of the music, while fainting away physically from the labor.
Grandpa Wright always had a study walled with books, located in the church if it was large enough, or in his home if it wasn’t. A graduate of Amherst College with degrees in music, medicine and law, William delved into so many other subjects with such an inexhaustible pursuit that by the time Frank, his third living son, was entering the University of Wisconsin to study civil engineering, William himself was, according to Frank, “deep in the study of Sanskrit” (Wright 2005, 48).
No doubt William used his sidelines while a circuit riding minister on the Wisconsin-Iowa frontier—drawing contracts and wills for the settlers, treating occasional business and bodily needs—for he seemed as well-prepared for survival as he was for revival. But he had repudiated medicine, according to Frank, as being “no genuine science” (Wright 2005, 10). In an age which fostered “purse, blister and bleed” as medical remedies, it is not surprising that William found medicine too disappointing to be practiced. However, I’ve found “Medicine, an Inexact Science” as a title of one of the early Iowa Medical Society’s papers and for this reason, I suspect that phrase must have been in popular use and not original to William.
But it was like him to use his knowledge in any manner that came to hand, and whatever he knew, I’m sure he used. Certainly he had a lot going for him when, in 1851, he became a popular young professor of music, teaching young girls to sing and play the violin and piano at the Young Ladies Boarding School in Utica, New York. In 1847, he’d already had published by Prentiss & Clark “The Atlanta Waltz,” which was “most respectfully dedicated to Miss Ellen Beaumont by William C. Wright,” as well at “The Bravo’s Quick Step” “composed and respectfully inscribed to Miss Louisa Metcalf.” His “Hemlock Ridge Quick Step” of 1850, published by A. & J. P. Ordway, had been “respectfully inscribed to Mrs. J. W. Birge of Hamilton, New York.” But it must have been about this time that his eyes fell agreeably upon that young protégée at the Young Ladies Boarding School whom he soon married.
In contrast to his sober intellect, his precocious talents (his brother, Thomas, had first taught him to play the piano but in a very short time he could play better than his teacher), his stern spiritual dedication, William possessed a singular joyous, childlike gaiety, nowhere more apparent than in his musical compositions.
Poor Grandpa! So far as I can discern, he never wrote another piece of music for twenty years.
She sits, in the dim, glassed photo, with her hands folded in the lap of her mauve dress, the bodice tucked and pleated over sloping shoulders, tapering to a slender waist, a tiny lace collar enhanced with a round brooch below her chin.
A fragile-looking lady, demure, with cheeks as rosy as those of her daughter, Elizabeth, were destined to be, Permelia’s dark, lustrous hair is parted in the middle and drawn back over each ear with only a slight wave at the temple. Her eyes are haunting—like a Siamese cat’s—as if they were able to assess one’s weaknesses but overlook them; the mouth an unsmiling straight line in an oval face.
William stands beside her: young, handsome, gravely optimistic in his neat vest and long-tailed cutaway jacket accented with a scarf-like cravat below his modified Van Dyke beard. His brown hair, waved slightly above his high forehead, glints red and gold.
Both appear genteel, restrained and likeable: an impressive-looking couple.
She must have been an unusual person. Of Quaker descent, Permelia Holcomb was the daughter of a prosperous farmer in Herkimer County, New York, and her mother’s maiden name was Elizabeth Thomas. Her father died young, leaving Permelia and her three brothers—one of whom was destined to become a noted doctor in Utica, New York—to be reared by their grandfather.
Perhaps the refining influence of an older man had given Permelia a dignity beyond her years, a quiet grace discernible in the dim, glassed photo belonging to her daughter, Elizabeth. However, my study of one of Permelia’s music books reveals a sense of humor, a light-hearted love of popular dance music, the ability to sing separately or in harmony, an appreciation of dramatic situations and a tender, affectionate temperament—if one can judge by some of the music she played and sang as a single girl.
In a bound volume of Permelia’s music inherited from Grandma Lizzie, I find such tear-jerking titles as “She Sleeps in the Valley,” a song “suggested by the mysterious disappearance of a young female, known as the beautiful cigar girl of the City of New York, who is supposed to have been enticed from her home and overcome with the most cruel and atrocious violence.” In another song, “Pestal,” “the martyrdom of Colonel Pestal by the Russian Government has been rendered immortal by the exquisite melody he scratched on the wall of his dungeon with a link of his chain on the night previous to his execution.”
I also discovered numerous dance tunes, such as “Fourteen Favorite Galopades,” “The Cinderella Waltz,” and “The Queen’s Own,” a quick-step “performed with great applause at the reception of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria in Germany.”
The bulk of Permelia’s music book, however, is comprised of tender love songs as solos, duets, or four-part harmony, and it is possible that William may have taught her these at the Young Ladies Boarding School or sung them with her during their courtship. “When I Saw Thee in Young,” “Love’s Young Dream,” and “Lady Mine” are among these titles. But the book is not without spice, including “Pete Morris’ Celebrated Comic Melodies,” “Songs of the Virginia Serenaders” and “Dandy Jim of Caroline,” as well as two numbers faintly tinged with naughtiness: “The Old Bachelor” and “Some Folks Who Have Grown Old (Say Love Does Nothing But Annoy),” with words by Charles Dickens.
I fear Permelia Holcomb’s musical taste ran rather to what was fashionable: liking the popular music of her time and performing it, vulgar or no. But the penciled initials on her music exhibit an extravagant “P” written with such verve and oversized curves that I was forced to revise entirely my original estimate of her, based on her picture alone. Both the music and handwriting made me feel as I sometimes feel about my mother, Frances, when I study her landscape paintings. Pondering my mother’s preference for snow and dark—murky night scenes lit only by the moon—I wonder whether I ever really knew her.
Little else is known of Permelia Holcomb Wright, other than the fact that she and her husband soon produced five children, of which the first and last were still-born, and that she had a “beautiful character” which friends hoped would also materialize in her only daughter, Elizabeth. But she would appear to have been an extremely difficult person for both her daughter, Elizabeth, and her wife-successor, Anna, to emulate.
I find nowhere any music dedicated to Permelia by William, nor any music written by him during the twelve years of their marriage, though her death, two weeks after the birth of their last still-born child, poignantly fulfilled the prophetic titles of two of her vocal ballads: “The Child’s First Grief” and “She Sleeps in the Valley.”
Elizabeth was three years old when her mother died. Her brother George was five, and Charley seven. “They carried the casket to the church from the house and the people walked behind it and Father carried me next to the coffin,” Elizabeth wrote in her memoirs. “I remember of someone lifting me up to look at her in the coffin and I noticed she had flowers in her hand, but of course I did not realize she was dead. When I got home I immediately started for my mother’s room. Grandma asked me where I was going and I said I was ‘going to see Mama.’
“Grandma Holcomb kept house for us for two years after that and then my father married Hannah Jones, a Welsh schoolteacher, at Lone Rock.”
Anna Jones (she had dropped the two H’s from Hannah, her birth name, after she’d been married awhile) was a frontier teacher who, her youngest daughter Maginel claims, “was emancipated before the emancipated woman became the vogue.” Her picture in Maginel’s book, The Valley of the God-Almighty Joneses, reveals a woman with dark, passionate eyes, alarmingly intense; her sensuous mouth curved in a half-smile; a wealth of thick, kinky hair drawn back from an unruly middle part ends in a cascade of natural curls.
