There was never anything calm about Vincent. Her sisters used to say that she had a bee chasing her. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), known as Vincent, was an acclaimed American poet who came to embody the modern, liberated woman of the Jazz Age. From the fiery energy of her youth to the excitement and acclaim of her early adulthood in New York and Paris, to the demands of living in the public eye, Vincent’s life was characterized by creativity, hard work, and passion. A Girl Called Vincent traces her incredible journey from a unique and talented girl to an international celebrity and Pulitzer Prize–winning poet.
Raised in poverty in rural Maine, where she was often the sole caretaker of her two younger sisters, the rebellious, creative, red-haired Vincent always found time for writing, acting, singing, and playing piano. She became a sensation in young adulthood, bewitching audiences with her words, voice, and luminous appearance. She mixed with the literary figures of her time and broke many hearts. Her volumes of poetry were enormous bestsellers and audiences nationwide went wild when she recited her works onstage. In addition to poetry, Vincent’s body of work includes plays, translations, and an opera, and ranges from love sonnets to antiwar propaganda.
Packed with photos, poems, letter and diary excerpts, a time line, and bibliographic notes, A Girl Called Vincent is an eye-opening and valuable addition to any young reader’s or aspiring writer’s bookshelf.
About the Author
Krystyna Poray Goddu holds a degree in comparative literature from Brown University. Author of Dollmakers and Their Stories: Women Who Changed the World of Play, she has contributed to American Girl magazine, the New York Times Book Review, and the Riverbank Review of Books for Young Readers and is a regular reviewer of children’s books and writer for Publishers Weekly. She has worked at Woman’s Day magazine and was founding editor of Dolls magazine and cofounder of Reverie Publishing Company, which publishes books on dolls and toys for collectors and children. She has also worked in school libraries and taught writing to middle-school students in independent schools in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
A Girl Called Vincent
The Life of Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay
By Krystyna Poray Goddu
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Krystyna Poray Goddu
All rights reserved.
A Girl Called Vincent
As the baby emerged, she appeared to be wearing a thin, translucent veil over her face. The doctor attending the birth quickly reached out his hand to wipe away the transparent covering, and the newborn gave her first lusty cry.
Her family instantly grasped the omen: this was no ordinary child who had come into the world. The red-haired infant had been born with a caul, a thin membrane covering her face, a rarity and a sign — for those who believe in such things — that the person is destined for an extraordinary life.
For Edna St. Vincent Millay, the omen proved true. Born to Cora Buzzell Millay and Henry Tollman Millay a few minutes after six o'clock on the morning of February 22, 1892, in the small coastal city of Rockland, Maine, Vincent, as she quickly came to be called, did lead an extraordinary life. Passionate, rebellious, and hungry for experience of every kind, she became renowned throughout the world as much for her zealous spirit as for her fervent poetry.
Cora's younger sister Clem, who had witnessed Vincent's birth, wrote to their beloved brother Charlie to announce the news and to share the baby's name. Cora had chosen "Vincent" in gratitude to St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, where Charlie had been nursed back to health after a traumatic physical ordeal just days before the baby's birth.
Not long after Vincent's arrival, Cora, Henry, and Clem moved inland to Henry's hometown, the village of Union, where his parents still lived. They invited Charlie, who remained weak, to stay with them until he was completely well. That summer Charlie came to live with the young family. Surrounded by loving comfort, Vincent rested in a low hammock in the yard as the adults sang away the warm days, filling the baby's ears with melodic tunes and harmonious ballads. Sometimes her babbling tones joined in.
Some of the first sounds Vincent heard that summer, mixed with the voices making music, would have been those of the natural world resonating around her, sounds she later put into her poems: "the rising of the wind / In the trees before the rain," "the woodcock's watery call," "the grey wood-pecker taps and bores," "noisy and swift the small brooks run."
