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.
Milford hit the New York Times bestseller list 30 years ago with her acclaimed biography of Zelda Fitzgerald; she now seems poised to do it again with this outstanding biography of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Like Fitzgerald, Millay (1892-1950) was a Jazz Age phenomenon, causing a sensation wherever she went; lines from her brief poem, "First Fig" ("I burn my candle at both ends/ It will not last the night... ") would become the rallying cry of a generation. She was notorious for her sexual unconventionality and (as Edmund Wilson put it) "her intoxicating effect on people... of all ages and both sexes." How a lyric poet could have achieved such celebrity is the conundrum at the heart of Savage Beauty. Millay, as Milford depicts her, was a troubled genius who used her prodigious gift to propel herself out of rural poverty and into the center of her age. She carefully cultivated the reporters and patrons who took the "fragile girl-child" under their wing. But her delicate image masked a force of nature whose incendiary wit and insatiable ambition took the public by storm. Milford deftly links the lyric intensity of Millay's work with her ravenous appetite for life. Whether tracing her ghoulishly close relationship to her mother and sisters, her years at the center of cosmopolitan life or her morphine addiction and untimely death, this account offers its readers a haunting drama of artistic fame. A true paradigm of literary biography, this finely crafted book is not to be missed. (Sept. 11) Forecast: Zelda, a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, sold 1.4 million copies. In addition to a nine-city author tour and first serial publication in Vanity Fair, Mitford will be interviewed in the September issue of Harper's Bazaar. Expect lots of excellent reviews and return trips to the printer once the 75,000 initial run sells out. Along with this bio, Modern Library will issue a new edition of Millay's poetry, edited by -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 09, 2002
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Excerpt from Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford
THIS DOUBLE LIFE
Camden, with its ring of mountains rising behind the white clapboard houses facing Penobscot Bay, made the most of its view. Nowhere else on the coast of Maine was there such dramatic natural beauty. The houses were like weathered faces turned to watch the sea. The upland meadows of ox-eyed daisies, timothy, and sweet fern, the dark green woods of balsam and fir swept to the gentle summit of Mount Megunticook, and the rock face of Mount Battie rose from the edge of the sea as if to hold it. But it was a far less generous time than the early days of shipbuilding, upon which the town's wealth had been founded. Now even the great woodsheds along the wharves were mostly abandoned, permanent reminders of the long death of shipbuilding. The wool mills looming behind the town offered scant wages and long hours. Later in her life Edna St. Vincent Millay would say she was "a girl who had lived all her life at the very tide-line of the sea," but in the fall of 1904, she moved with her family into 100 Washington Street on the far edge of town, in a section called Millville because it was near the mills. It was the smallest house in the poorest part of town, but it was one their mother could afford when she brought her girls to Camden after her divorce.
Their brown frame house was set in a large field, and just beyond it flowed the Megunticook River, into which the mills sometimes spilled their dyes. The house, on low ground, could be reached only by walking down a long, rickety wooden sidewalk from the street. When the Megunticook River overflowed and the weather turned cold with no heat in the house, the kitchen floor flooded and froze and the girls gleefully ice-skated across it. The house was close enough to their mother's Aunt Clara Buzzell, a large, easygoing person who ran a boardinghouse for the mill hands, that she could keep an eye on the girls while their mother worked. Cora wrote to her daughters often; the three little sisters felt her presence even when she was absent, which was almost all the time.
Have the baker leave whatever you want at Aunt Clara's. . . . I can pay him when I see him and it will be all right. Have your washing done every week now and have some system and regularity about your work. . . . You can do it and you must do it . . . for Mama who has her heart and hands full.
She told them to make up a song to sing while they did dishes, "and think 'I am doing this to please mama,' and see how easy the dishes will get clean."
"We had one great advantage, I realized later," Norma Millay wrote. "We were free to love and appreciate our mother and to enjoy her because she wasn't always around, as most mothers are, telling us what to do and how to do it. . . . when mother was coming home, that was an occasion to be celebrated, and we usually celebrated by cleaning the house."
They invented games to make play out of work. "Dishes were handled differently," Norma remembered. "This game was called 'Miss Lane' for miscellaneous: here one of us washed, another dried, and the other did miscellaneous pots and pans, milk bottles, whatever. Vincent was mostly responsible for the songs we sang as we worked." This one was written the first year they were in Camden:
I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan.
My subjects abound.
I can knock them about
And push them around,
And they answer with naught
But a clattering sound;
I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan,
For I've pots and pans
And kettles galore.
If I think I'm all done
There are always some more,
For here's a dozen
And there's a score.
I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan,
But they missed their mother and longed for her return. "At night, sometimes, we would lie in bed together, huddled against the cold, pretending to be brides, and little Kathleen would call out, 'Goodnight, Cherest!' in the direction we thought our mother would be."