I was surprised to find her beautiful.
She was a tall woman, teaching about the countryside with a mixture of book knowledge, intuitive awareness, Unitarian religion and Welsh folklore brought with her people from the Old Country from where she had emigrated with her parents when she was five years old. Anna was said to ride horseback like a man, tossing a hooded soldier’s cape over her shoulders when it rained. If all the horses were being used by her farmer brothers, she walked in the fields at night alone, fearless, according to Maginel, and indifferent to whether “neighbors, seeing her intensity and pride, thought her eccentric” (Barney 1986, 62).
Though she was half a head taller than the Baptist minister she married, I’m sure William Cary Wright—grieving music professor turned frontier circuit-rider, burdened with three motherless waifs—must have found her entrancing. No doubt her very strangeness attracted him.
The contrast of the magnetic Anna and her many brothers and sisters—clannish, proud, physically strong; endowed with thick, full beards and willful, curly hair; all of them towering over the little man, yet seemingly kind and good-natured—must have been a welcome diversion from William’s sorrow that helped make his loneliness endurable.
Though Anna is alleged by her children to have been, at 29, seventeen years younger than William at the time they were married in 1865, the genealogy compiled by William’s sister, Abbie Wright Whittaker, lists William’s birth date as 1825. This would make William 40 years old at the time of his second marriage, only eleven years older than his wife. This also agrees with Elizabeth’s belief that her parents were near the same age, both about 35, when she was born on July 16, 1860. William would, then, have been 38 when his first wife died.
If misgivings to the prospective match were harbored by Anna’s father, Richard, they could not have been based so much upon the difference in age as upon other factors. During the 29 years Anna had remained at home, single, she must have unleashed on many occasions the full power of her formidable temper. Her brother, Jenkin, who had foregone farming for the ministry, admitted to William at a much later date that he knew “Anna had a most tremendous temper.”
Obviously, she was hard to please. With her beauty, she would certainly have attracted some neighboring farmer around the valley, with whom she might have been far better matched—had such men appealed to her. The springs of Anna Jones’s personality would appear to have been wound a little too tightly for the comfort of those with whom she cohabited, and the periodic releasing of the tensions would prove from the memoirs of her step-daughter, Elizabeth, as something not only tremendous, but physically dangerous to others and debilitating to herself.
It may have seemed to Anna—a spinster with little other hope of marriage in those man-scarce Civil War days—that William was the answer to at least some of her dreams. No doubt he sang and played his violin and piano, charming her with the worldly conversation for which she hungered, all with his natural gallantry and flair for the ladies. Not robust and sturdy with a simple philosophy, but complicated with knowledge and thought, he was so different from the Wisconsin neighbors who may have offered her courtship, if they dared, and been rebuffed.
While she attracted him with her exterior beauty and concerned herself agreeably with his children (Elizabeth writes, “Folks said she angled for him. She was very sweet to us children til after they were married.”), Anna could not have envisioned what marriage to such a man would mean, nor of the time he would doubtless spend upon his own selfish pleasures at the piano, the violin, and the pipe organ.
She could not have foreseen the screech of the violin in young hands her husband would be teaching, nor that her nerves could endure only so much of the “edifice of sound” with which a musician’s home would naturally resound, and that even the smell of the glue of the violin-maker would get to her. Nor could she have imagined the refinements that would be expected of a minister’s wife, especially in the East, and the monotony of the housework made drudgery by the fact that much of it was caused by three children of a predecessor wife, all vying for the attention of a father-husband that might not have been so divided with less persons in the household.
Neither could she have guessed how aggravating and constraining it would be to give up her own income as a country teacher for the unremunerative role of cook, housekeeper and servant. No one, perhaps, except the patriarch, Richard Jones, could have imagined the jealousy and frustration that would trigger Anna’s boundless temper into periodic releases of such hysteria that they would forever haunt the dreams of her step-daughter, Elizabeth.
One can hardly imagine a more opposite couple than William Wright and Anna Jones, and it is not at all surprising that their marriage disintegrated. The marvel is rather that it lasted so long.
“She told us we could call her Mama or Mother, as we chose,” writes Elizabeth, who was five years old at the time of her father’s marriage to Anna Jones.
I think she aimed to do her duty by us as far as our necessities went, but she had no affection for us nor even liking—especially for me. She had a terrible temper and seemed to make no effort to control it. She vented it upon me mostly, because she was jealous of Father’s affection for me, and the boys could keep out of her sight, but she wouldn’t allow me to. When she told me many a time that she hated me and all my mother’s people, I had no reason to doubt it. All my early life I was always told what a sweet and lovely girl and woman my own mother had been and how everyone loved her; what a beautiful character she had; and how they hoped I would grow up to be like her. So the contrast must have been pretty hard for Father.
Though the contrast must have been apparent to William from the first, I still doubt that he had any inkling of his wife’s private violence because she attempted to put forth her better side whenever he was present—and Elizabeth did not, apparently, tell him differently. Neither was the situation so bad at first, but as Elizabeth continues in her memoirs, “then it grew worse and worse each year. It was not long until we moved to Richland Center [Wisconsin] where Father was called to preach. It was the county seat of Richland County, and not a large place, but considerably larger than Lone Rock. Frank was born there when I was six years old, and at the age of seven I started to school.”
Though Frank’s birth received no more than a bare half-sentence in his half-sister’s recollections, the event would seem to have been elaborately prepared for by his expectant mother. Once the new bride surmised she was pregnant, she “kept her mind on high things and looked after her health,” according to Frank’s autobiography (Wright 2005, 11). It would appear that Anna looked after her health by pressing her young stepdaughter into service, for Elizabeth writes, “As I grew older I used to think I would not mind the work at all if she had only been kind to me. I am sure I would have loved her if she had been kind to me or at all affectionate, for I was hungry for love. But as she failed me, I lavished more and more on Father.”
Among the high things Anna kept her mind on, it would seem, were some of the books and magazines her husband, William, read. “Father used to drill the boys in reading and spelling, and I got the benefit of that second hand,” Elizabeth continues, “but when they were through with a lesson, I could read it as well as they could, and spell the words too. Perhaps she taught me too, but I have no recollection of it.”
Possibly, during such an evening, after Elizabeth had done the dishes and William was teaching his children, Anna may have thumbed through issues of the high-flown Old England journal her husband subscribed to, for she is said to have cut out ten prints of massive English architecture from this magazine, had them framed in flat oak, and hung them on the walls of the room that was to be her newborn’s nursery. How nice if her child could build similar buildings!
This preoccupation with architecture must have come to Anna after her marriage and exposure to her husband’s library, for there is no discussion of it prior thereto in any of the memoirs of her children. All one knows is that William Cary Wright’s second wife would seem to have become so obsessed with producing an architect that she tacked up the inspirational pictures on the walls of the room destined to be the nursery for little Frank. And, too, she is alleged to have determined that the child would be a son—by what means I have not been able to discern.
Even before he was born, Anna seemed to have started wrapping a possessive, protective cocoon around her firstborn—one which must have seemed odd to a man now becoming a father for the sixth time, if he had any knowledge of his wife’s fantasies. It is likely that Anna, feeling intuitively that William would not understand, did not talk much about her aspirations for the child, for Elizabeth seems to have had no awareness of them.
