Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay Info

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Thirty years after the smashing success of Zelda,
Nancy Milford returns with a stunning second act. Savage Beauty
is the portrait of a passionate, fearless woman who obsessed
American ever as she tormented herself.

If F. Scott
Fitzgerald was the hero of the Jazz Age, Edna St. Vincent Millay, as
flamboyant in her love affairs as she was in her art, was its heroine.
The first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, Millay was dazzling in
the performance of herself. Her voice was likened to an instrument of
seduction and her impact on crowds, and on men, was legendary. Yet
beneath her studied act, all was not well. Milford calls her book "a
family romance"—for the love between the three Millay sisters and
their mother was so deep as to be dangerous. As a family, they were like
real-life Little Women, with a touch of Mommie
Dearest
.
Nancy Milford was given exclusive access to
Millay's papers, and what she found was an extraordinary treasure. Boxes
and boxes of letter flew back and forth among the three sisters and
their mother—and Millay kept the most intimate diary, one whose
ruthless honesty brings to mind Sylvia Plath. Written with passion and
flair, Savage Beauty is an iconic portrait of a woman's
life.

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Reviews for Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

4

Jan 13, 2013

For your ears. You can thank me later.

I've decided that I like Edna St. Vincent Millay more as a person than as a poet. I feel bad about that, to a certain degree. Because how would I know about her if not first for her poetry? She gained popularity for her writing, and her personal life was secondary (sorta).

Nancy Milford does a great job here of researching Vincent's life, primarily through talking with Vincent's sister, Norma, who passed away in 1986. (One note of serious annoyance: Nowhere For your ears. You can thank me later.

I've decided that I like Edna St. Vincent Millay more as a person than as a poet. I feel bad about that, to a certain degree. Because how would I know about her if not first for her poetry? She gained popularity for her writing, and her personal life was secondary (sorta).

Nancy Milford does a great job here of researching Vincent's life, primarily through talking with Vincent's sister, Norma, who passed away in 1986. (One note of serious annoyance: Nowhere in the Acknowledgements does Milford thank Norma, or the memory of Norma, or make any reference whatsoever to Norma. I'm a bit disgusted by that. Milford likely wouldn't have gotten nearly as much personal information if it had not been for Norma. Jeebus.) There were two large segments of b/w photos from Vincent's life - some from her years at Vassar, some with her sisters, later with one or two or three lovers, later still with her husband, outside their home, Steepletop, and even later, looking rather sickly (as she was). The photos help bring Milford's writing to life, and I enjoyed flipping through the photos as they came up in Milford's biography.

Vincent's life was clearly lived to her fullest. She had no qualms with falling in love/lust/bed with whomever showed her the slightest bit of attention. These experiences are also detailed in Daniel Epstein's What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but are also written about in great detail in Milford's biography.

Here's the main thing I've learned about Vincent - she was a dependent and co-dependent person. She was (from what I can tell) never actually alone. From the time her father left and she had to take care of her mother and two younger sisters, to her studies at Vassar where she experiences for the first time the lubbins of another woman, to her later years with her husband and a line of various men. I think she actually lived and thrived because of the attentions lavished on her by just about everyone. Normally I would hate this about her, but while I'm not thrilled about it, it sort of contributes to what I find so interesting about her.

She's often compared to a modern Lord Byron, that whole "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" thing (which also defines Dylan McKay in Beverly Hills, 90210). She wasn't heartless, though. She genuinely loved everyone she was with, but often made poor choices; she was entirely too self-centered and concerned only with making herself happy. Train wreck, that's what Millay was, a freaking train wreck and I love every minute of learning about her life.

Not quite sure what this says about me. But maybe someone can write a biography of me and delve into that issue.

She was a lovely woman, and for most of her years, she was a hard worker, something I will always appreciate and respect. She wrote more than just poetry, so she wasn't just a one-trick pony. But I think her life got in her way in more ways than one, and she probably could have been even more. We'll never know, but that's my impression. ...more
4

Aug 29, 2007

This is one long book and I wanted more. Not more pages. More poetry. And way more salaciousness. Alas, Nancy Milford is a patient professional who carefully presents well-documented facts with little innuendo.

The story of Edna is beyond fascinating. This sort-of homely girl from Maine uses her mind and ability to pierce through people's facades to seduce her way through life. But there's so much more to the story. She works hard and deserves her successes. She loves to be loved, cares to be This is one long book and I wanted more. Not more pages. More poetry. And way more salaciousness. Alas, Nancy Milford is a patient professional who carefully presents well-documented facts with little innuendo.

The story of Edna is beyond fascinating. This sort-of homely girl from Maine uses her mind and ability to pierce through people's facades to seduce her way through life. But there's so much more to the story. She works hard and deserves her successes. She loves to be loved, cares to be cared for. She can never escape the ingrained fear of destitution and abandonment suffered throughout her childhood. But she also never seems to let go of the wild passion that fills a certain set of intelligent young children. Through her poetry, we see how she eventually tames this sharp pastoral ardor into sometimes subtly bold plays and poems and other writings that touch upon the here and now of her time.

And then there is her mother, her sisters, her friendships, her dalliances, her addictions, sadness, her savage fiery-red beauty.

...more
5

Aug 01, 2007

I'm biased because Edna St. Vincent Millay is my absolute favorite poet. So learning more about her was very interesting to me.

The book itself is incredibly well researched, really delving into the wild life of this amazing women.

