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Edna St. Vincent Millay: Greenwich Village Was In Her Blood

Few people are as closely associated with Greenwich Village as Edna St. Vincent Millay. After all, the neighborhood appears in her name – her middle name, St. Vincent, honored the hospital located on West 11th Street where her uncle’s life was saved just before she was born. In fact, she often referred to herself as “Vincent,” and her friends and family called her by that name. She lived most of her productive artistic life in the Village, and her work is most closely associated with our neighborhoods.

“Vincent”

Millay was born on February 22, 1892, and grew up in Camden, ME. The eldest of three girls, she was raised by a single mother who solely supported the family as a private duty nurse and struggled to make ends meet.  However poor in material terms the family may have been, their lives were rich with culture. Cora Buzzell Millay filled the home, not with furniture, but with poetry, literature, and music. She encouraged her daughters to write, create music, and fill their lives with culture.

Edna was a prolific writer from a very early age and won several poetry prizes from St. Nicholas, a children’s literary magazine. In high school, she wrote and starred in school plays and edited the school literary magazine.

After graduation from high school, and with nowhere to go, Edna stayed in Camden and continued to write. At the suggestion of Cora, she entered her long poem “Renascence” into a poetry contest. The poem, consisting of 107 rhyming couplets, describes a life-altering experience of spiritual awakening while standing on the top of Mt. Battle in Camden, ME. The poem considers human suffering and death, and after a refreshing rain, the first-person narrator is transformed; once again able to experience life. “Renascence” did not win the poetry prize, but was published in The Lyric Year. Millay’s poem was widely considered the best of the collection, and her eventual award of fourth place in the contest caused a major scandal. The first-place winner, Orrick Johns, was first to admit that he felt that “Renascence” was the best poem of the collection, and stated that “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph.” A second-prize winner offered Millay his $250 prize money, a very substantial sum of money for the time and for the virtually destitute family.

But the scandal of losing to the men in the contest brought Millay much attention, and “Renascence” was widely distributed and even taught to school children as an exemplar of American poetry. Millay used the publication to promote her career, eventually propelling herself out of rural poverty and into the center of her age.

Soon after the scandal of The Lyric Year controversy, a wealthy arts patroness, Caroline B. Dow, who was at the time the head of the YWCA Training School in New York, heard Millay reciting her poetry and playing the piano at a summer vacation hotel, The Whitehall Inn. Dow was so impressed by the writing and the performance that she offered to fund Millay’s education at Vassar College.

Millay found Vassar a rich intellectual environment in which to nurture her talent. She became a regular contributor to The Vassar Miscellany and a prominent campus songwriter. Millay wrote the prize-winning song for the 1916 Founder’s Day, and composed the words for the “Baccalaureate Hymn” sung at her graduation in 1917, in addition to writing songs for other campus events such as the opening of her class’s Senior Parlor in 1917. She was also very involved in the dramatic life of the college, writing and appearing in a number of productions. Her play “The Wall of Dominoes” was published in The Vassar Miscellany, and in her senior year she played the lead role in her original play “The Princess Marries the Page.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay in a student production at Vassar College (far right)

Following her matriculation from Vassar, Millay found her way to Greenwich Village in order to pursue acting. She was both intellectually and physically fascinating and thrived in the heart of the neighborhood’s bohemian scene that was filled with artists and with writers like Max Eastman, Eugene O’Neill, and E.E. Cummings. Millay immersed herself in the culture and gained quite a reputation in the Village. She lived in various locations throughout the Village starting in 1917, but most famously at 75 ½ Bedford Street, ‘the narrowest house in the Village.’ Thought of as the embodiment of the “new woman” in the 1920s, she wrote of love for both men and women, and combined modernist and traditional forms in her poetry.

75 1/2 Bedford Street from our Historic Image Archives

“In the immediate post-World War I era…when the Village served as an incubator of every important American literary, artistic, and political movement of the period. … Millay’s work and life came to represent the modern, liberated woman of the Jazz age, free of the restrictions of the past,” according to the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society’s website.

Millay’s first big success, the publishing of her book, Renascence and Other Poems, was a boost to her nascent career in the fall of 1917. Her sister Norma came to live with her in the Village, and the sisters both supported themselves doing odd jobs while volunteering in Provincetown Players’ productions. The two made just enough to live on.

Millay’s lifestyle defied common convention, and she was determined to discover and declare a distinct identity for herself.  The social and artistic revival that characterized the Village in its Bohemian era in the late teens and early 20s was fertile ground for Vincent. Her second volume of poetry, A Few Figs from Thistles, was published in 1920. This collection includes the poem “Macdougal Street.” Shortly thereafter the collections Second April (1921) and The Ballad of the Harp Weaver (1922) were published. Millay would win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp Weaver.

Millay with husband Eugen Jan Boissevain in the courtyard behind 75 1/2 Bedford 1923. Courtesy of The Millay Society

In addition to being a poet, Millay was also a playwright. Her most popular play, Aria Da Capo, debuted in 1919 with a performance by the Provincetown Players. Two years later, the Provincetown Players performed Millay’s Two Slatterns and a King. Millay performed for the first time with the Provincetown Players in Floyd Dell’s The Angel Intrudes.

Millay also wrote the libretto to an opera in three acts composed by Deems Taylor. The libretto is based on both legend and historical figures documented in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and tells the story of a love triangle between King Eadgar, his henchman Aethelwold, and Aelfrida, daughter of the Thane of Devon. It premiered on February 17, 1927, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Millay died at only 58 years old at her farmhouse in Austerlitz, NY. She apparently took a spill down a staircase and died as a result of a heart attack. Fortunately for us, her work and her spirit live on today.

You can learn more about Edna St. Vincent Millay and about many other transformative women of Greenwich Village, as well as many other areas of interest, including transformational theater venues, on our interactive Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now map.

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