Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – ):
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 the mid-1970s, my New York City boyfriend would take me on literary tours of the city, and one the spots that really got to me was 75½ Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, famous for being the narrowest house in the city. I knew nothing of one of its most famous residents, Edna St. Vincent Millay, I cared very little about poetry at the time, but I ended up reading her work because of that very special address (and to impress the boyfriend).
You probably know her, if you know her at all, from her poem First Fig (above). Millay, “Vincent” to her friends, was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (poets Sara Teasdale and Margaret Widdemer had won special Pulitzers in 1918 and 1919, before there was a prize for Poetry). Her volume of poetry A Few Figs From The Thistles was scandalous for its depictions of female sexuality and its overt feminism, putting forward the idea that a woman has a right to sexual pleasure and no obligation to fidelity.
While in high school, she wrote pieces and edited the school magazine. Her mother encouraged her to enter a poem into a competition where it won fourth place. But, it was published, and she was given a scholarship to attend Vassar College.
At Vassar, Millay had liaisons with several women including English actor Edith Wynne Matthison, who was twice her age. They wrote love letters to each other. Millay wrote in one of them:
“You wrote me a beautiful letter. I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. When you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to you.”
Millay graduated in 1917 and the same year she published her first book. She was commissioned by Vassar’s drama department to write a verse play. The result was The Lamp And The Bell, a tale of lesbian love. I believe that ”lamp and bell” remains part of our popular lexicon as a term for a girl-on-girl sex act. In 1919 she wrote an anti-war play Aria Da Capo that was produced at the Provincetown Playhouse, ironically located in Greenwich Village, not Cape Cod.
After graduating from Vassar in 1921, Millay went to Paris, where she had a steamy affair with the sculptor Thelma Wood. Wood was noted for her relationships with other famous women of the era, it seems that Wood really got around. She may be responsible for the term: “Morning Wood”.
After living in Paris, Millay settled in Greenwich Village where she led a Bohemian life. In 1924, she founded the Cherry Lane Theater “to continue the staging of experimental drama”.
Millay was open about her bisexuality and flaunted her affairs with both men and women. Her first male lover was writer Floyd Dell who felt it was his duty to rescue her from her queerness. He was upset that she was still getting it on with other chicks. Millay turned down his marriage proposal. He told an interviewer at the time:
“It was impossible to understand Millay. I’ve often thought she may have been fonder of women than of men.
In 1923, Millay married Eugen Jan Boissevain. They had an open marriage and she said that they lived like “two bachelors”. A self-proclaimed Feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took on all the domestic responsibilities, freeing her up to write. Millay and Boissevain each had other lovers throughout their 26-year marriage.
Millay enjoyed an on-again-off-again thing with poet George Dillon. She met Dillon at one of her readings at the University of Chicago in 1928 where he was a student. He was 15 years younger. You go girl! Their relationship inspired her sonnets collection Fatal Interview (1931).
In 1925, Boissevain and Millay bought and moved into a farmhouse near Austerlitz, in beautiful Upstate New York. They named it ”Steepletop”. The couple built a barn from a Sears Roebuck kit that they used as a writing space. Millay grew her own vegetables. In 1973, Millay’s sister, Norma Millay established Millay Colony For The Arts. They still exist and offer one-month residencies to writers, visual artists and composers. One of my favorite poets, the late Mary Oliver, was one of the first to have a residency. Wouldn’t you love to do that?
She was a dedicated pacifist during World War I. Starting in 1940, Millay supported the fight against Fascism in Europe, writing in celebration of the war effort and later working with Writers’ War Board to create American propaganda. Her reputation in poetry circles was damaged by her work in support of the war effort. She caught more flak for supporting Democracy than poet Ezra Pound did for championing Fascism.
Boisean died of lung cancer in 1949. Millay, always a heavy drinker, was discovered dead after having fallen down the stairs at Steepletop in October 1959.
In his memoir, Great Companions (1942), writer Max Eastman tells a story that while at a cocktail party Millay discussed her recurrent headaches with a psychologist. He asked her: “I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex?” Millay responded;
Oh, you mean I’m homosexual! Of course, I am. And heterosexual too, but what’s that got to do with my headache?
75½ Bedford Street is one of my favorite places in New York City. The three-story house, built in 1873, measures 8′ 7” wide. At its narrowest, it is only two feet wide. There is a shared garden at the back of the house. For decades, it was used as housing for out-of-town actors working at the Cherry Lane Theater. Cary Grant, Margaret Mead and John Barrymore were among the residents. So was anthropologist Margaret Mead. You can own it and love there. It is currently on the market for just $4,490,000!