She's not really someone you can idolize or look up to, but she is someone you can fall in love with, and that shines through beautifully in this biography.

I will warn that it is a bit heavy, and getting through the entire thing does involve a little slogging, but for I'm biased because Edna St. Vincent Millay is my absolute favorite poet. So learning more about her was very interesting to me.

The book itself is incredibly well researched, really delving into the wild life of this amazing women.

She's not really someone you can idolize or look up to, but she is someone you can fall in love with, and that shines through beautifully in this biography.

I will warn that it is a bit heavy, and getting through the entire thing does involve a little slogging, but for someone truly interested in the subject matter it is 100% worth it. ...more
4

Mar 31, 2009

What a riveting biography of a remarkable literary and feminist icon. It took Nancy Milford 30 years to write this biography of "Vincent" - and after you read it, you can understand why. Milford remains remarkably true to her sources - a vast treasure trove of at-that-point-unseen letters, journals, notebooks, unfinished works, and more from Edna St. Vincent Millay's estate. In the book, she lets the sources stretch their legs and breathe, allowing us readers to stew in Vincent's rich, What a riveting biography of a remarkable literary and feminist icon. It took Nancy Milford 30 years to write this biography of "Vincent" - and after you read it, you can understand why. Milford remains remarkably true to her sources - a vast treasure trove of at-that-point-unseen letters, journals, notebooks, unfinished works, and more from Edna St. Vincent Millay's estate. In the book, she lets the sources stretch their legs and breathe, allowing us readers to stew in Vincent's rich, impeccable writing. We get to read full letters, full ten-page poems. We are transported into the thick of her sumptuous drama-laden life. Yet Milford allows Vincent's literary triumphs, her frank eroticism, her late-in-life petulance, addiction, and downward spiral to unfold quietly, without a hint of sensationalism. Above all, this book feels honest.

But It seems to me that Milford made a conscious methodological decision with this biog, one I ultimately lamented. Savage Beauty almost reads in real-time; that is, she revels in the details of Vincent's fantastic life in a way that makes you feel like you are watching it via hidden camera. Yet Milford does little in the way of contextualization.

As a historian, I walked away wondering why Milford failed to situate Vincent's life in the history of feminism during this time, changing sexual ideals and possibilities for American women, the history of New York's bohemia ... I could go on and on about the themes that could have been addressed here. Vincent's life seemed a perfect entry point onto these fascinating processes, but Milford declined to allow it to be so.

As someone who knows significantly less about poetry than I do about history, I longed for some analysis of Vincent's work ... Vincent's poems seemed so old fashioned during a time of striking experimentation with modernist forms. Wasn't she a throwback? Was she just a celebrity or was she truly deserving of the heaps of praise she received throughout her life?

Milford offers little in the way of judgment of Vincent, her poetry, and her life. While I think this was purposeful, and on some level admirable, it seemed as if she passed up a rare opportunity to explain the way that the early 20th century influenced Vincent, and vice versa. ...more
4

May 07, 2014

I haven't read a lot of biographies of writers, but this year I read two, and I think I've figured out what the biggest challenge is in documenting the life of a creative person: Most of them don't leave behind much writing about their creative process. As a result, any biography of a writer is going to focus on what can be documentedtheir various relationships, their travels, the awards they've won, bad behavior that others witnessed and never forgot. This is all well and goodafter all, I think I haven't read a lot of biographies of writers, but this year I read two, and I think I've figured out what the biggest challenge is in documenting the life of a creative person: Most of them don't leave behind much writing about their creative process. As a result, any biography of a writer is going to focus on what can be documented—their various relationships, their travels, the awards they've won, bad behavior that others witnessed and never forgot. This is all well and good—after all, I think most people who read biographies are looking for this sort of detail about the subject's life, and, when it comes to creative process, are content to let the work speak for itself. The problem that arises, though, is that the subject can become divorced from her creative output to such an extent that when she's quoted saying something that displays her intellect and her sheer focus on her work, it's almost jarring—you suddenly remember that Millay, for example, isn't just a woman with lots of lovers and an active social life, she's also a poet. In this particular case, I think Nancy Milford also just didn't entirely understand Millay, and as a result is not able to integrate her more, shall we say, impetuous side with the obviously disciplined mind that created all those popular and praised works. The other problem with biography is that when the subject has self-destructive tendencies—as a fair amount of creative types do, unfortunately—the whole thing just tends to end very badly, devastatingly even. I kind of wish I didn't know some of the things I now know about Edna St. Vincent Millay.

But I still wouldn't discourage anyone from reading this! This book was a massive undertaking, but it's very well put together and doesn't feel unwieldy at all. Some Goodreads reviewers have complained that this is boring or not lascivious enough, but I disagree on both counts. This is a long book, but fascinating, entertaining, and full of information. The actual conversations Milford was able to have with Edna's sister Norma add a unique perspective that no other portrait of Millay will ever achieve. I'm sure others will try to document Millay's life, but this book will be difficult, if not impossible, to surpass. ...more
2

