Biographical / Historical
Poet and writer Hortense Flexner King was born in 1885 in Louisville, one of five children of Jacob and Rosa Maas Flexner. Her three sisters each attained a level of fame in their own respect; Carolin, as aide to a New York lieutenant governor and senator and special assistant on headquarters staff of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration; Jennie, as a head of the Readers' Advisory of the New York Public Library and writer on library issues; and Alice, as a research worker for the New York Welfare Council. Her brother, Morris, became a well-known physician in Louisville. Her family included well-known education reformer Abraham Flexner; pathologist and long-time director of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, Simon Flexner; lawyer and philanthropist Bernard Flexner; and historian Eleanor Flexner. Hortense Flexner attended the Flexner School (founded by her uncle) in Louisville for her early education, then went to Bryn Mawr College, and graduated with an A.B. and M.A. from the University of Michigan. She worked as a reporter and then editor of the women's section at the Louisville Herald from 1912 to 1919. While there, Hortense Flexner met and married cartoonist Wyncie King. King's reputation was established by his political cartoons in the Saturday Evening Post. Hortense Flexner worked as a writer for Curtis Publishing from 1923 to 1929, while she established herself as an active and published poet. She also taught courses in freshman English and contemporary verse at Bryn Mawr and later, modern fiction and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Flexner maintained correspondence with many of her former students from Bryn Mawr and Sarah Lawrence until the time of her death.
Flexner was awarded first honors by the Poetry Society of America in 1919 for her poem, "Mask of Soldiers." Her first volume of poetry, Clouds and Cobblestones, was published in 1920. This Stubborn Root and Other Poems followed in 1931 and North Window and Other Poems came out in 1943. Flexner's poetry was widely published in magazines including Harper's, The Atlantic, The Masses, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Poetry. It is believed that 1956 was the last year that a Hortense Flexner poem appeared in an American periodical.
In 1963 acclaimed poet and writer Laurie Lee (Member of the Order of the British Empire) edited a volume of Flexner's selected poems. In 1968-1969, a volume of French translations of Flexner poetry, along with a critique by the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar (the first woman elected to sit in the French Academy), was well received. Hortense Flexner also wrote children's books, including Chipper in 1941, The Wishing Window in 1942, and Puzzle Pond in 1948. Wyncie King did the illustrations for these of his wife's books. In the early years of her career, Hortense Flexner also wrote plays: "Voices," "The Faun," "Mahogany," and "The Little Miracle," "The Broken God," produced by the Little Theatre Society of Indiana; and "The New Queen," produced by the University of Louisville Players. She was a member of Poetry Society of America and Phi Beta Kappa.
Hortense Flexner's beloved husband, Wyncie King, died while they were vacationing in Greece in 1961. Shortly thereafter, she returned to Louisville from their home in the east to be near her family and made her home there until her death in 1973 at the age of eighty-eight. In 1971 the University of Louisville honored Hortense Flexner with an Honorary Doctor of Letters for her contributions to American poetry. She was again honored by the University of Louisville when it published, posthumously, The Selected Poems of Hortense Flexner in a limited edition edited by Harvey Curtis Webster and Joy Bale in 1975.
Reviews of Hortense Flexner's poetry were usually sterling. The London Times, Literary Supplement, on January 29, 1931, wrote about This Stubborn Root: "there is a crystal clarity and polish in what she writes." Harvey Curtis Webster stated in a March 14, 1943 Courier-Journal review of North Window and Other Poems: "This freshness of mind that enables her to see things through her own, not another poet's eyes, accounts for a great deal of Miss Flexner's excellence." Laurie Lee wrote in the foreword to Selected Poems: "The words set down are as common as pebbles, but though small they cast giant shadows. . . . Here is a poetry which truth has reduced to the bone, and which has the bare beauty of such endurance." A review of Selected Poems in the London Times, Literary Supplement October 25, 1963 used these words to describe her work: "Her imagery is visual, and often very disturbing. Her diction is lucid and economical. She deals frequently with traditional themes, but renews each one that she tackles. She sees with fresh eyes." Time did not seem to lessen the impact of her work. H. Edward Richardson, professor of English at the University of Louisville reviewed The Selected Poems of Hortense Flexner, in "Potential," August 27, 1975: "Hers is not a poetry of amplitude, but she possesses rare stylistic purity and a fine excess of humility. These are the poems of a deeply concerned human being, and a deeply wise one, too."