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Authors: Nancy Milford

Savage Beauty


Zelda: A Biography

Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Winston Milford

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American
Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by
Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada
by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

RANDOM HOUSE and colophon are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc.

Owing to limitations of space, acknowledgments of permission to quote
from unpublished materials and previously published materials will be
found following the Index.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Milford, Nancy.
Savage beauty : the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay / Nancy Milford.
p.   cm.
eISBN: 978-1-58836-094-6
1. Millay, Edna St. Vincent, 1892–1950. 2. Poets, American—20th century—Biography.
3. Women and literature—United States—History—20th century. I. Title.
PS3525.I495 Z72 2001
[B]   2001018598

Random House website address:

Frontispiece photo: Doris Ulmann

All interior photographs not otherwise credited are part of
the Steepletop Collection in the Library of Congress. All rights, including copyright,
to these photographs are owned by The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society,
and they are used with permission.


For Nelly
and for my mother, Vivienne


I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!

—Edna St. Vincent Millay


played a hunch in the winter of 1972. I drove up Route 22 to a farmhouse called Steepletop in the Taconic Hills of Austerlitz, New York, sat down in the kitchen of that house with Norma Millay, and told her I wanted to write about her sister’s life. Both of us knew that any serious work about Edna St. Vincent Millay had been blocked for almost a quarter of a century. Norma was Edna’s only heir, she controlled her estate, and she thought she might write what she called The Biography. But as we sat there eating and drinking and talking, it became more and more clear to me that I was going to write the biography of Edna Millay, that I would write it with her sister’s help and permission, and that I would resist her influence as best I could. “All right,” she said, raising a tumbler of Dewar’s to mine as if it were a toast, “I’ve waited long enough. It’s yours!”

But that wasn’t the hunch. It was that within the dining room, library, bedrooms, woodshed, and front hall files of Steepletop, beneath the damask tablecloth and under the piano benches there would be a collection of papers, letters, snapshots, notebooks, and drafts of poems that had not been destroyed or lost, as Norma sometimes hinted, that even if in disorder had been carefully kept. They would provide the fresh ground from which a life could be found and shaped.

During the summers of 1975, 1976, 1977, and 1978, I brought thousands of pieces of paper out of that farmhouse. I tried to make a list of what I was removing. This turned out to be difficult, for as I began to read among Edna Millay’s papers, Norma would stop me. She intended to read each piece of paper before I did and to hand it to me. In order, she said, to tell me what it meant. Or might mean. We sat crouched over a letter written in a cascade of inky curls from Georgia O’Keeffe, postmarked Lake George but with the year smudged, telling Edna she wasn’t ready to see her yet; or a scrap of paper from Edmund Wilson reminding her she’d left her rings on his piano and imploring her to let him see her again before
she left Greenwich Village for the Cape in the summer of 1920. “Oh, poor Bunny,” Norma said.

I made the list because I anticipated that at the very last minute, at the moment of removal from the grounds of Steepletop and therefore from Norma Millay’s control, she might balk. She did. We dickered. I reminded her we had an agreement drawn up by lawyers according to which she was obliged to release these papers to me so that I could begin to work. I told her she would receive a hefty percentage of whatever I earned
the book’s publication. I told her we were not adversaries and that I admired her caution. Then I handed her the list. She barely looked at it, waved her hand, and I drove off with the goods.

Was it my luck that this extraordinary collection was in no university library? Can luck strike twice? Just as no one had Zelda Fitzgerald’s papers but her daughter, Scottie, who handed them to me in shopping bags, so no one had ever seen this collection. Except, of course, her sister. For who but a Norma Millay or a Lavinia Dickinson, the younger sister of Emily Dickinson, each of whom in her day was considered eccentric, neurotic, and difficult, if not downright ignorant, would have cared with such intensity to have cherished the past so carefully? And with such mixed motives?

To be a biographer is a somewhat peculiar endeavor. It seems to me it requires not only the tact, patience, and thoroughness of a scholar but the stamina of a horse. Virginia Woolf called it “donkeywork”—for who but a domesticated ass would harness herself to what is recoverable of the past and call it A Life? Isn’t there something curious, not to say questionable, about this appetite for other people’s mail, called
What does it mean to be mulish in pursuit of someone else’s life, to be charmed, beguiled even, by the past, if not held fast to it? It isn’t true that it provides insulation from the present. On the contrary, it impinges upon it, for while it is from the terrain of my own life that I work and mine hers, biography is the true story of someone else’s life, and not my own.

