A passionate poet's eventful life
Who will enjoy reading Savage Beauty, the passionate biography of poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay? Just about anybody who remembers the poet's name from high school English class. Readers will be shocked and fascinated to learn of Millay's complex, controversial life. Biographer Nancy Milford, who wrote the million-selling Zelda, gained exclusive access to the thousands of papers that belong to Millay's estate and spent 30 years compiling the details into the compassionate, resonant portrait that is Savage Beauty. Born into extreme poverty and virtually deserted by both parents, the brilliant young Millay was sponsored at Vassar by a wealthy matron. At college, the misbehaving, promiscuously bisexual young seductress (friends called her Vincent) became a nationally acclaimed poet. By age 28, she had published 77 poems over a three-year span, all the while conducting casual affairs with many of her editors. Millay's intense friendships with famous people, her sold-out poetry performances, her rock star fame (her collection Fatal Interview sold 33,000 copies in 10 weeks during the height of the Depression) make this biography a compelling one. In 1923, she married Eugen Boissevain, an aristocratic Dutchman. Though the famous Millay strove for a quieter image, privately, she and Boissevain had an open marriage. She wrote best when fueled by infatuation and began an intense affair, a liaison Boissevain attempted to turn into a menage `a trois.
The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, in the end, Millay succumbed to years of illness and gin and morphine. She died in 1949 of a broken neck from a fall down a flight of stairs at Steepletop, her beloved home. A new volume of her verse from the Modern Library, edited by Milford, quotes the poet on the timeless appeal of her own work. I think people like my poetry because it is mostly about things that anybody has experienced, she says. You can just sit in your farmhouse, or your home anywhere, and read it and know you've felt the same thing yourself. Who will enjoy reading this tragic, engrossing biography? The simpler question is, who won't?
Mary Carol Moran is the author of Clear Soul: Metaphors and Meditations, (Court Street Press). She teaches the Novel Writers' Workshop at Auburn University.