Jul 24, 2009

This book is far too long for the subject matter at hand. I could certainly have stood 100 fewer pages of ESVM's whining. In hindsight, it was a poor choice for my first biography. It has left a horrible taste in my mouth for the entire genre.
I found the author's insertion of herself into the story irritating. The flow (or lack thereof) was not well served by the constant excerpts from letters to and from Millay. I realize that these are the documents upon which the biography is founded, but This book is far too long for the subject matter at hand. I could certainly have stood 100 fewer pages of ESVM's whining. In hindsight, it was a poor choice for my first biography. It has left a horrible taste in my mouth for the entire genre.
I found the author's insertion of herself into the story irritating. The flow (or lack thereof) was not well served by the constant excerpts from letters to and from Millay. I realize that these are the documents upon which the biography is founded, but they became disruptive and distracting.
While I enjoyed Milford's treatment of the early life of this poet, by the time Edna was living in Greeenwich village, I had had enough of her.
It was a real chore to get through the middle third of this book. I kept expecting something more from this woman who grew up in abject poverty. I wanted her to be stronger; to have developed a character and a will that could withstand life's turmoil. I was left instead with the impression of a childish, insecure, munchausen case who barely had the will to get out of bed in the morning.
I began this book with a great deal of enthusiasm and anticipation. I remembered how much I enjoyed Millay's poetry as a teenager. She had been an inspiration. After reading this biography, I feel pity for her. I am underwhelmed by both the writing in this biography, and the person about whom it was written.
...more
3

Jun 20, 2007

I will admit that I didn't know of Edna St. Vincent Millay before starting on this book and so I greatly enjoyed the introduction to her poetry - certain poems are excerpted at length in this book and I found them to be lovely and insightful. Moreover, the portrait of Edna and her entire family was detailed, layered and complex. In fact, the entire description of Edna's life called out for psychological interpretation at nearly every turn. Although I never felt that I really liked any of the I will admit that I didn't know of Edna St. Vincent Millay before starting on this book and so I greatly enjoyed the introduction to her poetry - certain poems are excerpted at length in this book and I found them to be lovely and insightful. Moreover, the portrait of Edna and her entire family was detailed, layered and complex. In fact, the entire description of Edna's life called out for psychological interpretation at nearly every turn. Although I never felt that I really liked any of the characters, I found them to be realistic and fascinating as well as products of their particularly interesting time period.

My only critique of this book is that I thought the author was often too present in the book - she appears as a character and her own interpretations of the personalities are repeatedly reiterated throughout the book. Despite the, at times, heavy-handed writing, this was a compelling biography of a fascinating woman. ...more
5

May 30, 2010

As a third grader, I read every biography our school library held. They were all library-bound, olive drab or dull blue, stamped on the spine in white or black letters with a name and a subtitle. My favorites were Benjamin Franklin and Helen Keller; from then on, I wanted to get into publishing and Radcliffe College, and the astronaut dream was jettisoned. After I exhausted those two or three library shelves, though, I let the biographical form go, and only a few have passed through my hands As a third grader, I read every biography our school library held. They were all library-bound, olive drab or dull blue, stamped on the spine in white or black letters with a name and a subtitle. My favorites were Benjamin Franklin and Helen Keller; from then on, I wanted to get into publishing and Radcliffe College, and the astronaut dream was jettisoned. After I exhausted those two or three library shelves, though, I let the biographical form go, and only a few have passed through my hands since then. The only one that comes to mind is a disappointing biography of Salinger, read in the hope that it might lay some new salvaged planks in the floor of my heart. It did not. The writer couldn't get his hands on the good stuff, and spent most of the book recounting his frustrated research process. It left me wanting, my heart still tacky with the glue I'd laid down in anticipation, but still, I was reassured by Salinger's stubbornness.

This one is different.

Nancy Milford made friends with Norma Millay, Edna's sister, in the 1970s, and convinced her to sign a contract allowing her unrestricted access to all of Edna's papers. All of them. Every draft of every letter, every journal entry, every working copy of every poem, every telegram, every photograph; the only things Norma seems to have held out of Milford's reach are a stack of nude photos. Nancy even moved into Steepletop, the house Edna and her husband shared, while working on the book, piecing together Edna's life and napping on the living room couch, taking down Norma's injections of commentary, sometimes with a grain of salt, sometimes with a pound of it.

Vincent's is a dangerous life to write, beautiful and vicious and full of longing and desperation; and full of unwavering dedication to poetry. Inspiring. Chastening. Violently liberating.

Though I have to admit, I skipped the second-to-last chapter. I just couldn't bear to watch her demise, the drug abuse, the weakness. Some things are better left alone; I had to avert my eyes. Even so, I can only hope that my own life and work will warrant a biographer as deft and searing as Nancy Milford. Now back to that poem.... ...more
4

Apr 25, 2019

What a splendid research work made by Nancy Milford in describing the life and work of this remarkable poetess.

Through her letters and the correspondence between Edna Millay (she signed her letters as Vincent) and her family and her friends (Edmund Wilson,George Dillon - they translated Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal") we can follow her brilliant career and how she met some remarkable writers and poets.

Millay was the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Some of Millay's works published What a splendid research work made by Nancy Milford in describing the life and work of this remarkable poetess.

Through her letters and the correspondence between Edna Millay (she signed her letters as Vincent) and her family and her friends (Edmund Wilson,George Dillon - they translated Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal") we can follow her brilliant career and how she met some remarkable writers and poets.

