The National Building Museum’s publication Taliesin Diary: A Year With Frank Lloyd Wright is the first-ever publication of a diary by a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice. Written by Priscilla J. Henken during her year at Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the diary brings us straight into the unique world of the Taliesin Fellowship, and includes notes, contextual essays, and contemporaneous photographs.
Following are just a few sample excerpts from the Henken’s diary—she wrote an entry every day from October 1, 1942 to her last day at Taliesin, August 11, 1943, when she returned home to New York City to resume her job as a high school English teacher. Henken wrote about her experiences in Wisconsin with an eye for both the ordinary and the droll, touching on the landscape, the food—fellows took turns planting, harvesting, and preparing food for the entire compound—the politics of her time, and the arguments between Wright, his third wife Olgivanna Wright, and the fellows. The diary is a wonderful exploration of life on a 1940s communal farm, in the company of one of the world’s greatest architects.
October 1, 1942
Our first view of Taliesin in daylight after a 6:50 rising. Beautiful view of sloping hills from our guest room. A carved wooden figure in the attitude of prayer outside our bathroom window. Fluffy white feathers on the stairs as we went up to breakfast, escorted by Davy Davison. Feathers are peacocks’—white, gray, iridescent. There are two little pea chicks—there were five, but they died as a result of being stuck to a newly tarred roof. Met the Fellowship at breakfast—we’re 22 with the Wright family. Ruth and Eleanor showed us around. Picked up our luggage at the station.
Met Mr. Wright—wonderful, warm personality. “A man is no good without his wife.” “You must find your own work to do here. No one will give it to you.” Olgivanna, his wife, studied at the Gurjieff Institute in France—for development of human being. There Katherine Mansfield died in her arms. Must find out more about it. Into work clothes after lunch. Dug up parsnips in the vegetable garden—with Ruth. It’s fun turning over the rich brown earth, and using a spading fork. Her enthusiasm frightens me, tho. She bit into a parsnip with the wet earth clinging to it—and liked it. I brushed mine off gently before attempting to follow suit. David hauled gravel from Mazomanie. Picked 6 bushels of apples with Ruth and Marcus. At tea, Mr. Wright told David to sit next to me, and I said he had to because I was the only familiar thing he had seen all day. FLW told David that he had ridden with a CO (Howard Ten Brink). David said, “So has Howard.” Immediate approval of his anti-war stand. Visited Hillside after tea to see the drafting and weaving rooms and the Theatre—just like the pictures with the reflex seating, big stone fireplaces, with Welsh motto, one with quotation from Gray’s Elegy, two giant Shivas, two grand pianos, a Scott radio, a Capehart phonograph. Unpacking after dinner difficult till we get our own room. There are T’ang dynasty statues, Ming vases, carved teakwood, lacquered screens, Buddhas, and Shivas—just like it says!
Sunday, Nov. 8
Well, today certainly was a success. Marcus & I were in the kitchen—with help from Kenn. Emerged the tenderest roast beef I’ve ever eaten, with oven browned potatoes, carrots, lettuce with Taliesin dressing, 4 squash pies, good hot coffee. Everyone complimented me, to say nothing of second & third helpings. When I came into the room, they all applauded. Of course, I modestly, but honestly, said that the meal ought to be good because I had been cooking it for the past 5 nights. Mr. Wright said I was a girl of all-round talents—cooking, proofreading, etc. From a genius—that’s a feather in my cap!
I pointed out 2 places for Mr. Wright to fill in—where he says he’ll discuss something later—and forgets to. Now I’m to match main & carbons, & proofread as quickly as possible; in fact, quicker. He wants to go to N.Y. even this week.
Marcus & I drove down to Spring Green after the concert—to get a letter on the evening’s train—11:20. Told me about the many unfulfilled promises to his father for back pay, father’s loyalty thru the 1914 crisis up till 1940. Now some un-understood resentment, with little hopes of reconciliation.
The excitement & the flattery have given me my first splitting headache in months. I know I was made for mediocrity.
Sunday, March 7
Mr. Wr. is still dreaming wildly his Broadacre City pipedream, plotting what land Davy should buy, what statues should be erected (e.g. a free design by Carl Milles for an 80 foot statue of a pioneer), overpasses (300 of them) & underpasses, etc.
Baked bread so as not to leave Ruth in the lurch now that her mother is visiting her.
Mrs. Wr. kicked up the stupidest fuss because croissants Gene made for breakfast weren’t the crescents Henning once made & which she expected. She told Gene he didn’t take cooking seriously (and after he baked grapefruits with vermouth & spent hours on preparation) & Henning that the least he could do is remember the book & page of his recipe. Mr. Wr. laughed & she left. My personal theory is that she spends most of her time between the kitchen & bathroom investigating digestibility.
Piano and recorder practice. Read D. H. Lawrence’s “Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd.” Wrote home.
At concert, FLW scolded the trio because they put so much concentration & effort on a third-rate composition by a third rate artist, Dvorak’s Trio in B Flat. However, he liked the reverence & sincere motion in the cello solo, Walter Kramer’s “In Memory of His Father.”
Sunday, May 23
Mrs. Wr. more upset than FLLW about Clifton Fadiman’s New Yorker criticism of the Autobiography—“dismaying egotism,” “overwritten.” Svetlana—“How dare they criticize Daddy Frank?” Johnny—“He’s just a cheap radio entertainer,” etc.
Johnny & I picked asparagus for dinner. Lunch: creamed codfish (Mr. Wr. said it was perfect—just the way he likes it), boiled potato, lettuce, olives, rice pudding (perfect—just the way she likes it). Dinner: baked ham basted with wine, asparagus, mashed potatoes, radishes with Taliesin dressing, sour cream muffins, pumpkin pie, coffee. Mrs. Wr. “Everyone’s raving about your meal”—Mr. Wr. ditto on “gems”; Mrs. Porter—gems & muffins, etc. Virtues of amateur cook extolled. Johnny & I had a pleasant, slow-paced day.
Beginning of summer visitors. Concert good.
Saturday, August 7
Lunch: Corn on the cob, onions & peppers smothered, salmon salad (tuna fish), boiled cabbage (string beans), (boiled potatoes, Indian pudding), fresh vegetable salad. Supper: in the tea circle—cold roast pork (cold roast chicken), potato salad, vegetable salad with Taliesin dressing, corn on the cob, (lima beans, grilled tomatoes), brown sugar loaf (cherries), watermelon.
Went swimming nude with Kay near the sandbar—washed my hair—delightfully refreshing. Ran around on the sand till we were dry.