Euclid AvenueJuly 13, 2014
I think this is the version of the song that will be on the album, which I’m calling The Death of Thomas Chatterton for now.Below you’ll find the story of the song.
Edwin Cheney wanted to build a house for his wife in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. He hired an architect named Frank Lloyd Wright to design it. While Wright was working on the house, he fell in love with Mrs. Cheney. She left her husband, Wright left his wife and six children and together they fled abroad on what she called a “spiritual hegira.”
When they returned Wright built, in the Wisconsin countryside, a sprawling house for Mrs. Cheney. He called it “Taliesin,” after a second-rate masque that referred to “the prairies of a man’s heart.” Wright said “Taliesin” was Welsh for “shining brow” and he meant for the house to make the brow of the little hill on which it stood. “Not on the hill but of the hill,” was how he often described it and because Wright was a genius as well as a cad his house was genuinely wondrous, one of the great houses ever constructed on this continent.
Wright lived there with Mrs. Cheney for three years. During that time he struggled to rebuild his architecture practice, which had been all-but-ruined by the scandal. Because he was a genius, he began to receive new commissions, for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, an experimental entertainment complex in Chicago called Midway Gardens. The new work led him to commute between Taliesin and his Chicago; he was in Chicago that day in August 1914.
Mrs. Cheney was at Taliesin. Her two children had joined her for a brief holiday. Wright’s carpenter William Weston and his 13-year-old son were also there, so were two draftsmen and two handymen. Not long before Wright had hired a couple from Barbados to serve as butler and cook at Taliesin.
Wright was in his office in Chicago, eating lunch with his grown son John when the call came–“Taliesin destroyed by fire.” But it was worst than that; the new butler, Julian Carleton had gone berserk with an ax and killed seven of those in the house. Only Weston had escaped, he had struggled with the madman and fled, returning to find the house in flames.
(Carleton was later found hiding in the ruins of the house. Shortly before he was captured he attempted suicide by drinking hydrochloric acid; the acid burned his throat so that he was unable to speak or eat. Seven weeks after the incident he died of starvation in the local jail; apparently he never tried to explain.)
In his memoir, My Father Who Is On Earth , John Lloyd Wright added a few details to the story. John wrote that he made arrangements for his father to travel back to Taliesin.
“Mr. Cheney was on the train too,” he continues. “I got a compartment and shoved Dad and Mr. Cheney into it to save them from being crushed by reporters who were already crowding in on us. Mr. Cheney was the father of the two little girls who were visiting their mother, his former wife. From the moment he clasped Dad’s hand there was a closeness between them, a grief-stricken, mute understanding. From there on the only words I remember hearing uttered between them were when Mr. Cheney took his departure at noon the next day. The remains of his two little girls were in a box he held in one hand.
” ‘Goodbye, Frank, I’m going now.’ Dad clasped his hand.
” ‘Goodbye, Ed.’ They stood looking into each other’s eyes.
” ‘Goodbye, Frank,’ Mr. Cheney repeated. There was no strife, no trouble in their voices. In farewell they spoke as men with a deep grief — a despairing, heart-rending understanding.”
An “understanding.” The word also appears in the Chicago Tribune account of Edwin Cheney’s leave-taking from Taliesin with the bodies of his children. (Wright biographer Brendan Gill identifies the writer of the un-bylined story as the famous Walter Noble Burns, thought to be one of the inspirations for the Charles MacArthur-Ben Hecht play The Front Page).
“There was no trouble in their voices at the farewell.” the story reads. “…. Cheney stepped into the automobile beside the small wooden box that held the bodies of his children and rolled away without a backward glance at the place where the woman who was once his wife lay dead.
“At the station . . . Mr. Cheney personally saw to the placing of the bodies on the train and read a pile of messages of condolences from Oak Park friends.
” ‘You are not remaining for the burial of Mrs. (Cheney)?” he was asked.
” ‘No,’ he answered slowly. ‘I am only here to take the bodies of my children home . . . . Concerning Mrs. (Cheney) you must talk to — to someone else.’ ”
“He deliberated and did not utter the name of Wright.”
We only know of Edwin Cheney second-hand, through Wright’s myriad biographers, who tell us he was a colorless, unexciting man, an electrical engineer ripe for cuckolding. He asked her many times before she consented to marry him; she left him for a pompous little ass. Cheney was unfortunate, a mere man — well-mannered and stoic — in the path of ruthless genius.
But lately I have been thinking of him, of that long slow train pulling through Wisconsin, of the air in that compartment unstirred by voices.