Authors: Rosemary Sullivan
Jamie was organizing her papers so she could travel to Iran, where Wes was working on construction of a $6 million project, the Pearl Palace (Morvarid Palace) for Princess Shams Pahlavi, the daughter of the shah of Iran. Wes had a romantic side, at least in architecture, and so loved excess that he’d based his design for the palace on
A Thousand and One Nights.
Although it seems he’d initially invited Svetlana to accompany him to Iran, in fact she never got to go on this business trip. In her chatty letter, she told Jamie that she’d seen another new state of this “blessed country.” She and Wes had driven to the town of Alma in Michigan to attend the dedication of a church he’d recently designed.
Jamie was obviously a conduit for information about her children. She asked him:
If you happen to hear a word about my kids from the source
reliable than the Soviet reporters, please, let me know. I’ve sent them “Happy Birthday” cards in May as usual, but I have not heard anything
since December 1968. I understand why, but still I’d love to learn at least some news. Do you think I should just write a long letter to Katya and send it by ordinary mail. Why not? Or—better not? How do you feel about that?
She sent Katya an “absolutely unpolitical” book,
Horses of the West.
Naturally she had no answer. She had wanted to send her son a small gift too but had stopped herself. It might bring him trouble. Determined to convince Jamie, and perhaps
herself, that she had the perfect marriage, she ended her letter:
May I tell you how happy I am to have a 28-year-old son, Brandoch Peters, who is a charming young man. He is running his father’s farm at Spring Green, Wisconsin, although he is a musician by profession. I am too lucky indeed … best wishes from Wes.
Beneath her enthusiasm about her new stepson lay her ongoing anxiety for her own children. She was always looking for secure routes to information about them. When she heard that the young architect Kamal Amin would be visiting his native Egypt, she asked him to write to her friend the Egyptian ambassador to Moscow, Dr. Murad Ghaleb. Dr. Ghaleb did not reply, but by chance Amin ran into him in the elevator of the Sheraton Hotel in Cairo and immediately launched into the subject of Svetlana’s children, asking for his help in getting some information about them. The ambassador turned his back and left the elevator without a word. There was fear in his eyes.
The KGB had not forgotten Svetlana. Svetlana had many reasons to be looking for security.
John Amarantides, an architect and a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, took this candid photo of Wesley and Svetlana at Taliesin in 1970.
very summer the architects and their apprentices made the long trek by car back to Taliesin East in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Svetlana and Wes set out in his Cadillac. Finally she had him to herself, and soon she felt the loving Wes had
returned. As they traveled through the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, Colorado Springs, and the flats of Kansas and into the beautiful green fields of Wisconsin, he sang her funny songs, recited limericks, and told her fascinating stories of the history of the places they were driving through. He seemed to want her to know his America. Despite the constant business calls to and from hotels and in telephone booths en route, this drive would become a precious memory. She believed Wes would be hers as long as she could get him away from the Fellowship.
When they arrived in Spring Green, Svetlana discovered that Wes’s accommodations in Taliesin East consisted of two rooms, with a kitchen and bathroom next to his office, an improvement certainly, but the same hordes of tourists roamed through the halls. She was settling in when she got word from her lawyers at Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst in New York that the trustees of the Alliluyeva Charitable Trust had received a letter from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation requesting a donation of $30,000, to be given annually.
The trustees had replied that this was absolutely impossible because the Trust was small, with an annual yearly income of much less than $30,000, and the money was already committed to funding the Brajesh Singh Foundation Hospital in India. It took Svetlana a while to process this. She remembered that Olgivanna had hinted that, once married, she could turn over her personal assets to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, where she would live and be well taken care of.
Svetlana turned her rage on Wes. She was paying
bills, not the F. L. Wright Foundation’s. He remarked with a sigh, “My dear, try your best to remain good friends with Mrs. Wright. Because if you don’t, we shall meet tragedy.” She was still basking in the happiness of their trip together and so decided that this money business was a misunderstanding. She also dismissed his warning.
The best times were her visits with Wes to his farm, which he called Aldebaran. It consisted of a small old-fashioned farmhouse, outbuildings, and considerable acreage of bucolic woods and fields. His surviving son, Brandoch, was tending it. Though he had reached the level of cellist with the Munich Symphony, Brandoch had given up music. The rumor was that he realized he didn’t have the talent to be a soloist; supposedly Olgivanna had told him he was just a “stand player. You don’t stack up.”
It is also likely that a broken love affair had sent him back to Taliesin, where he’d seemingly fallen into an emotional paralysis.
Brandoch now confided to his stepmother that he dreamed of owning a cattle-breeding farm. Svetlana came up with a new plan. She would pay off the liens on Wes’s farm and finance a joint agricultural venture. She, Wes, and Brandoch would be co-owners, though the money would remain hers. In other words, she would be in control. Both of “her men,” as she liked to call them, seemed excited by the idea. Privately, she thought she could be done with Taliesin. At least in the summer, Wes could work at Taliesin and live at the farm.