She was the only child for just a short time, and couldn't remember life without her sisters. Vincent wasn't even two when Norma Lounella was born in December 1893, and the youngest, Kathleen Kalloch, arrived in May 1896. The sisters looked very different from each other; dark-haired Kathleen was always called the prettiest, Norma was blonde and sang beautifully, while Vincent had hair the color of fire and a personality to match. From her earliest years, she was a girl of strong emotions — exuberant laughter and intense rage. There was never anything calm about Vincent; her sisters used to say that she had a bee chasing her. In her fury, she could be terrifying. Once Norma and Kathleen watched in horror as Vincent, overtaken by sudden anger, ran outside with a kitchen knife and thrust it into a tree trunk.
The sisters were each other's best friends, calling each other, for decades to come, by silly nicknames that came from one of their favorite childhood songs, an old college tune Cora liked to sing to them. "There was a man who had two sons, and those two sons were brothers. Josephus was the name of one and Bohunkus was the other." For the rest of their lives, Vincent was Sefe and Norma was Hunk. Kathleen became, mysteriously, Wump.
It's no surprise that all three sisters learned to sing, play the piano, perform, and write poetry when they were very young; these were Cora's passions, and she shared them with her daughters as naturally as she breathed. Cora's poems had appeared in New England publications, and before she married she had given concerts locally, advertising them as "Miss Buzzell's Concerts." In fact, she had met handsome Henry — blonde, blue-eyed, and broad-shouldered — at a dance where she was one of the musicians.
Cora continued to play and perform after becoming a wife and mother, and it wasn't long before her daughters started appearing with her. When she sang in a quartet at the town hall in Union one February evening, Vincent, a few weeks shy of her fifth birthday, performed a solo: "The little maid milking her Cow."
Another time, Vincent and Norma performed the cakewalk together, high-stepping, arms akimbo, to an oompah rhythm played by Cora. The cakewalk was a dance made popular through minstrel shows, and audiences applauded the talented little sisters strutting their stuff. "I'd bend down — all this in rhythm to the music Mother was playing on the piano, or the organ, maybe — one! two! I'd tie Vincent's shoe," Norma recalled. "Then we'd throw back our heads, take arms and strut and cakewalk down."
Vincent adored her mother and wanted to do everything she did. They didn't have a piano, but they did have an organ. Cora, always keen to nourish her daughters' talents, taught Vincent to play, even though her little legs were too short to reach the pedals. The two of them spent hours together at the instrument, Cora working the pedals while determined Vincent, eyes shining, learned to make the keys sing.
Before Vincent was five, Cora had taught the eager girl to read both music and poetry. Some of the first poetry she read by herself was from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and, difficult as the language was for a small child, its beauty made her hold her breath and its fervor hit her with physical force. "It knocked the wind clear out of me," Vincent remembered later. It was the first time she felt what would become an increasingly familiar urgency over the years — to use words to create that kind of power. One of the things she would write magnificently about throughout her life was nature, and her first poem was on that subject.
One bird on a tree,
One bird come to me.
One bird on the ground,
One bird hopping round
One bird in his nest,
One bird took a rest.
Her poem may not have been very Shakespearean, but it certainly had the mark of somebody who had been reading poetry, had absorbed the concepts of rhyme and meter, and knew how to use them. For a girl not yet five, it was a great poem.
While Cora was playing music and reading poetry with her little girls, Henry was supposed to be supporting the household. He was good-looking, charming, and easygoing with a slow grin, and he could always make Cora laugh. Henry loved to fish and play poker, though, much more than he liked to work. For a while he had a good job as superintendent of schools in Union, but even when he had a job, he often gambled away his earnings. Money got tighter and tighter, until finally the awful, embarrassing day came when the Millays could no longer afford to live in their house. It was sold, and the family of five moved in with a neighbor across the street. To help pay the bills, Cora gave music lessons.
In the early years of their marriage, Cora and Henry had gaily danced and sung together, and he had taught her to play a mean game of cards, too. But with every day that passed, she understood more strongly that Henry was incapable of sharing the responsibilities of raising a family with her. She struggled to pay the bills, caring for their three daughters by herself, and didn't complain about him to anybody.
