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Thursday, December 5, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Family historian recalls the tale of the librarian and the poet

Florence Kirk, of Spokane, holds pictures of Vachel Lindsay and her aunt, Ora Maxwell, at her South Hill home. Although she never married, Maxwell forged a close relationship with the famous and flamboyant poet. (Dan Pelle)
Florence Kirk, of Spokane, holds pictures of Vachel Lindsay and her aunt, Ora Maxwell, at her South Hill home. Although she never married, Maxwell forged a close relationship with the famous and flamboyant poet. (Dan Pelle)

The story of Ora and Vachel first floated vaguely through Florence Kirk’s family lore.

Her Aunt Ora, it was said, “had a man in her life,” though she never married. Later, it emerged that Aunt Ora had forged a close friendship in 1920s Spokane with the flamboyant poet Vachel Lindsay. He died in 1931, a suicide, and she died, broken-hearted, several weeks later.

So go the romantic outlines, anyway. Details have surfaced in recent years, as Kirk has uncovered family artifacts, but the allure of the story lies in its unsolvable mystery.

Kirk, 88, has become the keeper of her family’s history – and what a history.

Her grandfather was a prominent railroad man who met with presidents and corresponded with Thomas Edison. An uncle was a Spokane banker who fell dramatically from grace after a bank failure.

And then there’s Aunt Ora – world traveler, giver of exotic gifts, longtime librarian, co-founder of the group that became the Spokane Mountaineers.

“I tell you, my whole family is interesting,” Kirk said.

She calls herself “the last of the Mohicans” – the keeper of the family history and near the last of the line. She has an adult son and daughter, but “all the rest of them are gone to heaven.”

Kirk had two aunts in Spokane: Ora Maxwell and Florence “Flossie” McBroom, who was married to a local bank president. Flossie was a socialite. Ora was literary and outdoorsy – she’d send flowers to Flossie’s parties, but stay away herself, Kirk said. But the sisters were devoted to each other.

Ora worked in the Spokane libraries starting in 1911, moving here from Los Angeles. She was an independent woman, earning her own living, traveling the world, and largely eschewing the company of men, Kirk said.

“She was just a woman’s woman,” she said. “She just didn’t have anything to do with men.”

Though Ora loved the outdoors and was a founder of the Spokane Walking Club in 1915, she was also known for her fine manners and stylish clothes.

“She was a very, very lovely lady,” Kirk said. “The word ‘Lady’ is really what her name should have been – Lady Maxwell.”

The Walking Club was an all-female group for several years, and later became the Mountaineers. Maxwell and other members took hikes of 12 to 14 miles. Photos show the women in long dresses and fancy hats, up in the mountains.

Lindsay, meanwhile, was one of the nation’s most famous poets, with a reputation for flamboyant performances and a colorful range of aesthetic interests. After a series of health and financial setbacks, he came to Spokane in 1924 as a kind of kept literary man – he was given room and board at the Davenport Hotel in exchange for serving as a kind of cultural ambassador.

Lindsay was an idealist and deeply odd; legend has it that he brought two life-size dolls of French children with him to meals at the Davenport. His rages and flights of fancy helped make him a divisive figure in staid Spokane, according to the introduction to “Vachel Lindsay: Troubadour in ‘The Wild Flower City,’ ” a collection of his newspaper columns edited by Shaun O’L. Higgins, a former Spokesman-Review executive and Lindsay expert.

Maxwell and Lindsay met in 1924, according to a presentation given by Higgins at a meeting of the Vachel Lindsay Association in Springfield, Ill., last year.

At the time, Maxwell had just returned from a long overseas trip with a female friend. Lindsay was married to a young schoolteacher the following spring.

Ora and Vachel became close. Lindsay warmly inscribed several books to Maxwell – books that Kirk discovered in her family items years later, and eventually sold to Higgins last year, along with three previously unknown Lindsay poems. One of these was addressed directly “To Ora Maxwell.”

“We … know that ‘something went on’, as they say, between Vachel and Ora – and it seems to have involved more than checking out books from the library,” according to Higgins’ presentation.

“What we do know – and have only recently learned – is that Ora Maxwell seems to be the only Spokanite, other than (Lindsay’s wife) Elizabeth, to whom he wrote poems and expressed his love.”

Kirk and her family feel sure that there was a deep bond between the two, whatever the specifics, though they don’t believe that they had an affair. More likely, according to Kirk and others, is that the two shared a love that was thwarted in some way – by age or convention.

Kirk believes her aunt may have been a lesbian, and Lindsay’s sexuality was another question. Before he married in his 40s, he had described himself as a virgin.

Whatever the contours of their relationship, it’s a fascinating corner of Spokane’s history – the librarian and the poet – with plenty of room for romantic interpretation.

But the full truth went to the grave with Ora and Vachel.

Lindsay left Spokane in 1929, returning to his native Springfield, Ill., before embarking on a national tour in an effort to revive his reputation and his finances. By the end of 1931, though, he was broke and paranoid. He drank a bottle of Lysol and died.

Maxwell almost immediately developed severe stomach ulcers, and her health woes were compounded by lifelong asthma. She died about 10 weeks later.

“I can understand that, too,” Kirk says. “Her death was just a lot of grief.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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