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Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

3.6 5
by Nancy Milford, Kimberly Schraf (Read by)

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Thomas Hardy once said that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The most famous poet of the Jazz Age, Millay captivated the nation: She smoked in public, took many lovers (men and women, single and married), flouted convention sensationally, and became the embodiment of the New Woman.
Thirty years after her


Thomas Hardy once said that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The most famous poet of the Jazz Age, Millay captivated the nation: She smoked in public, took many lovers (men and women, single and married), flouted convention sensationally, and became the embodiment of the New Woman.
Thirty years after her landmark biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Milford returns with an iconic portrait of this passionate, fearless woman who obsessed America even as she tormented herself. Chosen by USA Today as one of the top ten books of the year, Savage Beauty is a triumph in the art of biography. Millay was an American original—one of those rare characters, like Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway, whose lives were even more dramatic than their art.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Beautiful, talented, and driven, Edna St. Vincent Millay cast her potent sexual spell "on many, of all ages and both sexes," as lovestruck Edmund Wilson noted. Others, equally smitten, described her as "the girl poet of the New Bohemia" who "gave the Jazz Age its lyric voice." Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty presents an incandescent Edna who lived the legend, wrecked her health, and lost her beauty. In 1950, aged 58 -- her gifts far from exhausted -- she fell down an unlit staircase, breaking her neck.

Access to family papers enables Milford to tell a powerful story. Maternal sacrifice propelled Edna from a hardscrabble childhood in Camden, Maine, to Vassar College. Talent helped: "Renascence," the prize-winning semi-mystical poem she wrote at 20, gained her powerful friends among New York's social and literary lions. Converting their admiration into assistance, Millay ensured they promoted her career. Leaving Vassar tut-tutting about her partygoing, she moved on to electrify Greenwich Village -- progressing from books to beds. On one notable occasion, to reduce her numerous suitors' wait-time, she gave an intimate dinner for three. For dessert she offered John Bishop her upper half and Edmund Wilson the lower, giving "poetic license" new meaning.

Wilford skillfully handles the Millay family dynamics: Edna's formidable mother and sisters, Norma and Kathleen (the latter would later be a rival), shared her life and sometimes her home. This and the demands of Millay's travels, readings, and affairs caused her casually acquired but devoted husband, Eugen Boissevain, much pain. Millay's prolific output pleased public and critics alike: Her Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1923) won her the first Pulitzer awarded to a women; her libretto for The King's Henchman (a successful Metropolitan Opera production) initially outsold The Sun Also Rises. Though not undertaking a critical evaluation of Millay's oeuvre, Milford quotes from it generously and perceptively. Certainly she will draw new readers to Millay and to her engaging poetry.(Peter Skinner)

Peter Skinner lives in New York City.

Toni Morrison
Nancy Milford has done it again. One seldom sees this level of brilliant, hands-on research in contemporary literary biography. The result is this compelling, keenly perceptive life of Edna St. Vincent Milay—with its own 'savage beauty.'
Amanda Foreman
Savage Beauty is irresistible, Nancy Milford gives us not only the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but also her heart, her times, and the sparkling essence of her poetry.
Bill Moyers
Millay lives! And she casts a spell over the reader as mesmerizing as her poetry. Nancy Milford has done it again—and ZELDA has met her equal.
Library Journal
In 1923, Edna St.Vincent Millay (1892-1950) became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. To write her biography, Milford whose one other major publication is a highly praised and best-selling biography, Zelda persuaded Millay's younger sister and sole heir, Norma, to give her access to hundreds of Millay's personal papers, letters, and notebooks. Selecting from "this extraordinary collection," Milford meticulously integrates Millay's major poems, letters received and sent, reactions of friends, and comments from extensive interviews with Norma into an orderly and affecting narrative. The result is an intimate look at a complex, charismatic, imperfect woman, someone who evokes both admiration and sympathy. Among the less glamorous revelations are the sometimes damaging intertwining of the poet's life with that of her mother and two sisters, Millay's promiscuity and uncanny seductiveness, and the dynamics of her 27-year marriage to a man who adored and promoted her while enabling her infidelities and addictions. Milford's lengthy portrait is a testimonial to her scholarship, stamina, and commitment to her craft. This should serve as a model of a highly readable biography, as well as a standard source for future Millay studies. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/01.] Carol A. McAllister, Coll. of William & Mary Lib., Williamsburg, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After 30 years, Milford (Zelda) returns with another definitive biography of another significant literary figure. The author's prologue describes her intricate choreography with Norma Millay, sister of the poet Edna and possessor of the thousands of documents and other materials Milford eventually came to possess. Throughout, she quotes passages of her conversations with Norma-dialogue so pregnant and peculiar it could have come from The Aspern Papers. In the early chapters, Milford slips back and forth in time to tell the stories of Edna's ancestors and to describe a childhood featuring eccentric and impecunious parents (when the Millays' Maine house flooded one winter, the three sisters ice-skated on the kitchen floor). The poet's mother, Cora, is a character from a Tennessee Williams play-fiercely devoted to her children, a woman who both competed with her talented daughters and gave them their supreme self-confidence. Edna (who first published as "Vincent Millay"-the "St. Vincent" derived from the name of a hospital that had saved an uncle) displayed an early felicity with verse and began publishing in her teens. When she entered Vassar in 1913, she was already a minor celebrity. In college-and throughout much of her life-Edna was a bohemian who smoked, drank, swam nude, and enjoyed sex with both women and men. (Milford does not neglect to give us a paragraph about Millay's discovery of her clitoris and a passage about her pubic hair.) She became an extraordinarily popular poet, selling tens of thousands of copies of her collections, delivering readings in her rich, mellifluous, contralto voice to standing-room-only crowds all over the country. In 1950, however, her elfinbeauty destroyed by age, alcohol, drugs, pain, and sorrow, Millay-either accidentally or intentionally (Milford does not speculate)-tumbled down a dark stairway and broke her neck. An essential biography of a unique and important poet-written with lush detail and delicious language, and displaying enormous care, craft, and compassion.
From the Publisher
“An incendiary cocktail of literary ambition, fame, sexual adventure and addiction.”

