The siren

She bedded countless men (and women) and became the most celebrated woman of her day. She wasn't a rock star -- she was poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

By Laura Miller

Published September 6, 2001 7:47PM (EDT)

"People who never in all their lives, except when in school and under compulsion, have held a book of poems in their hands, might well be attracted by the erotic autobiography of a fairly conspicuous woman, even if she did write poetry." So wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay toward the end of her life, in response to a suggestion from her publisher that she put together a volume of her love poems that would contain "a mellow Foreword in retrospect" confiding "when, where, and under what impulsion" she wrote each one. As her editor knew, such a foreword -- the first-person account of a legendary amorous career that included a formidable number of men and women, single and married -- would probably wind up consuming more pages than the poems themselves.

Millay dismissed the "indelicacy" of this idea with good humor and the wit of a literary Mae West: "It may be said of me by Harper & Brothers, that although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances." But over 50 years later, with two new biographies of Millay appearing this fall -- "Savage Beauty" by Nancy Milford and "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" by Daniel Mark Epstein -- it's the poet's love life, above all, that seems likely to attract readers to the books. Few students are under any compulsion to read her verse anymore; it has fallen far out of fashion among critics and scholars. A mighty fall it was, too, for at one time Millay was phenomenally popular as well as critically acclaimed. The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, she once published a book of sonnets that sold 35,000 copies in two weeks (and this was during the Depression). In 1928, her royalty income was the equivalent of $200,000 in today's dollars, and in 1938 she was voted one of the 10 most famous women in America. Thomas Hardy said that the skyscraper and Millay's poetry were the two great things to come out of America, and the critic Edmund Wilson thought she had "more character and more genius" than F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Millay belonged to nearly the last generation of poet icons, people whose lives meant as much to their admirers as their work. In her youth she flirted with the idea of becoming an actress, and the genius so many people saw in her was inextricable from her ability to look and behave exactly like her audience's notion of a divinely inspired girl poet. She traveled the country, reading to packed halls of rapt listeners in a voice described as sounding like "a bronze bell" and "an axe on fresh wood." It's not that such bards no longer exist, it's just that now they inevitably carry a guitar; singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega is a better parallel to Millay than any of the mandarins writing poetry today.

The deprivation of her childhood made Millay's later successes all the sweeter. Growing up in and around Camden, Maine, Millay -- whose mother, Cora, had divorced her husband when Edna was 7 and was frequently away from home working as a sicknurse -- had to run the household and care for her two younger sisters, Norma and Kathleen, mostly on her own. Still the family was remarkably close, weaving a charmed circle of shared games, songs, inside jokes, pet names and poetry around themselves. Many of her adult friends (including Wilson, who was also one of her paramours) observed that the true love of Edna's life was probably her mother.

As with all of Edna's relationships, the emotional volume between mother and daughter was turned up to 11. Milford includes some entries from Cora's diary in which she rages against a man (a "spineless jellyfish" in her opinion) whom her daughter took up with while the two women were visiting Paris together in the '20s: "I cannot be away from her and live, and if I stay I shall die. When he is with her my heart is hurt physically, it aches like a sore, and cries out against the outrage to my womb." Edna could be nearly as passionate when it was her turn to worry. "I think about you all the time in the daytime, and lately I dream about you at night," she wrote Cora when she was concerned about the older woman's health. "There is nothing in all the world I love so much as you."

Nevertheless, when Millay saw her chance to get out of Camden, she took off like a jackrabbit. A patron, an older woman who had heard her recite her poem "Renascence" at a party, managed to finagle her a scholarship to the women's college Vassar, where she proceeded to break the hearts of half the undergraduate class. "Renascence" became a sensation through not winning a poetry prize (the protests on Millay's behalf probably attracted more attention than nabbing first prize would have), and once out of college she moved to Greenwich Village to revel in one of the neighborhood's bohemian heydays.

There she wrote, acted in plays and consorted with other writers and artists -- "consorted" being a particularly appropriate word. She was invariably conducting several affairs at once, sometimes sleeping with three men in the same day, and driving all of them to distraction. Both biographies quote from dozens of letters whining, pleading and groveling for her favors. Wilson recollected that falling in love with her "was so common an experience, so almost inevitable a consequence of knowing her in those days." During this period, Cora (who, with her other two daughters, had soon moved to the city to live with Edna) once asked Norma, "Who is Edna killing now? Is he almost done for?"

At the same time, her poetry attracted a following stirred by her simple, spirited verse and its intimations of a glamorously modern sensual freedom. "She gave the Jazz Age its lyric voice," Milford writes, and even though most of us don't realize it, we still use an expression she invented to describe a life of impudent abandon:

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!

