Nancy Milford, author of an acclaimed biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, was able to gain unlooked-for access to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s papers to write this compelling biography. She explains in the prologue that she stopped by the house of Millay’s sister Norma in 1972, hoping to talk her into working with her on a biography. Norma, who had all along refused access to her sister’s legacy, decided it was time.
The result is a riveting biography, full of excerpts of letters—some never sent—poetry and scraps of poetry, and notes. It is unflinching in looking at Millay’s lifestyle and addictions.
Millay, of course, is famous as the voice of a newly liberated youth, particularly of women, in the Jazz Age. She began publishing her poetry at a young age and became famous after her first book, when she was in her early twenties. For a long time, she was wildly popular—movie star popular—which is interesting in a nation that generally doesn’t love poetry. And, like many a modern idol, she had a lot of attention paid to her appearance, which was small, with fiery red hair, and sprite-like.
That is about all I knew about her—that and a bit of her verse. Her childhood was hard. Her mother left her father when Edna and her sisters were young and was away much of the time trying to make a living for them as a nurse, while the girls fended for themselves. Still, she brought the girls up with a love of music and poetry. Millay published a few poems in a children’s poetry magazine and won all their awards, but her big break came when she attracted the attention of a wealthy patroness, who arranged for her to attend Vassar.
I am not going to relate Millay’s life story in this review—you can read the book for that—but instead ruminate on some ideas this book made me consider. One is the strange relationship Millay had with her mother Cora and her sisters Norma and Katherine. For Cora, her letters always expressed much affection, often resorting to baby talk. Yet increasingly, Millay kept her mother at arm’s length, sending money instead of visiting her.
With Norma, too, the messages were affectionate, but the visits were few. In her case, there seems to be fair enough evidence that Edna’s husband Eugen Boissevain acted as a barrier between Millay and some people, including her family. As time progressed, for example, almost all of Norma and Katherine’s letters to Edna were answered by Eugen.
Katherine’s case was different, a life that seemed to be an attempt to compete with Edna in her own backyard, and failed. Edna’s patroness also saw Katherine into Vassar, from which she failed to graduate. She published a couple of prose books and some poetry, but her work was deemed too similar to her sister’s to succeed. This evaluation must have been disheartening, but in later years she claimed that Edna stole her ideas, an allegation that was patently absurd, especially as they had barely been in touch for years. Katherine’s relationship with Edna toward the end consisted solely of letters that were a combination of vituperation and demands for money. Like Edna, Katherine was an alcoholic, although not apparently a high-functioning one.
Edna’s relationship with her husband was unusual, too. After a gay and determinedly single life including many affairs with both men and women, Millay married not long after the failure of an affair with another man. Eugen is frequently described as a man who did everything for Edna, including absenting himself so that she could have an affair with a much younger man. Her family and some of her friends seemed to blame him for keeping her apart from them, but I can’t help feeling that most of that was at her desire, since she seemed to see who she wanted to see.
All of this makes me wonder how far a creative person can go in selfishness—how acceptable that is in the service of art. Millay was certainly one of those extremely charismatic people who attracted others like moths. How often such people are completely self-absorbed, even if they are not geniuses. If a person’s genius is fueled by intense emotion, is it okay to fire that emotion at the expense of others? To blow hot and cold on people’s passions until they are madly in love and then discard them? I don’t really know. Many of Millay’s lovers remained her lifelong friends after the affair was over, but it seems that charismatic people are more often forgiven their actions than others. I haven’t come to any conclusions on this. These ideas are just some the biography made me consider.
I read this book in tandem with The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Review to come.