The poet as a rock star
Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote of, and lived, the arc of celebrity
In 1918, Poetry magazine published a poem that helped make the 26-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was already famous, even more famous.
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!
She captured the defiant gaiety of her generation, shaking off the war and moving into what would soon become the Jazz Age. And she prophesied her own trajectory. That “foes” is brilliant. She understood right from the beginning that there would be foes: the disapprovers, the detractors, the people who would watch her rise and wish for her to fall. Youth, beauty, talent, allure, fame, all of which Millay possessed, inspire not just admiration, but also hostility. In those four brief insouciant lines, Millay described the arc of the celebrity.
Millay’s work is not as widely read now as it once was, but during the 1920s and 1930s she was one of the most famous women in America. She wasn’t just a literary success — a Junot Diaz, a Zadie Smith — she was an icon. She was Elvis, Madonna, Lady Gaga. People fell in love with her, or wanted to be her. Her readings were the rock concerts of the time: packed and ecstatic. She got rich off her adoring public, and used the money to seclude herself from them, buying a farmhouse on several hundred acres in Austerlitz, N.Y. She named the house “Steepletop,” and lived there from the mid-1920s until her death in 1950.
You can visit Steepletop, if you make a reservation. The house is at the top of a long, steep, unpaved road. In the wintertime, during the years Millay lived there with her husband Eugen Boissevain (or, at times, with both her husband and her lover), the only way to get to or from the house was on snowshoes. The snowshoes are still in the house. So are her sheets and monogrammed towels. Her unopened preserves are still in the cellar. Her pills and powders are in the bathroom, along with evidence of her large and small vanities: her makeup table, her mirrors, the doctor’s scale on which she weighed herself every morning. The rooms still smell of cigarette smoke.
The flowers she planted are still cut weekly and arranged in silver trumpet vases in the dining room, where her table is set for dinner and her cocktail glasses are on the sideboard. Millay liked to make a dramatically stealthy entrance at her own dinner parties; she would slip in unobserved as Eugen poured the drinks, and when the guests turned around there she would be, sitting at the table waiting for them to discover her. The house still feels as if she might appear at any moment.
Of all the writers’ houses I’ve ever visited, Steepletop is the most personal. It’s also the most poignantly uncomfortable. Millay restlessly configured and reconfigured the rooms, the outbuildings, and the gardens to her own specifications. There was an outdoor bar under a pergola, and a swimming pool in which Millay and her guests swam naked. Again, this is pure 1920s — but what becomes of the blazing star once she’s outlived her era? Millay was young and bright and merry; she grew older and serious. The sonnets she wrote around the age of 40 are spectacular — simultaneously ardent and infused with the awareness that headlong passion eventually cools. But after that her work became increasingly political, and her audience had moved on.
In her final years she became addicted to morphine. She died at 58, in a fall down the stairs at Steepletop. Knowing that, I was startled to see how small the staircase is, how tiny the landing on which Millay’s body was found. She was a tiny woman. Everything at Steepletop is smaller than I had imagined. There’s a room with a long table in front of a mirror, where Millay the performance artist would spread out her pages and rehearse, reading aloud, watching herself; it was also her sewing room. In this house the appurtenances of mythmaking jumble together with the small accessories of daily existence. You think not just of Millay, but of all sorts of people who were once famous and aren’t anymore, or who are famous now and one day won’t be. It’s a reminder of the transience not just of celebrity, but of life itself.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’