Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in Rockland, Maine on February 22, 1892 and brought up in nearby Camden, was the eldest of three daughters raised by a single mother, Cora Buzzell Millay, who supported the family by working as a private duty nurse. Having divorced her husband in 1900, when Millay was eight, Norma six, and Kathleen three, Cora struggled to make ends meet but provided the girls with a steady diet of poetry, literature, and music, encouraging them, by example, to write poems, stories, and songs.
Edna—called Vincent by family and friends—was a talented, spirited, at times overly dramatic adolescent who loved spending hours by the sea and learning the names of flowers, plants, and medicinal herbs from her mother. Even as a girl she was a prolific writer, winning poetry prizes from a children’s literary magazine. In a breathless hymn to nature, she wrote, “Oh world! I cannot hold thee close enough! Thy winds, thy wide gray skies!” In high school she wrote and starred in school plays and edited the school literary magazine.
At 19, having graduated high school but with no money for college, she stayed in Camden, keeping house for her sisters. At the suggestion of her mother, she entered the long poem, “Renascence”--107 rhyming couplets describing a life-altering spiritual awakening--in a poetry contest under the name “E. Vincent Millay.” The poem didn’t win, but when it appeared in The Lyric Year anthology in 1912, readers and critics alike considered it the best poem in the book and all assumed the author was both older and male. In a note to the editor, another poet in the book, Arthur Ficke (who would become her lifelong friend), surmised, “No sweet young thing of twenty ever ended a poem where this one ends: it takes a brawny male of forty-five to do that.” With characteristic verve and wit, Millay responded, “I simply will not be a ‘brawny male’ . . . I cling to my femininity!”
That summer, Millay recited “Renascence,” to guests at a local inn where Norma was working as a waitress over the summer. A woman in the audience, Caroline Dow, the head of the YWCA National Training School in New York, immediately recognized Millay’s talent and potential and offered to help her go to college. Millay was thrilled and decided on Vassar.
After taking preparatory courses at Barnard in the summer of 1913, Millay took a full course load at Vassar and 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 Ficke. Just before graduation in 1917, though she was caught off campus and told she could not graduate with her class, the college president reversed the decision at the last minute, saying he didn’t want “any dead Shelley’s on [his] doorstep.”
After graduation Millay moved to Greenwich Village and enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle of the day. Joined there by her sister Norma, she published poems in popular magazines like Vanity Fair, Ainslee’s, 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. And both she and Norma also acted with the Provincetown Players, where Millay directed one of her own plays, Aria da Capo, in 1919, which opened to rave reviews.
Millay attracted a willing 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 1921, wanting to give her poetry “new grass to feed on,” she sailed for a two-year stint in Europe, under contract to write two prose pieces a month for Vanity Fair as a foreign correspondent.
The year she returned to New York, 1923, marked a turning point in her life and career: she received the newly instituted Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and met her future husband, Eugen Boissevain 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 wedding. Before the procedure, referring to her Pulitzer Prize, she quipped, “If I die now, at least I’ll be immortal.”
Eugen patiently nursed Millay back to health in Croton-on-Hudson and in Greenwich Village, where he rented a narrow three-story brick house at 75½ Bedford Street. From there they embarked on reading tours and an eight-month round-the-world trip, their belated honeymoon.
When they returned at the end of 1924, Millay was anxious to move out of Manhattan where she could concentrate on her work. “I cannot write in New York,” Millay told a reporter. “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.”
Part II: The Poet at Steepletop
In March 1925, she 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 the 435 acres, a farmhouse, and various barns and outbuildings, was $9,000. Millay and Eugen moved quickly to secure the deal, and soon purchased another 300 acres as well.
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 a quiet life may have surprised the thousands of devoted readers who considered the bestselling poet a free spirit who belonged to 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 considered her 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, empowering the female lover instead of the 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.
But while Millay embraced her fame willingly, she was ready to settle into country life and focus on what would become an impressive body of work that included not only poetry and prose but a full-scale opera libretto. “Soon after they moved to Steepletop, Millay wrote to her mother and sisters in Maine, “Here we are, in one of the loveliest places in the world, I am sure, working like Trojans, dogs, slaves, etc., having chimneys put in, & plumbing put in, & a garage built, etc. – We are crazy about it – & I have so many things on my mind at the moment that must be done before I'm an hour older, – you know how it is – that I hardly know if I am writing with a pen or with a screwdriver . . .
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 (“the ruins”) consisting of seven 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 gates hung between trees.
The garden rooms were adorned with art. Norma’s husband, Charlie Ellis, painted a nude that hung over the bar (using automobile paint to withstand the weather), and four wooden rondelles that hung on the wooden doors leading to the bar, pool, and summerhouse. Eugen also built a Sears & Roebuck barn, which would go up across the toad, for livestock and horses. Millay loved riding and had her own horse and saddle.