It may be that Anna, removed from the bosom of her clan, yearned for something or someone in that alien household that would be hers and hers alone, for once she owned her own son, she did not appear to have set any similar idealistic futures for her two subsequent daughters. Even Maginel, in her memoirs, confesses without apparent jealousy that when she speaks of “our mother” she really means “Frank’s mother,” for Anna seemed to be Frank’s mother more than anyone else’s (Barney 1986, 58).
No doubt William humored his new wife’s occult preoccupation with destiny, if he had knowledge of it, but set no great store in her whims, for he was a very down-to-earth man. While the pregnant Anna kept her mind on high things, and Elizabeth listened to the lessons her father taught her two brothers, the result most important to Elizabeth was that she could start school at age seven in the “highest of three rooms, read in the Fourth Reader and studied the big Geography, but had to go downstairs to receive Arithmetic,” so that some though she should not have been allowed in the highest room.
“I do not remember much of anything about life there,” Elizabeth continues, “except that once we had two lady visitors who came down in the basement before they left to bid me goodbye. I was standing on a chair washing dishes.
Two years later we moved to McGregor [Iowa], a much larger town on the Mississippi River, and Jennie was born there. I was quite pleased to have a little sister, and I enjoyed the school there as it was a larger and more interesting place. While we lived in McGregor I was very much afraid of my stepmother. She not only beat me till I was black and blue all over, but threatened me with some terrible things, and especially if I should tell my father about her treatment. I had no wish to make him any more trouble than he had already, so I kept things to myself, for I was ashamed of it. Once one of the girls saw some of my bruises and asked the cause, and I told her I fell down. But I grew more and more afraid to be left alone with her.
Elizabeth goes on to record that her brother, George, won at McGregor a five-dollar gold piece as first prize in a declamatory contest (he would later become a minister, lawyer and judge in Nebraska) with a temperance piece called “The Drunkard and His Bottle.” Possibly William taught his son, himself, for he had an interest in elocution and sometimes gave readings of his own. Anna, however, taught a piece to Elizabeth, who states, “It was Mrs. Felicia Heman’s poem inquiring of the stars and clouds and winds and finally of the voice of God in the heart, what had become of the spirit of the dead. Mother taught it to me and I spoke it very well, but it was no kind of a piece for a child to speak.”
It would appear that William rather left his daughter’s education to her stepmother—an error he would later correct by teaching her music, thereby exciting his wife’s envy to frenzy.
The type of piece spoken by Elizabeth might indicate that Anna brooded upon the character of her predecessor, pondering, herself, “what had become of the spirit of the dead,” of whom she may have suspected her husband still dreamed at idle moments in his study, when she had no concrete evidence of what he might, in his solitude, be studying.
“Father had a call to preach at Pawtucket, Rhode Island,” Elizabeth records in her memoirs, “and we moved there. They left brother George at Helena, on a farm with some of the Joneses, but Charley went with us. I missed George very much as he was nearest my age.” And so began the practice of farming-out the children to others, a practice that was even to extend to the favored Frank.
It would seem that a hired girl had been added to the household after Elizabeth started to school as there was no one else to help with the housework.
Father had a fine large church in Pawtucket. We had the first and third floors of the first house, but after that we had a whole house to ourselves. The other way was better for me, for Mother didn’t treat me so badly or have such tantrums as when we had a house to ourselves. Later, Father was invited to an excursion of one of the thread factories there, and he took me with him. I enjoyed the boat trip very much, and being alone with Father. We sailed on a steamboat down around the island of Rhode Island and had a clam bake on the shore. Clams were a common food in Rhode Island and every house had a pile of clam shells in the back yard, but I did not care much for them. They used to peddle huckleberries by the wagon load and as they cost but two cents a quart, we children almost lived on bread and milk and huckleberries as long as they lasted. They were so good—we had Baker’s bread with them, which we liked better than the graham bread Mother always baked, though it was probably better for us. In the fall peaches were plentiful and cheap and we lived on bread and milk and peaches.
Brother Charley was wild over machinery and did not want to go to school any longer, so Father finally took him to Providence and apprenticed him to learn the machinist trade at some big machine shop. He went in every morning on the train and back in the evening and took his lunch, so he was only at home nights and Sundays. I always got his supper when he got home at night before I had the dishes finished.
“The Sunday School library was in the basement of Father’s church,” Elizabeth continues, “as also was the large Sunday School room, and the shelves were literally lined with books, including all the best literature.
Charley and I each got a book every Sunday. Then we went upstairs to Church and if Mother was not there, and she usually wasn’t, we read our books all through the sermon. The backs and sides of the pews were high and my head just came above them. I would look up at Father very intently while I carefully and quietly turned the pages, and then would look down till I read the next two pages. Of course if Mother was there, we didn’t read.
I never went to church in the evening, but when I went to bed I took my book along and read until I finished it, for I would not have time through the week. There was plenty of work for me out of school, as I had to study or amuse the children or sometimes practice. But Father was very busy and seldom had time to teach me, and she didn’t like to have him teach me, either. One Sunday night when Father was coming home from church, he saw my light up on the third floor, and he came up to see why I was not in bed. I told him I wanted to finish my book, but he said I must go to bed and get my sleep. After that, I covered the window and put something over the crack under the door and keyhole, and continued to read, for it seemed that I could not stand it not to finish the story. Probably it was wrong, though it didn’t hurt me any, and I had so little pleasure at home except in reading, and it helped me to forget unpleasantness, so I just lived in my stories.
I always got along well in school, but how I hated to see Friday nights come! And vacations were even worse. How often I wished my own mother had lived! I was a lonely child, for I was not allowed to go away from home, and there was no pleasure in having other girls come to see me, for she didn’t like it and made it very unpleasant afterwards. I never could please her, no matter how hard I tried.
Apparently William had begun to give piano lessons to his daughter, Elizabeth, as he was also to give piano lessons to Frank and Jennie (Jane)—and this despite his wife’s jealousy, for he must have hoped some of his children would carry on his musical interests.
These piano lessons and the attention William gave to his children might have triggered the two episodes of his wife’s irrational behavior which William witnessed at Pawtucket, alarming him enough to send Elizabeth back to Wisconsin to her mother’s relatives. As Elizabeth describes:
We had a large basement kitchen at our house in Pawtucket, with a cistern or well pump or both in it…. I remember one time in the winter when Mother was in one of her tantrums, she got mad about something and as usual vented it on me; she jumped up and down and pumped water as fast as she could and threw it over me and yelled with every jump. Father had his study on the third floor but he heard the racket, and came down to see what was up. He told me to go upstairs but I was afraid to go past her to the stairway and my clothes were dripping wet, but I slipped out the front door and went around to the back and up the outside stairs. My clothes froze on me before I could get in the house.
One other time when he was at home and up in his study, she was frying meat at the stove with a long two tined fork that goes with a carving set. She got mad at me for something or nothing, and grabbed me by the hair and held my head back and jabbed that fork at my face, and said she would put my eyes out. I screamed ‘Papa!’ with all my might, and he came running down and stopped her, but I had the worst fright of my life. I believe she would have done so if she had dared to, she seemed so full of venom and hate. I think those were the only two times when Father was home.
