Bohemian Rhapsody: At Home with Edna St. Vincent Millay
In her day, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was a rock star (although, of course, she predeceased rock-‘n’-roll.) Rich, famous and influential, she lived for 25 years in grand, back-to-the-land, high-bohemian style with her husband at Steepletop, their estate in Austerlitz, NY, where she died at the age of 58 in 1950. “She was the highest paid poet of the 20th century,” says Peter Bergman, the executive director of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society (which is entirely separate from its neighbor the Millay Colony for the Arts.) “At one point, she was getting royalties of $100 a day from her opera The King’s Henchman.” In her New York Times obituary, she was described as “a terse and moving spokesman during the Twenties, the Thirties and the Forties. She was an idol of the younger generation during the glorious early days of Greenwich Village when she wrote, what critics termed a frivolous but widely know poem which ended: 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!”
Since going to work for the Millay Society four years ago, Bergman (who’s also a prolific theatre critic) has methodically begun to restore the gardens along with Millay’s house and her writing cabin. “When she died, her sister Norma moved in and preserved everything,” he says. “She kept her things separate from her sister’s so that someday the house could be a museum and an accurate reflection of how her sister lived.” This summer for the first time, beginning May 28, there will be regularly scheduled by-appointment tours of the house (the upstairs only) given by docents that Bergman is training. They will be able to explain that the hand-stenciled “Silence” sign in Millay’s library (below) is an inside-joke because Millay never let anyone else into her inner sanctum. They will be able to explain that the black-and-white United States map in the sewing room with with red lines details the route of Millay’s cross-country reading tour she took from October 1938 to January 1939. They will be able to explain that the halls are painted blue because blue was her favorite color and the subject of many poems, and that the guns in the foyer were used by her and her husband for hunting game on the property. They will let you inspect her handsomely monogrammed towels (right.) “But they won’t let you look inside her dressers or drawers,” says Bergman. “You have to come back and take the white-glove tour to see that.”
A separate garden tour includes the restored potting shed, the simple cabin where Millay wrote, and the evocatively ramshackle swimming pool. ‘There’s a haunted quality, isn’t there?” says Bergman, as he explains that Millay built a pergola with a bar next to the pool that she hid from the road by planting arborvitae. “This was during prohibition, and she didn’t want people to see anyone drinking. She had very definite rules. You had to be fully dressed at the bar and you had to be completely naked when you swam in the pool.” He explains that Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch coffee importer, lived more-or-less self-sufficiently at Steepletop and did not get electricity until 1948, when Ladies Home Journal (which frequently published her poems) installed a state-of-the-art kitchen for a photo shoot that Millay then refused to do. “They grew their own vegetables and canned them for the winter,” says Bergman. “We found garden poisons like arsenic in Royal Dutch Coffee cans in the potting shed.”
As he unlocks the door to the writing cabin (right) that Millay used year round and heated with a cast iron stove, Bergman explains that one of the society’s goals is to restore Millay’s reputation and an appreciation for her role in American letters. He has put together a photographic exhibit, Where She Lived, that chronicles her glamorous life which makes you think that Katherine Hepburn would have played her in a contemporaneous biopic. “She was the reigning queen of Greenwich Village’s bohemian set until she got married,” he says. “She set the world on its ear with her 1919 anti-war play Aria de Capo and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.”
Millay’s property line abuts West Stockbridge, and one wonders whether she identified with the writers like Edith Wharton and Herman Melville who lived across the border in Massachusetts. Bergman smiles. “She always considered herself a Berkshires artist,” he says. And just when you think that everything at Steepletop is about the past, Bergman announces that an indie rock band called Ghost Ghost has written a song cycle about the poet’s life called No Clothes on Ragged Island, which they will perform at Steepletop on July 18. Now, that rock-star analogy doesn’t seem so farfetched.
The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society at Steepletop
House Tours by appointment: Fridays - Mondays; $15 (six-person limit per tour)
Garden Tours by appointment: Fridays - Tuesdays; $12
Where She Lived exhibit: Thursdays - Tuesdays, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. $8
All of the above: $25
Poetry Trail: Open daily; free.