“Perfectly outstanding...Milford’s biography takes the whole of Millay’s heaving, grieving, ecstatic life into account in a way that is almost loving, always respectful, even when blunt truth and candor are necessary....Masterful.”
—Kaye Gibbons, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Original and spellbinding.”
—Lorrie Moore, The New York Review of Books

Savage Beauty is irresistible.”
—Amanda Foreman

“One seldom sees this level of brilliant, hands-on research in contemporary literary biography. The result is this compelling, keenly perceptive life of Edna St. Vincent Millay—with its own ‘savage beauty.’”
—Toni Morrison

“Riveting and revealing...Savage Beauty sweeps before it all previous biographies of Millay, which by contrast seem uninformed and too discreet.”
—J. D. McClatchy, The New York Times Book Review

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Camden, with its ring of mountains rising behind the white clapboard houses facing Penobscot Bay, made the most of its view. Nowhere else on the coast of Maine was there such dramatic natural beauty. The houses were like weathered faces turned to watch the sea. The upland meadows of ox-eyed daisies, timothy, and sweet fern, the dark green woods of balsam and fir swept to the gentle summit of Mount Megunticook, and the rock face of Mount Battie rose from the edge of the sea as if to hold it. But it was a far less generous time than the early days of shipbuilding, upon which the town's wealth had been founded. Now even the great woodsheds along the wharves were mostly abandoned, permanent reminders of the long death of shipbuilding. The wool mills looming behind the town offered scant wages and long hours. Later in her life Edna St. Vincent Millay would say she was "a girl who had lived all her life at the very tide-line of the sea," but in the fall of 1904, she moved with her family into 100 Washington Street on the far edge of town, in a section called Millville because it was near the mills. It was the smallest house in the poorest part of town, but it was one their mother could afford when she brought her girls to Camden after her divorce.

Their brown frame house was set in a large field, and just beyond it flowed the Megunticook River, into which the mills sometimes spilled their dyes. The house, on low ground, could be reached only by walking down a long, rickety wooden sidewalk from the street. When the Megunticook River overflowed and the weather turned cold with no heat in thehouse, the kitchen floor flooded and froze and the girls gleefully ice-skated across it. The house was close enough to their mother's Aunt Clara Buzzell, a large, easygoing person who ran a boardinghouse for the mill hands, that she could keep an eye on the girls while their mother worked. Cora wrote to her daughters often; the three little sisters felt her presence even when she was absent, which was almost all the time.

Have the baker leave whatever you want at Aunt Clara's. . . . I can pay him when I see him and it will be all right. Have your washing done every week now and have some system and regularity about your work. . . . You can do it and you must do it . . . for Mama who has her heart and hands full.

She told them to make up a song to sing while they did dishes, "and think 'I am doing this to please mama,' and see how easy the dishes will get clean."

"We had one great advantage, I realized later," Norma Millay wrote. "We were free to love and appreciate our mother and to enjoy her because she wasn't always around, as most mothers are, telling us what to do and how to do it. . . . when mother was coming home, that was an occasion to be celebrated, and we usually celebrated by cleaning the house."