Millay was the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Some of Millay's works published until 1923 are now released to the public domain and will be published by Project Gutenberg. Don't miss them! ...more
5

Jul 02, 2008

Review: Savage Beauty written by Nancy Milford
I began this book not having the slightest idea about Edna St. Vincent Millay other than a few poems of hers I remembered from a poetry collection, and came away from it enthralled as much with the story as I was with the care Nancy Milford took in every detail, every analysis, every description. A biography has twin hearts: the first being the story, the life itself, and the second being the biographers interpretations- of not only the happenings, Review: Savage Beauty written by Nancy Milford
I began this book not having the slightest idea about Edna St. Vincent Millay other than a few poems of hers I remembered from a poetry collection, and came away from it enthralled as much with the story as I was with the care Nancy Milford took in every detail, every analysis, every description. A biography has twin hearts: the first being the story, the life itself, and the second being the biographers interpretations- of not only the happenings, but the particulars of a life in photos, cards, lines tossed onto paper, diary entries, ticket stubs, oftentimes going as far back as early childhood. It would be a blessing for any person to have Milford as caretaker of their legacy, as she takes these particulars and views them in complete context of the life and person they document, then reflecting on their meaning or truth with the light touch and piercing insight of a revered Aunt. She never scolds or allows herself to be entirely swept up into the awe beckoning when viewing the personals of a major literary figure from the past.

Milford approached Norma Millay, the surviving relative of ESVM, and eventually, with much persistence and patience, persuaded her to help Milford write the life story of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Milford had the conviction, borne of an instinctual feel for how people work, that Norma would have papers and records of her sister, never revealed. And she did. The diaries and extensive collection of letters from throughout ESVM's life, letters exchanged with lovers, friends, family and her husband, provided the foundation for this amazing biography. Intermingled with the telling of ESVM are stops in the story where we are brought back to present time, with Norma and Nancy Milford talking. Norma's sharp personality and fierce devotion to her sister bring the entire story headlong into significance, for even if we were to deny or miss the significance of the story for ourselves or our times, we cannot dismiss the meaning and relevance for this sister. The meeting of historical significance with personal seals the depth of the story.

Edna St. Vincent Millay- known as Vincent to friends and family- was born at the tail end of the 1800's and grew up primarily with her two sisters, Norma and Kathleen, ( Kathleen having a small side story throughout, as the sister who wrote and published but resented her lack of status next to her more famous sibling, eventually dying of alcoholism after fierce descent including hospitalization, divorce and financial ruin )and her mother, Cora. The story begins by poking the ashes of the family history, which is quite interesting enough to hold up on it's own, and involved the outrageous affair of Cora's mother and her eventual death, thrown from a horse. Cora eventually marries and leaves her own husband, taking care of her three girls, or as she called them, ' little women ', for they were to bear the brunt of their own caretaking as their mother traveled for long periods of time, working as a nurse to provide for her daughters. Vincent's father had moved away and had no contact with the family outside of a few letters to Vincent.

Vincent's childhood was marked by a few pointed circumstances: her father had left, her mother was often gone, the family had no money and therefore no status and little respect.
Left alone to housekeep, school and socialize, the Millay girls no doubt all developed their own coping mechanisms. Vincent daydreamed and wrote. Her diary became her confidant and her daydreams involved the typical savior prince. Through the cheerful letters back and forth from mother to daughters, we hear the ' chin up ' attitude they all tried to maintain, but this unnatural separation took its toll. Vincent was prone to small rages, rages private and perhaps totally so because of the family's lack of money and competitive socializing, but extremely important in view of Vincent's life as a whole.

There is the story recounted by Norma of Vincent stuffing her sister's mouth with geranium leaves, pushing her underneath a pillow and sitting triumphantly on top. The detail of ' geranium leaves ' at first makes the story very amusing, but as we read we realize that the undercurrents provoking Vincent were not light. It was a fierce lonliness for her mother and resentment at the responsibilities thrust on a girl who wrote:

' I'm getting old and ugly. My hands are stiff and rough and stained and blistered. I can feel my face dragging down. I can feel the lines coming underneath my skin. They don't show yet but I can feel a hundred of them underneath. I love beauty more than anything else in the world and I can't take the time to be pretty. Crawl into bed at night too tired to brush my hair... '

Millay's literary story takes it's place in history when she almost takes first prize in a major poetry contest with her poem 'Renaissance'. By the time the contest was over and poems published, Vincent had a written relationship with Mr. Earle (an important editor ), secured herself a fully paid scholarship to Vassar College and received the attention of many in the poetic world who believed that Millay's story should have taken first place.

Millay attends and graduates Vassar, and it is here in this setting that we see her personality as it was to remain for many years- seductive, freewheeling, intellectually stimulating and stimulated and uncommonly confident in her poetic ability. She had affairs with men and women, drew people to her red haired, keen eyed and potently spirited beauty, upset Vassar faculty, did passably at school and at the end of her four years published her first book of poetry, ' Renascence and Other Poems '. ( The spelling discrepancy is discussed in the book. )

From here, Vincent Millay took off to the skies, shining brighter and brighter in the world, fiercer and more admired, called ' a genius ' by almost everyone who met her and most who read her, widely published and respected, eventually called ' America's girl poet '. She was beguiling completely, utterly charming, much beloved by men and women, and married to Eugen Boissevain, a handsome, tall and intelligent man from European money. They would both have affairs and spend, at times, years apart, but they always remained married and in the end of their lives were for each other, only. Eugen was, from the beginning, completely sure of Vincent Millay's genius and took it on himself to be her ' almost perfect husband ' as the caption under his picture reads in the book. He supported her and coddled her, but exactly how Vincent treated him on a day to day basis remains a bit of a mystery to me, not through any lack of Milford's, but because the focus in their life was so primarily on Vincent and her writing that little was spoken of how she treated Eugen outside of expecting him to support her writing completely, including taking on most of the household duties and putting up with an extended and serious love affair she had with a poet.

