SAVAGE BEAUTY: THE LIFE OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
By Nancy Milford
550 pages, $30
THE SELECTED POETRY OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
Introduction by Nancy Milford
167 pages, $17
Here we are at the very beginning of the 21st century, and who is being rediscovered but Edna St. Vincent Millay -- the wild-child poet of the Jazz Age?
We can say that Millay is rediscovered, really and truly, because that's the kind of effect Nancy Milford seems to have on people. People, that is, who happen to be long-dead, female and literary to one degree or another. You will remember that Milford wrote for her doctoral dissertation in 1970 a book, "Zelda," that brought the legend of Zelda Fitzgerald roaring to life -- and that sold 1.4 million copies along the way. She should neatly repeat that success here, with "Savage Beauty," a cherry of a biography.
Milford, now 63, spent the 30 years between Zelda and Edna researching this new book. In a way, she had to. Zelda was a sparkler of a personality, burnished bright by the fame of her husband, F. Scott, and was waiting impatiently in the wings, as it were, to be discovered on her own terms. Edna St. Vincent Millay is no such animal, although on closer inspection the similarities between the two women emerge. For years, however, Millay has been something of the Royal Crown Cola of female American poets -- a bit on the light and fizzy side, too sweet for most, and decidedly an acquired taste.
Here is her "First Fig," from the collection "A Few Figs From Thistles," which Millay published in 1920 and which helped her win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923. It is among the poems included in a new volume of selected poetry by Millay, published by Modern Library with an introduction by Milford. The "First Fig":
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!
The "Second Fig" is briefer, and better:
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
Milford's gift to readers, here, is to throw open the doors of that "shining palace" -- the one Millay created for herself by determination and luck -- and to let the light in. Milford's light is precise as a laser beam, and it illuminates an interesting slice of the American scene. Although she died in relative obscurity, Millay was a phenomenon of the roaring '20s, attracting huge crowds to her cross-country reading tours and behaving like a Jazz Age celebrity. She lived in Paris and Greenwich Village and had love affairs, many of them, with both men and women. She apparently had abortions. She got married and still carried on the torrid affairs.
Millay was also pretty -- in the red-hair-and-white-skin kind of way -- and sexually attractive, and she enjoyed being both. Milford captures all this, neatly switching her scenes from the past to the present, letting those that knew Millay best talk about her in their own words. (Her research began in 1972 with an interview with Norma Millay, the poet's sister.) Some of Milford's well-researched details -- the shoes Millay wore here, the way her voice cracked there -- are enough to make even a hard-edged woman like Millay seem vulnerable, childlike, appealing. "More than a half century later, this tiny woman, her glossy hair cropped close like a silver helmet, remembers Millay," writes Milford, of a certain older woman who knew the poet in Paris:
Her voice breaks as she speaks: "I did call her my Candy Box girl. Do you remember those elegant boxes of American chocolates? -- Well, they always had a portrait of a pretty girl in a lace blouse on the cover.
I was staying at the Hotel des Saints Peres, and we were to meet at last at the Rotunde ... I was delighted. So I shined my shoes. And she was late, of course. Dougie and I sat and waited and chatted and waited, when a girl in a velvet dress with frills at the throat walked across the room and came to our table. ...
Certainly she did not look at all as I had expected her to look. We took hands. We talked. And later that afternoon we went to bed together.
Millay died in 1950, at the age of 58, after breaking her neck in a fall down a set of stairs. Milford writes that a notebook lying with her body contained the penciled draft of a poem. Three lines were circled, including a line that read, "Handsome, this day: no matter who has died."
Millay lived a life like that -- one that combined handsomeness and death, beauty and savagery. And now we have Nancy Milford to thank, for reclaiming it for us.