Edna St. Vincent Millay. "She made poetry seem so easy that we could all do it. But, of course, we couldn’t.”
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Random House, 2001; $29.95; 550 pages
The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited and with an introduction by Nancy Milford; The Modern Library, 2001; $16.95; 163 pages
FROM SAVAGE BEAUTY s DUST JACKET: Thirty years after the success of Zelda, which sold 1.4million copies, Nancy Milford returns with a stunning second act. Savage Beauty is her long-awaited portrait of a passionate, fearless woman who obsessed America even as she tormented herself.
If F. Scott Fitzgerald was the hero of the Jazz Age, Edna St. Vincent Millay, as audacious in her love affairs as she was in her art, was its heroine. She embodied, in her reckless fancy, the spirit of the New Woman and gave America its voice.
Milford calls her book “a family romance” — for the love between the three Millay sisters and their mother was so deep as to be dangerous. The three sisters competed for success with men and later with their poetry. Their mother loved them with the controlling fierceness of a tyrant. “Theirs was a story of triumph over adversity,” Milford writes, “one of the best women’s stories there is in America — hopeful, enduring, centered in family, and fraudulent.”
The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Millay was dazzling in the performance of her self. Her voice was an instrument of seduction, and her impact on crowds, and on men, was legendary. Young women styled themselves in her image — fairylike, taunting, free. Yet beneath her studied act, all was not well.
Millay’s public affairs make for compulsive reading, but what this book reveals for the first time is her extraordinary private life. Savage Beauty is the first book to explore Millay’s self-destructive passion and morphine addiction.
Nancy Milford was given exclusive access to Millay’s papers, and what she found was an unimaginable treasure. Hundreds of letters flew back and forth between the three sisters and their mother — and Millay kept the most intimate diary, one whose honesty brings to mind the journals of Sylvia Plath.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nancy Milford was born in Dearborn, Michigan. She received her B.A. from the University of Michigan, her M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. She has taught at various colleges and universities and will teach at Princeton University this fall. She is recipient of a cornucopia of fellowships and honors. She is author of the best-selling Zelda (1970). Mother to three children, Milford lives in New York City.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: We spoke, Milford and I, on September 10. She was at home in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. I heard background noise. Milford explained, “I live on the corner of Washington Square, and it’s that time — at early lunch, I guess — when every truck in God’s name is going to come by, so don’t think you’re listening to me in a train station, I’m just at my home on the corner.”
About one of the difficulties of biography and of this biography in particular, Milford said, “Millay was the generation of my grandmother, so when you begin the biography of someone of this age, you realize the people you need to interview who are living may not be living a great deal longer. And so you interview, or I did, at any rate, really well before I really knew what to ask. You find that you’re rather clumsy and your interview subjects, you know that they’re sort of wondering as you question them, ‘What the hell is she talking about?’ It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to talk with these people, some extraordinary people, but it’s very difficult to have the initial interviews be useful.”
I mentioned that Milford’s biography of Millay sent me to read the notes about Millay in Edmund Wilson’s books — The Twenties, The Fifties, The Shores of Light— books that I hadn’t read for years. Wilson (1895-1972), who had a passionate affair with Millay when he was a young man in the 1920s, last visited with her in her home in Austerlitz, New York, in 1929; they did not see each other again until August 1948.1 asked Milford what she thought happened between Millay and Wilson that 19 years passed without their seeing one another.
“That’s not so surprising. I mean, it’s a shame it happened, but apparently Wilson had a breakdown around the same period that he sent Millay the manuscript of I Thought of Daisy [Wilson’s novel, published in 1929, in which one of the characters closely resembles Millay], and I guess what happened is she wrote back and said, ‘Oh God, the book could be better, you mustn’t do this, you mustn’t do that.’ She wrote a rather serious response and it didn’t get to him. So she, of course, thought that he was offended. And then the book was published and he thought, ‘She’s mortally offended and thinks it’s really a stupid thing I did,’ and he backed away. And then, after all, it was really just a question of mailing having gone wrong.
“At one point when I was doing my research I talked to Helen Miranda Wilson, who was one of Edmund Wilson’s three children, and she said there were only two photographs at his study when he died. She said that one was of her mother, Elena, and the other was of Edna Millay. I mean, yikes, that’s far more important than the 19 years, kiddo.”
I asked Milford if she were surprised by Wilson’s keeping out Millay’s photo. She was, she said, “Sort of. I knew from ‘Epilogue, 1952: Edna St. Vincent Millay’ [in The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the 1920s and 1930s ] that she had haunted his life for a long time, or had a place in it, but I guess I didn’t think that in the waking mind, necessarily, he would be that attached to the memory of her. His having out that photograph, certainly, is a testament to that long, enduring, and, maybe first love.”
We talked about the story that had both John Peak Bishop and Wilson with Millay in her Greenwich Village room. Both men had courted her, and in 1920, Wilson, 25, lost his virginity to her.