The brightest burn in this lifeline is during this ' Jazz Age ' where Millay mingled, played and loved with many of the most prominent writers, editors, publishers and poets of that time. She was the first woman to win the Pultizer Prize in 1923, for the poem ' The Harp Weaver '. Millay was very productive, publishing books of poetry, writing abroad for Vanity Fair, completing essays, fighting for politics she believed in, ( highly unusual for a woman ) all the while helping support her family. Again, the details of Milford's research are entwined with her gentle but pointed observations, making this already interesting time in history even more fascinating for it's revolutions around this extraordinary woman.

Millay's life winds tighter and at an increasingly melancholy note from this point on. I found the ending very difficult to read. Millay and her husband settle into their beautiful home ' Steepletop ' and there is much heartbreak, estrangement, an evocative feel that Milford creates reminding me of an old person wandering, and the harrowing descent of Vincent into drug abuse. Her medical condition or conditions remain a mystery. Milford guesses at the truth, but is not as assured here as other places in the story. Reading what documented evidence there is, I was myself persuaded that Millay had two afflictions: physical and spiritual, both which contributed to her addiction. Millay was afraid of getting old, as we all are to some degree, but for her I believe it was the snuffing of a candle that had been her main source of light for her entire adulthood. She herself sobs to a friend at one point that she cannot write, is not beautiful, no one wants her anymore, and is much cheered up when he assures her this is not true.

The pictures twice enclosed in the middle of this large book are fantastic; I referred to them over and over reading the biography, wondering at the details they revealed. Milford closes the picture section with a picture of Norma Millay in her later years, reclining against a fence, cigarette in hand, looking entirely iconoclastic and defiant as well as slightly mischevious. She seems a fascinating character in her own right.

Again, it is Milford's amazing persistence, psychological compassions and tender touch that illuminate this life completely. Savage Beauty reveals not only the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay but the intelligence and talent of it's biographer.

Highly recommended.

' 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!'

--- Edna St. Vincent Millay ...more
5

Sep 18, 2017

I devoured this book and it broke my heart. Three sisters. All so clearly close. And what talent this poet had. The third woman to win the Pulitzer for Poetry. And it also rather bothers me that so few people even know her name among my contemporaries. Read this biography, please!
5

May 20, 2019

This was my second read, and I loved it just as much as the first time.
5

Jun 22, 2007

This is a remarkable biography, for a multitude of reasons.

First, I must admit my own ignorance when it comes to much of Millay's work. I think I was surprised by how well-known she was in her day. I took advanced English courses in high school, studied English quite a bit in college, and yet my knowledge of her was so very limited, and the same went for my English nerd friends who I brought her up to. This either reflects poorly on the school systems, the way that fame of women is regarded, the This is a remarkable biography, for a multitude of reasons.

First, I must admit my own ignorance when it comes to much of Millay's work. I think I was surprised by how well-known she was in her day. I took advanced English courses in high school, studied English quite a bit in college, and yet my knowledge of her was so very limited, and the same went for my English nerd friends who I brought her up to. This either reflects poorly on the school systems, the way that fame of women is regarded, the way that poetry is regarded, or all three.

As with so many people who show promise so young - when she wrote her first acclaimed poem she was but a teenager - she was quickly thrust under the spotlight and cherished each moment it was on her. She led a very dramatic and alluring life, and as usually goes, it ended sadly and more quickly than it should've.

I've read some reviews complaining about how much the book focuses on her lovers, but I think each is very telling about Millay, particularly Ferdinand Earle, Arthur Ficke, Edmund Wilson and, of course, Eugen Boissevain. I was actually most interested in her relationship with Boissevain, as a result of the portrayal of her love life. It seemed like no one would ever be able to make her commit in anyway, so you grew curious about what it was that Boissevain had/did that the others didn't. I ended up breezing through reading about the "juicy" parts out of curiosity for what it was that thrust her into domestic life.

What he did was mother her - which made sense, considering Millay's relationship with her mother. Millay had an incredibly close - and odd - relationship with her mother, and it seemed as though there was no other woman that Millay was ever so close to, including her sisters, both of whom she also had very strange relationships with.

Getting back to Boissevain, their relationship was incredibly fascinating. For example, while Millay was addicted to morphine, Boissevain began taking the drug, as well, so that he could understand what she was going through. When she quit, he quit. When he was dealing with his lung cancer and had difficulties breathing, she mimicked this, trying to understand his pain. If that's not love, I don't know what is.

I do agree with the people who wanted more poetry in the book - but the book is so good, if you don't own any of her poetry, you won't have any problem in going out and buying one. Milford does do a good job of illuminating Millay's creative process, though, and I think that's more important in the context of this biography.

I found all too many similarities between myself and Millay, which made it an interesting read, but I think any young, ambitious writer will see a bit of themselves in her... which is probably why my Grandmother had the smarts to give it to me.

All in all, a fascinating read, even for someone who was rather unfamiliar with Millay's work. I have a strong appreciation for who she is, and I think this was a nice introduction. Like any long non-fiction book, it can take quite a bit of time to read through, and it has its sluggish moments - I'm a fast reader and it took me about a month and a half - but it's worth reading, all the same.

