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Bold Before Her Time
Edna St. Vincent Millay's reckless life by Le Anne Schreiber

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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 framework—psychoanalytic, literary, or feminist—it compensates for in fullness of rendered life.

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 talent—and 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 their way.

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 today—poverty. "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 do."

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 age—in this case, The Jazz Age—to 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 property—and 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 biographers—perhaps especially biographers who are mothers—have 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.

Copyright © Ms. Magazine 2009