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Feb. 2, 2017Edna St. Vincent MillayTreasures from Steepletop

In March 1925, Edna St. Vincent Millay answered an ad in the New York Times for an abandoned berry farm on a hilltop in Austerlitz, New York, a few hours’ drive north of Manhattan. The price tag on 435 acres, a farmhouse, and various barns and outbuildings was $9,000.

Eager to move out of the city, Millay and her husband, Dutch-born coffee importer Eugen Boissevain, moved quickly to secure the deal and soon purchased another 300 acres as well. “I cannot write in New York,” Millay told a reporter from the Boston Sunday Globe in 1925. “It is awfully exciting there and I find lots of things to write about and I accumulate many ideas, but I have to go away where it is quiet.”

Millay named their new home “Steepletop” after the pink-flowered Steeplebush that grew wild in the fields and meadows there. “It’s going to be a sweet place when it’s finished,” she wrote to her mother, “and it’s ours, all ours, about seven hundred acres of land & a lovely house, & no rent to pay, only a nice gentlemanly mortgage to keep shaving a slice off.”

Millay’s desire for quiet may have surprised the thousands of devoted readers who considered the bestselling poet a free spirit who belonged to New York’s Greenwich Village, forever living the bohemian life touted in her iconic four-line quatrain:

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!

For the disillusioned post-war youth who claimed her as their spokesperson for women’s rights and social equality, Millay represented the rebellious spirit of their generation. Indeed, though she favored traditional poetic forms like lyrics and sonnets, she boldly reversed conventional gender roles in poetry by empowering the female lover instead of her male suitor, and set a new, shocking precedent by acknowledging female sexuality as a viable literary subject:

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast
. . .
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

When Millay moved to Steepletop, she was 33 and one of the most famous poets in America—her national reading tours sold out weeks in advance. Her unlikely rise to fame started with the publication of a long poem, “Renascence,” when she was just 20. She had entered the poem—107 rhyming couplets describing a life-altering spiritual awakening—in a poetry contest under the name “E. Vincent Millay” to hide her gender.

Edna—called Vincent by family and friends—was a talented, spirited, at times overly dramatic young woman who loved being outdoors; growing up on the coast of Maine, she spent hours alone by the sea and in the garden with her mother, who taught her and her two younger sisters, Norma and Kathleen, the names of flowers, plants, and medicinal herbs. In a breathless hymn to nature, she wrote, “Oh world! I cannot hold thee close enough! Thy winds, thy wide gray skies!”

She graduated high school in 1909, but with no financial support, she stayed home to care for her sisters until, in 1912, she recited “Renascence” to guests at a local inn and a woman in the audience, recognizing her talent, offered to help her go to college. Deciding between Vassar and Smith, Millay wrote to her mother: “I got a Vassar catalogue from someone today. In Vassar now there are four girls from Persia, two from Syria, two from Japan, one from India, one from Berlin, Germany, and one or two others from ‘across the water.’ The Japanese girls names are Nabe Amagasu and Koto Yamada. Wouldn't it be great to know them? There isn't one ‘furriner’ in Smith. Lots of Maine girls go to Smith; very few to Vassar. I’d rather go to Vassar.”

After taking preparatory courses at Barnard in Manhattan, Millay attended Vassar from 1913–1917, where she honed her acting skills in plays and pageants, some of which she composed herself. She loved studying the classics but disliked the rules: “They trust us with everything but men,” she wrote to a friend. Though she was caught off campus just before graduation and told she could not graduate with her class, Vassar President Henry Noble MacCracken reversed the decision at the last minute. He told the Vassarion in 1966 he hadn’t wanted “any dead Shelley’s on [his] doorstep.”

After graduation, Millay moved to Greenwich Village and enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle of the day. She published poems in popular magazines like Vanity Fair and the Forum and poetry collections in salvos and slim leather volumes coveted by an expanding readership. To augment her income she published short stories and satirical sketches under the pen name Nancy Boyd. In 1919, she directed her own anti-war play, Aria da Capo, which earned rave reviews.