Now, after the trio had a dinner out, they all had returned to Millay’s room and seated themselves on her day bed. Wilson recalled in The Twenties: “John and I held Edna in our arms — according to an arrangement insisted upon by herself — I her lower half and John her upper — with a polite exchange of pleasantries as to which had the better share.”
“Yes,” Milford sighed, “one’s got the top and the other one has got the bottom. It’s strange. When I read that, I didn’t think they actually were making love with each other, I thought it was a kind of a lark, funny, and so forth. Do you think they were actually making love to her at that time?”
I suggested that perhaps what they were doing was what we would have called “heavy petting.”
Milford answered by saying, “A friend of mine said that they were making love, and said to me, ‘Oh, Nancy, you’re just being Midwestern and naive.’”
I was interested in Millay’s reading. I asked, “After Millay married in 1923 and moved to the country to Steepletop, of what did her regular reading consist?”
“I certainly know that she read the Herald Tribune and The New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly. A whole bunch of things came in. I don’t think I made a list of them in the book, but she was pretty current. The Saturday Review of Literature was published then. There were a number of subscriptions where she definitely kept up, and I know there were books and poetry by Marianne Moore [1887-1972] and Yeats. There were people who were not in her circle that she followed rather closely.”
Did Millay have opinions on the poetry of Marianne Moore? “I never found any. I did try, at one point during my research, to discover that. I contacted just about everybody, and there weren’t so many, who were poets working at approximately the same time — Babette Deutsch [1895-1982] and Leonie Adams [1899-1988], for instance. There were women who we don’t think of as the first order, maybe, but still, they were her contemporaries. And none of them responded. Not one. Now, it wasn’t as if there were 500 of them. There were probably eight or something like that. But no one responded.”
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is quoted as saying, “We were all imitative. We all wandered in after Miss Millay. We were all being dashing and gallant, declaring that we weren’t virgins, whether we were or not. Beautiful as she was. Miss Millay did a great deal of harm with her double-burning candles. She made poetry seem so easy that we could all do it. But, of course, we couldn’t.”
Did Milford think that someone like Babette Deutsch, who taught for many years at Columbia and who worked as a poet and a critic, would have looked down on Millay’s poetry?
“Babette Deutsch, I believe, was married to Horace Gregory, and Millay certainly looked down on Horace Gregory, but I don’t know if they would have known that. [I later discovered that Gregory, a poet and critic, was married not to Deutsch but to Marya Zaturenska, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1938. Deutsch was married to Avrahm Yarmolinksy, with whom she did translations from the Russian.] It’s hard to make conclusions. That’s not a leap that I would necessarily make. It might be true. I don’t know.”
“Did Millay read her contemporaries?”
“Oh, sure. And she kept up with some of the French poets and the English. You know there must be somewhere — in fact, I probably took it 10,000 years ago — a listing of the books in her library; her estate must know that. It’s quite surprising, all that she had. For instance, she had Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Are Watching God. She had all of her books. Particularly, she had Hurston’s anthropological books, but she also had the novels.”
How did Milford think fhat Millay fitted out her poems with so many resonant lines, so much music?
“She was the lyric voice of her generation, you know. And lyric, I think, implies song. The book is quite long enough, but I did not talk a lot about her interest in music, her writing of music. She played the piano. They had two grand pianos at Steepletop. They were probably in the front room, certainly they were when I was there. Music was a thrust in her life from the time she was quite young, and apparently she decided when she was a kid not to become a pianist, because her teacher in Camden told her her hands were too small, and they were.”
Edna’s mother Cora Millay recited poems to the girls and encouraged them to write songs and to sing together in three-part harmony. I said that all this, too, must have influenced the sonority of Millay’s poetry.
“I think so. Somewhere somebody said — and I don’t think it’s necessarily something I quote in my book, but it’s certainly worth knowing— that the Millays may have lacked the necessities of life when they were young, but they had every luxury there was. For sure, they had music. And maybe they didn’t have couches and they sat in hammocks, but there were books, books galore, and opera scores to sing from, and there were flowers that they planted in the garden; there were fresh vegetables to eat. It’s very easy, of course, to romanticize that, and I think I do say somewhere, it’s one of the greatest women’s stories there is, the lack of cash and yet the incredible romance that they make of their lives. Three little girls going around the village singing. And yet their lives all were underscored by such pain and such loss.”
In the summer of 1920, Edmund Wilson dragged his suitcase to a cabin that the girls and their mother had rented in Truro, on Cape Cod. The cabin, as was not uncommon then, had no inside plumbing and no electricity, no running water. Cora Millay, Wilson later wrote, “smoked cigarettes and quizzically followed the conversations.... She had anticipated the Bohemianism of her daughters, and she sometimes made remarks that were startling from the lips of a little old lady.” The most startling of her remarks, according to Wilson, was Mrs. Millay’s admission that she “had been a slut herself, so why shouldn’t her girls be.”