In Greenwich Village, Millay's candle lasted a bit longer than one night, but living up to her reputation proved draining and she fled her hopelessly tempestuous personal life for Europe in 1921. In a matter of weeks, she'd generated a similar mess in Paris and managed to drag it from Austria and Italy to remotest Albania and back. By the time she returned to America in 1923, she was exhausted and ill and had utterly failed in her efforts to write a novel. She then made one of the smartest decisions in a life that, for all its seeming recklessness, was characterized by a keen instinct for self-preservation: she married a wealthy Dutch importer named Eugen Boissevain.

Boissevain doted on Millay, nursed her back to health and whisked her out of the city to a farm in the Berkshires they named Steepletop. She would live there, tended lovingly by her husband, for the rest of her life, becoming even more famous and successful writing plays as well as poetry. She took up the anti-Fascist cause and early on urged U.S. intervention in World War II, writing verse that propagandized against Hitler and thereby producing what even she considered the weakest writing of her career. By the time she went back to the more intimate subjects that were her forte, it was too late to redeem her critical reputation. Ravaged by lifelong alcoholism and a more recently acquired morphine addiction, her health declined. Eugen died suddenly of lung cancer in 1949, and after an admirable attempt to rally her powers, Millay broke her neck when she fell down the staircase at Steepletop just over a year later.

The drawback of being so quintessentially of one's time, as the novelist Jay McInerney can no doubt testify, comes when that time has passed. Although Millay's late poetry was, if anything, even better than the work of her youth, she'd been brushed aside. "The fact that the direction of her progress has been from legend to success," wrote the critic Rolfe Humphries in the early '40s, "somewhat confuses discussion of her merit as an artist. If she is not taken quite seriously in this role today, it may be that she was taken too seriously twenty years ago ... placing her out of her class, over her head, instead of keeping her where she really belonged ... as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's naughty younger sister in the parlor, the last of the female Victorians." Ouch.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to Humphries that if the initial embrace of Millay as "the greatest female poet since Sappho" might have been too fervent, then perhaps her later rejection was too punitive. Strangely, neither of these two biographies tries very convincingly to resurrect Millay's rep -- at least not if that means explicitly confronting the modernist aesthetic standards that damned her as, in the words of Kenneth Tynan (an admirer, who was characterizing a view he disagreed with) "a pretty non-combatant, a delicate fashioner of pathetic parlor verse."

Her poetry was, indeed, sentimental and obvious if you compare it to cerebral, allusive, blank verse about the despair of hollow men or austere images attesting to the importance of red wheelbarrows -- but then so is Keats'. And the body of her work is uneven, but then so is Byron's. The days when poetry needed to prove a strenuous unfamiliarity with parlors are long gone, and there's something craven about any blanket repudiation of Millay's work, as if the repudiators are afraid that T.S. Eliot or some equally fastidious literary authority might come along and rap then on their knuckles with a ruler. There are fine poems to be found in these biographies (and in a new volume of Millay's poems just out from Modern Library -- though this unfortunately lacks her late, more complex work), if we're not too cowed to give them a chance.

Approaching Millay's life appears to be just as tricky as evaluating her poetry. Like Epstein, you can simply swallow hook, line and sinker the romantic legend of an irresistible goddess of both love and poetry, a woman who was "our most illustrious love poet" with a "megawatt libido" and a "powerhouse career" and whose beauty, according to Epstein, was blinding when she "took her clothes off and stood naked before a man for the first time." That's the route Epstein opts for, and his biography -- written in the two years since he discovered a cache of Millay family papers in the Library of Congress -- is probably closer to the blend of gushing adulation and tabloid leer that most of the readers picking up Milford's more high-profile book will secretly be hoping for. Epstein clearly worked himself up into quite a state writing it: his enthusings range from insisting that "there can be no more precise account of the psychic burden of the poet, the moral poet, or the anointed saint" than Millay's precocious "Renascence" to describing her college dorm as "a harem of sex-starved Vassar girls eager for same-sex experiments."

Milford, by contrast, seems to be straining against the Millay mythos. That's understandable since her book, 20 years in the making, was completed with the assistance of Norma, the sole surviving sister, who died in 1986. Milford includes a few vignettes describing how she conducted her research, working in Edna's old studio at Steepletop -- where Norma lived with her husband Charles after Edna's death -- and engaging in a complicated dance of revelation and concealment with Norma. Ever the vixen, Norma made a game of tormenting would-be Millay scholars: Milford, who calls her "merciless," tells the story of Norma flattering a stuffy "gentleman" into taking off his glasses, declaring him "adorable" without them, then bringing out some nude photos of Edna and refusing to return his specs.