The beautiful, self-assured poet attracted an attentive coterie of lovers from among the male literati of the day—Floyd Dell, John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson, and Witter Bynner—but refused to commit herself to anyone or anything except her work. In 1923 she received the newly instituted Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and met her future husband Eugen at a house party in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. On their wedding day a few months later, Millay was ill with intestinal problems, so Eugen drove her to Manhattan for emergency surgery immediately following the ceremony. Before the procedure, referring to her Pulitzer Prize, she quipped, “If I die now, at least I’ll be immortal.”

After an eight-month trip around the world, Millay answered the New York Times ad that would lead to the next chapter of their lives, at Steepletop, where they would live for the rest of their days. Over the next several years, Millay and Eugen transformed the property into an elegant country estate with flower, herb, and vegetable gardens; guest houses; a tennis court overlooking the Berkshire hills, and a sunken garden area in the foundation of an old barn consisting of garden rooms separated by stone walls and arborvitae hedges.

The “rooms” included a bar area, complete with stone benches and a fountain, a rose garden, iris “room,” spring-fed swimming pool (where they and their guests swam au naturel), outdoor dressing rooms with cast iron dressing tables, and a badminton court in an area called the dingle, all accessible through wooden doors hung between trees.

Eugen considered himself a gentleman farmer and set out to recreate a working farm on the property. He brought in local children to pick blueberries and hired other help to pick and crate raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, currents, apples, and pears. He also bought grapes so they could make their own wine, which they stored in racks in the basement. And both he and Millay, who had her own .22 rifle, fished and hunted pheasant and other game birds on the property.

Millay was in her element on the Steepletop hill, surrounded by nature, one of her prime sources for poetic inspiration. With its predictable annual cycles of life and death, growth and decay, she relied on nature as an organizing principle in her writing and in her life. She often worked in a small wooden writing cabin just up the hill from the house. In 1931, the year her mother died, she surrounded the cabin with 31 white pines as a tribute and reminder of her childhood home in Maine.

At Steepletop Millay wrote several poetry collections and the libretto for an opera set in 10th century England, The King’s Henchman, that would be set to music by the composer Deems Taylor. She also translated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (with George Dillon) and composed several long poems including The Murder of Lidice (1942) and Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army (1944), commissioned by the Writers’ War Board.

When she wasn’t writing, Millay spent hours gardening, collecting, and pressing hundreds of species of wildflowers, and, in true writer fashion, keeping lists of the birds she sighted and notes on her gardening activities. "Did all my weeding without a stitch and got a marvelous tan,” she wrote in her diary.

Though she suffered from intestinal and other health issues throughout her adult life, she loved to entertain and rose to the occasion when visitors arrived. She and Eugen hosted lively parties at the bar, where “the flowers were watered with gin,” and organized elaborate tennis tournaments, complete with prizes and trophies, on a large clay court at the top of the hill. In 1930 they threw a grand three-day house party for 50 or 60 guests who stayed with them and in the homes of three friends who lived nearby. The main attraction, besides drinking, swimming in the nude, and other revelry, was a play by a touring group of actors, the Jitney Players, who performed in an amphitheater they constructed on the rise above the house.

Both Millay and Eugen loved the formality of living on a country estate. They brought in household help they called “servants,” usually a couple (at times French or Swedish) who would serve as cook and butler, as well as one or two housekeepers. In the dining room, just a few steps across a stone foyer from the kitchen, Millay had a bell system installed under the dining room table so they could summon the butler during dinner as needed. Following the European tradition, she and Eugen, even when dining alone, dressed up for dinner each night.

When servants were not on site, Eugen prepared their meals and tended to other household chores. He had given up his importing business to care for Millay when they moved to Steepletop, and told Pictorial Review’s Elizabeth Breuer, “It is more worthwhile for her to be writing, even if she only writes one sonnet in a year, than for me to be buying coffee for a little and selling it for a trifle more.” His self-proclaimed mission in the marriage was to protect her from mundane tasks that would distract her from writing poetry, which included handling business details associated with publishing deals and reading tours as well as running the household.