It would seem that William finally began to grasp what was going on during his absence, though Anna still kept up appearances. “When Mother and I were out together, which was seldom, or if anyone was with us, she was very sweet to me and called me pet names, just for effect. It made me despise her for being such a hypocrite, but I never gave her away or told Father the things she did to me when he was away”
For Anna, trying desperately to appear as a genteel lady in front of strangers, a gracious minister’s wife to the parishioners, a devoted mother in front of her husband, the battle of emotions and nerves was steadily slipping. One wonders whether some modern-day tranquilizers might have been of assistance, or whether her difficulties were too deep-seated to have been cured. Elizabeth writes of being dragged around the kitchen by the hair in front of a hired girl so that her hair came out by the handfuls afterwards, and the girl was aghast. Surely Anna would not have let the hired girl see her in such a display of cruelty if she could have helped herself.
I remember one time she was pounding beefsteak with a heavy hardwood roller with sharp ridges all over it, made for the purpose,and she pounded me all over my back with it until I was black and blue and sore, but not bleeding. I suppose those things relieved her feelings, but they certainly did not relieve mine any. She admitted sometimes that she hated me and all my mother’s relatives. She said she would like to have all our heads laid over a log and take an ax and chop them off. I do not know whether her mind was just right or not. She seemed to have periodical spells when she got the ‘mad hysterics’ and raved like a maniac. Then she would be sick in bed for a day or two and I would have peace. I did not mind the work or taking care of the children if she was not around.
Eventually, William’s brother-in-law, Albert Holcomb, and his wife, Nellie, who had been a friend of Permelia’s at Young Ladies Boarding School, offered to take Elizabeth and finish raising her.
Father was to take me to New York City where Uncle Irving Holcomb was to meet us and take me to his home pending a chance to send me to Wisconsin with someone who would be going out. Father hated to part with me, but he knew that under the circumstances, his home was no place for me and that I would be better off with them. I suppose he hoped that Mother would be better if I was not there. So we started, taking the train to Stonington, Connecticut, where we took a steamboat across the Sound to New York City.
Mother embraced me in parting and kissed and wept over me, so that my heart melted toward her. But whether she thought it would make a better impression on my memory, or her tears were tears of joy at getting rid of me, or of contrition for her treatment of me, I never knew. But I felt like forgiving her all her unkindness, and did, in a way, but I was never able to forget it. I was much interested in the great steamboat which seemed like an immense house and was three stories high. The fog horns kept sounding almost continually so the boats would not run into each other. Occasionally the fog would lift a little and we would see another great steamer right close beside us. Sometimes a big fish would jump out of the water. We were supposed to make the trip in about eleven hours, but we could not move because of the fog, lasting for over twelve hours, and the Sound was covered with thick chunks of floating ice. I think the fog worried the passengers in the evening, but they had a piano, so Father played and a large crowd gathered around the piano and sang hymns. One of them was ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’ After that some man went out to look at the weather and said the fog was lifting. Later on, the boat began to move, so we went to bed and the next morning found us in New York. We had our breakfast on the boat and as we went off, we met Uncle Irving coming to meet us. So Father bade me goodbye and returned on the same boat. I never saw him again for eight years.
One wonders whether William, throughout the ensuing eight years, might have echoed his daughter’s lament, “I never could please her, no matter how hard I tried.” Certainly the improbable marriage between these two unlikely mates started disintegrating early and never stopped until it was dissolved.
It is, perhaps, a touch of hypocrisy that makes Frank, in his memoirs, omit any reference to his half-siblings or his father’s prior marriage. This may have simplified the writing of his memoirs, but when he claims “the differences between husband and wife all seemed to arise over that boy” (Wright 2005, 12), meaning himself, one wonders how he can purport to be so naïve. Frank writes as if he were his father’s first child and only son, rather than his sixth child and that by a second wife.
It would appear from Elizabeth’s intimate account of the household that Frank, as a child, was just another sliver of irritation rather than a gigantic timber rocking the marital boat. By eliminating such factors in the name of simplicity, or for whatever reason they were eliminated, Frank does both his mother and his father an injustice. Touting “Truth Against the World,” it is unlikely that he was never exposed to his mother’s violent actions or knew nothing of them. In overlooking them, he draws also a curtain before the many aggravations which must have combined to worsen her mental state.
Not least among these aggravations, of course, was money. No doubt Anna skimped on groceries—every woman’s means of obtaining money for items not of significance to her husband—and so it is very possible that the household was, as Frank bitterly remembers, frequently low on food. Elizabeth speaks of living on huckleberries, bread and milk for a season, and when that was over, of living on peaches, bread and milk. But beefsteak could not have been unknown to the family, or Anna would not have had the steak pounder in hand when she felt compelled to use it on the back of her stepdaughter.
The humiliations endured by a woman who has once earned her own money—and watched over its distribution without having first to wheedle it out of her husband—cannot be imagined by a man even in this enlightened century, and a pinch-penny existence of monetary subterfuge is a blight to any woman whatsoever. But how much more an aggravation to a free-spirited woman with impossible dreams and hopes for a favorite son, wanting for him the best education, the nicest clothes, the most up-to-the-minute toys, and the apparent social standing of wealth? At times, the reconciliation of Anna’s dreams with her means must have been overwhelming.
Neither is it at all surprising that Grandpa Wright apparently composed no music during that first hectic eight years of his second marriage. But once William’s daughter, Elizabeth, had been shipped back to Wisconsin and the attention of his wife focused on going to Boston to learn the Froebel method by which she began to teach their son, Frank, to use geometric maple blocks and strips of colored paper—“gifts” which Frank nostalgically attributes as the foundation of his architectural career—William seized that peaceful interlude to publish music.
His first return to composition consisted of a series of five songs published in 1872 by White, Smith & Perry entitled Pet Birds. He obviously wrote them for students, of which he always had a plentiful supply, regardless of what else he was doing, and the tunes are neatly and understandably simple in their imitation of bird sounds. Titles of the Pet Birds series of 1872 include “Robin Waltz,” “Whip-poor-will Rondo,” “Quail Song,” “Bobolink Galop,” and “Skylark Polka.”
Though Anna’s children give exclusive nature-loving tributes to their mother, it would appear that William was an even greater student of nature than his wife, for the bulk of his compositions bear nature titles. His Playful Hours for Young Pianists—published in 1874 by Dye & Saunders, New York; White, Smith & Company, Boston; Lyon & Healy, Chicago; and S. T. Gordon & Son of New York—would appear to have enjoyed a widespread popularity at that time, contributing, perhaps, the necessary funds to send Frank to Miss Williams’s private school, where Frank reports he spent some years with what he termed “the usual Snobligists and Goodyities” (Wright 2005, 14).
The six titles of Grandpa Wright’s Playful Hours series of 1874 are: “Cheerful Morning Waltz,” “Light Hearted Cadet’s March,” “Lightly Row Variations,” “Happy Ramble Schottisch,” “Merry Evening Polka,” and “Playful Mood Mazurka.”
Also published in 1874 by Dye & Saunders is a charming little danse poétique by William entitled “Nymph of the Woods.” That same year, he published two songs: “The Sunny Side of Life” and “After Winter Cometh Summer,” both of which had the chorus written in four-part harmony, with the words of the latter designated as “Words by C.”
