Time Is Running Out for Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Upstate Retreat
Posted May 14, 2018 7:46 p.m. EDT
AUSTERLITZ, N.Y. — Edna St. Vincent Millay sought refuge from life in a roaring Greenwich Village, with its abundance of distractions standing between her and her work. The poet found it here, on a spread of hundreds of acres hidden away in billowing terrain of impossibly green pastures and endless woods.
She bought the property, known as Steepletop, in the 1920s and died here in 1950. Even so, her jar of witch hazel sits on the shelf above her bathroom sink, next to a bottle of pills. Her Remington typewriter is in the salon. And in a dresser drawer in her bedroom there’s still a tube of lipstick in her purse, which, like her hand towels and notes to the man who tended to her property, was etched with the same initials: E. St. V.M.
“You feel like she could walk in at any moment,” Holly Peppe, her literary executor, said as she perused Millay’s second-floor library, crowded with books and a pile of faded newspapers. A hand-lettered sign demanding “Silence” hung from the ceiling.
“This is like a sanctuary,” Peppe said. “It’s a holy grail.”
Steepletop, named for the pink-flowered steeplebush plant that grows wildly here, has been open to the public since 2010. The aim has been to allow the many who continue to read Millay’s writing to explore the setting featured in much of her work, as well as deepen the understanding of the many more who know Millay only for her most famous lines — “my candle burns at both ends” — or from what they learned in high school.
But the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, which oversees the property, is in financial crisis. It operates on a shoestring budget, with only one full-time employee and two part-time helpers, but Steepletop has been running at a loss. The society said that it might be forced to close the property at the end of the year.
The Millay Society said it costs about $225,000 to operate the property every year, yet it only makes about $75,000 from paying visitors and donations. The society is aiming to raise at least $1 million.
In her time, Millay had gained a status comparable to that of a rock star. Early on, she surprised a literary community that struggled to believe a young, flame-haired woman could write poetry with a sophistication and world weariness thought to be something only an experienced man could offer. She found wealth and fame, becoming known for a passionate romantic life as boundless as her revelry, which she even imported to her secluded retreat some 130 miles from New York City. (She once wrote in her journal that the flowers by the pool were watered with gin.)
“She had a rich life, a whole life,” said Tyne Daly, the actress and a member of the society’s board. Strolling the grounds of Steepletop allows visitors to have a better understanding of her experiences and inspiration. “When you go and see where this actual person actually functioned,” Daly said, “you begin to understand her as a person as well as a poet.” Millay was raised on the coast of Maine, along with two younger sisters, by a single mother who worked as a traveling nurse. She started writing as a girl, publishing poems in a popular children’s magazine. She attracted attention in literary circles with the poem “Renascence,” which she submitted to a competition hoping to win a cash prize. She did not win, but the poem was published and widely praised. She was among the first women to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and wrote plays and a book of prose published under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd (but with a foreword by Edna St. Vincent Millay).
Scholars described Millay as a thoroughly modern woman whose complexity and progressive outlook make her work prime for rediscovery. She was largely known for her poems on love and nature, yet also wrote about gender equality, social justice and discrimination.
In her work, she subverted typical gender roles, casting women as pursuers of men they desired instead of the other way around. In her life, she had a husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, who, scholars said, put her and her work above all else, whether it meant bringing her breakfast in bed or not objecting to her having a relationship with a man outside their marriage, believing it inspired her writing. (He was, however, relieved when the affair ended.)
“The fact is, she has become modern again,” said Barbara Bair, a historian at the Library of Congress and curator of its Millay collection. “There’s so much about her that is akin to issues of concern to millennials — self-identity issues, finding your place in the world.”
In Manhattan, Millay has long been associated with a famously slim piece of real estate, a 9-foot wide town house at 75 1/2 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village. At Steepletop, she found its inverse: 700 acres in Austerlitz, southeast of Albany.
Today, the property is as secluded as ever — far from development and decent cellphone reception. The small shack where Millay did much of her writing had a musty smell. In the kitchen, stuffing spilled from the salmon-colored Naugahyde cushions that had been installed as part of a makeover by Ladies’ Home Journal in exchange for a feature on Millay’s domestic life.
The homesteads of some literary figures offer only a facsimile of the way a person lived, as possessions were sold or lost and buildings eroded. But Millay drank from wineglasses in the cupboard; the art and trinkets in the dining room were collected on her travels; and she had curled up on the comfy chair in the library.
“You see how life was lived on this property,” Peppe, the literary executor, said as she walked the sprawling grounds on a recent afternoon. As the literary executor, she is responsible for managing the works Millay left behind. More than that, Peppe said, “you end up being the person who is the keeper of the flame.” It is a role that had once belonged to Millay’s sister Norma Millay Ellis, who cast herself as a fierce guardian of her sister’s legacy.
Peppe reached out to Ellis as a graduate student hoping to write a dissertation on Millay. She remembered the protective sister trying to scare her off when she called.
But, Peppe said, she ended up winning Ellis over. She stayed at Steepletop with her, reciting sonnets and sharing stories. Once, Ellis asked Peppe, who was similar in stature to Millay, to try on her sister’s evening gowns.
Ellis spent decades at Steepletop. Yet, for all that time, she lived as if she were a guest. She hung her clothes on the shower rail rather than take up space in the closet. She took pains to not disturb her sister’s possessions. The environment in which Millay lived became suspended in amber.
Millay’s life, toward its end, became defined by pain and struggle. Treatment for an injury led to a morphine addiction. The death of her husband was debilitating. She holed up in Steepletop, where she soaked up the natural splendor she saw from her window as she grieved.
But up until she was found dead at the base of the stairs, apparently from a heart attack, she continued to write — leaving behind work, including a poem The Saturday Evening Post had commissioned to commemorate Thanksgiving in 1950:
From the apprehensive present, from a future packed
With unknown dangers, monstrous, terrible and new —
Let us turn for comfort to this simple fact;
We have been in trouble before ... and we came through.