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 ... [?]"