Books October 2001

Hustler with a lyric voice

Edna St. Vincent Millay combined a modern sensibility with traditional forms

Epstein calls her an actress in the bedroom, and Milford reports that she was one of those rare people who literally like the sound of their own voices. The two biographers seem to be in essential agreement on Millay's desire to control her lovers, often in the manner of a petulant, adored child—which is why Eugen Boissevain made such good husband material. A prosperous Dutch businessman, the widower of the Vassar suffragette Inez Milholland (famous for riding down Pennsylvania Avenue on a white horse), he was a natural soother and nurse; he rescued Millay during her first period of severe illness, as she was turning thirty-one and coming home from two years in Europe.

They married on July 18, 1923, two months after Millay had won the Pulitzer and hours before she was operated on for Crohn's disease and appendicitis. The combination of nuptials and the knife made for publicity of a very 1920s sort. (The unglamorous intestinal business was left out of the story.) The Boissevains settled into a handsomely renovated farmhouse (Steepletop) in the Berkshires at Austerlitz, New York. According to Epstein, who tends to hero-worship Millay's cultivated husband ("Master chef and connoisseur of wines ... sportsman, gardener, breeder of dogs and horses"), Boissevain's "mission at Steepletop was simply to make way for Millay's poetry." The couple's fidelity lasted about five years—but, as Milford points out, they went eleven without so much as a quarrel.

During this period Millay's work remained taut and successful, particularly a libretto for Deems Taylor's opera The King's Henchman; sales of the printed version proved as robust as the reviews. Her specialty, however, continued to be what Epstein calls the "erotic sonnet," and one such, "What lips my lips have kissed," makes for a terrible book title (Epstein's) but remains a very good poem, in which Millay fretfully mourned the "unremembered lads that not again/ Will turn to me at midnight with a cry."

While the great modernists were refracting themselves ever more obliquely into ever more elusive personae, Millay was a frail but flamboyant actual presence on hundreds of stages across the country. Milford brings her tiny frame back out in front of the lights, "dressed in a long gown of heavy creamy silk, her hair a flame of red." She packed them in, reciting without a microphone "in Masonic temples, at women's clubs, in university lecture halls, and at small colleges." Millay complained at one point to Boissevain that she felt "like a prostitute"—a sensation some thrill-seeking part of her no doubt relished.

The domestic contentments of an overcivilized marriage were in some ways more suited to prose, but an affair with the young poet George Dillon, begun when she was thirty-six and he twenty-one, left Millay, according to Epstein, "in perfect ecstatic condition to write love sonnets of longing, despair, and grandiose aspirations." Opposition from Boissevain might have provided even more stimulation, but he preferred to remain, to say the least, understanding. As the affair stretched on with the two lovers in Paris, he instructed his wife, "Settle down quietly, Edna, take a place for a year or come back here with him, do what you like ..." Any scolding he issued was more feminist than husbandly: "Is there any danger, Edna, that you are reverting to type, and becoming a regular woman, and losing interest in your work and yourself as a poet, and are just only interested in helping Him to be a poet ... [?]"

Actually, no. Before the affair had even reached its climax, Millay produced the sonnet sequence Fatal Interview (1931), with herself playing Selene to Dillon's Endymion. In a sonnet addressed to Boissevain, Millay turned his horns into laurels.

When failing powers or good opinion lost
Have bowed your neck, should you recall to mind
How of all men I honoured you the most,
Holding you noblest among mortal-kind;
Might not my love—although the curving blade
From whose wide mowing none may hope to hide,
Me long ago below the frosts had laid—
Restore you somewhat to your former pride?

As for the callow shepherd, after winning his own Pulitzer in 1932, for The Flowering Stone, Dillon never produced another book of poetry.

Thirty years have passed since Nancy Milford published her best-selling biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, a subject with obvious links to a poet she now says "gave the Jazz Age its lyric voice." Both Millay and Fitzgerald made an endless stream of daredevil, look-at-me gestures; both had a childish need for adoration. But the latter, a woman of little talent and monotonous instability, was more than anything a bore. (So, finally, was Zelda.) Millay, with her genuinely complex talent, is a much richer subject—if one resists the impulse to overrate her. She may have given the Jazz Age its lyric voice, but she also had the big-top touch of Carl Sandburg and some other literary hustlers of the time. (Epstein did his warm-up for a Millay book with a 1993 biography of Aimee Semple McPherson.)

I'm not sure that Millay is worth thirty years of anyone's writing life, but after making numerous references to her 1970s visits with Norma Millay at Steepletop (now a National Historic Landmark), Milford offers no explanation for the long delay of Savage Beauty. There's a nice Aspern Papers feel to these encounters between the biographer and the surviving sister, who was by turns protective and jealous. In a wonderful scene Milford watches Norma slip Millay's Vassar class ring onto her own finger. "Vincent was free now," Norma says, "while I was the one at home, you see ... I was keeping house, that's all." But Milford's slowness in finishing the book dulls the contrast she's seeking between these "contemporary" scenes and her subject's remote past. When we see Norma watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman on TV, the supposed present day doesn't seem much nearer than the Jazz Age.

Three decades should have been enough time to pare away sentences like "One can almost feel the heat from the sparks flying from her pen" and to realize that readers requiring a definition of "appeasement"—Milford gives one—are unlikely to know who Edna Ferber was without some identification. For all its pleasures and general thoroughness, there is a disjointed quality to Milford's entire production. A number of incidents and figures, Boissevain included, take to the page only half explained or introduced; subsequent references assume a reader's acquaintance with facts that Milford provides only later still.

Epstein is a more prolific and versatile writer (seven volumes of poetry, a biography of Nat King Cole), and his tone is sometimes buoyant to the point of flippancy. He, too, breezes in and out of the book, a bit less successfully than Milford, as if he sees no difference between a preface and a text: "It is my opinion that Hooley had something to hide," he says with sudden first-personality several chapters into the body of his book; "but I can educe no evidence to prove this—it's only a biographer's hunch." He too often lapses into the style of a press release ("one of the finest sonnets in the language," "These rival the greatest love letters of all time"), but there's no denying he's the better-organized biographer when it comes to any number of matters, from Millay's finances to her friends.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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