hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Poetry and place

Visitors get more access to home of Edna St. Vincent Millay


Contributing writer


Although the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most prominent and colorful literary figures of the 20th century, her former home in Columbia County has had a very low profile in the region’s tourism scene.
But the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, the nonprofit organization that owns and maintains the house and a 200-acre property known as Steepletop, is working to change that.
The group’s goal is to add Steepletop to the list of historic homes of well-known creative figures that have become popular attractions around the region. This would put Steepletop in the company of such destinations as Edith Wharton’s The Mount in Lenox, Mass., Herman Melville’s Arrowhead in Pittsfield, and Olana, the elaborate home built near Hudson by the artist Frederic Church.
This summer will mark a major step toward that goal for Steepletop, which is just off Route 22, at 436 East Hill Road, near the border of Austerlitz and West Stockbridge, Mass.
Steepletop had been largely closed to the public until 2010, when restoration work reached the point that the Millay Society was able to open it for tours on a limited basis.
This year, another phase of the restoration project will be completed, and the house and gardens will be open to the public for tours on a regular basis, on Fridays through Mondays from May 23 to Oct. 20.
In addition, a new visitors center is expected to open in July in a former guesthouse on the Steepletop grounds. The center will house offices, a gift shop, and space for exhibits, lectures and other events.Edna St. Vincent Millay
Like Millay herself, Steepletop has a colorful history that may be surprising to those unfamiliar with the poet and her life and work.
Millay, who died in 1950 at age 58, was nationally known in her lifetime, and her work resonated with a large swath of the public. Sales of her work, along with live readings she presented to large audiences, earned her a substantial income, and she also read her work on the radio.
She was a prominent public figure, even a celebrity.
“She was a rock star in her day,” said Holly Peppe, who is Millay’s literary executor, a former president of the Millay Society and a current member of its board of trustees. “She was very popular, because her poetry is universal and accessible to everyone.”


Championing personal freedom
Millay was a free spirit and wasn’t afraid of controversy. In the 1920s, while living in Greenwich Village, she was an active participant in the frenetic whirl of the Jazz Age, and her poetry from that era expressed the spirit of those times.

“She strongly espoused personal freedom in her life and in her work,” said Peppe, who is a professional communications consultant in New York City. “She was a sexually liberated free thinker and one of the early feminists. She was also very involved in social causes.”

Millay’s philosophy is reflected in one of her most well-known lines, which comes from the poem “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!


Millay was born in 1892 and grew up in Maine. Her mother was a creative individualist and encouraged those qualities in Edna, who also went by the name Vincent, and her sisters.
Millay published one of her most famous poems, “Renascence,” when she was 19. In the following decades, she produced a variety of poems, including sonnets, as well as plays and other writings, even a libretto for an opera. She also wrote prose under the pen name Nancy Boyd. Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923.

Millay and her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, bought Steepletop, which then included more than 700 acres, and moved there in 1925. They remodeled the 1892 house, removing its Victorian embellishments and converting it into a simpler, more classic farmhouse. They lived there for the rest of their lives; Boissevain died of lung cancer in 1949, and Millay was found dead after having fallen down the home’s stairway in October 1950.


Timeless themes
Apart from its work to open Steepletop to the public, the Millay Society has been active in raising the profile of Millay in other ways. In March, it awarded its first Edna St. Vincent Millay Poet of Distinction Award to Gerard Malanga, a poet and photographer once described by The New York Times as “Andy Warhol’s most important associate.”

In February, the society partnered with McDaris Fine Art in Hudson to present “Beyond the Poetry,” an exhibit featuring some of Millay’s photographs and other personal possessions. The event was both a fund-raiser and a debut for the exhibit, which will be on view at the Steepletop visitors center this summer.

Peppe said the Millay Society’s efforts parallel a contemporary revival of interest in Millay. In addition to renewed interest among readers, a number of creative artists have staged her poetry with music and other adaptations or created new works about the poet herself.

Peppe attributed Millay’s popularity during her lifetime, and the renewed interest in her, to the themes of her work as well as the literary style and quality of her poetry.

“She believed that poetry should be accessible, and she wrote about life in a way that everyone can identify with,” Peppe said.

While capturing the spirit of her era, Millay’s writing also deals with subjects and concerns that are timeless, she explained.

“She addressed themes that are universal, including love, longing, loss and personal freedom,” Peppe said. “She also dealt with transcendental questions of faith and the relationships between humanity, God and nature.”

She said Millay enjoyed nature as an amateur botanist and avid gardener and often turned to nature as a metaphor in her writing. Millay and her husband operated Steepletop as a working farm, and they sold vegetables. (The property is named for a pink, conical wildflower that grows in the area.) They created elaborate gardens and landscaping and added amenities including a tennis court and swimming pool on the property.

Steepletop reflected Millay’s creative disposition with many fanciful touches.
“For example, they created outdoor ‘garden rooms,’ by placing doors between trees on the property,” Peppe said.

Although the couple moved to Steepletop to escape city life, they continued to host lavish bohemian parties for writers, artists and others in their social circle there, and indulgence and exuberance were celebrated at those gatherings.

Guests, for example, were forbidden from wearing bathing suits in the pool.


Preserving a legacy
After Millay’s passing in 1950, her sister Norma Millay Ellis moved into Steepletop and lived there until her own death in 1986. Ellis was dedicated to preserving her sister’s legacy, to the point of leaving Millay’s clothing and many other belongings as they were on the day of her death. As a result, Steepletop has been preserved almost exactly as it was when Millay lived there.

In the early 1970s, Ellis founded the Millay Colony for the Arts, an artist residency program that still operates on a property adjacent to Steepletop. Ellis also founded the precursor to the Millay Society, which inherited the house and property.

Peppe, a literary scholar, began visiting Ellis while working on a research paper about Millay. They became friends, and after Ellis’ death Peppe and Elizabeth Barnet, another Millay devotee, established the Millay Society as a nonprofit organization to preserve the poet’s literary legacy and Steepletop.

In 2006, the society sold a portion of the property to New York state for $1.69 million to add to adjacent public lands. The society used proceeds from the sale to help fund its preservation effort and renovations to the house and grounds.

Over time, the organization and its volunteers worked to restore the property and house, which was structurally sound but required extensive repairs and other work. The society plans to continue the project on an ongoing basis.


Separate tours of the house and garden will be available during the season. There is an admission fee of $16 per person and, because tour sizes are limited, reservations are strongly encouraged. For more information, visit www.millay.org or call (518) 392-3362.