But certain lives—the “rich, dim Shelley drama” Henry James wrote about, the Fitzgeralds—are cautionary tales of high romance upon which entire generations feast. There is almost the same period of time, sixty years, give or take, between the Romantic movement and James’s generation as there is between our own and the writers of the 1920s. It is our own past, it is just within reach, and Edna Millay is our lyric voice.

Edna St. Vincent Millay became the herald of the New Woman. She smoked in public when it was against the law for women to do so, she
lived in Greenwich Village during the halcyon days of that starry bohemia, she slept with men and women and wrote about it in lyrics and sonnets that blazed with wit and a sexual daring that captivated the nation:

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favourite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And oaths were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,—
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

It wasn’t only that she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry or that Thomas Hardy once said there were really only two great things in the United States, the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was that when she published “First Fig” in June 1918, her cheeky quatrain ignited the imagination of a generation of American women: she gave them their rallying cry. A wild freedom edged with death.

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!

But it wasn’t all play or sexual glamour with her by a long shot. She stood by the editors of
The Masses
when they were up against charges of treason in 1918. She marched for Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and was arrested for protesting their death sentence, a protest she took all the way to the governor of Massachusetts. She fought the Lindberghs when Anne Morrow Lindbergh published
The Wave of the Future
in 1940, advising that we capitulate to fascism.
When the Nazis razed the entire Czech village of Lidice in 1942, Millay wrote a verse play for radio called “The Murder of Lidice,” which was broadcast throughout America when a third of the country was willing to accept a separate peace with Germany.

In October 1934, Edna Millay read at Yale. A young graduate student, Richard Sewell, who forty years later would become the biographer of Emily Dickinson, never forgot the impression she made that night. Walking to the center of Woolsey Hall, wrapped in a long black velvet cloak, her bright hair shining, she “stood before us,” he remembered, “like a daffodil.” Looking at her wrist, she told her audience that the poems she was about to read were from her new book,
Wine from These Grapes
, “Which is coming off the press just about now.” That night she read with the zeal of a young Jeremiah, her words burning the air as she closed her reading with a sonnet from “The Epitaph for the Race of Man.” Tickets for her readings were wildly sought whether she was in Oklahoma City or Chicago, where the hall seating 1,600 was sold out and even with standees an extra hall had to be taken for the overflow of another 800 who listened to her over amplifiers.

There were other writers who read in America in her time. Gertrude Stein was touring in the United States precisely when Millay was, and somewhat before Millay there had been Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay, popular poets who were unacknowledged models for Robert Frost’s readings. But Millay’s was an entirely different sort of performance. Stein was a coterie figure, self-published until her
Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas;
she was immensely admired but very little read or bought. Lindsay and Sandburg were part of a pattern of performance that went back to James Whitcomb Riley, that old Hoosier the Millay sisters adored when they were little, back even to Emerson and Twain.

Deep into the nineteenth century there had been literary gentlemen who filled lecture halls and athenaeums with their deft recitals of poems and sermons. But Millay was the first American figure to rival the personal adulation, frenzy even, of Byron, where the poet in his person was the romantic ideal. It was his life as much as his work that shocked and delighted his audiences. Edna Millay was the only American woman to draw such crowds to her. Her performing self made people feel they had seen the muse alive and just within reach. They laughed with her, and they were moved by her poetry. Passionate and charming, or easy and lofty, she not only brought them to their feet, she brought them to her. In the heart of the Depression her collection of sonnets
Fatal Interview
sold 35,000 copies within the first few weeks of its publication.

Norma was as generous as she was possessive. When I arrived to do research—for the papers I had taken turned out to be only a fraction of the entire collection—I was to have breakfast in bed, as her sister had, with freshly squeezed orange juice and hot coffee in a silver carafe with heavy
cream. I slept in the north bedroom that had been Edna’s husband Eugen’s. On the wall next to the bed was an oil painting by Charles Ellis, Norma’s husband, of Norma, nude, swimming in a pool while a man holding a drink was watching her. Norma slept in her sister’s bedroom on her linen sheets. Even then I knew these were not regular research trips. I would work in Edna’s studio, away from the farmhouse just on the edge of a field of blueberries. I drove a dark green Morgan roadster in those days, and I would take Norma for a spin across those rough fields while she hollered with delight, her long blond-white hair flying out behind her.

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