In the early 2000s, director Gus Van Sant wanted to use the Flavel mansion on Franklin Avenue and 15th Street in Astoria in his film “The Last Days,” an art-house look at the slow, pathetic decline of a Kurt Cobain-type musician.
At first Mary Louise Flavel rather liked the idea, according to local historian John Goodenberger. The Flavels had a history of supporting the arts and boosting Astoria’s cultural standing; offering up their famed family residence for the project would carry on that tradition. Van Sant even said he’d do restoration work on the tumbledown relic, which had become a neighborhood eyesore since Mary Louise, her brother, Harry Flavel, and their mother, Florence, abandoned it in 1990.
Then the question came up: How would the house be portrayed in the movie?
What Mary Louise learned didn’t please her: The house would symbolize the main character’s fall from grace, as this once great and promising figure retreats into himself and his life falls apart.
Mary Louise didn’t want her childhood home, built by her grandfather in 1901, associated with that kind of vibe — though, because of the Flavel family’s decline, it already was. In the end, the filmmakers pulled out, and the mansion continued to decay until Greg Newenhof purchased it in 2015.
A theme that emerges in conversations with people who knew Mary Louise — who was living in Portland and died of natural causes last month at age 93 — is that she was, at all times, mindful of what her actions would say about her as a Flavel.
In her youth, Astoria was a small town where old families strove to keep their names respectable, according to Goodenberger. As Astoria royalty, the descendant of Capt. George Flavel, she knew the world would view her every success and misstep through the lens of her distinguished lineage.
Mary Louise was destined to be a talked-about figure in Astoria whether she wanted to be or not. And the Flavel name, with all its hereditary baggage and responsibility, would have been hard to uphold, even without the family’s later troubles — particularly the trouble with Harry, a man known for strange behavior and violent flare-ups.
But Harry’s issues made her job so much harder. One senses a high-born, image-conscious family refusing to confront a disturbed relative and choosing instead to pretend the problem away, reframe embarrassing events to save face, or cast themselves as victims — even after Harry nearly killed Alec Josephson in 1983 by stabbing him in the belly, for which Harry was later convicted of first-degree assault.
For Mary Louise, protecting the Flavel legacy didn’t just mean defending Harry but also keeping possession of her buildings — the mansion, and two downtown properties at Ninth and Commercial streets. She may have felt that to lose control of them would amount to losing her family’s roots in Astoria, Goodenberger said. But she let the buildings deteriorate, and gradually sold them.
For all the privilege and stature the Flavel name conferred upon Mary Louise and Harry, it was a mantle they could never get out from under, one that changed during their lifetime from a blessing to a burden.
The tragedy of Mary Louise’s life is not merely what happened, but what didn’t happen. Imagine the missed opportunities — the sharp intellect, profligate resources and entire decades misspent as she worked to salvage her brother’s reputation and, finally, withdrew from her community.
Even after a dark, reclusive period, her life could have ended on a high note. She could have reclaimed some of the Flavels’ lost glory.
Goodenberger recalled when Mary Louise returned to Astoria for one of her brother’s trials almost 20 years ago.
“I’m walking down the street with her, and people are coming out and shaking her hand and hugging her and welcoming her back,” Goodenberger said.
He told her: “‘You see, Mary Louise — you could come back to this town and do something. There are people who are willing to move on.’”
The town had changed since she’d left. Much of the old guard who’d experienced her family’s slights and scandals had relocated or passed on. Enough new residents who didn’t know the Flavels’ history had moved to Astoria that she could feel safe returning.
She could, Goodenberger suggested, come home, fix up her buildings, maybe rent an apartment. She still had time to re-enter Astoria’s arts community. The door was open for her if she wanted to walk through it.
But for Mary Louise, “moving on” meant staying away from the town in which her last name carried a stigma. Given all she had to live up to, it’s a small wonder she failed to keep such a heavy name afloat forever.