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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.