Books October 2001

Hustler with a lyric voice

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

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.

It's rather ridiculous that these two volumes should collide at Barnes & Noble and in the Amazonian ether in the very same month. Epstein must be annoyed by the star machinery that's been revved for the long-awaited Milford book, already excerpted in Vanity Fair—a magazine for which Millay wrote pieces under the name Nancy Boyd. And one can bet that Milford is galled by seeing the latecomer Epstein piggyback onto her subject and her reviews. But that's what she gets for taking so long. Epstein got to the Millay papers after Norma died and they were transferred to the Library of Congress. He mentions Milford only as a "biographer whom [Norma] engaged to write a book in the 1970s," and Milford doesn't mention him at all. Epstein comes up with an early Nicaraguan lover (the poet Salomón de la Selva) whom Milford seems to have overlooked, and devotes a chapter to what he insists was Millay's financially draining interest in thoroughbred racing, an activity she kept quiet for reasons of image. But the reader of both books will come away with no appreciably different estimations of Edna St. Vincent Millay's life and work—both of which ended badly.

During the 1930s and 1940s Millay became more and more depressed and alcoholic, and then, after a painful auto accident, ferociously addicted to morphine. The dope-taking logs, kept mostly in Boissevain's handwriting and described by Milford, are harrowing.

The first notebook begins on Tuesday, September 28, 1943, and continues to Thursday, November 30. On the first day of their record keeping, "Vince," as Eugen called her, was taking what appears to be a total of 3 grains of morphine, starting at 7 A.M., then at 8:10, 9:20, 9:40, 10:30, 10:45, 12:45, 1, 2:15, 2:30, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7:15, 8:15, 9:30, 10:30, 12, 1, 1:30 A.M., when she finally sleeps.

In an act of uxorious folly Boissevain started using the drug too—in order to know Millay's suffering, Milford suggests; to show her how to withdraw, Epstein argues. Millay eventually did kick the habit, but booze undid her remaining health and confidence. She struggled to keep her humor and wit ("It may be said of me by Harper & Brothers, that although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances"), but the fifty-six-year-old woman that Edmund Wilson saw in 1948, for the first time in two decades, shocked him as much as the bloated latter-day Maria Beadnell had appalled Dickens upon their reunion. Wilson wrote,

She had so changed in the nineteen years that, if I had met her unexpectedly somewhere, I am sure I should not have known her. She had become somewhat heavy and dumpy, and her cheeks were a little florid. Her eyes had a bird-lidded look that I recognized as typically Irish, and I noticed for the first time a certain resemblance to her mother. She was terribly nervous; her hands shook; there was a look of fright in her bright green eyes.

Her poetry had gone downhill too. Except for a de rigueur sympathy for Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s—marked by her wonderful appeal to the hanging governor Alvan T. Fuller: "There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight"—Millay was not terribly political. ("Economically," Epstein declares, "she was a proto-conservative, a natural capitalist.") Before and during World War II, however, she allowed herself to publish a lot of heartfelt, slack verse, often in newspapers, in behalf of American intervention and then the Allied war effort. Epstein does a good job with the motivating forces at work on her.

The poet for whom World War I had been little more than a disruption of her love life was truly wracked by the insane cruelty of World War II—because of her husband's relatives' suffering in Holland, and because the war rushed into a vacuum left in her by the flight of Eros. Her pain matched the world's; she was dying, and it appeared the world was dying, too.

Boissevain died in 1949, and Millay followed him a year later. She was fifty-eight. In a sort of poignant reversal of the Frost poem she was found, after a fall to the bottom of the stairs at Steepletop, by the hired man.

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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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