Note: I'm still thinking about this, even weeks later, so it gets bumped up to five stars. ...more
3

Sep 18, 2010

I've been reading the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay lately, so I was pleased to find this book in one of the boxes that my aunt sent at the beginning of the winter. I knew very little about the poet and her life, so this biography, thirty years in the writing, makes me want to take a new look at the poems. Although I feel that there are some faults in Milford's biography, seeing the poetry against the background of a life, often troubled but always adventurous, added a new dimension to my I've been reading the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay lately, so I was pleased to find this book in one of the boxes that my aunt sent at the beginning of the winter. I knew very little about the poet and her life, so this biography, thirty years in the writing, makes me want to take a new look at the poems. Although I feel that there are some faults in Milford's biography, seeing the poetry against the background of a life, often troubled but always adventurous, added a new dimension to my understanding.

Millay spoke for a new generation of women, those of the Jazz Age that were stepping across boundaries and breaking into new territory. Millay smoked in public and made no secret of her many lovers, both male and female. Marriage vows, her own or another's, had little effect on her behavior. Her troubled life began in Maine, where her father abandoned the family early and her mother felt obliged to leave her three small daughters alone for long periods of time while working as a nurse. The relationship between the four women affected much of "Vincent's" life, with turmoil between herself and a difficult younger sister who felt overshadowed by Vincent's talent. Cora Buzzell Millay, Vincent's mother, seems to struggle with pride and jealousy in Milford's portrayal of her, and it sometimes seems that Vincent and her sisters go to great lengths to pacify Cora's demands, perhaps from fear of abandonment. There is a hint at one point that Vincent may have been molested by a man Cora was involved with.

What struck me most about Vincent Millay's life is that genius so often comes out of such a life. Talented people often seem to be driven toward a need for experience, and the depth of their work reveals an understanding of experience that so many of us lack. We need these people to speak for us, out of their pain, to say what we cannot find words to reveal.

Milford disappoints me occasionally throughout her work. She isn't a particularly organized writer; the book is unsettling in the manner that the material is presented, sometimes in an almost haphazard fashion. It is difficult to capture a life, of course, but the best biographers understand the "why" behind the "what happened" and these reasons elude Milford. Reading between the lines of the numerous excerpts of Millay's works, journals and letters is up to the reader, and Milford offers no interpretation or analysis. I felt sometimes that Milford was overwhelmed with the material, and perhaps intimidated by Millay's sister, Norma.

Savage Beauty has some flaws, but so did Edna St. Vincent Millay. The biography is well worth reading for the facts presented and the excerpts from Millay's journals and less accessible writing beyond her poetry. The biography has encouraged me to go back to the poems, with a better understanding of their author, and maybe this is accomplishment enough. ...more
3

Feb 05, 2010

A few thoughts as I continue to reflect on this book and ESVM.

There was so little social/historical context until ESVM marched in protest for Sacco and Vanzetti- so little sense that the poet was aware of and engaged in a world beyond what gave her immediate pleasure. Little mention of WWI, the flu (except for ESVM's ode to a lost college mate), the women's suffrage movement- I felt a little lost in trying to place the poet's open sexuality, her college and young adult affairs in relation to A few thoughts as I continue to reflect on this book and ESVM.

There was so little social/historical context until ESVM marched in protest for Sacco and Vanzetti- so little sense that the poet was aware of and engaged in a world beyond what gave her immediate pleasure. Little mention of WWI, the flu (except for ESVM's ode to a lost college mate), the women's suffrage movement- I felt a little lost in trying to place the poet's open sexuality, her college and young adult affairs in relation to what was happening in society at the time- or at least the society in which she operated.

The same could be said for the behavior of her mother and grandmother- the courage it must have taken to walk away from marriages at the turn of the century and earlier.

I found the style of speaking- in correspondence between ESVM and her sisters, mother, lovers, friends, so bizarre, cloying, slightly deranged. Was this typical of the era, of people in these social strata (ESVM straddled high and low society)? Her poetry seems so old-fashioned for her time- 19th century wind swirling through dark English moors kind of stuff. I know very little of poetry, so would perhaps benefit from an analysis of ESVM works.

Yet, after reading this bio, I have little desire to explore her poetry. If Milford's portrayal is an accurate one, the poet is a creature I find repulsive- so needy, manipulative, little deserving of sympathy. What is fascinating is her obvious charisma- the wand of charm she wielded was so powerful that everyone swooned in her presence, with little to show but heartbreak and strangely-written letters.
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It's difficult to assign this stars- I thought it was very well-written, but didn't care a whit for EsVM- who was mostly a self-absorbed, nasty, ill, manipulative wench. But I need to think about it all for a bit.
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PCC-Chicks Book club read for March. ...more
4

Jul 25, 2008

Just started this, but so far so good. Millay was a very "out there" character for her time. She was promiscuous and not choosy about which sex she slept with. She smoked and drank and partied. She was politically vocal and active. She hated the Lindberghs and publicly spoke out against them when they were advocating the Nazis. People adored her, but also hated and feared her. Thomas Hardy once said that there were only two good things about America--the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St Just started this, but so far so good. Millay was a very "out there" character for her time. She was promiscuous and not choosy about which sex she slept with. She smoked and drank and partied. She was politically vocal and active. She hated the Lindberghs and publicly spoke out against them when they were advocating the Nazis. People adored her, but also hated and feared her. Thomas Hardy once said that there were only two good things about America--the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay. This book was written with the help of her sister who allowed the author to view letters and writings and photos that no one else had ever been privy to.

There are a couple of Millay's poems that speak to me in big ways. I'm not usually a fan of sonnets, but, man, does she write some beautiful, bittersweet ones.