Eugen considered himself a “gentleman farmer” and set out to recreate a working farm. He hired a handyman, John Pinnie (who would work at Steepletop for decades), and a few other men to work the land and plant vegetables to consume and sell. He also brought in 15 children to pick blueberries, and eventually hired other help to pick and crate raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, currents, apples and pears. He and Millay also hunted, fished, and brought in grapes to make their own wine, which they stored in racks in the basement.
Millay was in her element on the Steepletop hill, surrounded by nature, one of her prime sources of poetic inspiration. Her seasonal imagery ranges from the traditional, when she equates a pre-winter frost with death (“And you as well must die, beloved dust”) to the unexpected –“Oh Autumn! Autumn! –what is the Spring to me?” (“The Death of Autumn”). In Fatal Interview, her widely quoted 52-sonnet sequence, the changing seasons mirror the life cycle of a failed love affair. With its predictable annual cycles of life and death, growth and decay, nature served Millay as an organizing principle both in her writing and in her life.
She claimed a small outbuilding in a blueberry field as her writing cabin, where she was often joined by her German shepherd, Altair. When that cabin burned down in 1928, she had another built just up the hill from the house, constructed of unpainted pine boards. In 1931, the year her mother died, she surrounded the cabin with 31 white pines to remind her of her mother, and Maine. On the hill leading to the cabin, she planted Narcissus poeticus, also known as the poet's daffodil. Inside, the furnishings were simple and functional: a small wooden desk and chair, a wood stove, a wing chair, and a chaise lounge.
Steepletop was Millay’s sanctuary. There she wrote most of the libretto for an opera set in 10th century England, The King’s Henchman, that would be set to music by one of her close friends, the composer Deems Taylor. When the opera opened at the Metropolitan Opera House in February 1927, The New Yorker called it “the greatest American opera so far.” Indeed, there were 17 curtain calls at the premiere and 10,000 copies of the libretto sold over the next few weeks.
Millay composed and assembled many of her poetry collections at Steepletop: The Buck in the Snow (1928); Fatal Interview (1931); Wine from These Grapes (1934); Conversation at Midnight (1936), and the rewrite after the first manuscript was destroyed; Huntsman, What Quarry? (1939); Make Bright the Arrows (1940), as well as translations of Baudelaire’s Fleur du Mal (with George Dillon) and several long poems including The Murder of Lidice (1942) and Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army, 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 all the birds she sighted and detailed notes on her gardening activities. “Did all my weeding without a stitch and got a marvelous tan,” she wrote in her garden diary and “We pulled up the lilacs by the roots of their hair!!” She and her mother and aunt exchanged flowers and plants, keeping one another up to date on their progress. She also shared news about their kitchen garden’s bounty with her mothers and sisters:
We had a marvelous garden this summer, and haven’t bought a vegetable for goodness knows how long. Let me tell you, just for fun, what we had from our garden: Potatoes, cabbage , cauliflower, squash, peas, string beans, shell beans, lima beans cucumbers radishes, turnips, carrots, pumpkins, sweet corn, tomatoes, eggplants, fennel, parsley, garlic, and CANTELOUPES!
Though Millay suffered from intestinal and other health issues throughout her adult life, when she was feeling strong, she and Eugen enjoyed entertaining and relatives at Steepletop. In good weather, they hosted parties at the bar (where “the flowers were watered with gin”) and 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 fifty or sixty guests who stayed with them and in three of their friends’ homes 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 set up on the hill above the house.
Millay and Eugen loved the formality of running 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, and 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 meals and tended to other household chores. He had given up his importing business to care for Millay when they moved to Steepletop, believing, he told a journalist, “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 meant handling the business details associated with Millay’s publishing deals and reading tours, and of course running the household.
Eugen carried out his household duties with good humor and an occasional show of bravado. During their first snowy winter on the hill, when Millay’s mother was staying with them, he wrote to Ficke:
We have 12 tons of coal in the cellar and 15 cords of wood in the shed, three fireplaces, two stoves, a furnace, a hot-water heater and plenty of matches. We have thousands of tins of everything, a huge bag of potatoes, 100 lbs. of sugar, flour, beans, peas, rice... Hanging from the rafters an enormous ham, bacon, pork, a brave brace of ducks, pounds and pounds of coffee, fresh fish frozen into a prehistoric fossil and resuscitated by Mother Millay into glorious New England fish chowder.
This arrangement—with Eugen taking care of everything—suited Millay perfectly. “Eugen and I live like two bachelors,” she said. “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.”