This living arrangement—with Eugen taking care of everything—suited Millay perfectly. “Eugen and I live like two bachelors,” she told Breuer. “He, being the one who throws household things off more easily than I, shoulders that end of our existence, and I have my work to do, which is the writing of poetry.”

Millay’s favorite room at Steepletop was a small library at the top of the stairs where she consulted the hundreds of research books assembled there, including a classical encyclopedia and a huge Oxford dictionary mounted on a wooden stand. The walls were lined with poetry collections in English, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and books of fiction and nonfiction, many personally inscribed by authors. On the remaining wall space were two sailing charts of Maine’s Penobscot Bay, a pencil sketch of Shelley, a rendering of Sappho, and in later years, a photo of Robinson Jeffers, a poet Millay knew and admired. Above it all, on a rafter in the center of the room, a hand-painted wooden sign demanded “SILENCE” in red block letters.

“Eugen and I live like two bachelors. He, being the one who throws household things off more easily than I, shoulders that end of our existence, and I have my work to do, which is the writing of poetry.”

Her bedroom just around the corner, with its small white brick fireplace, also served as a study of sorts, as Millay often wrote in the mornings in longhand, sitting up in bed, after Eugen had delivered her breakfast on a tray. Eugen’s own bedroom and office were down the hall; having separate quarters reflected their shared belief that their marriage should be an open one.

By the late 1930s, though they remained devoted to one another, their lives began to change as Millay’s health took a downward turn. An accident in 1936, when she had fallen out of a moving car, left her in severe pain that she relieved with alcohol and regular, increasingly addictive doses of morphine. In 1940, as war approached in Europe, she took a strong anti-pacifist stand and published a hastily written book of propaganda poems, Make Bright the Arrows: A 1940s Notebook, which alienated even her most supportive critics. In the years that followed, the deaths of loved ones, including her sister Kathleen, sent her to Doctor’s Hospital in Manhattan for treatment of “mental and emotional exhaustion.” But the worst shock was still ahead: In 1949, at age 69, Eugen was diagnosed with lung cancer and died suddenly after surgery in Boston.

Devastated, Millay drank heavily and checked herself into Doctor’s Hospital for treatment of what she called “exhaustion.” But after several days, against the wishes of her doctors, she decided to return to Steepletop alone to work through her grief. Refusing to see visitors, she relied on the local “postmistress” to pay her bills and answer the hundreds of condolence letters that arrived after Eugen’s death, and depended on her longtime groundskeeper to care for the property and bring her mail and groceries and firewood.

She found life without Eugen difficult and lonely, but after several months, she began to fill her notebooks with lines that reflected a gradual acceptance of her loss: “Never before, perhaps, was such a sight! / Only one sky, my breath, and all that blue! / … / Handsome this day, no matter who has died.”

Clearly Millay’s intention was to rebuild her life and live on her own. Just over a year after Eugen’s death, she was working on a new book of poems and had completed a Thanksgiving poem commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post. But she would never see it published. On October 19, 1950, after staying up all night proofing Latin poetry translations, she slipped and fell down the stairs to her death. She was 58.

Her New York Times obituary reads: “Critics agreed, that Greenwich Village and Vassar, plus a gypsy childhood on the rocky coast of Maine, produced one of the greatest American poets of her time.”

“Critics agreed, that Greenwich Village and Vassar, plus a gypsy childhood on the rocky coast of Maine, produced one of the greatest American poets of her time.”

The following year Millay’s sister Norma moved to Steepletop and devoted the rest of her life to preserving and protecting her sister’s legacy. In 1986 the group she founded, The Millay Society, inherited the estate and began maintaining and restoring the house and gardens.

A National Historic Landmark, Steepletop is now open for tours and other events from May until November. Though restoration is ongoing, Millay’s furniture and personal possessions are on display in the house, and the beautiful gardens and grounds are lined with paths for easy viewing. Visitors can also walk the Poetry Trail, a wood road leading to the Millay family gravesites that is marked at intervals with Millay’s poems. More information about visiting Steepletop is available at millay.org.