Main dining room, Davenport's restaurant, c. 1911.
Eight decades apart, a flamboyant poet-performer and a champion figure skater brought excitement and a sort of glamour to the Davenport Hotel in Spokane.
In the lobby of the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington, a gold plaque near the concierge’s desk states that Vachel Lindsay was once a guest here. Vachel who? A dead American poet, apparently. I’m a poet myself, a Canadian one. His name didn’t ring a bell. I did know about another Davenport guest, though—in fact, I had flown in to see him: a living, breathing figure skater named Alexei Yagudin. A few months earlier, he had become an Olympic gold champion, and now, in October 2002, he was in Spokane to perform in Skate America. I wanted to catch another glimpse of the champ as well as the other glitterazzi of the skating world. In this hotel lobby, from his seat on a couch very near some nosebleed- ticket–holding eavesdroppers, Yagudin announced that because of a congenital hip condition, he was withdrawing from the men’s free skate, and from any further amateur skating competition.
The media had been chasing the rumour of his retirement, at age twenty- one, for a while. And other rumours. His predecessors, fellow Olympians from Russia, had fallen to problem drinking after their Olympic triumphs. They still moved in and out of alcohol treatment programs. Yagudin himself had had a similar lapse before the Olympics in February, but pulled himself up with the aid of his coach and choreographer, the fur-clad, iron-handed Tatiana Tarasova.
I was not staying at the Davenport, which was way beyond my budget. I was just hanging among other fans, mostly female, in the lobby, where scheduled public viewings of skating stars occurred. Tarasova was here, recognizable by her extravagant wide-swinging mink coat. Already she had a new pupil in tow, a young American skater from the women’s division, Sasha Cohen.
The Davenport had been the top hotel in town for a few months, since a philanthropist couple had undertaken to restore it to its original 1920s glamour and grandeur. One of their aims was to entice high-profile visitors and potential citizens, and international figure-skating entourages. Apparently no expense was spared for the comfort of guests like Alexei Yagudin. Thick pillars rose from behind silk-upholstered banquettes where lovers might remain cloistered, or business deals might be clinched unobserved. There were potted palms, a restored Italian marble fountain, two immense original fireplaces to linger by, and com¬fortable loveseats handy for listening in on other people’s conversations. All the trappings of wealth and power were in place, as they were in 1924 when Spokane city fathers had agreed to invite the poet Vachel Lindsay to come and stay awhile. The same city fathers who evicted him from the hotel and the city five years later, in 1929 .
It all started when a lawyer named Ben Kizer, a great admirer of Vachel Lindsay’s work, persuaded city officials and Louis Davenport, owner of the hotel, to buck up Spokane’s image from backwater town to cultural metropolis by bringing Lindsay in as a guest. At the time, Lindsay was hugely popular as a troubadour, travelling all over the United States, and well known as an author whose most famous book was Johnny Appleseed and Other Poems. Kizer assured the Spokane business community that Lindsay would be literary bait, attracting other big names to Spokane. They ensconced him in Room 1129 , a suite large and grand enough for entertaining. Louis Davenport and Lindsay supporters would pay his hotel bills, and it was understood, though not so well by Lindsay, that he was to pay back the establishment by giving performances, writing pieces glorifying the city, and educating Spokane citizens on the spoken arts.
Lindsay took advantage of his privileged position, spreading his entertainment entourage down to the entire main floor of the Davenport: dining room, smoking room, lobby, even the ballroom. He composed nine elegiac poems about Spokane, which were published in the city’s Spokesman-Review newspaper. They include “Under Spokane’s Brocaded Sun,” which begins with this stanza:
Under Spokane’s brocaded sun, and her deeply embroidered moon I walk on the Rim Rock rampart put there by heaven’s hand, Long before the city came, before the ocean or the land. This Rim Rock has one eastern notch for the river to run in And the other notch is a water gate at first northwest; Then south; Grotesquely around, coils the rampart, like a hoop-snake Tail in mouth.
