Women of the Year
Jennifer Erikson +Robert Riley
Venus + Serena Williams
The Women of Afghanistan
World Trade Center Heroes
Who Made A Difference
A few of the brave and tenacious women who left their
mark on this momentous yearand one enduring female
Years of Ms.
A few of our wordsand yoursabout the magazine
and its mission, and the roads we've traveled along the
An excerpt by Rosalind P. Petchesky
Page: Turning Point
Before Her Time
Edna St. Vincent Millay's reckless life by Le Anne Schreiber
Special: An Excerpt from
Families As We Are by Perdita Houston
Inherit the War
More than thirty years ago, Nancy Milford burst upon the literary
scene with her vastly popular and acclaimed biography of Zelda
Fitzgerald. In chronicling Zelda's sad life, Milford made clear
that part of Zelda's undoing was her inability, despite her
ambitions, to successfully transform her life into art. Instead,
she remained raw material for her husband's refining. In stripping
the glamour off the famous couple's self-immolation, Milford
was credited by some, and pilloried by others, for having inaugurated
a new class of feminist biography-victimology.
"I never wanted to write again about someone who could who could
be seen as the victim of someone else, in particular her husband,"
Milford told me in a recent interview. "I wanted to write about
someone who did her own thing well, and successfully." As everyone
knows by now, that someone turned out to be Edna St. Vincent
Millay, who, like Zelda, was a cultural icon of the Roaring
Twenties, but who, unlike Zelda, succeeded on a grand scale
in transforming her own wildly flamboyant life into art.
Millay's was a rich, reckless, fascinating life, a life so endlessly
poised on the brink between self-creation and self-destruction
that it seems to beg many questions. Yet one of the most striking
features of Milford's biographical approach in Savage Beauty
is her circumspection about interpreting her subject's life
or her poetry. The definitive account of the life is here; the
poetry is liberally quoted, as are critical assessments of it
by her contemporaries, who esteemed Millay as "the greatest
woman poet since Sappho." But Milford does not take on the task
of re-evaluating the poetry or psychoanalyzing the poet. "In
some odd way," Milford said, "I'm not trying to be conclusive
about her. I try to give readers the goods, and hope that people
will pursue the parts that interest them and draw their own
conclusions." Although several reviewers have expressed frustration
at Milford's reticence, her distaste for pinning her subject
to the mat can also be seen as the main virtue of this biography.
What it lacks in critical frameworkpsychoanalytic, literary,
or feministit compensates for in fullness of rendered
And since every question I put to Milford about how she understood
Millay was answered with some plainspoken but polite variant
of "Figure it out for yourself," I will. What most struck me
about Milford's Millay was not the sad tag end of her life,
which was marked by ill health and addiction, but its first
40 years, when the defining factor was talentand the way
it flowed from an amazing matrilineage. When Edna St. Vincent
Millay (whose middle name came from the New York hospital where
an uncle's life had been saved) made her triumphal entrance
onto the literary scene in 1912, she seemed to have come out
of nowhere. She had submitted a poem called "Renascence" to
a national contest that promised publication in a book called
The Lyric Year to the best 100 entries. It was a time
when poetry still had a wide audience, when such contests had
the career-making potential we now associate with the Grammys.
As soon as The Lyric Year was published, the powers that
be in poetry took astonished notice of Millay, proclaiming "Renascence"
"one of the freshest and most original things in modern poetry."
When E. Vincent Millay, originally thought by the judges to
be a man, turned out to be a 20-year-old girl, without formal
education beyond high school, from a poor family in Maine, she
became a cause célèbre. That she was tiny (5 feet, one inch,
weighing less than one hundred pounds), red-headed, and looked
about 12 added to her aura of unaccountable genius. Louis Untermeyer,
smitten by the beauty of her person as well as her poetry, said,
"There was no other voice like hers in America. It was the sound
of the ax on fresh wood." Mentors came out of the woodwork,
tendering offers, which were accepted, to send Millay to college.
As soon as she graduated from Vassar, having already published
a volume of poetry that caused one critic to compare her to
St. Theresa of the Illuminations, she headed for Greenwich Village,
embraced its Bohemian freedoms, and published a second volume
that shred her ill-fitting mantle of innocence forever. The
poems in First Fig (1918) were sexy, saucy, and fun-a
siren call from an unrepentant seducer of men and women. Overnight,
Edna St. Vincent Millay became, as Milford phrases it, "the
herald of the New Woman." Herald is the key word. She was not
echoing the rallying cries of the Roaring Twenties to come.
She was issuing them. There was no U.S. precedent for this flaunting
of sexual convention, for the risks she was taking in both her
life and her poetry. After she lost her virginity to playwright
and leftist journalist Floyd Dell, she stroked his silky hair
and told him matter-of-factly, "I shall have many lovers." The
poetic version of this notice was:
I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year.
For Vincent (as she was called all her life), this independence
was not a pose. Half the girls at Vassar could have warned Dell
and, soon thereafter, Edmund Wilson, of the heartache headed
Where had she come from? From Camden, Maine, where she was raised
with two younger sisters. In 1900, when Vincent was seven, her
mother, Cora, sent her husband away. He was not a good provider,
and she no longer enjoyed his company. Cora preferred more literate
men who appreciated poetry, men like the minister of the local
Congregational church, whom she called her "very dear friend."