The identical raft of publishers listed for the Pet Birds series were also responsible for the publication of “After Winter Cometh Summer,” indicating that William was producing at that time work well distributed across the United States.
It may be worthwhile to examine the lyrics of “After Winter Cometh Summer,” for if the compositions he later wrote under pseudonyms are any indication of how William interpreted his real name, I presume the “C” signified his middle name, Cary. Although he was related to both James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell, and one of his middle names was Russell (which, however, he did not use on his music), he was shy about signing his poetic efforts. But as a minister, exhorting and uplifting the spirits of others, the words of this song must have been Grandpa Wright’s personal creed:
Verse: Traveler on the thorny path
Weary with a thousand cares;
Burdened with a thousand wars,
Heavenward lift thy hopes and prayers.
Shrink not in thine hour of trial,
Bide thy time in earnest faith,
Bear thee up without despairing;
Live as that one lived who saith:
Chorus in After winter cometh summer
4 parts: After night returns the day,
After tempests, calms returning
Fling the threatening clouds away.
2nd verse: Mourning one with moistened eye,
Writhing under fancied loss,
Think of Christ’s afflictions here,
Keep thine eyes upon the cross,
Stand thou steady at God’s will,
And, whatever comes upon thee,
Bear it firm, remembering still—
3rd verse: Christian, who are bowed down,
By the burden of thy woes,
Yet firm heated keep thy courage,
Though surrounded by thy foes,
Bear affliction for His glory,
Bear with patience sorrow’s sting,
Never shrinking, never failing,
Ever yet remembering.
William, then 49 years old, appeared to be getting into stride with his music in 1874, but eleven years pass before I find more of his music in print.
A creative person, of course, is a single entity, unmated when he plays at creation. His wife, his family, all become non-existent as he concentrates to beget from his own essence some material token of himself. Possibly, in the manner of their day, when not having children meant sexual abstinence, William and Anna may have foregone such relations for a time during which he composed music as a creative outlet and she began in earnest to mold the fleshly Frank to a fulfillment of her desire.
With music on the ascendancy in William’s life, he took on the musical education of his children by his second wife, with Jane being an apt student and Frank remembering how his father rapped his knuckles with a lead pencil or forced his hands into position at practice time, the way teachers of piano have long taught lackadaisical students. I can remember my own Grandma Lizzie teaching me in exactly the same manner.
But the greater part of his time, no doubt, was spent trying various chords and variations on the piano and hurrying back to his desk to set down the notes before they escaped him, and at such times his children describe their father as “fearsome,” holding the pen in his mouth as he worked at the keyboard, his white beard smudged with ink.
The trial and error of composition—combined with the late-arriving offspring, Maginel, a “frail little thing” who was, according to Frank, “for months, handled carefully on a pillow” (Wright 2005, 17)—may have aggravated Anna’s explosive emotions to where she could no longer get along with either parishioners or neighbors, though Frank seemed to believe his father gave up the ministry because his mother finally managed to convince her husband that the Baptists were on the way out and his only future lay in embracing the Unitarian faith of the Joneses.
At any rate, the family moved back to Madison, Wisconsin, where Frank reports, “One William C. Wright, teacher and music master, started a Conservatory of Music above some kind of store on Pinckney Street” (Wright 2005, 31).
The house in Madison must have been a pretty one, with Lake Mendota lapping in the back yard, a plum grove beyond the barn, a might oak shading the story-and-a-half cottage, and a smoke bush in the yard. It must have been with some misgivings that William observed the new maple hardwood flooring his wife installed in the long parlor, the Persian rugs with cream-colored backgrounds, the unique folding chairs upholstered in Brussels carpet with wool fringes edging the arms, and seats that possibly scratched his legs, even through his trousers.
While the maple and rattan furniture that completed the parlor must have lent charm to his immense library of well-bound books and his square piano gleaming importantly at the end of the room, William might have been better able to enjoy the new furnishings had he not understood that his wife was now diverting her grocery money to such purchases while her Jones relatives supplied the food for his table. No doubt William grumbled.
The cow, Daisy, was led behind a wagon forty miles by his brother-in-law, James Jones, so that his sister’s children might have milk (without buying it). The barn was stocked with chickens in similar fashion, and vegetables, barrels of apples, and honeycombs arrived regularly, to William’s constant apprehension and dismay. For there was a difference between an occasional food donation party by concerned parishioners in the East and a constant, never-ending food donation party by equally concerned, well-meaning relatives in Wisconsin.
Despite Frank’s habitual lament about the scarceness of money and food, the home was obviously well furnished with quality furniture which Anna may have scrimped to buy, but obtained nevertheless. Yet all the while he grumbled, William must have enjoyed the furnishings when he brought home friends: usually visiting virtuosos such as a “strange Italian, looking like Paganini” and “Reményi, grotesque nose and eyes,” and “later in the West, to the house at Madison, came the handsome Ole Bull” (Wright 2005, 17).
If Anna always addressed her husband as “Mr. Wright,” as Frank indicates, speaking of him to others in this manner and clothing herself in the long, flowing gowns of black, white, gray or purple with cream-colored or black lace at the hands for throat which Frank describes, the home of William C. Wright, minister, composer and professor, must have appeared to visitors as a haven of refinement, no matter what incriminations Mr. Wright might endure once the visitors left.
It was, perhaps, too soon after the family’s return to Madison that Elizabeth, absent for eight years, found herself briefly reunited with her father. William had kept in close touch with his daughter all through those years through letters. He had even given her music lessons by mail, and she made such progress that she attended the Rockford Female Seminary, majoring in music and practicing four hours a day, about the same time Jane Addams of Hull House was there. A small inheritance from her Grandmother Holcomb had made her education possible.
In her letters to William, she poured out her inmost longings, trusting in her father’s good advice and acting upon it. They continued this correspondence, whenever separated, for as long as William lived.
Sometimes he was a severe mentor. When Elizabeth confided to him her secret desire to be an actress, her father replied that he’d rather see her as a waiting maid in a tavern and would just as soon buy a tombstone for her, whereupon she decided to content herself with being an elocutionist. When she later fell in love with a romantic tramp printer who wrote poetry to her, Grandpa Wright demanded references, traced him out and hashed the engagement. When, after her marriage, she sought his advice about joining a church, he answered that he was not in favor of her joining any particular church, but if she did, she should join with the purpose of being useful.
Now a grown young lady, with a rosy, flawless complexion like her mother, Elizabeth writes, “In the late fall, Uncle and Aunt decided to rent their farm and go back East to spend a year or more. As my father had come back to Wisconsin and located in Madison, it was decided that I should go there, take music of him and attend high school, so I did.”
I took a course for Normal and special students. I liked the school very much and my teachers, as usual, but did not enjoy my stepmother any, nor my half-brother, Frank, who was his mother’s idol and badly spoiled by her. Frank was twelve at that time and Jennie was ten and dear little MaggieNell was a darling about two years old. I loved her dearly and Jennie too. But my stepmother had not improved and still disliked me and all my mother’s relatives and talked by the hour against them and about her own hard lot. Sometimes Jennie would get indignant and say, ‘Now Mama Wright, you know you’re lying.’ Something I never would have dared say to her.
