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Arts & Culture

How I Got Millayed

October 22, 2015 | by

A day in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s gardens at Steepletop.

Millay at Mitchell Kennerly’s house in Mamaroneck, New York, 1914.

In high school, I had a simple assignment to write a report on a poet. I searched aimlessly for the right one: more than a poet of some specific literary achievement, I wanted one who had died by suicide. Not to say I was a morbid teen—I was just fascinated by the arresting drama of that narrative. Strangely, my search led me to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, which was poor research: she didn’t kill herself. She fell down the stairs of her home at Steepletop very early on the morning of October 19, 1950, sixty-five years ago this week. And if you believe the coroners, she suffered a heart attack first. I chose her anyway.

I read as many of her poems as I could find, printing out my favorites—like “Afternoon on a Hill,” “Witch-Wife,” and “The Little Ghost”—in colorful, elaborate fonts and hanging them on my bedroom wall alongside photos of Millay. Poetry had never spoken to me before. It had always left me feeling like an outsider—an especially undesirable experience for an adolescent. But reading Millay was a new kind of encounter. Her work was understandable, relatable: melodic, even. When other kids were putting up posters of shirtless pop stars, I was taping up photos of Millay with tousled hair, laying in a grassy field, her arms and legs tangled with her companions’. This is what I thought life should look like. It was, as Michael Minchak put it, how I got “Millayed.” 

Michael is the head gardener at Steepletop, the large New England–style farmhouse in Austerlitz, New York, where Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, lived, worked, and played. When the couple bought the property in 1925, it was a 435-acre blueberry farm—they purchased another 180 acres the following year—and it promised a much-needed respite from New York City. Today, the Millay Society, with a core team of five staff members and more trustees and volunteers, maintains the grounds with meticulous reverence—and, just as important, irreverence.

The garden gate at Steepletop. All photos of Steepletop courtesy of the Millay Society and reprinted with permission of the Permissions Company, on behalf of Holly Peppe, Literary Executor, the Millay Society.

Firefly Field, autumn.

Months ago, the Society announced plans to restore the poet’s lavish gardens; the fund-raising campaign was called Get in Bed with Millay, a cheeky nod to her free-loving lifestyle. I e-mailed Michael, who has by now been many times Millayed, and asked if I could lend a hand, though I have nothing in the way of a green thumb. He graciously accepted, and with that, I was headed to Steepletop with borrowed gardening gloves and the first trowel I could find in my parents’ basement: a pink-handled little thing, so lacking in gender neutrality that I think Millay would have discarded it on sight.

Millay called herself Vincent from a young age (and that afternoon, so did Michael and I) having taken the name from St. Vincent’s Hospital, where her uncle’s life was saved. Vincent had a famously magnetic personality: both men and women were captivated by her wit and desire for fun. She had many suitors before and during her marriage to Eugen. Ever mysterious, she reserved her smiles for her home life, and she was adamant that professional portraits and photographs convey a serious, closed-mouthed expression—a reserve that only increased her appeal.

Millay was a petite woman with a young face and conspicuously red hair. The very model of a Greenwich Village bohemian, she was prolific and fiercely dedicated to her craft, often formulating and writing her poems completely in her head before committing them to paper. (“My candle burns at both ends,” she wrote in “First Fig”: “It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely light!”) At Steepletop, she would retreat to the solitude of her woodland writing cabin to focus on her poetry. Touring with her work and giving readings all over the country, she solidified her celebrity. In 1923, she won a Pulitzer Prize for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, which also sealed her legacy in American literature. She delivered intense performances of her work. I find her tone severe and entirely disconnected from how I read her poetry to myself, but her readings are enlightening to hear.

All of this is to say that Vincent was complex, with a stoic public persona and an exuberant appetite for entertainment in her personal life. To begin to understand her life, you have to acknowledge both the serious poet and the charming hostess. Eugen devoted himself to her: the windows of his bedroom suite overlooked her writing cabin in case she needed anything. Millay’s own view from her cabin windows was of the spring-fed pool and outdoor bar where swimming in the nude was required. Guests to Steepletop included fellow poets, editors, artists, composers, and columnists: Millay’s sister Norma and her husband, the artist Charles Ellis; Edmund Wilson; Arthur and Gladys Ficke; Elinor Wylie and her husband, William Rose Benét; Floyd Dell.

Kitchen garden.

Steepletop and its gardens, about three hours outside the city, were an especially reflective space for Millay. I spent the day there with Michael chatting and planting sunflowers and Swiss chard. My hands smelled of mint from the pennyroyal and anise from the cicely; there were Chinese forget-me-nots in my pocket. Fresh herbs scented the breeze. As I hiked alongside Michael, who oversees the gardening and landscape of the remaining two-hundred-plus acres of the estate, he shared a side of Millay that was more rustic, different from the city celebrity. She adored bird watching, he said, and planted white pines because when the wind blew it reminded her of the sound of ocean waves. He even paused for a moment to let me hear it for myself.

I followed him through Firefly Field and the staggeringly bucolic Hidden Meadow, where more white pines line the perimeter. He pointed out the blueberry bushes, and I ran my fingers over the steeplebush, from which the house takes its name. Thyme has grown over her clay tennis court, perfuming the field high over Steepletop. Eugen and Vincent, Michael told me, once made a friendly bet with a guest in this court: whoever lost the match would have to shed his pants.

The home itself is a time capsule, with Millay’s everythings in their right places. In a stray drawer I found a sensational and dreamy Indonesian headdress; in her bedroom there are dainty jeweled compacts, with red lipstick left in purses as if from last night’s party. The bedside tables still have packs of cigarettes on them.

The woodland writing cabin.

Garden view.

The kitchen garden is now, once again, vibrant and full of chives, lettuce, “Eugen’s Asparagus,” herbs, and plants. Michael pointed to a patch of shockingly orange flowers. “Those are called pot marigolds. Calendula.” Apparently, when dried and infused they can be applied to the hair to maintain a certain red color, he explained with a knowing smile. A Millay beauty secret? She had what Michael calls the “herb lore,” and she often used herbs for their holistic properties. She liked to smell one herb, wash her hands, and then return to smell another. On a frosty night she and Eugen protected the herbs with all the blankets they could find in the house. “Even you, Sweet Basil: even you, / Lemon Verbena: must exert yourselves / now,” she writes in Steepletop, “and somewhat harden / untimely frost; I have hovered / you and covered you and kept going / smudges, / Until I am close to worn-out.”

I was close to worn-out, too, at the end of the day, after seven hours of hiking, conversing, and what I’m sure Michael would consider very light gardening. (My trowel had gotten quite the workout.) He closed up the kitchen garden gate and we headed back to his truck to drop off the tools. A single pot marigold, flaming orange, poked through the fence. He leaned down, snipped it, and handed it to me. Too bad I don’t have red hair.

The house at Steepletop, with forsythia.

Meryl Cates is a writer and arts publicist living in Astoria. Her writing has appeared online in Interview Magazine, Toast, Huffington Post, among other publications.