After 30 years, Milford (Zelda, 1970) returns with another definitive biography of another significant literary figure.
The author’s prologue describes her intricate choreography with Norma Millay, sister of the poet Edna and possessor of the thousands of documents and other materials Milford eventually came to possess. Throughout, she quotes passages of her conversations with Norma—dialogue so pregnant and peculiar it could have come from The Aspern Papers. In the early chapters, Milford slips back and forth in time to tell the stories of Edna’s ancestors and to describe a childhood featuring eccentric and impecunious parents (when the Millays’ Maine house flooded one winter, the three sisters ice-skated on the kitchen floor). The poet’s mother, Cora, is a character from a Tennessee Williams play—fiercely devoted to her children, a woman who both competed with her talented daughters and gave them their supreme self-confidence. Edna (who first published as “Vincent Millay”—the “St. Vincent” derived from the name of a hospital that had saved an uncle) displayed an early felicity with verse and began publishing in her teens. When she entered Vassar in 1913, she was already a minor celebrity. In college—and throughout much of her life—Edna was a bohemian who smoked, drank, swam nude, and enjoyed sex with both women and men. (Milford does not neglect to give us a paragraph about Millay’s discovery of her clitoris and a passage about her pubic hair.) She became an extraordinarily popular poet, selling tens of thousands of copies of her collections, delivering readings in her rich, mellifluous, contralto voice to standing-room-only crowds all over the country. In 1950, however, her elfin beauty destroyed by age, alcohol, drugs, pain, and sorrow, Millay—either accidentally or intentionally (Milford does not speculate)—tumbled down a dark stairway and broke her neck.
An essential biography of a unique and important poet—written with lush detail and delicious language, and displaying enormous care, craft, and compassion. (32 pages b&w photos, not seen)