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.
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 Milaywith its own 'savage beauty.'
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.
Millay lives! And she casts a spell over the reader as mesmerizing as her poetry. Nancy Milford has done it againand ZELDA has met her equal.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.’”
“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