I said, “ ‘Slut’ — that’s an amazing word for a woman to use in 1920.”
Milford agreed and went on to say that Norma, Millay’s sister and the executor of her will, asked Wilson to cut the slut comment from his memoir that recalled his relationship with Edna. “It’s only in the manuscript version, the slut remark.”
Cora Millay, while her husband still was in the home and the three girls were toddlers, became friendly with Mr. Gales, the pastor of the local Congregational church. Cora Millay played the organ and directed the choir. I asked Milford if she thought this relationship with Mr. Gales was a romance.
Milford said, “Well, she uses the expression, ‘the elected preschool story time set for Tuesday, variety of cultures and art affinities.’ Do you know that phrase?”
(Cora wrote in her diary, about Mr. Gales, “He spoke this morning before his sermon of a certain something that attracts people toward each other and causes them to seek the society of each other; of scholar for scholar, artist for artist, etc. I think it is true friendship. He called it elective affinity. I think there is such an attraction between us. He is my very dear friend.”)
I said that I didn’t know the phrase “elective affinity,” no. “Well,” said Milford, “I didn’t know it until somebody loaned me the Goethe novel, The Elective Affinities. The book is, of course, about an adulterous love affair. But I don’t know if she and Mr. Gales had a romance. Does it make a difference if they actually fuck? The thing is she was transported into another level of herself that she wasn’t able to go into with her stout, beer-drinking, card-playing husband. It may not mean an affair. A physical affair.”
So many of the sonnets, I said, expose the content of a romantic woman’s interior life.
“You’re right. I think it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. I don’t know that I started there. I’m of a generation where I got my doctorate in the ’70s, and I was really intellectually brought up on Pound and Eliot and William Carlos Williams, and there’s nothing the matter with them as poets at all. But it’s not Edna Millay’s work. And it’s not Marianne Moore, bless her. It’s not. It’s not a bit. There’s a sonnet that she wrote that Norma published after her death, and it was that thing where she talks about Penelope missing Ulysses. And I just loved that.”
An Ancient Gesture
I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron: Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night; Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years, Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.
And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron: ,
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture — a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope...
Penelope, who really cried.
“Her range is significant, and it is worth attending to. And one of my hopes is that she will be read. It’s not that she’s not read, but she’s seen as a sort of lesser, cute little figure. And she certainly isn’t a cute little figure.”
I said that I thought that serious contemporary poets and teachers of poetry tended to regard Millay’s poetry rather in the way that classical musicians regarded pop music.
“Oh, sure. I’m not ashamed to say, but surely it was my generation or our generation who did some of that, decided the only way to be a serious writer was to not be a lyric poet. And what does that mean about a woman who does not go in that direction, who remains lyric? That has interested me. Robert Lowell was alive when I was first in New York, and he talked about the gigantism of the sonnet. And the sonnet is the form that she used very, very well. She does Spenserian, she does Shakespearean. And with a very nice beat and very extraordinary language, I think.”
I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and
let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
— from Mine the Harvest
By the last seven or eight years of Millay’s life, her poetry was no longer popular. Sales of her books dropped. How did Milford think Millay dealt with this?
“I think it must have hurt toward the end of her life. Two things happened, at the same time, things that shape each other in ways that they should not, but I think, for a woman who has been so stunningly attractive to everybody and then suddenly sort of feels that she’s lost her physical charm as well as her poetry, which is really what she is, must be just tough, very, very tough. I just think that’s a hard transition for any woman to make and particularly one who has been kind of a killer.”
After Millay’s death in 1950, her sister Norma and Norma’s husband moved into Edna’s home. Norma would live there for the next 36 years, until her death in 1986. Norma kept Edna’s bedroom and all that was in it precisely as Edna had left it. She did not even hang her clothes in Edna’s closet; she hung her clothes on the shower curtain rod in the bathroom that adjoined Edna’s bedroom. Why did Milford think Norma did this?
“It is odd, I guess. And this is not to defend Norma, and I’m afraid I’ve fallen into that position a little; she could be hell on wheels, a pistol. Which is why I write a prologue to the biography explaining how I acquired from Norma the boxes of letters and photographs, drafts of poems, manuscripts. The prologue is supposed to shoot you into the book but also to give you an idea of what the situation was in which I wrote. So, of course, this is the story of Edna Millay and her sister and her mother and her lovers and her poetry. But it’s also a story that’s being written now.
“That said, I do think it’s a sort of odd relationship between the sisters and among the sisters. I don’t think it was regular. But you think about these great female poets, and what kind of families they came from and what they did. Here Emily Dickinson is supposed to have probably died a maiden lady. We learn that she certainly heard her brother fucking on the floor in the dining room. Geez, Louise. But maybe you have to come from an odd family to be a poet.”