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Mike Lunsford

January 5, 2014

‘Afternoon on a Hill’: The formal poet who led an informal life — Edna St. Vincent Millay

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of an afternoon exploring the rural gardens and home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay near Austerlitz, N.Y. Join Lunsford in February for the sixth installment of this series as he wanders along the wooded shorelines of Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park.

AUSTERLITZ, N.Y. — There was a hint of sadness to the walk my wife and I made among the wisteria and white pines of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s overgrown gardens last summer in the foot hills of the Berkshire Mountains. After our time there, we were to set our sights for home, and although we had missed the familiarity of Hoosier winds and the gold of the winter wheat near our house, New England’s greenness and granite and long history were still tugging at our shirtsleeves, making us want to stay a while longer.

A bit of the melancholy came over us for other reasons too. Millay, a darling of the Jazz Age, died a weary soul, alone, at the bottom of the stairs we had climbed not long after we walked through her door. The house, a big Victorian that she and her husband bought in 1925, then refurbished and named “Steepletop,” was quiet and ghostly and solitary, not images often associated with the tiny redhead with the unforgettable voice who discouraged the use of bathing suits in her swimming pool, entertained numerous lovers in the bed she also shared with her husband, and who fueled a fascinating life with both alcohol and controversy.

Born in 1892 on the Maine coast, Millay and her two younger sisters, Norma and Kathleen, lived a childhood near the poverty line, moving from town to town after their mother, Cora, divorced her husband for “financial irresponsibility.”

Her middle name coming from a local hospital where an uncle’s life had been saved, the young Millay began to call herself “Vincent,” developed an independent streak, and wrote poetry for her high school literary magazine. By the time she was 14, and settled in Camden, she had already won prizes for poetry, and at 15 had been published in a children’s magazine, the local newspaper, and “Current Literature.”

At 20, with the encouragement of her mother, Millay entered her poem, “Renascence” in a contest for “The Lyric Year.” The poem was awarded fourth place, but even Orrick Johns, who took first, felt Millay’s poem had been slighted and said his winning was more of an “embarrassment than an honor.” The second place winner gave Millay his prize money, and with newspaper columnists and readers still protesting the outcome of the contest, Millay’s cause was picked up by Catherine Dow, a wealthy patron of the arts, who, after hearing Millay recite her work and play the piano at the Whitehall Inn, paid the young poet’s way through Vassar College.

Millay never looked back. After graduation from Vassar in 1917, she moved to Greenwich Village, published her first book of poetry, and fell into a lifestyle that made her the “talk of the town.” Her affairs with both men and women, her often sold-out anti-war play, “Aria da Capo,” her drinking and partying, and starkly different subject matter, cast Millay as the epitome of the Bohemian liberated woman. Amid the loudest roars of the early ’20s, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, traveled extensively through Europe, then married a Dutch coffee importer named Eugen Boissevian.

Our story at the poet’s house starts at that point in Millay’s life, after the Pulitzer and her tours, including to the Far East, after she had re-defined the sonnet, and, apparently, after she had realized her work was suffering from the time it was sharing with fame. J.D. McClatchy writes, “The Roaring Twenties are a bright blur: Millay’s promiscuity …  abortions, adoring crowds, reading tours, long stays abroad, where she might be tramping through Albania or dining with Brancusi in Paris and sitting for Man Ray… But finally there came a breaking point, when, in the words of her one-time lover, Edmund Wilson, ‘she was tired of breaking hearts and spreading havoc.’”

Steepletop

In stark contrast to the rhythms of New York City and Vienna, was Steepletop, which sleepily overlooks a hilly side road that slips off New York State Highway 22. It was a warm and sunny mid-morning when Joanie and I first pulled into a parking lot near a garage that temporarily serves as the headquarters for the Millay Society, an organization that is passionately working long and hard hours to restore the home and grounds. The old white house, which seemed to stare down our backs, served as a centerpiece for the 635-acre blueberry farm when Boissevian and Millay found it advertised for sale in “The New York Times.” The couple paid $9,000 for the farm, adding the barn — built from a Sears and Roebuck kit — then expanded its acreage and built a tennis court. Millay kept Steepletop as a working farm, but she eventually had a small writing cabin built about a hundred yards from her door, as well.

Discovering that we were to be the only pilgrims to tour the house that morning, we were paired with Peggy Deitmann, who at 80-something, was as entertaining a host as we could have hoped for. Reciting Millay’s poems without hesitation, telling us that she was “hooked” on Millay’s verses by the time she was a freshman in high school, Peggy almost immediately observed that the poet was an alluring mixture of the exotic, erotic, and scholarly, and that Millay was, “really something else.”

“Millay was a very interesting woman,” Peggy told us between breaths as she led us up the sharp hillside driveway to the house, named by the poet, not for the farm’s altitude, but rather for a pink wildflower called “steeplebush (also called hardhack)” that grows there. “She uses very formal structures in her poetry, but she wasn’t a formal person. You see, she could control her poetry, and give it order. The rest of her life, well …”

Immediately inside the door looms the stairwell landing where Millay died, her broken neck the result of drinking liberally from the wine bottle that was found near her, or heart failure, or an intentional dive, steeped perhaps in the loss of Boissevian, who had died the previous year, and the barks of critics, who claimed she was losing her touch. But, rather than go upstairs just then, we stood a while as Peggy related how Norma Millay Ellis had lived on in the house after her famous sister’s death. For 36 more years, Norma preserved the house as a Havisham-like shrine, Edna’s clothes still draped over the backs of chairs (the Society moved those just eight years ago), the poet’s shoes sitting on a trunk as they were the day her sister died. Edna’s crossword puzzle book still lies on a table in her library, her pencil yet marking the spot where she left off. Norma wouldn’t even hang her own clothes in Edna’s closet.

