Millay's Life Part IMaine, Vassar, New York
Edna St. Vincent Millay: 1892-1950
by Holly Peppe, Literary Executor
Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in Rockland, Maine on February 22, 1892 and brought up in nearby Camden, was the eldest of three daughters raised by a single mother, Cora Buzzell Millay, who supported the family by working as a private duty nurse. Having divorced her husband in 1900, when Millay was eight, Norma six, and Kathleen three, Cora struggled to make ends meet but provided the girls with a steady diet of poetry, literature, and music, encouraging them, by example, to write poems, stories, and songs.
Edna—called Vincent by family and friends—was a talented, spirited, at times overly dramatic adolescent who loved spending hours by the sea and learning the names of flowers, plants, and medicinal herbs from her mother. Even as a girl she was a prolific writer, winning poetry prizes from a children’s literary magazine. In a breathless hymn to nature, she wrote, “Oh world! I cannot hold thee close enough! Thy winds, thy wide gray skies!” In high school she wrote and starred in school plays and edited the school literary magazine.
At 19, having graduated high school but with no money for college, she stayed in Camden, keeping house for her sisters. At the suggestion of her mother, she entered the long poem, “Renascence”--107 rhyming couplets describing a life-altering spiritual awakening--in a poetry contest under the name “E. Vincent Millay.” The poem didn’t win, but when it appeared in The Lyric Year anthology in 1912, readers and critics alike considered it the best poem in the book and all assumed the author was both older and male. In a note to the editor, another poet in the book, Arthur Ficke (who would become her lifelong friend), surmised, “No sweet young thing of twenty ever ended a poem where this one ends: it takes a brawny male of forty-five to do that.” With characteristic verve and wit, Millay responded, “I simply will not be a ‘brawny male’ . . . I cling to my femininity!”
After taking preparatory courses at Barnard in the summer of 1913, Millay took a full course load at Vassar and honed her acting skills in plays and pageants, some of which she composed herself. She loved studying the classics but disliked the rules: “They trust us with everything but men,” she wrote to Ficke. Just before graduation in 1917, though she was caught off campus and told she could not graduate with her class, the college president reversed the decision at the last minute, saying he didn’t want “any dead Shelley’s on [his] doorstep.”
After graduation Millay moved to Greenwich Village and enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle of the day. Joined there by her sister Norma, she published poems in popular magazines like Vanity Fair, Ainslee’s, and the Forum, and poetry collections in salvos and slim leather volumes coveted by an expanding readership. To augment her income she published short stories and satirical sketches under the pen name Nancy Boyd. And both she and Norma also acted with the Provincetown Players, where Millay directed one of her own plays, Aria da Capo, in 1919, which opened to rave reviews.
That summer, Millay recited “Renascence,” to guests at a local inn where Norma was working as a waitress over the summer. A woman in the audience, Caroline Dow, the head of the YWCA National Training School in New York, immediately recognized Millay’s talent and potential and offered to help her go to college. Millay was thrilled and decided on Vassar.
Millay attracted a willing coterie of lovers from among the male literati of the day: Floyd Dell, John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson, and Witter Bynner, but refused to commit herself to anyone or anything except her work. In 1921, wanting to give her poetry “new grass to feed on,” she sailed for a two-year stint in Europe, under contract to write two prose pieces a month for Vanity Fair as a foreign correspondent.
The year she returned to New York, 1923, marked a turning point in her life and career: she received the newly instituted Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and met her future husband, Eugen Boissevain at a house party in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. On their wedding day a few months later, Millay was ill with intestinal problems, so Eugen drove her to Manhattan for emergency surgery immediately following the wedding. Before the procedure, referring to her Pulitzer Prize, she quipped, “If I die now, at least I’ll be immortal.”
Eugen patiently nursed Millay back to health in Croton-on-Hudson and in Greenwich Village, where he rented a narrow three-story brick house at 75½ Bedford Street. From there they embarked on reading tours and an eight-month round-the-world trip, their belated honeymoon.
When they returned at the end of 1924, Millay was anxious to move out of Manhattan where she could concentrate on her work. “I cannot write in New York,” Millay told a reporter. “It is awfully exciting there and I find lots of things to write about and I accumulate many ideas, but I have to go away where it is quiet.”