The Story of Edna St. Vincent Millay: Poet, Revolutionary, and Jazz-Age Bohemian
Edna St. Vincent Millay epitomized New York bohemia
Photograph courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries
If you’ve ever burned the candle at both ends, you know the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. You also know a bit about her life and times from what “critics termed a frivolous but widely known poem,” The New York Times said in her obituary. The poem, titled “First Fig,” is short:
“My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends / It gives a lovely light!”
Yet those 25 words convey the Jazz Age of the 1920s, in which the young embraced post-World War I life with a bohemian verve that wouldn’t be seen again until the 1960s. Millay was at the center of the Greenwich Village scene, a flame-haired, musically voiced beauty with “a mouth like a valentine,” novelist Floyd Dell wrote. She also had an appetite for life: She smoked (rather scandalous for women at the time), she drank, and she took many lovers of both sexes and all marital statuses. Millay lived fast and died relatively young, at the age of 58, in 1950. While details of her life are widely known, less known is that she died at her house in the Columbia County town of Austerlitz, near the Massachusetts border, where she had lived for almost half her life.
A Rock Star of Her Time
Writer Thomas Hardy once said that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Both made stunning and transformative entrances in the country’s psyche. Millay, who was born in Rockland, Maine, in 1892, and her two sisters were raised by their single mother, Cora. Cora was herself a modern woman, and she taught her girls music, literature, and self-reliance. According to one account, Cora tried to bring up her daughters in “gay and courageous poverty.”
A tomboy who was called Vincent by her family, Millay was just 14 when she won her first poetry award and 19 when her poem “Renascence,” which she entered into a contest, earned acclaim and was published. Soon after, Millay was awarded a scholarship to Vassar College. There, she wrote poetry, got into theater, and, according to Poets.org, “developed intimate relationships with several women.”
She graduated in 1917 and moved to the Village. That year, she published her first book, Renascence and Other Poems. She also became a pre-war radical, befriending communist journalist John Reed and feminist Inez Milholland. She dabbled in theater, and did “hack writing,” according to The New York Times, for money. Her fortunes changed, however, with the publication in 1920 of her second volume of poetry, A Few Figs From Thistles, which includes “First Fig.” She published two more volumes and a play in 1921. And in 1923, her work, which often explored such then-taboo subjects as female sexuality and feminism, earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
That same year, she married Eugen Boissevain, the widower of Milholland, who also attended Vassar and was captain of the hockey team, as well an active radical who started the suffrage movement at the college. “According to Millay’s own accounts,” Poets.org writes, “the couple acted liked two bachelors, remaining ‘sexually open’ throughout their 26-year marriage.” Boissevain managed her career, booking readings and public appearances, and Millay became famous. “She was a kind of rock star of her time,” says Holly Peppe, literary executor at the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society in Austerlitz.
She was also tiring of city life, and, like many an aging boho artist today, began scanning the Times classifieds for an upstate retreat. She found a run-down, 19th-century farmhouse and 435 acres, which the couple bought in 1925, for $9,000. They christened it “Steepletop.”
Photograph courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries
A Spokesperson for Personal Freedom
They soon purchased another 300 acres across the street, and spent the next 25 years there. At first, “it was like every other old house,” Peppe says. “She wanted to redesign it to remind her of her old house in Maine.” There were so many workmen around, Millay said, “I hardly know if I am writing with a pen or a screwdriver.”
They eventually built a writing cabin and a Sears Roebuck barn, and had a working farm. The grounds featured several “outdoor room” gardens, an outdoor flagstone bar, a spring-fed swimming pool — where skinny-dipping was encouraged — and a badminton court. “They had legendary parties,” Peppe says. “The outdoor bar was called ‘The Ruins,’ and the joke was that the flowers were watered with gin. If you can be bohemian in the country, it was bohemian.”
It was also, when the gin wasn’t flowing, quiet and peaceful, which is what Millay needed to write. Her gregarious, larger-than-life husband, a master chef who encouraged formal dress for dinner, also took seriously his role, “to keep things moving for her so she had time, space, and peace of mind to write poetry,” Peppe says. “Eugen was seen in town every day getting the mail; he was very social. Millay spent most of her time on the hill. She was always very private wherever she lived. She was not Dorothy Parker.”
Millay continued to publish in the late 1920s through the ’40s, turning more toward political and social themes around events such as the Sacco and Vanzetti trial (she was even arrested at a demonstration in Boston), a 1940 New York Times Magazine piece against isolationism, and a poem about a Nazi massacre in Czechoslovakia. (“The whole world holds in its arms today / The murdered village of Lidice / Like the murdered body of a little child / Innocent, happy, surprised at play.”)
The ’40s were a tough time for her, Peppe says. She fell out of a moving car in 1936, which caused nerve damage to her arm and, to ease the pain, an addiction to morphine and alcohol. Several of her closest friends and family members died, including her mother. And in 1949, Boissevain developed lung cancer and died rather abruptly. She spent the last year of her life virtually alone at Steepletop, Peppe says, a recluse trying to work through her grief with her writing.
She also grew frailer, and, on the morning of October 19, 1950, still in her nightgown and slippers, she fell down a flight of stairs. Her body was found later that evening by a caretaker who had come to fix her fire for the night. The Times reported that she died of a heart attack. She was 58. She is buried on the property, along with her husband, her mother, her sister Norma, and her brother-in-law, Charles Ellis.
Norma moved into the house in 1951 and became “keeper of the flame,” until her death in 1986, says Peppe, who spent about a year living with Norma while working on her dissertation on Millay. Today, the house, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971, still showcases all of Millay’s furniture, books, and other possessions, many of which remain where they were on the day she died. The Millay Society works to foster Millay’s literary legacy and to restore and preserve Steepletop, which opens for tours in May. (See below.)
The house is certainly worth seeing. And Millay’s work is worth reading — or re-reading, says Peppe. “For 40 years, Robert Frost and Millay were the two bestsellers in popular poetry,” she says. Her literary legacy includes reversing gender roles in so-called “love” poetry and putting women in the lead. “But one of my goals is to promote that she was far more than a ‘love poet,’ ” Peppe says. “She wrote about political injustice and social discrimination in beautifully crafted poetry with profound messages. She expanded the content of poetry into the woman’s realm, including women’s sexuality, which was quite revolutionary. She was a spokesperson for personal freedom. That is why her poetry endures.”
Steepletop is open for tours from May through October. Visitors can watch a film about life at Steepletop when Millay and then her sister, Norma, lived there. They can tour the house, see the gardens, walk a Poetry Trail, stop by the Visitors Center at Tamarack Cottage, and purchase Millay memorabilia and books
at the gift shop.
House, grounds, and combination tours are given Friday through Monday at various times. Reservations are required. For more information, visit www.millay.org or call 518-392-3362.