In the Arizona Desert, Frank Lloyd Wright's Widow Keeps the Architect's Flame Burning and Her Students Building

updated 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's not uncommon for a spouse to carry on the work of a late, famous mate—wives of politicians run for their husbands' offices, Coretta Scott King speaks for Martin Luther King Jr., Irving Mansfield nurtures the memory of his late wife, author Jacqueline Susann. But few can match the dedication of Olgivanna Wright, now 83, who in the 23 years since the death of her husband, renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, has managed Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., a communelike institute dedicated to promoting Wright's ideals of life and architecture. Taliesin acts both as a school—Mrs. Wright handpicks the 25 students from hundreds of applicants—and an architectural firm, with 35 projects, from homes to corporate offices, on the drawing boards. "I have my own ideas—I am not Frank Lloyd Wright," says Olgivanna. "But I am the closest clients can get to Frank Lloyd Wright."

She was certainly instrumental to Wright himself, who in his heyday was known as much for his life-style as for his art. In 1909 Wright, already a national figure, abandoned his first spouse and their six children for the wife of a wealthy client. Unable to get a divorce, he left for Europe with her as his mistress; then, in 1914, back in Wisconsin, a crazed Barbadian servant burned down their house, the original Taliesin (Welsh for "shining brow"), killing Wright's companion and her two children. He next took up with a sculptress and finally divorced his first wife to marry her, only to have the marriage flounder within months. Then lightning again burned down Wright's house, and his career threatened to unravel.

It was into that world that Olgivanna Lazovich entered in 1924, when she was 26 and Wright almost 60. At their first meeting, seated next to each other at a ballet in Chicago, Olgivanna was smitten. "He reminded me of a great Georgian poet whom I was in love with," she recalls. But as their romance blossomed, they were pursued by the press, their former mates (Olgivanna was a divorcee herself) and Wright's many creditors. They moved to Arizona, where they married in 1928. Wrote Wright gratefully in his memoirs, "Understanding and ready for any sacrifice...came Olgivanna. A woman is, for man, the best of true friends, if man will let her be one."

Their marriage lasted 31 years—until his death at 91—and inspired an unparalleled blossoming of his talents. In his last three decades Wright designed many of his best buildings (including Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa. and Manhattan's circular Guggenheim Museum) and became the guru nonpareil of architecture students the world over.

Since his death Olgivanna has reigned supreme at Taliesin West. In screening applicants, she says, she looks for "strong character. I can tell a lot from just a smile." Though increasingly frail, she speaks of Wright's ideas at weekly lectures and helps the students at their drafting tables. She recalls, "When I would criticize Frank, he would sometimes get angry and say, 'What do you know about architecture?' I would say, 'I only know what you have taught me and based on that I think...' He usually listened when I said that." Olgivanna has final approval of all Taliesin designs.

Studying there means accepting her husband's belief that architecture should be integrated with every other facet of life. Students learn how to design kitchens by helping with the cooking, theaters by performing at Saturday night entertainments, and buildings that last by helping with the routine maintenance. Most of the students live in tents or shelters of their own design; Olgivanna occupies the main house in Taliesin West, which Wright designed and had built for them from 1938 to 1959. Says she joyously, "His work is all around me."

It is a very different life from the one she was born to in Montenegro, now a province of Yugoslavia. The daughter of the chief justice, she grew up, as Wright wrote later, "in a patriarchal family...with a mind and a will of her own." As a young woman, she went to France to train with the mysterious religious leader G.I. Gurdjieff before she came to the U.S. with Svetlana, her daughter from her first marriage. With Wright, she had another daughter, Iovanna, now an artist in her 50s.

"There are times I miss him so desperately, I can hardly take it," says Olgivanna of Wright, who always called her Mother. She takes solace in memories, and in her sense of destiny. "I am a believer in Providence," she adds. "There is a reason for everything. There is a reason why we met."

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