Soon it was time to return to Taliesin West in Arizona, but in September, Svetlana had astonishing news to tell Wes. As she walked the fields of her new property, she had begun to feel young and vital, with a sensation of centered well-being that she’d felt twenty years back. When she visited the doctor, he confirmed that she was pregnant.
Svetlana was thrilled. At her age, forty-four, this was a great gift. The child would be fate’s compensation for her abandoned Russian children, and it would finally cement her relationship with Wes. When she told him, he was certainly shocked but he seemed happy. However, when he reported the news to Olgivanna, she was furious—there was no place for children at Taliesin—they diverted “energy from the work.” In Wright’s
last years, women with babies had been exiled to a tent at the farthest edge of the compound in Arizona, and applicants with children were rejected. Svetlana must get rid of the child. “Women of Svetlana’s age don’t give birth in America,” Olgivanna told Wes. How had he been so careless?
George and Annelise Kennan had visited Svetlana at Taliesin East that August. They had so impressed Olgivanna that she’d claimed them as her own guests. Now she turned to them. In a rampaging phone call to Princeton, she demanded that they talk Svetlana out of this folly.
It took Wes some time to summon the courage to confront Svetlana, but he finally asked, “You are not going to do anything about it?” She sensed Olgivanna behind Wes’s question and answered angrily. “Why does that dictator always interfere with human lives? Well, of course, because that is the nature of all dictators.”
Her words eventually got back to Olgivanna.
When they finally undertook the fall trek back to Arizona, Svetlana was reminded why she loved Wes. Away from the Fellowship, he was still warm and chatty. He drove less recklessly. She thought he was thinking of their child. She now believed the problem was that Wes was in thrall to Olgivanna, and many agreed. Edgar Tafel, who had worked at Taliesin, remarked, “Wes Peters approaches the age of 60, and he cannot have any feelings of his own without consulting his superiors.”
It shocked her to think that her large, imposing husband was “afraid of that little old lady with the wrinkled parchment face.”
She and Wes decided they must renovate his small apartment to make space for the baby. She was hoping for a kitchenette and bath, but he concluded that these were not necessary; they would ruin the design. As they fought continuously over the renovations and he dismissed her suggestions, she was taken aback by how stubborn he could be. At the end of the three
months of work by the unpaid assistants, she was presented with a bill for $30,000, the exact amount the foundation had requested from her charitable trust.
Svetlana endured the winter as things deteriorated. Having turned down the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s request for an annual bequest, she now found that architects in the halls shunned her. She sought solace among a few people she met outside Taliesin who detested the Fellowship as much as she did. Olgivanna concluded that Svetlana was spreading gossip about her and doing harm to her reputation. One of their quarrels turned into a great battle, which ended with Olgivanna screaming at Svetlana that she “behaved just like Stalin.”
Svetlana could not imagine having her baby at Taliesin and gratefully accepted an invitation from Wes’s sister, Marge Hayakawa, and her husband, Sam, to come to California for the delivery. Wes took her to Mill Valley and then left for Iran. To remind her that he was with her in thought, he arranged for the local florist to send flowers every day, with cards that he’d left behind: “I am missing you.”
Those fifty little handcrafted cards were among the things she always saved. To an outsider, they are uncannily reminiscent of the notes her father sent her when she was a child, declaring his love in absentia. She’d been trained to feed her longings on so little, and even when contrary evidence was staring her in the face, she always tried to will her version of reality into being. But her domestic fantasy held little meaning for Wes.
Svetlana gave birth to a beautiful healthy child, Olga Margedant Peters, on May 21, 1971. She’d chosen to name her child after her grandmother Olga, though Wes was probably delighted to be able to ingratiate himself with Olgivanna. When her contractions started, her new brother-in-law, Sam Hayakawa, drove her to the hospital. Wes showed up a few days later, bringing with him a local TV crew to film mother and
child. He loved publicity. Svetlana thought the public interest in the birth of Stalin’s granddaughter was brutally invasive. He was not the one receiving the letters that said, “How awful at your age!” and “America does not need Stalin’s heirs,” though in truth most of the letters were warm and congratulatory.
Svetlana and Olga, photographed in 1971 in Arizona.
From her long conversations with Marge Hayakawa, Svetlana had come to understand that Wes’s devotion to Taliesin was absolute. “He has invested too much of himself there,” Marge told her. Svetlana concluded sadly, “It was for me to comply, to adjust to his ways, to alter my whole nature if necessary, in order to follow after him.”
She flew back to Wisconsin with her new baby.
Wes seemed happy with his new family. He said he had always wanted a daughter. She would cherish his lovely words spoken when they were visiting friends in Wisconsin with the
infant Olga: “You have returned me to life. I was dead all these years.” She was astonished. “It was more than I had expected to hear from anyone.”