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Savage Beauty

Nancy Milford Profiles Edna St. Vincent Millay

She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Georgia O'Keeffe called her "the hummingbird." She was the subject of one of The New Yorker's first profiles. She devirginized Edmund Wilson. With these achievements in mind, is Edna St. Vincent Millay worthy of a 500 page biography?

Writer Nancy Milford thought so. Best known for Zelda, the biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Milford shifted her focus from wife of famous writer to famous writer/wife with her new book, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Whether Edna St. Vincent Millay's life contains enough dramatic event to constitute 30 years of research is debatable. Her timeline would parallel many lives at that time (with the ammendment that she was only five feet tall and one hundred pounds): childhood in Maine, attends Vassar College, experiments with sex with women and men, publishes poetry to mild acclaim, travels to Paris, seduces a married man, returns to the States to marry a wealthy New York importer whom she met while playing charades, adultery. Perhaps the drama came at her death, reminiscent of a Eugene O'Neill play, when both she and her husband fell victims to morphine addiction.

Milford's work on Millay began in 1972 when she drove to the home of Norma Millay, Edna's sister, in upstate New York. Although Norma had designs on writing her sister's biography unassisted, Milford convinced her to relinquish the responsibility altogether. This relationship adds some zing to the biography which relies mostly on the Steepletop Collection at the Library of Congress for documentation. At points in the text, Milford will recount a conversation with Norma and one gets the feeling of two people sitting by the fireplace, rehashing old memories.

A large chunk of the book is devoted to the lives of Millay's mother and grandmother, both of whom deviated from the norms of the time by leaving their husbands to pursue outside affairs. The mother-daughter tension between Millay and her mother, Cora (also a poet), is in evidence all her life, from the time they first competed in the same writing contests. Cora's history sheds light on why all of her three daughters would lead artistic lives, but none of them would live to have children of their own.

For whatever reason, Milford chooses not to quote much from Millay's verse, which is unfortunate because Millay's poetry is electric. In the few passages Milford does include, we can nod our heads and understand how this little woman managed to sell 35 thousand copies of her new book of poetry within eight weeks in the middle of the Depression. Her book tours were sold-out affairs; she was the Madonna of her day. If nothing more, Savage Beauty will incite readers to seek out Millay's poetry and get infected with the lust for words.

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
by Nancy Milford
Random House; ISBN: 039457589X
Hardcover, 550 pages (September 2001)
>> Buy It Now: Savage Beauty

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