They invented games to make play out of work. "Dishes were handled differently," Norma remembered. "This game was called 'Miss Lane' for miscellaneous: here one of us washed, another dried, and the other did miscellaneous pots and pans, milk bottles, whatever. Vincent was mostly responsible for the songs we sang as we worked." This one was written the first year they were in Camden:

I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan.

My subjects abound.

I can knock them about

And push them around,

And they answer with naught

But a clattering sound;

I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan,



For I've pots and pans

And kettles galore.

If I think I'm all done

There are always some more,

For here's a dozen

And there's a score.

I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan,


But they missed their mother and longed for her return. "At night, sometimes, we would lie in bed together, huddled against the cold, pretending to be brides, and little Kathleen would call out, 'Goodnight, Cherest!' in the direction we thought our mother would be."

Not everyone in Camden agreed with the way the Millays lived. When their neighbor Lena Dunbar came to visit, she was dismayed: "For instance, they had shades at their window and nothing else. I don't think they cared much. Well, once they stenciled apple blossoms, painted that pattern down the sides of the window. Or, for instance, they had a couple of plum trees in their backyard and they never waited for the plums to ripen, but would pick them green, put them in vinegar, and call them 'mock olives.' Well, no one else did that sort of thing in Camden, don't you see?"

Emma Harrington, who taught eighth and ninth grades at the Elm Street grammar school, where Vincent enrolled that fall, never forgot her. "She was small and frail for a twelve-year-old. . . . Her mane of red hair and enormous gray-green eyes added to the impression of frailty, and her stubborn mouth and chin made her seem austere, almost to the point of grimness." She kept her after school after reading her first composition to find out if someone had helped her with it. Tactfully, she asked if her mother had seen her excellent work. Vincent interrupted her: "Excuse me, Miss Harrington, . . . but I can tell that you think I didn't write that composition. Well, I did! But the only way I can prove it will be to write the next one you assign right here, in front of you. And I promise it will be as good as this one, and maybe better."

It was her determination to excel that drew attention. That first winter, she clashed with the principal of the school. He was a good teacher but quick-tempered. Vincent questioned him whenever something he said puzzled her, and she was often puzzled. He felt she was challenging his authority and began to mangle her first name. He called her Violet, Veronica, Vivienne, Valerie, any name beginning with a V but her own, which he considered outlandish. Unshaken, Vincent would respond, "Yes, Mr. Wilbur. But my name is Vincent." One day he erupted during an exchange and shouted that she'd run the school long enough. He grabbed a book from his desk and threw it at her. She picked the book up carefully, took it to his desk, and walked out of the classroom.

That afternoon Mrs. Millay marched to the school and demanded an explanation. Trying to conclude their heated interview, Wilbur pushed her away from his door sharply enough that she nearly fell down the stairs. Dusting herself off, Mrs. Millay strode into the office of the superinten-dent of schools, who quickly agreed with her that Vincent should not return to the Elm Street School. He transferred her to Camden High School, midway in the first term. She was "The Newest Freshman," the title of her first composition to be published in the school paper, The Megunticook, and the youngest. Though they misspelled her last name-Milley-they would learn to correct it, for by her senior year she was editor in chief.

"She was supposed to be a year behind, you know," Henry Pendleton, who was in her class, said. "But her mother had-well-she had a downright fight with the principal of the school, and she took it upon herself to put Vincent ahead. Yes, she did. Now the girls associated with her more than the boys did. Their circumstances were very poor. They were a very poor family. Oh, neatly dressed and all, but their home looked . . . ah, well, they didn't have, let's say, the things that most people in Camden enjoyed."

What began to disturb, even offend, the local worthies, was the way Millay's mother treated Vincent. "You see," Henry Pendleton recalled, "sometimes people felt a little . . . oh, well, for instance father-my father was a farmer-and Mrs. Millay would be bragging about her daughter, Vincent, and my father couldn't get a word in edgewise. He had a daughter, too, you see, and he'd come home fuming. He said to mother more than once, 'I would say my daughter is out-ranked!' And people didn't like that."

Vincent's birthday that year was noted by her mother as "an unpleasant day." As Cora totted up its costs, she said she'd paid $30.00 for a set of books for Vincent and $3.00 for a subscription to St. Nicholas, a children's magazine. She said there were

1 cross little girl

1 grieved little girl

1 satisfied little girl

1 tired and discouraged mama.

The satisfied little girl was Vincent. She wrote to St. Nicholas and asked to join its League:

We have just been reading your interesting stories and poems and Norma, Kathleen, and myself wish to join your League. We think you are very kind to devote so much valuable time and space to your readers. Norma was ten years old last December. Kathleen, seven last May, and I shall be twelve Washington's birthday. Please send three badges of membership to three very interested little sisters.