She had her usual spells of mad hysterics and acted like a raving maniac and told Father to send for the officers and take her to the Asylum and I used to wish he would. Poor man, he led a wretched existence. She was always sick in bed for a day or two after these attacks and then we had peace, like a calm after the storm. One evening in the early spring, one of my girlfriends walked around by our house on the way from school, and Mother was sitting in the front window holding MaggieNell. When we parted at the gate and I came in, she said, ‘What were you girls talking about?’ I replied, ‘We were talking about school matters.’ And she said, ‘I know better. You were talking about me.’ Then I flared up for once and retorted with much heat, ‘You needn’t think you’re such a pleasant subject for conversation! I’m glad to forget you when you’re out of my sight!’ She was so astonished that she said not a word, and I went out. I really think she had more respect for me after that. But I did not stay much longer.
Apparently, Elizabeth was not tutored much in music at her father’s Conservatory of Music on Pinckney Street that term in Madison, and if she had been, her stepmother’s tastefully furnished parlor was probably not available to her. At the end of the term, Elizabeth left for Iowa to visit former Rockford classmates. She intended to be a music teacher, but she settled in Marengo with her first job in a millinery shop and her next as a typesetter in a newspaper office.
She was not to return to Madison again until her wedding to John Heller, a suitable farmer fourteen years her senior, in a ceremony performed by her father.
William may have approved of his daughter setting type, for he had an interest in printing. Frank mentions “a small printing-press with seven fonts of De Vinne type, second-hand” being set up at first in the barn, “and later a quite complete printing-office fixed up in the basement of the house” in Madison (Wright 2005, 33). However, Frank neglects to mention by whom the printing press was installed and what for, only going on to describe his own use of the press for calling cards and other teenage foolishness. One would suppose that such a basement printing office was as ordinary as a couch and not to be wondered at, much less explained, but obviously Frank’s father, William, must have used the press to print the “several books of musical theory” which Elizabeth mentions—one of which being the deep red, gold-stamped Golden Monitor I once had a copy of and now can no longer find. But Frank seems to find it difficult to portray his father as a creator. Though Frank writes that it was his father who taught him to see architecture as an “edifice of sound” and to despise sentimentality in music, he wondered whether his father’s whole life had not been a sacrifice to sentiment (Wright 2005, 85).
“Frank never was a model boy,” Elizabeth writes, “but if Father ever undertook to correct him, Mother would fly at Jennie and abuse her, for she knew Father thought more of Jennie than he did of Frank. I claim it is a crime to spoil a child, for every child has a right to be loved, and a spoiled child is apt to be so disagreeable that no one loves them.” Frank appears to have believed that his father never loved him, regardless of the time William spent teaching him to play the piano and the viola, too, in an orchestra in which Jane played the piano and Robie Lamp (Frank’s little crippled friend to whom William gave free lessons) the violin.
It may be that William, as well as Frank, felt that intangible separation which Frank describes as the “something…which had never been established that was needed to make them father and son” (Wright 2005, 49). Possibly William may have had in mind the smashing of that cocoon his wife had spun so relentlessly about their son when he decided the time had finally come to give Frank a thrashing.
I have to agree with Frank a big, burly 16-year-old son was too old for an aging father to challenge, and that William “ought” to have known better” (Wright 2005, 49). If he hadn’t been able to correct Frank earlier, why start then? I suppose it was just something William’s whole soul cried out to do—and with Frank growing older and more insolent by the day, his father may have reached a point where he could no longer contain himself.
William had always taken cold “constitutional” baths, even in winter when he had to break the ice in the pitcher, and he regularly took four-mile walks, according to my father, Frank Sankot, who heard it from his future mother-in-law’s neighbors near Ladora, Iowa—all of them shaking their heads over the mentality of a person who would battle the snowbanks just to walk. But Frank, too, took cold water baths, for he later describes throwing his own sons into cold bathwater, indifferent to their screams. And he had, in addition, been spending his summers at hard labor on the farms of his Uncles Jones.
Beating up one’s father may commonly occur to any young buck on the threshold of manhood, though he usually refrains out of respect or pity. Overcoming the little man who contested his mother’s authority (Frank always referred to himself as his mother’s son) was probably something Frank had always yearned to do. In his autobiography, Frank gives only a few sentences to their encounter in the barn by Lake Mendota in Madison, but I would seem that Frank got his father down in self-defense, pinned him to the floor, and held him there until William promised to let him alone.
I suppose Frank was never proud of that accomplishment but viewed it as something he had to do to gain his freedom. I’m sure he never envisioned that the gaining of his own freedom would also open the door for his father’s freedom—that his mother would subsequently set their father adrift with a few surgical words (“Well, Mr. Wright, leave us. I will manage with the children. Go your way. We will never ask you for anything except this home (Wright 2005, 50).”)—and that Frank would find himself suddenly, and before he was ready, head of the house, in command of his father’s study and printing press, playing in the hallowed “Sanctum Sanctorum” at being William.
The background music which his father had played far into the night was easily duplicated at Madison with the player-piano Frank rigged up to play constant music; the machine was seemingly an adequate mechanical substitution in Madison. At Taliesin, music was piped into every room and played so incessantly that the students begged Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright to turn it off, while she, for her part, was making time payments on her husband’s seventh grand piano. Whether William’s playing so ingrained his son with Bach and Beethoven that he could not create without them, or whether the music rendered mechanically was a father-substitute, I do not pretend to know.
The father, that symbol of all-is-wellness, did not take his leave without some hesitation. Maginel remembers clinging to her mother’s skirts in the doorway as her father faced them, going out into the world with only his clothes, his violin, and a sheaf of manuscripts under his arm, leaving the library of fine books which his wife would soon convert to cash, and the square piano his children, Jane and Frank, both played. Perhaps the sight of his littlest daughter touched his heart. He had once made a tiny violin her size and tried to teach her to play it before his wife found the smell of the glue, the squeaks and caterwauls too nerve-provoking to be endured. What would become of her?
“I will stay if you ask me to,” William said to his wife. And she answered, “I do not ask you to.”
Once, after that, as Maginel records, her father met her on her way home from school. Noting her shabby clothes, he bought her a little pair of shoes with copper toes and a straw hat—both of which her mother, when she saw them, shoved into the stove (Barney 1986, 67-8).
The surprising number of musical compositions published by Grandpa Wright in 1885 under the imprint of the Nebraska Music Company leads one to believe that they must have been under his arm when he took leave of his second family, and that they were already composed while he was engaged with his Music Conservatory in Madison.
In re-establishing himself in a law practice partnership with his son, George, in Wahoo, Nebraska, where George had become a Methodist minister and a judge as well, William would most likely have visited his other son, Charley, and of course Elizabeth, for he hadn’t been with them for some years. He’d have needed to find suitable lodgings, buy furniture, and lick his emotional wounds as he found himself starting a new life at age sixty with nothing but his clothes, his violin, and his manuscripts.
His Musical Ripples series of 1885 contained six titles: “Lillie’s Invitation Waltz,” “Sympathy Schottish,” “Break-Down Polka,” “Over the Mountain March,” “Nightingale’s Serenade,” and “Robin’s Morning Song.” Two other compositions William published in 1885 were singles: “The Bounding Roe”and “Pictured RocksGrand Waltz,” “dedicated to the Young Ladies of McGregor, Iowa, by Wm. C. Wright.” The jaunty cascades of “Pictured Rocks”were probably written by Grandpa Wright sometime before he severed ties with Anna, and this composition shows marked improvement over his previous works. “Pictured Rocks” was a favorite of my mother, and it is a favorite of mine, whenever I play Grandpa Wright’s music.