Here is the one that prompted me to pick up this book:

Time Does Not Bring Relief

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
who told me that time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him in the shrinking of the tide;
the old snows melt from every mountainside;
and last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
heaped in my heart, and old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
to go--so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
where never fell his boot or shone his face
I say "There is no memory of him here."
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

Good stuff. ...more
3

Jul 11, 2012

I was introduced to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay this past semester when I took an Intro to Poetry class. We read I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why. From that point on, I have been a major fan of Millays work and I wanted to know more about her. So I looked around for a good biography to read and found Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Vincent (as Millay was known by family and friends) was a fascinating woman, I was introduced to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay this past semester when I took an Intro to Poetry class. We read “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” and “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why.” From that point on, I have been a major fan of Millay’s work and I wanted to know more about her. So I looked around for a good biography to read and found Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Vincent (as Millay was known by family and friends) was a fascinating woman, living in a fascinating time period. She was bold, creative, and charismatic, drawing people to her with her child-like beauty, her voice, passion and sheer talent. Reading excerpts from her letters and diaries was interesting and entertaining. (At times, especially when she was a college student at Vassar, she comes across almost like a character from a Lucy Maud Montgomery book (like Emily Byrd Starr) albeit one that smokes, acts out, and has a LOT more sex that any character Montgomery would ever have written about).

Having said all that, Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Milford is fairly successful in recounting Vincent’s early years from childhood, up through college and into the beginning of her career and marriage but the book eventually gets bogged down and lags more than a little towards the end before abruptly stopping in a rather unsatisfying conclusion. Also the author lacked a certain sympathy with her subject that would have allowed her to discuss some of the more sensitive parts of Vincent’s life without coming across as gossiping, judgmental and exploitative. She also allowed her personal hostility towards Norma Millay, Vincent’s sister and her source for much of the book, to be painfully obvious in the text. Even as she depends on Norma to provide access to Vincent’s papers and to recount her own recollections, Milford also makes not-so-subtle digs at her and questions Norma’s accuracy and motivations in providing the stories. It makes the narrator of the book come across as an unlikeable, sneering, insinuating, condescending gossip. During the parts of the book where Milford doesn’t intrude too much and allows Vincent to speak for herself through the documents she left behind, I enjoyed the book. I just wish there had been more of it.

I would love to read another, better biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. If anyone has any suggestions, I would love to hear them.
...more
4

Jul 01, 2014

Wish I could give 4.5 stars. Fantastic biography -- fascinating and exhaustively documented from beginning to end. Much of that is due to the fact that Edna St. Vincent Millay lived such a *life* and had such entirely engrossing relationships while composing her classic poetry. The book jacket reviewers call her life both "inspiring and cautionary" and ... yeah. There's a hell of a lot of caution in there as well. But you can certainly say that Ms. Millay never shrunk from living. Great book.
4

Jun 28, 2016

Milford's critical biography of Millay is a masterpiece: detailed, meticulous, and stark. Vastly more textured than Epstein's biography (which I also enjoyed, but for different reasons), with the weight of Millay's personal papers and correspondence adding an almost uncomfortable level of intimacy. If Milford wrote a second book about the process of writing this book (including detailed descriptions of ALL her interactions with Norma Millay at Steepletop), I would read that as well.
5

Sep 01, 2007

The thing about biographies is that I float around the house for days, pretending to be the dowdy best friend of the subject. Or alternatively the glamorous best friend, if my biofeedback is in alignment. And I floated on this one for WEEKS. Just a great combination of interesting circumstances, genius, weird personalities and all things fabulous. And a darn good poet.
4

Sep 15, 2010

I was working for Virginia Hamilton Adair when I read this book. I was telling her about it, and said that Edna's mother had to work all the time, and they didn't have money, but she made sure they were surrounded by poetry.
"Poultry ?" says Virginia, "Why would they want to be surrounded by poultry?"
What a good laugh we had over that.
5

May 06, 2014

An exquisitely rendered biography of a complex and talented American icon.
4

Dec 20, 2011

Savage Beauty does not dispel the impression that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a major life but a minor poet. This well-written biography quotes many poems in full, including "Renascence," which early won Millay warm admiration from poets and editors, and financial support for an education at Vassar. The biography occasionally grades the poems it quotes, saying of one "extraordinarily lovely" and of another "masterful." It is, however, more interested in identifying the addressee of the poems, Savage Beauty does not dispel the impression that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a major life but a minor poet. This well-written biography quotes many poems in full, including "Renascence," which early won Millay warm admiration from poets and editors, and financial support for an education at Vassar. The biography occasionally grades the poems it quotes, saying of one "extraordinarily lovely" and of another "masterful." It is, however, more interested in identifying the addressee of the poems, and other details from Millay's life. A discussion of the style of "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" begins insightfully but ends too quickly by linking the harp with a woman's head to the lap loom on which Clara Millay, Vincent's mother, wove hair for a living. Interesting identification, but it is surely not the last word on the poem.

