Picture this: You’re in a bookstore, and you see the cover: the Marion Chronicles. Marion? Sci-fi? You pick up the book, turn it over and read the blurb to decide whether or not it’s worth the effort. Except we’re not in a bookstore, and there’s no back cover. Therefore I don’t have to follow any of the rules about how long it has to be. This is the why you should read the book blurb.
Marion Mahony was born in Chicago in 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire. She was the second woman to graduate in architecture from MIT and the first licensed female architect in the US. She spent ten years, on and off, working in the Oak Park studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, and her exquisite architectural renderings helped launch his career. By one estimate, more than 50% of the drawings in Wright’s Wasmuth portfolio were Marion‘s work.
While in Wright’s studio, she met Walter Burley Griffin, five years her junior, a fellow architect responsible for landscape design and client mollification. Wright was a bit of a pain, to put it mildly, and before long, the “imperturbable” Walter had jumped ship and set up his own practice in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Marion and Walter’s common interest in philosophy, nature and their antipathy to Wright had made them fast friends, and one day on a canoeing adventure, Marion offered to come and work with Walter. Gobsmacked and delighted, Walter accepted, and not long thereafter they eloped, launching an epic professional and personal partnership.
Together they entered and won the international competition to design the capital city of of the world’s newest democracy, Australia. With stars in their eyes and hope in their idealistic, Emersonian hearts, they took off for the Southern Hemisphere to create Canberra, the perfect democratic city.
But politics are a bummer, and Australia was (and still is) no exception. In the midst of what can charitably be dubbed the Canberra Fiasco, they set up an architecture studio in Melbourne and designed some fabulous buildings (including our house). Then after Canberra was over and inaugurated (without them), they invested in land on a promontory in Sydney and set about designing and realizing another dream: the ideal suburb. They had some splendid times, Marion directing theatrical productions in the open-air theater and organizing seminars on her new obsession, anthroposophy, but the Great Depression did its best to rain on that parade, too. Luckily – maybe fatefully – Walter got a paying gig in Lucknow, India, which in turn led to heaps more Indian commissions, including a world’s fair type expo. Things were looking up. Marion had just joined him there when his gallbladder ruptured, peritonitis set in, and he died.
Insolvent, she returned to Chicago, where she lived out her days as “chief cook and bottle washer” for her niece Clarmyra, working on a memoir. This started out as a recounting of her and Walter’s lives and work for posterity, and soon evolved into something else entirely – a voluminous compendium of letters, anecdotes, philosophical ramblings, newspaper clippings, drawings, diagrams and architectural commentary. At 1400 pages not including illustrations, The Magic of America is an extraordinary window into the mind of an extraordinary woman.
Despite all her efforts, Marion never managed to find a publisher for the Magic of America. It was just too weird, too unwieldy. The two physical copies she produced are housed in archives at the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University. In 2007 it was scanned, digitized and put online. I printed out the whole thing (minus the illustrations) at Kwikopy for a little over $100.
I feel an affinity for Marion. We’re both tall. We both love being in nature and reading philosophy. We’re both attracted to the spiritual, the mysteries of the world and the universe, all the “woo.” She believed in reincarnation. In fact, she told her friend William Purcell that if Magic wasn’t published by 2047 “I shall follow it up in my next incarnation.” Her name was Marion Lucy, mine is Mary Lucile … need I go on?
A few random facts to titillate you: She only allowed herself to be photographed in profile. She climbed trees long into her 60s. Also in her 60s, she taught herself German so she could translate Goethe and Rudolph Steiner for Walt. She set up an independent architectural practice in Melbourne, but a client ripped her off, and when she took him to court, she lost. She and Walter were vegetarians and teetotalers. The only house they ever designed and built for themselves was a tiny, one-room “dollhouse” on somebody else’s property.
Marion died at the age of 90, outliving Walter by 24 years and Frank Lloyd Wright by two. A friend went to visit her in the 1950s, and asked Marion how she was feeling. Fine and dandy! She responded. They can’t kill me, I’m a vegetarian!
Marion was long dismissed by the architectural establishment as a mere “delineator” and somewhat helpful, if eccentric sidekick for Walter, and that’s when they were being generous. Her memoir was judged “incoherent and naive,” despite the fact that those same architectural historians routinely plumbed it for their research on Walter.
Recently there’s been increased interest in the legions of unheralded, erased women who have played pivotal roles in the story of “Mankind.” Marion was, without a doubt, one of these women, and The Marion Chronicles is my attempt to illuminate her life, her contribution, and her spirit so that she can take her rightful place in history.
On top of that, it’s just a really great story. So many twists and turns, so much intrigue, so much drama and heartbreak. It would make a great movie, if someone were so inclined.