Mary Louise Flavel, a scion of Astoria’s famous maritime family and the last descendant of Capt. George Flavel with direct ties to the city, died of natural causes in October.
The captain’s 93-year-old great-granddaughter, a patron of musical arts, had been living in a nursing home outside of Portland when her health began to fail. She died on Oct. 20 and was buried in the Flavel family plot at Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton.
During her life, the affluent and influential Flavels became polarizing figures in the community and, increasingly, a source of curiosity, gossip and ire. Her death closes a chapter in a long, complex history where fact and fiction often tangle in messy, difficult knots.
“I’m going to miss her,” said Randy Stemper, a contractor who befriended Mary Louise Flavel and her brother, Harry, in the late 1980s. “I really just enjoyed the time I had with her. She’s at peace now, and she needs to rest.
“The good that they did needs to be remembered. Not the stories and the fiction.”
Over the years, the neglected family mansion on Franklin Avenue and 15th Street, where Mary Louise and Harry Flavel grew up, became a symbol of the family’s decline even as their ancestors’ well-preserved Queen Anne-style Victorian-era home, the Flavel House Museum on Eighth Street, continued to welcome wide-eyed tourists.
Mary Louise Flavel abandoned her hometown in 1990, but felt for the rest of her life that the community had long ago abandoned her.
“Life in Astoria was great, unless you were a Flavel,” she told a reporter for The Daily Astorian in 2012.
Life in Astoria
Mary Louise Flavel was born in Astoria in 1925, the first child of Harry M. Flavel and his second wife, Florence. She belonged to a family whose surname was famous throughout the Columbia-Pacific region, reaching back to the mid-1800s in Astoria.
Her great-grandfather, Capt. George Flavel, moved to Astoria as a young man in 1849 and became the city’s first bar pilot, guiding boats across the treacherous Columbia River Bar.
When Mary Louise was born, Astoria was recovering from the Great Astoria Fire of 1922, which had destroyed much of downtown. The chief economies were built around the logging and fishing industries. While Mary Louise was in high school, Astoria was a populous military port town where naval ships sailed the river.
Mary Louise graduated from Astoria High School in 1943 and later took classes at Stanford University. Music was her true love, said local historian John Goodenberger, who was close to the family and is writing a book about the Flavels. She believed everyone should be introduced to first-rate live music. She was an active member of the now-discontinued Astoria Civic Music Association and worked to bring singers and musicians to Astoria.
Perhaps the biggest celebrity Mary Louise snagged was Jerome Hines, a world-renowned basso. He performed at Astoria’s Viking Theater, which stood in the parking lot behind where Wells Fargo is located now on 12th Street.
“He was one of the most famous bass singers in the United States,” Goodenberger said. “I mean, you ever want to hear a bass singer, he would be the guy to go to. And he came to Astoria, and he became a personal friend of Mary Louise’s.”
Mary Louise was later named godmother to Hines’ son.
But Mary Louise Flavel and her immediate family are best known now for what happened later — in particular, her brother’s violent outbursts.
Both children were extremely intelligent, Goodenberger said, but the family frequently exhibited odd, concerning behavior.
In an infamous incident in 1983, Harry stabbed Alec Josephson and was found guilty of first-degree assault. Goodenberger, in a presentation in September, recounted other times the family dealt with Harry’s rage. Mary Louise spent the last third of her life defending him or living as a recluse.
“Mary Louise was fond of her brother, and she wanted to protect him,” said Carol Lambert, a descendant of Astoria’s Carruthers family, who remembered the Flavels from the old days in a 2016 interview. “She was the only one left, actually, to do so.”
Problems within the family, problems with Harry, were not addressed and later caused the family to flee their hometown.
“Had Mary Louise and Harry been growing up today, maybe somebody would have caught them in elementary school and said, ‘You know, let’s pull these two aside, or at least one of them aside,’” Goodenberger said.
“Think about the loss for them. Think about the loss for the town if these people who had such great minds, or ability to absorb information, could have used it in a positive, community way,” he said.
To him, that is the tragedy. The pressures that kept a reputation-minded family from acknowledging or addressing issues among their own also prevented their children from contributing to Astoria.
“And,” Goodenberger said, “the way that the town responded was with gossip.”
In 1993, The New Yorker published “The Magnificent Flavels,” an article about the family written by Calvin Trillin. The article depicts the family as a kind of fallen local aristocracy and highlighted sensational stories.
“A lot of it is speculation and stories that people have told and retold, and it gets so that I don’t know what’s truth and what’s not,” Liisa Penner, archivist for the Clatsop County Historical Society, said in a 2016 interview.
And people continued to tell stories, the tales fueled by frustration and anger with the once-distinguished family.
When Mary Louise, Harry and their mother left Astoria in 1990, they lost a lot of goodwill in the community by abandoning their buildings on Commercial and Ninth streets. The Flavels allowed them to deteriorate and Mary Louise would not put them on the market. The buildings stood prominent and empty in the heart of downtown. The family also left taxes outstanding and let their home fall into disrepair.
The Flavels returned occasionally to check on their properties but kept a low profile. One of the people they would visit was Stemper.
“People who didn’t know them said, ‘Well, you know they’re crazy,’” Stemper recalled. “Well, they weren’t crazy. They were eccentric.”
Goodenberger believes that history will not be able to truly understand the Flavels and their impact on Astoria until another generation passes and fewer people remain who hold grudges against them.
“They were reclusive, and so that just made people understand them less,” Goodenberger said. “The only time they’re seeing them is when (the Flavels) are photocopying coupons to get more of a discount at the grocery store or whatever.”
Goodenberger is working his way through family letters as he researches his book and knows the truth is complex.
“There’s a whole backstory,” he said. “It’s maybe more complicated than what people think.”
On one hand, Mary Louise Flavel had an amazing life. She traveled the world and filled her life with music.
“But it also included a lot of fear,” Goodenberger said. Fear from within her own volatile family. Fear of the community outside.
In recent years, Mary Louise gradually sold her downtown buildings. The last one sold in August 2017. In 2015, Greg Newenhof, co-owner of City Lumber, bought the family’s former mansion on Franklin Avenue and began renovating it — work his brother, Jeff, took over after Newenhof died unexpectedly in January.
The Flavel name still sparks stories. Both houses exert a pull on locals and visitors alike. There are still people who want to get things off their chest and air their grievances where the Flavels are concerned, Goodenberger said.
As he reads the family letters, “there is so much about her that I really like,” he said. “I love her sense of adventure and her work within the field of music. It’s incredible. But I also feel a real sadness for her.” Some of the troubles she experienced and the fear she felt, she brought on herself, Goodenberger acknowledged.
“But some of that was beyond her control,” he said, “and for someone who had such potential — for it to be lost largely in fear, I find that really sad.”
The graveside ceremony in October was kept quiet for a reason. The people who cared for Mary Louise Flavel wanted her to be at peace.