As a poet-performer, Lindsay brought excitement and a sort of glamour to the Davenport and to Spokane. He dined every night in the main dining room. In the grand lobby and in his rooms, he created literary games for the group who had gathered round him. One of the players was Elizabeth Connor, an impressionable twenty-three-year-old schoolteacher, who, after a short romance, married the forty-five-year-old Lindsay. The wedding was held in his suite at the Davenport. Not long afterward, Elizabeth lost her teaching job, their main source of income. The group’s antics in the hotel lobby and elsewhere, reported diligently in the Spokesman-Review, may have had something to do with it.
Gradually Lindsay’s behaviour became more bizarre and rude. He was always low on funds; his room and dining bills mounted. He wore the wrong clothes: “a raincoat . . . when others were coatless,” wrote Mildred Weston, author of Vachel Lindsay: Poet in Exile, published in 1987, “or a black shirt when black shirts were not common.” For months, he dined with life-size French boudoir dolls and insisted that the waiters serve the dolls as if they were real people. And he failed to deliver celebrities to the city. His invitations to Carl Sandburg, Sinclair Lewis and others all went unheeded.
Vachel Lindsay’s star had been on the fade before he arrived in Spokane, something Kizer had not picked up on. Lindsay’s books were no longer selling well. He was trading on the successes of his early works when the offer came from Spokane. And he was suffering from “a deteriorating mental condition, exacerbated by diabetes, petit mal epilepsy, and mid-life crisis,” according to Mildred Weston.
After the birth of their first child, Lindsay and his wife were politely evicted from the Davenport. They moved to a house in Browne’s Addition, a well-established moneyed neighbourhood. Then, plagued by debts, they moved back to Lindsay’s childhood home in Springfield, Illinois. In 1931 he committed suicide by swallowing Lysol.
The Davenport hotel, built near the railway station, went into decline in the 1940s, when motels became popular among the growing numbers of people who travelled more by car than by train. New owners took over in the 1950s and made cosmetic changes, probably to reflect the new era and compete with motel design. The hotel no longer attracted the customers it preferred. When Elvis Presley and his entourage came to Spokane in August of 1957 , they stayed at the Ridpath, not the Davenport. By the 1970 s, after more changes of ownership and more degrading updates to the decor, the hotel went into bankruptcy. It closed down in 1985 , then sat vacant until the 1990 s, when the Friends of the Davenport came together to save it from demolition.
Vachel Lindsay is remembered in Springfield, Illinois, by a museum de¬voted to his pre-Spokane glory days. But all that remains of his Spokane tenure is the plaque in the lobby of the Davenport, and a brief mention in the index of Spokane’s Legendary Davenport Hotel, a book celebrating the rebirth of the hotel—although it was hard to find anyone in the rejuvenated Davenport who could even point out the gold plaque, let alone talk about how it came to be there.
Alexei Yagudin moved back to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia. After an emotional declaration of retirement, he managed to skate several seasons with Stars on Ice by simply not executing his Olympic-sized quads and triple triple jumps. He had a hip replacement late in 2007 and hoped to re-enter amateur competition. An injury in Germany dashed that hope. Though only die-hard skating fans in Spokane would remember him now, Yagudin remains a celebrity of sorts in Russia, appearing on the tv series The Ice Age. His arch-rival and teammate in 2002 , Evgeni Plushenko, went on to win gold in 2006 , and silver in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
These days the Davenport is doing rather well. Spokane itself is doing well, without either a poet laureate or a renowned athlete to keep visitors coming. Restorations of buildings from a rich architectural past are ongoing. The Fox Theatre has been revived, and it draws great crowds. The grand reopening of this art deco building included a performance by the troubadour Tony Bennett. The Fox had originally opened in September 1931, a couple of months before Vachel Lindsay’s death.
With all the restoration activity, the city is a good candidate to host international events. After all, a dazzling performing-arts theatre will attract stars, and world-class hotels will house them, if only temporarily.