Such stories do more to convey the lineaments of Edna's charisma than Epstein's belabored disquisition on the thrust and retreat techniques of master seducers. Millay obviously excelled at just that -- for all Epstein's ravings about her beauty, photos show her to be merely good-looking, and more judicious observers (mostly women) would note that though she wasn't even really pretty, she was "something better than pretty -- an exciting creature" and "a totally bewitching sort of person." Milford writes of being "wary" of the whole Millay family's "enchantment." That spell consisted of spinning a sparkling cloud of wonderment around the ballad-like story of their lives and then offering their victims morsels of that magic only to pull away before full satisfaction could be attained.

It also feels as if Milford isn't quite sure how to frame Millay's story. Her previous, phenomenally successful life of Zelda Fitzgerald was an early classic of feminist biography, revealing the many wrongs Zelda suffered at the hands of her husband, Scott. Millay, who by all logic ought to be a feminist icon, actually doesn't offer the kind of life story that usually drives such narratives, a highbrow Lifetime Channel saga of injustice and exploitation ultimately transcended when the benighted woman's talent is posthumously reclaimed and celebrated by feminist thinkers. There's no satisfying jolt of indignation to be had here. It's hard to get riled up by the spectacle of a woman who got more or less exactly what she wanted from life, at least until the very end.

Millay broke every rule and never paid the price for doing so. She was brainy and professionally successful and still men chased after her. She was shamelessly promiscuous and yet she ultimately found a husband who cherished her. She put her work first and never wound up alone and bitter because of it, having never, it seems, expressed the slightest regret at not producing a child. If there's any lesson to be learned from her life, it's that charm counts for more than virtue and that the best method for getting your way with men is not to put too much stock in them to begin with. Millay believed that romantic love was inevitably transitory, and this hard-headed attitude, despite the scenery-chewing she did when in the grip of her passion of the moment, was no doubt behind her choice of Eugen Boissevain.

Feminist scholarship has long advocated the celebration of history's unsung supporting players, and in that spirit, why not say a few words in praise of Boissevain, a man who negotiated the nigh-impossible role of a genius's husband with consummate grace? For all its breathlessness, Epstein's biography steps back more often than Milford's does to offer comment on the larger shape of Millay's life, and in the case of Boissevain he seems more aware of how extraordinary the man was. He was "so sure of his virility that no woman could threaten him" and therefore may have been one of the few men in the world capable of marrying Millay and not resenting her.

Boissevain had made a practice of marrying brilliant, glamorous women -- his first wife was a fiery activist who practically died in his arms after she collapsed while making a speech for women's suffrage -- and devoting himself to them. But Eugen was no colorless, selfless helpmeet. While Millay's poetry did and always will earn her more renown, the many friends who visited the couple in the Berkshires farmhouse usually found themselves coming for Edna and staying for Eugen. Her gift for words was at the very least matched by his gift for life. He was tall, tan and vibrant, dominating whatever room he entered and reminding one observer of the dashing film star Douglas Fairbanks. One night when the couple was on the way to a party at the American Embassy in Paris, he stopped their cab to inquire about a commotion on a bridge and wound up diving into the Seine in his evening clothes to save the life of a drowning woman.

No doubt Boissevain thought that the greatest test of his mettle had come when his wife fell in love with a poet over a decade her junior and he was called upon to live up to the couple's pledge of an open marriage even though her infatuation seemed to threaten the very bond itself. He handled this crisis with an astonishingly heroic generosity, detailed in both biographies, although to do so tortured him. She, being anything but a fool, finally came back to him. Boissevain's worst trial, however, still lay before him, and in this, at last, he failed; he couldn't wean Millay from her many addictions and eventually surrendered to morphine himself.

To discover that Millay wrote some excellent poetry constitutes the unsurprising surprise of reading these two biographies; meeting Eugen Boissevain is the sort of complete surprise that makes biographies worth reading. There are some kinds of art, like his, that don't survive after the artist perishes, and it's only in biography that we can catch an echo of them. Here, taken from Milford's book, is a quote from Alyse Powys, wife of Llewelyn Powys (one of any number of Edna's former lovers who became a friend of Eugen's) that seems the perfect note to end on:

Handsome, reckless, mettlesome as a stallion breathing the first morning air, he would laugh at himself, indeed laugh at everything, with a laugh that scattered melancholy as the wind scatters the petals of the fading poppy ... One day his house would be that of a citizen of the world, with a French butler to wait on the table and everything done with the greatest bienséance, the next the servants would have as mysteriously disappeared as bees from a deserted hive, and he would be out in the kitchen washing the dishes and whistling a haunting Slavic melody, as light-hearted as a troubadour. He had the gift of the aristocrat and could adapt himself to all circumstances ... his blood was testy, adventurous, quixotic, and he faced life as an eagle faces its flight.

In the end, perhaps the most unexpected testimonial to Millay's much-touted genius was her union with such a man.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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