Millay's home offers insight on lifestyle of free-spirited poet
Edna St. Vincent Millay never had to go looking for excitement. It usually came to her, which may explain why, in her 30s, she chose to live just outside the sleepy little hamlet of Austerlitz in eastern Columbia County.
Her home, named Steepletop, is a 19th century farmhouse nestled among the hills of the Taconic Range less than a mile west of the Massachusetts border. It was there the free-spirited poet, playwright and feminist went to do her work and to party with her husband, Eugen Boissevain, and her many friends, colleagues and lovers. As Millay wrote of herself, “I burn the candle at both ends.”
Millay’s life (1892-1950) and her career (which included a Pulitzer prize in 1923) are well chronicled at Steepletop, which is owned and operated by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. Peter Bergman is the executive director of the site, which has been open and offering house and garden tours for four years, usually between Memorial Day weekend and the second weekend in October.
“She was like a rock star who would go on tour across the country and read her poetry and sell out places like the Hollywood Bowl,” Bergman said of Millay. “She was a celebrity, the ‘love poet’ of the 20th century. I love her work and the free-spiritedness of her life. She’s a very likable character.”
Millay died suddenly of a heart attack in 1950 after living at Steepletop for 25 years. Her sister, actress Norma Millay Ellis and her husband, Charles Ellis, moved into the place and maintained the home as a shrine to Millay, leaving much of the house unchanged. When Norma died in 1986, Elizabeth Barnett, Millay’s literary executor, took over Steepletop and found Millay’s wardrobe and much of her other belongings apparently unmoved since the day she died. Barnett and Norma Millay created the Millay Society in 1974, three years after the home was designated as a National Historic Landmark. Part-time workers and volunteers have maintained the property since then, and when the National Endowment for the Arts presented the Millay Society with a grant for $20,000 in 2008, Steepletop was opened to the public for tours. Across East Hill Road from Steepletop is another building that serves as a visitor center and exhibit gallery. Currently on display is “Millay’s Family Tree: The Roots of Genius.”
“All the bios on Millay have had a certain control level on them in terms of information, and Norma would have had you believe that all the talent in their family came from their mother’s side,” said Bergman. “But I’ve spent a year researching her family and it’s a fascinating group of people. Her great-grandfather on her father’s side came over from Ireland, himself a renown poet and songwriter.”
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, to Cora Lounella Buzzelle and Henry Tollman Millay. Cora was a nurse and Henry a schoolteacher, but their marriage didn’t last and Cora and her three daughters (Edna, Norma and Kathleen) traveled throughout Maine, often in tough circumstances, before landing in Camden. There, Millay went to high school and began writing the poetry that would bring her worldwide fame. Introduced to Shakespeare and Milton by her mother, Millay was a smart student, and while she started college late, she eventually went to Vassar College — paid for by a wealthy art patron who heard Millay’s poetry — and graduated in 1917.
“Edna was very young when she first made her mark,” said Judith Barlow, who edited “Plays By American Women” and wrote “Women Writers of the Provincetown Players.” “She was definitely a prodigy and was already quite famous for her poetry when she started writing plays. Like her sister, she also acted.”
A retired UAlbany English professor, Barlow met Norma when she was working on her book projects.
“Norma was very much interested in keeping the flame of her sister alive,” said Barlow. “I met her when she was in her 80s and then again when she was in her early 90s. She was still very sharp, and she was also very protective of her sister. She could be quite acerbic.”
A strong will and independent streak were things Buzzelle installed in all of her daughters. Norma Millay acted throughout the New York City area and the Northeast, earning seven different credits on Broadway between 1924 and 1940. Kathleen, the youngest sister, was a poet and novelist but never as successful as her older sisters, suffering from depression and alcoholism before passing away in 1947.
Edna Millay, who insisted her friends call her Vincent, was eager to begin her adult life after graduating from Vassar and moved to Greenwich Village in pursuit of a writing career. She used Nancy Boyd as a pseudonym for much of her magazine work, and in 1919, her anti-war play, “Aria da Capo,” was staged at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City with Norma in the starring role. Her 1920 collection of poems, “A Few Figs From Thistles,” was controversial because of the book’s theme of female sexuality and feminism. Then, in 1923, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” a collection whose title piece is about a young boy and his widowed mother living in a small house in abject poverty.
“Millay was remarkably good with the sonnet, and she wrote poems that were alive and available to the public,” said Skidmore professor April Bernard, whose 2012 novel, “Miss Fuller,” dramatized the life of 19th century female journalist Margaret Fuller. “She had a wonderful sense of drama and she used simple language that had strong dramatic and lyrical effect. Her work wasn’t hard to understand, and that’s why she had such a popular audience.”
According to Bernard, Millay enjoyed the same kind of popularity afforded Robert Frost, who won his first of four Pulitzers in 1924.
“In her lectures she created this character, much like Robert Frost,” said Bernard. “They were the first show-boaters of poetry. Frost was the gritty, cranky and wise old man, and Millay would wear this long black cape on her lecture circuit with her beautiful red, golden hair over her shoulders. She was like a performance artist, and she was a huge hit. She was very appealing.”
Millay was small in stature, standing just over 5-feet tall and weighing about 95 pounds.
“I think she may have doubted her beauty, but she never doubted the power of her looks,” said Bergman. “She wrote that her hair wasn’t quite the vibrant red it was supposed to be, and she felt that her eyes were a little weak. But she captivated the imagination and admiration of people right up until the end. She never lost that.”
In 1925, two years into her marriage with Boissevain, they moved to Steepletop. The marriage was a good one, according to Bergman, but also a bit unique. Millay, who freely admitted she was bisexual, reportedly had a number of lovers after she was married and actually invited one of them to live with her.
“Eugen did whatever he could to keep Millay happy and content enough so that she could write at least one great poem a year,” said Bergman. “In 1928 she fell in love with a younger man and wanted him to come and live with her, so she asked her husband to move out of the bedroom, and he obliged.”
The affair didn’t last, but the marriage did until Boissevain died of lung cancer in 1949. There were other lovers, and according to Bergman, it’s OK to discuss Millay’s private life when evaluating her poetry.
“All the stories about her kind of factor into her work,” said Bergman. “She rarely told anyone who she was writing about, but her lovers are there in her work. Like I said, she was the great ‘love poet’ of the 20th century, so it’s impossible not to talk about her personal life.”
Steepletop, named by Millay after a wildflower that grew on the property, was built in 1892, coincidentally the same year that Millay was born. Along with the house tour, visitors can roam through Millay’s gardens and check out her swimming pool and small writing cabin. There are also nature trails on the 200-acre property, which was 700 acres when Millay bought it from the widow Bailey and her 13 children.
“There is still a lot of renovation work to be done,” said Bergman. “Not all of the rooms are open to the public, but the ones that are almost exactly like they were when Millay lived here.”
The tour includes Millay’s library, where she studied and did research before heading out to the cabin to write, and a display of the collection of Russian shower puppets she bought on her honeymoon cruise in May 1924. The mission of the Millay Society, which now calls itself the Millay Renascence, is “to illuminate the life and writings of Edna St. Vincent Millay and to preserve and interpret the character of Steepletop, her home and gardens, places where nature inspires the creative spirit.”
“I was afraid when I got involved in this seven years ago all of her fans would be in their 70s and getting older,” said Bergman. “But every generation seems to discover her. Her poetry is about universal matters that everyone experiences.”
On July 14 at 3 p.m., Steepletop will host a free presentation by the Connecticut Free Poet Collective, and on Aug. 11 at 4 p.m., a theatrical performance based on Millay’s book, “Fatal Interview,” will be staged. Tickets are $10.