The kitchen, more Eugen’s domain than hers, was a typical farm kitchen with a wood burning cook stove and an icebox dependent upon blocks of ice. Steepletop did not have electricity until the late 1940’s when, as Millay described in her poem, “Men Working,” she watched a crew “putting in the poles: bringing the electric light.” Soon afterward the Ladies Home Journal offered to remodel the kitchen—adding an electric stove, refrigerator, freezer and porcelain sink, in exchange for full photo coverage and a feature profile of Millay aptly called “Poet’s Kitchen.” The renovation included painting the walls a fashionable sky blue and adding a breakfast nook with salmon-colored Naugahyde cushions. Millay refused to be photographed for the article, with its well-meaning but unfounded “observations” about her domestic life. The writer claims that the poet “washes dishes and scours pots and pans,” noting “How hard to think of the couplet to close the sonnet when there wasn’t a place to put clean dishes!” And there was more: “And now Miss Millay can wash her woolies in this beautiful kitchen watching the birds!”
That line was certainly accurate: Millay loved birds, and in her large living room, called the “withdrawing room,” she often sat at her “bird window” near the brick fireplace and admired the feathered creatures who came looking for food. “She feeds them!” Eugen told a visitor. “She runs a hotel for birds. She’s up and at it every day before dawn.”
Opposite the bird window were two pianos placed across from one another under the careful watch of a life-size marble bust of Sappho set on a marble column in the corner. Millay delighted in playing and singing songs she had written, practicing classical pieces she’d learned in early childhood, and inviting other musicians to join her in a duet, trio, or quartet. During the summer she was often joined by the pianist Blanche Bloch and her husband, the conductor and composer Alexander Bloch, who ran a music school in Hillsdale, and some of their string students. Only music rivalled her passion for poetry: “Indeed, without music I should wish to die,” she wrote. “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”
Millay’s most private domain was her small library at the top of the stairs where she wrote and 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, Italian, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, many personally inscribed by authors. On a rafter in the center of the room, a hand painted wooden sign demanded “SILENCE.”
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. Some days, she would dictate poetry to him to be typed later on. Their mutual love of all things European was reflected in the large bathroom connected to the bedroom, where they had imported and installed one of a bidet. Another was installed in Eugen’s bathroom, down the hall, nearer to his own bedroom and office. Their separate quarters contributed to their shared feeling that their marriage was an open one. In Millay’s words, “I am just as free as when I was a girl,” and in Eugen’s, “Vincent and I are live like two men, bachelors, who choose their different jobs. [Yet] we study together. We play together, and it’s a race to keep up with her. It makes me in love with life.”
By the late 1930’s, though their devotion to one another would stay strong, their life together was about to take a downward turn. Millay’s physical health was in decline, partly because of an unfortunate accident in 1936 that had left her in severe pain, which she relieved with 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” that alienated even her most supportive critics. In the years that followed, the deaths of her sister Kathleen, her beloved editor Gene Saxton, and dear friend Arthur Ficke sent her to Doctor’s Hospital in Manhattan for treatment of “mental and emotional exhaustion.” But the worst shock was still ahead: in 1949, Eugen, age 69, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died suddenly after surgery in Boston.
Devastated, Millay decided to live at Steepletop alone and work through her grief. She refused to see visitors and unplugged the phone because she missed hearing Eugen’s voice when he answered a call. She relied on the local “postmistress” to pay her bills and answer the hundreds of condolence letters that arrived after Eugen’s death, and her devoted handyman John Pinnie 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 moved toward 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. A year after Eugen’s death she had started working on a new book of poems and completed a Thanksgiving poem commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post. But she would never see it published. On October 18, 1950, after an evening at home 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.”
The following year Norma and Charlie moved to Steepletop and Norma devoted the rest of her life to preserving and protecting her sister’s legacy. In 1954 she published Mine the Harvest, a collection of unpublished poems and excerpts from Millay’s journals. She also rescued unfinished poems the poet had left in her writing cabin, including these lines:
I hear the rain, it comes down straight; Now I can sleep, I need not wait To close the windows anywhere. Tomorrow it may be, I might Do things to set the whole world right. There’s nothing I can do tonight.
A National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Steepletop is now the home of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. The Society’s mission 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.”
Steepletop is open to visitors in the spring and fall. Though restoration is ongoing, Millay’s furniture and other possessions are on display in the house, and the beautiful gardens and grounds are lined with paths for easy viewing. Visitors can tour the house and grounds and walk the poetry trail, a wood road leading to the Millay family gravesites that is marked at intervals with Millay’s poems.
For information about visiting Steepletop, please see millay.org.
The Society's mission 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.