A framed photo of the poet, au natural, the spare bedroom where Boissevian stayed while younger lover-poet George Dillon slept with Millay, the large bathroom the poet kept — complete with original toiletries — and her true sanctum, a narrow, splendidly organized, and crammed library, adorned with her hand-made sign demanding “Silence,” were all stopping points for us as we stepped through the house. “She [Millay] kept just about everything,” Peggy mentioned, “but she also spent more money on wine than food, and she was nearly broke by the end of her life.”

Not long after pointing out the cracked spindle which, rumor has it, Millay had grabbed just before her fatal fall, Peggy observed that, “She [Millay] grew up in a home that had little, yet her mother still found the money somehow for piano lessons and books and magazines for her children. I don’t know when education stopped being about making your life richer.”

After reciting “The Courage That My Mother Had,” which I mentioned was one of my favorites, Peggy left us to the gardens and headed down the hill. Peter Bergman, former executive director of the Millay Society, took her place, and led us through what at one time were the 13 “garden rooms” that the poet designed herself. The scent of peonies, first planted in 1928, was in the air as Peter helped us imagine the complex and once well-maintained lay-out of the land, only now beginning to take shape again as volunteers work behind the house to re-establish the formal gardens there. Lupines, Indian Paintbrushes, and Millay’s favorite, Lily of the Valley, still dot the landscape, despite the fact that virtually all of the gates and hedges that at one time formed boundaries and passageways between the gardens are long gone.

It is hard to imagine now that Millay, and the literati that came to visit Steepletop, skinny-dipped in the pool and sipped illegal hootch at the near-by bar. Today, cattails and bullfrogs inhabit the blackened pool, and moss and lichens and wild multi-flora have choked out the arbor vitae and hedges Boissevian planted to hinder the view of prying eyes, including those of the occasional sheriff’s deputy. After all, the poet was known to tend to her flowers in the nude. When once asked by a visiting magazine writer to put on a bathing suit for an interview, she replied, “I don’t own one.”

Behind the house, and uphill further yet, after our stops near a clump of mountain laurel that Bergman claimed had been dormant for decades, but had revived when he removed the burlap that clung to its roots all these years later, past the patches of foxglove and the licorice scent of sweet cicely, we visited Millay’s potting shed, then the writing cabin she built in 1936. Sitting amid a stand of 31 towering pines that Millay had planted — saying at the time that she was going to make “her own Maine” — the cabin is small and dark and sparsely furnished, her simple writing table adorned with only a lamp, an alarm clock, and a few sharpened pencils. She worked by that clock, to the tunes of birdsong and in solitude, smoking a never-ending chain of cigarettes and writing some of the finest poetry in the American canon.

Continuing to inspire

By all accounts, the last decade of Millay’s life was a mess. Injuries from a car accident in 1936 left her addicted to morphine; she was in and out of hospitals for depression; she slept little and drank much. Boissevian’s death from lung cancer in 1949 left her alone and even more miserable, particularly since he had picked up after her, cooked for her, even took care of her ne’er-do-well father’s funeral arrangements for her. But, she continued to write; Norma edited and published Millay’s last collection of poems, “Mine the Harvest,” in 1954. The poem Peggy left us with, and its longing for her mother’s courage, “like a rock,” was in that last book.

Holly Peppe, the literary executor of the Millay Society, has studied Millay for much of her life; she knew Norma well. In fact, she tended to Norma’s needs at Steepletop for three years and served as an ambassador of sorts for the poet’s sister. “My fondest memories are evenings by the fire with Norma, enjoying Cointreau and coffee and cheese as she recited Millay’s sonnets and reminisced about her childhood with sister, ‘Vincent,’” Peppe says.

“Steepletop continues to inspire: walking the grounds there, a visitor can feel the presence of the poet herself and experience the beauty of nature re-created in her poems. Walking through the house — through Millay’s remodeled 1948 kitchen, her meticulously organized library and her Victorian bedroom — one can experience the daily world she knew and loved, and begin to understand what inspired one of the finest poets in American literary history,” she added.

“Vincent” is still near Steepletop. Not long after her mother died in February 1931, the poet followed horses and sledge a half-mile into the woods to see Cora buried beneath a canopy of mountain laurel. Twenty years later, Norma saw to it that her sister and brother-in-law’s ashes were interred there too. Norma joined them in 1986. The “Poet’s Walk” to her grave is worth the time.

There is an odd alchemy to Edna St. Vincent Millay. The same woman who wrote of her candle “burning at both ends” in the wildest days of the “Lost Generation,” also wrote “Afternoon on a Hill.” “I will be the gladdest thing/Under the sun!/I will touch a hundred flowers/And not pick one,” she wrote. Two travelers from the Midwest had done that very same thing at Steepletop, and were glad we did.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His website can be found at www.mikelunsford.com.

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