By 1900, Cora made the difficult decision that she and the girls would be better off without Henry. Just before Vincent's eighth birthday, Cora asked him to leave. In the early years of the 20th century, it was highly unusual for a married couple to divorce — and even more unusual for it to be the woman's decision. Cora's own mother had divorced her father when Cora was a teenager, however, and she and her siblings had been brought up by their mother alone. She knew exactly how hard being a single mother would be, but she also knew she could raise the girls better without Henry.
Vincent didn't talk, or write, about her parents' separation. It was not until she was 31, and had just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, that she referred to the day her father left. She slipped the memory into a rhapsody about nature in a letter to her friend Tess Root. "All my childhood is in those bayberry-bushes, & queen-of-the-meadow, or maybe you called it hardhack, & rosehips. And cranberries — I remember a swamp of them that made a short-cut to the railroad station when I was seven. It was down across that swamp my father went, when my mother told him to go & not come back. (Or maybe she said he might come back if he would do better — but who ever does better?)"
Henry agreed to leave the family without argument and promised to help financially, though Cora probably knew in her heart he would never keep that promise. He moved to Kingman, about 140 miles north of Union — a very long distance in those days. At eight years old, being the daughter who could write best, Vincent took on the responsibility of writing to him regularly, and he replied, but not as regularly. In May 1900 he chastised himself: "Your papa ought to be ashamed of himself for not answering your nice letter soon, and I guess he is. ... How does Norma get along at school? I suppose she is getting to be a pretty good scholar and Wump I suppose is awful busy making mud pies. I want you to kiss them both for papa and mamma, too. Tell Mamma that papa ... has got started to earning money at last."
But by July he still hadn't sent any money. Instead he wrote Vincent: "Tell Mama ... Papa is earning quite a lot of money only he can't get it very fast yet."
His letters started sounding all alike. The one he sent in November began, "It seems an awful long time to Papa since he saw his little girls, but he could not help it." All the letters were addressed to Vincent, and much as he claimed he wanted to see his little girls, it would be 11 years before Vincent saw her father again.CHAPTER 2
Four Homes in Two Years
It was now solely up to Cora to support the family. Before she was married, she had earned money weaving hairpieces — a skill she had learned from her mother, who had run a hairdressing business. But now Cora decided to apply for nursing jobs; her sister Clem had been studying nursing in their hometown of Newbury-port, Massachusetts, and had given Cora her notes to learn from.
In the autumn of 1900 Cora and the girls left Union and moved to Rockport, a coastal village about 12 miles east, where they rented the upper half of a house overlooking the harbor and where Cora believed nursing work would be more plentiful. Soon jobs did come her way, but often they were in other towns, like Rockland or Camden, far enough away that she might have to spend the night — sometimes more than one — there. It tore at her heart to leave her daughters, but she didn't have much choice, and Cora felt lucky that she had neighbors to take care of them when she was gone. The nursing was grueling — she assisted with surgery and childbirth, took care of wounds, and cleaned up patients who suffered from nausea or diarrhea — and she usually earned one dollar a day. Still, it was money they wouldn't have had otherwise, and she had to do it.
The girls missed her terribly when she was away, and she missed them just as much. Cora asked them to write her cheerful notes, to make her work feel a little easier. On November 7, Vincent sent her a very chatty letter, focusing, naturally, on her achievements in music and writing (although not showing much evidence of her good grades in spelling). "Dear Mama: I thought I would write to you and tell you how I am I am getting along all right in school but in my spelling-blank I had 10 and 10 and then 9 and I felt auful bad because I thought I wuld have a star I am getting along all right and so is Norma and Kathleens cold is better now I went to practice and a boy called me a little chamipion and I asked him what he meant and he said because I was the best singer and I thanked him."
