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Millay was born in rural Maine in 1892. She grew up poor, but a reader, and would earn acclaim through her poetry—and vibrant lifestyle. She began publishing in school and local papers, and was first nationally published for her poem “Renascence” at age 19. Millay received a full scholarship to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY after a wealthy patron of the arts saw a dramatic recitation of Millay’s poetry.
Millay entered Vassar in 1913. New York State would be her home for the rest of her life, save a brief period traveling in Europe. While at Vassar, Millay commuted to New York City on weekends, moving to Greenwich Village upon graduation. She lived all over the area, including 75½ Bedford Street, the narrowest building in the city.
The building is still standing and is in private ownership.
In Greenwich Village, Millay supported herself through publication and performance of her poems and plays. Aria de Capo, written in protest of World War I, was produced at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougall Street, near Washington Square Park. It was during this hedonistic period in her life that Millay penned her best-known 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’s dramatic personality as grand as her work helped her popularity flourish. The quintessential flapper, she was stylish, drank, and had numerous lovers—both men and women. Her poetry recitations sold out audiences across the country, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923.
Two years later, she met and married Eugen Boissevain, a wealthy importer. They purchased a 19th century farmhouse in Columbia County, NY which they would call “Steepletop.” They would live at the idyllic estate for the rest of their lives. Steepletop’s pastoral scenes were the inspiration for much of Millay’s poetry.
The site is now both a state and national historic landmark, and the turn onto the dirt-and-gravel access road is well marked from the main county route. Less than half a mile up this road, you will pass the Millay Poetry Trail on the right. The trail winds through the woods, lined with words from Millay’s poems and ultimately leading to her gravesite.
After another quarter mile, you will pass the Millay Colony for artists and writers on the left, before finally arriving at the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society Visitors’ Center. The Visitors’ Center is the original barn, next door to the stables.
Birds flit from tree to tree, the faint sound of chirping cicadas in the air. From the entrance to the visitor’s center, one can already see the main house where Millay lived, her writing cabin, and the ruins of an in-ground pool.
Laughter carries from the site of the pool, recalling Millay’s vivacious spirit and parties that she and Boissevan held. The couple drank heavily and frequently hosted guests, maintaining a rule that all swimmers were required to be nude.
Upon walking up the path to the main house, the smell of pine wafts from trees overhead, from which Millay and Boissevain tried (and failed) to make their own maple syrup. The white house site nestled in the trees, with its own kitchen garden in the back. The house is almost unchanged since Millay’s death in 1950. Her younger sister Norma lived there for the 30 years that followed, leaving everything as it had been when the elder Millay lived.
The house tour walks visitors through the house as Millay and Boissevain would have lived in it: the stairwell at the entryway; the dining room, decorated with Asian art acquired on their honeymoon; the small bedrooms converted into offices; the master bedroom with the luxuriously large attached bathroom; Millay’s library and workroom, and then back down the stairs.
Visitors walk up and down the same stairs where Millay accidentally fell and died, after a long night of working on what would be her last book of poems. Although she was only 58, she left a legacy of timeless poems on love and nature, and Steepletop remains an homage to her life and work.
Steepletop, 440 East Hill Road, Austerlitz, NY, USA, 518-392-3362.
Open to the public April 1-November 1 every year. The Millay Poetry Trail is open year-round. 2.5 hours from New York City by car. Amtrak stops in Hudson, NY.
By Anna G
Anna G, the Fearless Flashpacker, is a New Yorker currently on an extended vacation to California, where she has lived since 2010. She travels the world only with carry-on luggage and a stuffed camel named ‘Humps.’ Follow her travels at www.fearlessflashpacker.com.