The following year, 1886, Grandpa Wright published The Starry Cluster series “composed expressly for the Cabinet Organ,” as it is quite possible that he found few pianos at that time as far west as Nebraska. These compositions bear pseudonyms based on his real name, but were the first pieces so signed—and the last: “Silver Star Waltz” by William Kehri; “North Star Grand March” by Wm. C. Wright; “Red Star Gavotte” by K. Erdurikshek; “Star of True Love, Nocturne” by C. Ouvrier (with Wm. C. Wright); and “Star of Faith Voluntary” by Wilhelm Kehri. I rather like his use of William Kehri for William Cary, dropping the Wright.
He had also published that same year, 1886, the “Tarantelle du Concert”for piano.
For nearly a decade after he found himself a divorced man, he continued to turn out increasingly better music. “Floating on the Bay” (my all-time favorite), listed as No. 1 in his Reveries Poetiques series, was published in 1888 with the modest couplet which sets its tone—written, it is said, on Lake Mendota, where he often fled his wife’s temper:
“While o’er moonlit bay I float,
Gentle wavelets strike the boat.”
His “Reposing by the Brook”of 1890, listed as No. 2 of Reveries Poetiques, contained a more elaborate theme, apparently written by William himself:
As Sol poured down his burning ray
And fanning zephyrs ceased their play
Weary, I sought a shady nook
And laid me by the babbling brook;
There, song bird notes that cheerily fell,
With brooklet music, wove a spell
That made me dream of Love’s commune—
The murm’ring rill still keeping tune
Til slumber deep, with full control,
In sweet oblivion lulled my soul.
Not until 1893 did Grandpa Wright publish his final Reveries Poetiques No. 3, entitled “The Hour of Melancholy,” which starts “grave” with a theme that it appears he also wrote:
“Twas evening’s weary, pensive hour;
I heard it tolled from belfry tower,
And yearnings sad, and bodings dim
Woke in my soul a plaintive hymn.
Though Consolation, heavenly boon,
Essayed sweet notes of hopeful tune,
More wildly rose the wayward strain,
Then sank and sighed its first refrain
And soon there pealed another bell
That seemed to sound Hope’s funeral knell.”
But back in the year 1888, when “Floating on the Bay,” the first of the series, was published, Grandpa Wright wrote the words and music to a tender love song reminiscent of the type he sang with his first wife, Permelia, during their courtship, indicating that he may have taken comfort in remembering a twelve-year love affair that he had probably not thought about for many years.
“Beautiful Maiden When First We Met”
“Beautiful maiden when first we met
Some fairy vision Thy presence did seem
But mem’ry deep laden, Can never forget
Time’s rude collision Dims not the bright dream.
When I am lonely, And long in my soul,
For someone to love me in true loyal part,
Thine image only with sovereign control,
Lets no one above thee Have room in my heart.
Beautiful maiden I’m bound to thee;
Devotion I tender To thee alone;
Wilt thou not say, then, That thou wilt love me
And back to me render Thy heart for mine own?
Then nought can appall me Or darken my way
Nor will I be weary, Life’s toil to perform:
Bliss will enthrall me And brighten the day
All will be cheery in sunshine or storm.”
Grandpa Wright has been accused of having no conception of money, of being a drifter and dreamer whose feet were never on the ground. Actually, he was very much a realist. He supported two wives and a double brood of children in a Victorian age which denied him financial assistance from the fragile hands of women.
He had some expensive tastes, yes, but he wasn’t a wild spendthrift. He always seemed to have money enough for good books, interesting magazines, his private publishing projects, and transportation to take him to every exciting exposition where the action was. How else could his wife have seen the “gifts” in the Exposition Building at the Centennial in Philadelphia: the geometric toys Frank credits with leaving form and feeling in his fingertips (Wright 2005, 13)? But William wasn’t a sponger with unpaid bills closing in on him. He paid his own way.
Consequently, his daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, John Heller, were always glad to have him visit them at their farm home in Iowa. “Father used to come to see us about once a year,” Elizabeth writes, “and he kept the piano in tune for me. Sometimes he would only stay a few days, and the longest he ever stayed was three months.
We all loved to have him come. I always asked him how long he could stay because I always wanted to give him all the good things I could to eat. If he couldn’t stay long I had to pile them on pretty thick, and if he could stay longer I wouldn’t have to overload the table.
After the birth of her third living child, Frances Elizabeth, my mother—her first child, William Albert, had died in infancy—Elizabeth writes:
Father came and spent some time with us and he used to lie out in the hammock at the corner of the house. Sometimes I would take the baby out to the hammock and give her to him. He composed some other pieces for the Wahoo, Nebraska band. One piece he called In the Hammock—A Swing Song. The band felt highly honored to have him write the two pieces for them. Father said one time, ‘Charley seems to be John’s favorite, and Herbert seems to be yours, and this poor little girl [Frances] nobody seems to care for but Grandpa.’
He was a loving and affectionate grandfather who, Elizabeth records, was still playing with the children when Faith, the youngest of her seven children, was born. “I can see her yet,” Elizabeth writes, “and him carrying her, marching and singing. Faith always felt so set up she paid no attention to the rest of us.”
He had a good rapport with children, but of course he expected them to behave and had little patience with petulance.
The last twenty years of Grandpa Wright’s life comprise an afterglow that enabled him to spend his time as he wished: composing, visiting Permelia’s children and grandchildren, and free to travel, read, study, and think. Oh, he wasn’t present for Frank’s wedding to Catherine Tobin in 1889 (during which the groom’s mother fainted) or possibly he might have performed the ceremony, as he did for Elizabeth. But he was definitely present at the great 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. While his son, Frank, under the sophisticated influence of Louis Sullivan, was germinating architectural unrest and viewed the whole spectacle with disdain, William took in the sights, relishing all that was new, and stopped on his way home to describe to Elizabeth what he had seen.
In the art building, “one place he said a little girl stood with her hand on an open door, holding it open for him to pass through, and she looked up at him so sweetly that he stopped to speak to her. But it was a picture,” Elizabeth writes. “Everything was life size and stood out so perfectly it was easy to be fooled on it.”
Grandpa Wright, of course, was an able speaker, whether in the pulpit or the parlor. Even Frank admits that whenever his father spoke, everybody listened and seemed happy. It would appear that what he said in his melodious voice was also interesting enough to listen to. Elizabeth, as a result of her many years of conversation with her father, was especially impressed with men who were able to converse, and it would seem that John Heller must have been a persuasive talker for Elizabeth writes, “I was reminded quite often of Will Carleton’s poem, ‘Uncle Sammy,’ who
Married a simple maiden,
Though scarcely in love was she,
But he reasoned the matter so clearly,
She hardly could help but agree.
When I was a child, I often pressed Grandma Lizzie to tell me about her romantic marriage, and she seemed touched that her stepmother had actually invited her home to be married, for she had always hoped that her father would perform the ceremony, and he did. I could envision her as a young lady, dedicated to obedience and right action, dressed in her navy blue cashmere and satin gown, feeling extravagant in her white beaver wedding hat with wide rim and long white plume with shaded tan edges fastened on with one long loop and the end tied with pale blue satin ribbon.