Vincent had a wicked sense of humor and was a great tease. Not even authority figures were spared her sly tongue. In the same letter to her mother, she recounted ribbing her teacher about once dating Cora's cousin. "When teacher and I were alone I said you have not called on mama yet and she said she is away and then she asked me how you knew her and of course I had to tell her and I said I guess you used to go around with George Keller [Cora's cousin] and she blused red as a June rose and then she asked me If I had ever rode in [h]is tire wagon an[d] I said I knew she had and she said oh yes. ... Lots of love to you your loving daughter Vincent."
Amusing encounters like those were rare for the sisters in Rockport, though. Newcomers, they didn't have friends, and when Cora was away, they felt almost like orphans. As always, they took comfort in each other's company, singing together, drawing birds and wildflowers, making up plays and games. They would spend the rest of their young lives by the sea, but this was their first experience by the water, and they reveled in the salty air and the sound of the surf. As an adult, Vincent would miss the ocean acutely, lamenting in a poem she called "Exiled" that she was:
Wanting the sticky, salty sweetness
Of the strong wind and shattered spray;
Wanting the loud sound and the soft sound
Of the big surf that breaks all day.
In September 1901 Cora left for a difficult nursing case on the island of Vinalhaven, 15 miles across the bay from the mainland. Today it takes more than an hour to get to Vinalhaven by ferry, and in 1901 the island was much more remote. When the weather was rough, boats couldn't make the trip. For the girls — and Cora, too — it felt like she was very far away.
Cora had been on Vinalhaven for more than a month when the sisters, one by one, began to get stomachaches. Soon they were feeling feverish, too, but Cora always left firm instructions that they were not to whine or grumble while she was gone, so Vincent didn't dare to write her with their complaints. She wrote only that she didn't feel very well, and neither did Norma or Kathleen.
Cora was overworked, and her patience was thin. She didn't have the energy to worry about her daughters while tending to her patient, but she couldn't ignore Vincent's letter.
"You said you were almost sick," she wrote back, "and that made me anxious about you. I cannot write much now as I am very busy; but I want you to write me at once and tell me if you are well."
Cora must have soon suspected what might be ailing her girls, because she abruptly left Vinalhaven to journey back to Rockport, traveling by horse and carriage, then by boat — a long, slow trip in those days — and the final few, but anxious, miles on land again. By the time she arrived, she found all three of her daughters suffering from the early symptoms of typhoid fever: high temperatures, stomach pain, and diarrhea.
Cora was terrified. She had nursed enough patients with the disease to know that there was no real treatment for typhoid fever, only alcohol baths and cold cloths to try to keep the fever in control. She also knew firsthand that one out of every eight or ten people who contracted typhoid fever died of it.
Today only about 400 people a year get typhoid fever in the United States, but in 1901 there were two major outbreaks. Tens of thousands were stricken with the bacterial infection, which spreads through contaminated food, drink, or water. Today we know that typhoid fever cannot be spread by mere contact with a sick person, but in 1901 many people believed it could, so Cora had to nurse her daughters alone. She never left their bedsides — she even slept sitting up by them. The illness took its usual frightening course; their fevers rose and their diarrhea became more severe as the days and weeks went on. They were so weak and tired they could barely lift their heads off their pillows. Their hair fell out.
While their illnesses wore on, Cora tried to keep the girls and everything around them extremely clean. A Contagious Disease Bulletin on Typhoid Fever issued by Johnson & Johnson that year instructed, "More than ordinary cleanliness must be observed if typhoid is to be gotten rid of. Surgical cleanliness ... while perhaps impossible practically, must be the aim."
Excerpted from A Girl Called Vincent by Krystyna Poray Goddu. Copyright © 2016 Krystyna Poray Goddu. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1: A Girl Called Vincent,
2: Four Homes in Two Years,
3: A Very Young Housekeeper,
4: A Person of Intense Moods,
5: Good-bye to Girlhood,
6: The Poem That Raised a Furor,
7: Hello, New York!,
8: The Pink-and-Gray College,
9: The "It Girl" of Greenwich Village,
10: European Adventures,
11: An Embarrassment of Riches,
12: The Poet as Celebrity,
13: The Flickering Candle,