Matters are not helped when emphasis is placed on the astonishing attraction of Millay's low reading voice. In returning to this over and over, Nancy Milford is but tracing the strong reactions of Millay's listeners. But this obsession with her voice has the unfortunate effect of marking Millay as a performer. Not only did she reach thousands through her reading tours, she also read on radio, reaching many other thousands. Her celebrity played a part, surely, in her decision to write propagandistic poetry against Fascism and American isolationism in the run-up to War World II. She was sincere in her political beliefs, but sincerity does not by itself create poetry. In a letter from that period, she talked about the need of a lyric poet to engage the world if she is not to say the same things again and again. Her political engagement, to my mind, is insufficiently self-doubtful. Her longtime friend and a poet Arthur Ficke expressed his reservations about her war effort "The Murder of Lidice" in a way that resonates for me:

I cannot, I will not, believe that this war is an ultimate conflict between right and wrong: and though I do not doubt for a moment that we are less horrible than the philosophy and practice of Hitler, still I think we are very horrible: and I will not, I must not, accept or express the hysterical patriotic war-moods of these awful days.

Millay's poetic sympathies lie with the High and Late Victorians. Her influences, as she describes them, are Tennyson, Browning, Hardy and Housman. She seems to have little to say about Eliot, Pound and Auden, and nothing to say about her female contemporaries like Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein and H.D.. Milford refers to a satire in verse she wrote against T.S. Eliot that targeted "The Waste Land," but does not describe its contents, let alone delineate its poetics. Late in her career, Millay became the darling of the people and of collectors who lapped up the expensive special editions of her books. She seemed divorced from the poetry debates that raged around her, in Europe as well as her native America, and so the avant-garde, which she appeared to embody in the 1920s in the form of the New Woman, left her behind.

Still, belonging to no party or school, she found the freedom, and spared the time from her work, to recommend poets whom she believed in for the Guggenheim. What she said about the sanctity of a writer's work, apart from whatever politics he or she chooses to profess, is still generous and relevant:

Of the six writers I am recommending this year, three are definitely revolutionists, one is definitely a classicist, one is probably mad and the other is doubtless trying to recover from shell-shock. What are you doing to do about them? ... I have come loudly out into the open, and am running the risk of making an utter fool of myself. I think the Guggenheim Foundation cannot properly be administered on any other terms; we may not foster the conservative at the expense of the experimental; the solid at the expense of the slippery; we must take chances; we must incur danger. Otherwise we shall eventually become an organization which gives prizes for acclaimed accomplishment, not fellowships for obscure talent, tangible promise, probable development, and possible achievement.

Was she thinking of her own history when she wrote the last sentence? She emerged from the abysmal poverty of a small-town Maine childhood, after her mother sent her good-for-nothing father packing and undertook to bring up the three daughters, Vincent, Norma and Katherine, by herself. Clara Buzzell Millay took up the job of a home-nurse and had to be away from her family most of the time. Besides suffering the absence of a beloved mother, Vincent at a young age was responsible for the two younger sisters. Milford is very good at conveying the power of this family romance for all the women involved, and scrupulous in detecting the darker undertones of abandonment, jealousy and anger.

Also detailed and interesting is her depiction of Millay's unusual marriage with Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch American importer. He believed completely in her poetic gift and strove to provide an environment for its flourishing. Unwilling to play the part of the possessive husband, he gave Vincent the freedom to pursue her romantic obsessions, in particular, her love affair with the younger George Dillon, the future editor of Poetry magazine. It is true, however, that the balance of power in the marriage shifted when Millay's writing began to bring home the bacon. Boissevain became the manager of the household at Steepletop, the estate they bought, releasing his wife to focus entirely on writing. I am reminded here of Leonard Woolf, who spared Virginia of the many distractions against writing too. Leonard, however, had Hogarth Press. Eugen had nothing, but the protection of Vincent, whom he guarded with perhaps overbearing vigilance. Like many partnered writers, Millay could dedicate herself to writing because she could bank on others' dedication to her. ...more
4

Mar 26, 2017

It is astonishing how much research went into this biography. I feel like I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay. I love reading about the various artists in this time period of the Jazz Age. There is an amazing amount of detail gathered about her life, family, friends, and ambitions. In addition, it was a look
into the story and meaning behind much of her poetry. So much of which comes directly from her journals or her sister's recollections. In it's thoroughness, the book is quite long. In being a It is astonishing how much research went into this biography. I feel like I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay. I love reading about the various artists in this time period of the Jazz Age. There is an amazing amount of detail gathered about her life, family, friends, and ambitions. In addition, it was a look
into the story and meaning behind much of her poetry. So much of which comes directly from her journals or her sister's recollections. In it's thoroughness, the book is quite long. In being a biography, and not a memoir as I often prefer, it can be an intense read. I can't imagine I could learn anything more by reading another book. This is complete. ...more
5

Apr 25, 2018

I loved this biography so much, still thinking about it a lot a month after reading it. I'd read a few Millay poems but knew nothing about her -- so this book read almost like a fictional story where I was like, WHATS GOING TO HAPPEN TO EDNA?!? Except it was her actual life. Brings up a lot of interesting themes -- sister/mother dynamics, ambition, selfishness/freedom vs. dependency in romantic relationships, devotion to writing/poetry, bohemianism, love for home&country vs. I loved this biography so much, still thinking about it a lot a month after reading it. I'd read a few Millay poems but knew nothing about her -- so this book read almost like a fictional story where I was like, WHATS GOING TO HAPPEN TO EDNA?!? Except it was her actual life. Brings up a lot of interesting themes -- sister/mother dynamics, ambition, selfishness/freedom vs. dependency in romantic relationships, devotion to writing/poetry, bohemianism, love for home&country vs. restlessness/expat life. I feel like Millay really squeezed the juice out of her life, for better and for worse. Also such an interesting time period, she lived 1852-1950. ...more

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