Apparently, William gave them such an impressive talk at the beginning (he’d had lots of practice) that by the time the ceremony was over, Elizabeth wept. She’d been afraid she would, and her Aunt Nellie had threatened to spank her if she did. Then when John gave his father-in-law a ten dollar bill, William said he always divided the wedding fees with his wife (I wonder if he did?), and together he and Anna presented the ten dollar bill to the young couple as a wedding gift.
But I was always haunted by that other man that Grandma Lizzie didn’t marry, and I liked to hear about him even better. “Edward G. Seamands worked in the (printing) office for some time,” she writes in her memoirs, going on to describe him as a southerner who claimed to have been a sailor, and was very gentlemanly and a good talker. But best of all, he was a poet, and wrote poetry to her.
When she wrote to her father about Mr. Seamands, William demanded references. He wrote to the references, traced him out, and found that he had a wife in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Father told me very empathically that I was never to see him again nor write to him nor anything or I would be no child of his. So I decided that I cared more for my father than I did for him, and followed his advice.”
One time, saddened by that nipped affair, I pined wistfully to have been able to read some of the poetry Mr. Seamonds had written to her, and Grandma Lizzie confessed she still had one of his poems around the house somewhere. Nothing would do but that I had to hear a piece of it, for I was of a poetic turn myself. Scrounging around, she finally unfolded a yellowed piece of paper, and from the handwriting read aloud to me a rather lengthy poem entitled “My Princess.”
I pondered at the time whether Grandpa John Heller, the grandfather I never knew, had ever called his young wife his “princess.” Or whether Great-Grandpa Wright, in so easily censoring another without consideration of the circumstances, had any inkling that he would later become a divorced man himself.
Lizzie’s eyes rather misted over, and she laughed, self-consciously, as if the whole matter were only a bit of foolishness, and I never caught sight of that poem again. Neither did she ever talk to me again about Mr. Seamonds, much as I should have loved to hear about him.
Until he died in 1904, aged 79, Grandpa Wright still wrote music; took an active part in church services in Wahoo, Nebraska; gave music lessons; played his piano and violin; traveled; read; and doctored Elizabeth in her illnesses. Judging from the medical treatments William prescribed for Elizabeth on two occasions, I presume he had studied the homeopathic type of medicine.
Once, when Elizabeth was a child, he had prescribed hot baths for her rheumatic fever—treating a hot body with heat. (Maybe this is why he took ice water baths in the wintertime, to treat a cold body with cold?) Again on the farm, when Elizabeth ran a high fever with “La Grippe” which developed into pneumonia, Grandpa Wright and Elizabeth’s husband, John, wrung out cloths from what seemed to her was boiling water. “They put them on my sides and nearly blistered me,” she writes, “but they wouldn’t let me have any cold water.
I was so thirsty my tongue was parched and I couldn’t swallow very well, but they gave me hot drinks and were afraid the cold water would make me worse. Father stayed until I was able to sit up. One day, he was talking about his luck—bad luck. It seemed like everything worked against him. I said, ‘Now, Father, I think that is just according to the way you look at it; if you think you are unlucky, you will be unlucky. And if you think you are lucky, you are lucky. Now, I always considered myself remarkably lucky! And Father looked at me in perfect astonishment, almost in disgust, and said, ‘You lucky?! Well, I don’t think you are by any means.’ He had long thought I had a hard time: such poor health, three little children, so few comforts, so much hard work, such a small house, etc.
The irony of Grandpa Wright thinking these things about his daughter, Elizabeth, is that Grandpa Wright’s in-laws, the Lloyd-Joneses, appeared to think the same thing about their own Anna, married to William Cary Wright, the intellectual dreamer. However, Elizabeth always had a fondness for the relatives of her stepmother—even naming one of her sons “Lloyd”—and she writes of them with admiration and affection.
I personally feel that Grandma Lizzie was lucky in having William Cary Wright for her father. Whether or not Grandpa Wright was a great musician; whether or not his son, Frank, would have been the architect he was without the creative, imaginative Wright ancestry; whether Anna Jones Wright would ever have born a son at all, or become interested in architecture, without her husband’s library—none of this is my concern. What makes Grandpa Wright great in my eyes is his willingness to give of himself—to teach his children what he knew.
How fortunate was my grandmother Elizabeth to have at her fingertips an unfailing correspondent, to whom she could pour out her heart and receive an answer—an answer drawing upon great learning, experience, and good sense? And to think of William giving Elizabeth piano lessons by mail? The time that kindly, white-haired mentor spent in writing letters to his daughter, teaching her, advising her, and conversing with her, most certainly added depth and dimension to her life, her character, and the legacy she was able to pass on to her own children and grandchildren when she, in turn, became one of my own blessed white-haired mentors.
Is there any gift in this world that a person can give that is greater than the gift of himself?
“Father’s death was quite a shock to me and to all of us,” Elizabeth writes.
He had a stroke and only lived a few minutes. He had just been down to the drug store for the morning paper, and coming back he was tugging at his collar to get it loose, and died before they could call a doctor or anything. While Frances was going to school in Ladora, Father had gone back East for a last visit, and was then coming to make his home with us. We were all looking forward to that, for we all loved to have him with us.
Brother Charley brought the body back to Bear Valley [Wisconsin] for burial, and Brother George came from Nebraska. Frances and I met his train at Belle Plaine, and we went on together to Lone Rock. The funeral was in the Bear Valley Church, and Mr. Loomis, whom we had known for many years, preached the funeral sermon. (He was the minister Elizabeth described as coming to her Uncle’s home on Saturday afternoons, visiting, staying for supper, and playing croquet until so late at night that her Uncle Albert and Aunt Nellie set lamps in the windows and put out lanterns to light up the croquet field.) Father’s body was buried beside our Mother, whose body had lain there alone for over forty years.
I was back to the cemetery once since. My half-sister, Jennie, whom I visited her at her request some twenty years after, and her husband, Mr. Andrew Potter, took me up there for a drive one day. She said they never knew when or where the funeral was, but Frances said she heard her Uncle George telling her Uncle Charley about sending them the message with the time and place of the funeral. But I am glad he was buried beside our Mother whom he had loved so well and who had loved him so much, and that he had rest and peace at last.
Barney, Maginel Wright. 1986. The Valley of the God-Almighty Joneses. Spring Green, WI: Unity Chapel Publications. (reprint of the 1965 first edition by Appleton-Century).
Heller, Elizabeth Wright. 2019. The Architect’s Sister: The Story of My Life. Iowa City, IA: Brushy Creek Publishing Company.
Patterson, David. 2013. The Music of William C. Wright: Solo Piano and Vocal Works 1847-1893. Permelia Records, http://www.permeliarecords.com/.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. 2005. An Autobiography. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate Communications, Inc. (reprint of the 1943 first edition by Duell, Sloan and Pearce).
Grandpa Wright © 1976 Hope Rogers. First published in a limited edition by Ink Spot Press, Vinton, Iowa, 1976. Reprinted with permission.
To our dear friends Mary Catherine Rogers and Hope Sankot Rogers (seen here on her typewriter and saxophone) with much love and appreciation from their “Meier Boys.”