-Vincent, Norma and Kathleen Millay

What Millay called her first "conscious writing of poetry" was done that year. "Mother sent it to the St. Nicholas League and it received honorable mention." Published in New York, St. Nicholas was a monthly illustrated magazine for children. It was begun in the 1870s by Mary Mapes Dodge, the author of a children's classic, Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates, who was able to bring authors such as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Christina Rossetti, Louisa May Alcott, Rebecca Harding Davis, Lucy Larcom, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Jack London-writers of distinction who might not ordinarily have written for children-to young readers throughout the country. But what truly distinguished the magazine was the St. Nicholas League, which each month gave out not only prizes-badges in silver and gold, and cash-but the gift of publication. St. Nicholas confirmed and gave voice to a generation of young writers: Ringold W. Lardner, the Benét children-Laura, William Rose, and Stephen Vincent-even the young Scott Fitzgerald, who won a prize for a photograph.

"When I was fourteen," Millay wrote, "I won the League's gold medal for a poem, and there was an editorial commenting most flatteringly on my work." The poem was called "The Land of Romance," signed E. Vincent Millay. The League addressed her as Master Millay until she was eighteen, when she bothered to correct them. While the title and length of the poem were assigned by the editor for its March 1907 competition, Millay made it the story of a child's quest to find romance. The child (who always speaks as "I" and is never identified as either a boy or a girl) first asks a man to show the way. The man, described as thin, trembling, and uncertain, says he does not know the way, then that he can't remember it. Next the child turns to a woman, who does not respond at first but continues to work at her spinning wheel, until impatiently:

"Oh! Why do you seek for Romance? And why do you trouble me?

"Little care I for your fancies. They will bring you no good," she said,

"Take the wheel that stands in the corner, and get you to work, instead."

What is most interesting about the poem now is the difference between the man's inability to give any direction or help at all and the woman's fiercely practical advice: get to work.

On the same page as the poem, the editor of the League cautioned young writers, "Very sad, very tragic, very romantic and very abstruse work cannot often be used, no matter how good it may be from the literary point of view, and while the League editor certainly does not advocate the sacrifice of artistic impulse to market suitability, he does advocate . . . the study of the market's needs." It is hard to know how seriously E. Vincent Millay took any of this, but she did correctly judge what was and was not suitable to the needs of St. Nicholas, for by the time she was eighteen and too old to enter their competitions anymore, she had won every prize they gave.

"The Land of Romance" was considered good enough for Edward J. Wheeler, the editor of Current Literature in New York, to select it to reprint in his April issue. He said that although he couldn't tell from the signature whether the author was a boy or a girl, "the poem seems to us to be phenomenal."

~ ~ ~

Norma remembered that publication in Current Literature confirmed their belief that "Vincent was a genius." Although each of the sisters had sent things in to St. Nicholas, "we never got a bite. Vincent got everything."

~ ~ ~

Vincent began her first diary in the spring of 1907, when the snow was so deep it drifted over her knees. She was fifteen. She was walking home in the evening from a Glee Club rehearsal when a man called to her and, turning, she saw a sleigh drawing close to her house. "The sleigh was coming to take mama to Rockport on a consumption case. How I hate to have her go! Have to keep house all through vacation." Five days later, her mood had lifted considerably:

I am going to play Susie in Tris. . . . I have the stage all to myself for a while and I have a love scene with the villain. The villain is great.

Triss; or Beyond the Rockies was a melodrama in four acts, and Vincent Millay was cast as Susie Smith, "all learning and books."

My part is going to be great,-at least they all told me how well I did. I am awfully glad for this will be my first appearance. I want to make it a dazzling one. I get rather sick of having Ed Wells forever hugging me while he is showing Mr. Keep how to do it. Mr. Wells seems to understand the performance all right. He has evidently had experience in that line.

The play went off without a hitch, or nearly. Everyone said that it was the best home talent performance ever given in Camden, and some even considered it better than the productions of the traveling companies.

My part isn't very large, but it is important and rather hard. I hope we will get as good a house in Rockland as we did here. The Opera House was crowded full and everything went off finely except when Allie Eldredge lost his wig. Of course something had to happen. But what of it?

Four years later she stuck the following note in the margin of her diary: "I have just read through to this part and I wish to remark that I consider myself at this point of my life an insufferable mutt and a conceited slush head." By then she was nineteen and hard on herself.

Copyright 2001 by Nancy Milford

Meet the Author

Nacy Milford's Zelda spent twenty-nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in hardcover, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was translated into twelve languages. Nancy Milford was a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey in 1999, and an Annenberg Fellow at Brown Unviersity. She has taught at the University of Michigan, at Vassar College, and will be in the American Studies Program at Princeton University this fall. She is a founder of the Writers Room, has held a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is a Literary Lion at The New York Public Library. She lives in New York.

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