Cora chose to be poor and independent rather than remain married
to a man who no longer suited her. She earned her living thereafter
as a practical nurse, which kept her away from home for weeks
at a time and placed Vincent, at eight, in charge of the household
of little girls. If Vincent resented the burdens placed on her,
she never said so, but emphasized instead that her beloved mother
had given her poetry.
In following her own desire, Cora followed the example of her
own mother, Clementine, who left her husband in 1878, when she
fell in love with the young doctor who had treated the youngest
of her five children. Cora, who was 15 at the time, confided
to her journal, "I told her that I knew it must be hell for
her to have him as a husband to her, to wait in bed for him
mornings, when she loved this other." After running off with
the doctor, Clementine established a successful hairdressing
business, using her own flowing red hair as her best advertisement.
Red hair, a flair for sexual independence, and a taste for poetry
ran in a direct line through the generations.
Who knew that U.S. women led such lives in the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries? These women didn't fit any of the
standard patterns: they were not rich women able to push the
limits discreetly, or fallen women who became social outcasts,
nor abused women whose cause was taken up by temperance society
matrons. These were hardworking women who insisted on romantic
and sexual independence at essentially the same cost that many
single working mothers assume todaypoverty. "Did your
research uncover any precedent for the lives the Millay women
led?" I asked Milford. "No, and I looked," she said, "but there
must be. I hope that's the work people who read this book will
So if Edna St. Vincent Millay was "the lyric voice of her age,"
as Milford calls her, she was also the voice of her matrilineage.
The Millay women just had to wait for the agein this case,
The Jazz Ageto catch up with them. And when it did, the
effect was explosive. No U.S. poet before or since has triggered
so heady a response, in part because her readers were encouraged
to identify the crafted boldness of the poetry with the impulsive
boldness of the life.
Milford describes a tiny figure on a large stage, red hair aflame
in the spotlight, swishing the tail of her long-trained gown
and mesmerizing crowds with a deep contralto voice that she
refused to amplify with microphones. One account tells of her
facing down a restive crowd, packed into the Los Angeles Philharmonic,
shouting "Louder!" and "Use the mike!" Millay ignored their
shouts for long, tense minutes until they finally accepted that
she would speak to them only in perfect silence. When she had
finished, one member of the audience recalled, "the house came
down. Cheers. People stood up. Some cried. It was a show of
guts and stubbornness and pride. And foolishness, I suppose."
Though her fame caught fire in the Roaring Twenties, it did
not burn out when the decade did. In 1934, in the middle of
the Depression, her seventh published book of poetry, Wine
From These Grapes, sold a phenomenal 35,000 copies in its
first eight weeks. In the early 1940s, she used her poetry to
combat widespread isolationist sentiment against the U.S. joining
the war. She knew she was risking her reputation for craft by
penning propagandistic poetry, but as she told reporters, "What
does it matter now, when men are dying for their hopes and ideals?"
She was just taking another one of those risks like those her
mother and grandmother had taken before her. Throughout her
life, Vincent's deepest allegiance was to the other Millay women.
By 1920, she had brought them all out of poverty and Maine to
live with her in New York City, and for decades after, she extended
as much financial support to them as she could.
This triumphal Millay, who in 1923 became the first woman to
win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, was the anti-Zelda, a woman
who was no one else's raw material, nobody's propertyand
nobody's victim. Or so it seemed when Nancy Milford embarked
on what would become a 30-year odyssey. Thirty years is a long
time to live with anyone, and so Milford's marathon itself became
a matter of speculation over the decades. There were mundane
matters that stalled the project, like a change of publisher,
from HarperCollins to Random House. And biographersperhaps
especially biographers who are mothershave lives of their
own, which require that attention be diverted for periods of
time from the life of their subject. And Milford was sifting
through thousands of documents that no one had ever had access
to before. There were times when she thought the project was
nearing completion, only to discover some new information that
set her off on entirely new avenues of investigation. About
15 years into her labors, Milford uncovered notebooks in which
Millay kept an elaborate tally of the drugs she took to treat
chronic pain of various kinds. Milligram by milligram, the notebooks
chronicled Millay's descent over the last decade of her life
into the hell of morphine addiction. "Finding the drug notebooks
really knocked me for a loop for a couple years," said Milford.
The end of Millay's life was as pitiable as Zelda's: alone at
home, Millay, 58, fell down a staircase in a drug-and-alcohol-induced
stupor and broke her neck. Did the discovery of Millay's addiction
transform her in Milford's mind from nobody's victim to nobody's
victim but her own? In Savage Beauty, and in our interview,
Milford refused to make that call. Others have not been so reticent.
In The New Yorker, reviewer Judith Thurman called Millay
a "serious junkie" and judged her summarily as a "resplendent
casualty of sex, drugs, and fame."
My own view: faithful only to her female family, Millay lived
not wisely, perhaps not even well, but with a boldness that
had no precedent in a U.S. woman of letters. She is neither
paragon, nor victim, nor a caution, nor a good fit for any of
the molds into which we have poured female lives. Hers was and
remains the life of a fascinator, whose nature raises more questions
than answers. Milford got the goods, and in setting them before
us, it seems likely that she will have launched, as she did
with Zelda, a virtual industry of feminist scholarship whose
task it is to explore the questions this remarkable life raises.
- Le Anne Schreiber is the author of two memoirs, Midstream
and Light Years.