Posted on April 5, 2016
Edna St Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 – October 19, 1950), an American lyrical poet and playwright, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 and was only the third woman to win the award for poetry. She was also known for her feminist activism, her many love affairs, her extensive written work and her love of her home.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, to Cora Lounella Buzelle, a nurse, and Henry Tollman Millay, a schoolteacher who would later become a superintendent of schools. Her middle name derives from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, where her uncle’s life had been saved just before her birth.
Cora officially divorced Millay’s father for financial irresponsibility, but they had already been separated for some years. Cora and her three daughters, Edna (who called herself “Vincent”), Norma Lounella (born 1893), and Kathleen Kalloch (born 1896), moved from town to town, living in poverty. Cora travelled with a trunk full of classic literature, including Shakespeare and Milton, which she read to her children. The family settled in a small house on the property of Cora’s aunt in Camden, Maine, where Millay would write the first of the poems that would bring her literary fame.
The three sisters were independent and spoke their minds, which did not always sit well with the authority figures in their lives. Millay’s grade school principal, offended by her frank attitudes, refused to call her Vincent. Instead, he called her by any woman’s name that started with a V. At Camden High School, Millay began developing her literary talents, starting at the school’s literary magazine, The Megunticook. At 14 she won the St. Nicholas Gold Badge for poetry, and by 15, she had published her poetry in the popular children’s magazine St. Nicholas, the Camden Herald, and the high-profile anthology Current Literature. While at school, she had several relationships with women, including Edith Wynne Matthison, who would go on to become an actress in silent films.
Millay’s fame began in 1912 when she entered her poem “Renascence” in a poetry contest in The Lyric Year. The poem was widely considered the best submission and when it was ultimately awarded fourth place, it created a scandal which brought Millay publicity. The first-place winner Orrick Johns was among those who felt that “Renascence” was the best poem, and stated that “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph.” A second-prize winner offered Millay his $250 prize money. In the immediate aftermath of the Lyric Year controversy, wealthy arts patron Caroline B. Dow heard Millay reciting her poetry and playing the piano at the Whitehall Inn in Camden, Maine, and was so impressed that she offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College.
After her graduation from Vassar in 1917, Millay moved to New York City. She lived in a number of places in Greenwich Village, including a house owned by the Cherry Lane Theatre and 75½ Bedford St, renowned for being the smallest in New York City. The critic Floyd Dell wrote that the red-haired and beautiful Millay was “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine.
Millay described her life in New York as “very, very poor and very, very merry.” While establishing her career as a poet, Millay initially worked with the Provincetown Players on Macdougal Street and the Theatre Guild. In 1924 Millay and others founded the Cherry Lane Theater “to continue the staging of experimental drama.” Magazine articles written under a pseudonym also helped support her early days in the village.
Millay was openly bisexual. Counted among her close friends were the writers Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and Susan Glaspell, as well as Floyd Dell and the critic Edmund Wilson, both of whom proposed marriage to her and were refused.
Her 1920 collection A Few Figs From Thistles drew controversy for its novel exploration of female sexuality and feminism. In 1919 she wrote the anti-war play Aria da Capo which starred her sister Norma Millay at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City. Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver”; she was the third woman to win the poetry prize, after Sara Teasdale (1918) and Margaret Widdemer (1919).
In January 1921, she went to Paris, where she met and befriended the sculptor Thelma Wood.
In 1925, Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch importer, purchased the property at Steepletop, which included a 19th century farmhouse.
Millay died at her home on October 19, 1950. She had fallen down stairs and was found approximately eight hours after her death. Her physician reported that she had suffered a heart attack following a coronary occlusion. She was 58 years old.
Millay’s sister Norma and her husband, the painter and actor Charles Frederick Ellis, moved to Steepletop after Millay’s death. In 1973, they established Millay Colony for the Arts on the seven acres around the house and barn. After the death of her husband in 1976, Norma continued to run the program until her death in 1986.
In 2006, the state of New York paid $1.69 million to acquire 230 acres (0.93 km2) of Steepletop, with the intention to add the land to a nearby state forest preserve. The proceeds of the sale were to be used by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society to restore the farmhouse and grounds and turn it into a museum.
Feb 24, 2014 – Edna St. Vincent Millay manuscript pages and Remington Model 1 typewriter from Steepletop, Millay Fundraiser exhibition in Hudson, NY.
The museum has been open to the public since summer 2010. Parts of the grounds of Steepletop, including the Millay Poetry Trail that leads to her grave, are now open to the public year-round.