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. Boxes and boxes of letter flew back and forth among the three sisters and their mother--and Millay kept the most intimate diary, one whose ruthless honesty brings to mind Sylvia Plath. Written with passion and flair, Savage Beauty is an iconic portrait of a woman's life.
Millay, her husband, her sisters, her mother, and most of her lovers/friends of both sexes seemed to be inveterent letter writers. Not only did they write letters, they often left numerous drafts of those letters giving us an intimate portrait of emotions, intentions, and life in the first half of the twentieth century.
In addition, there are numerous samples of her poetry, used to illustrate the various passions and favorites in her life.
Alas, our herione led a less than stellar life depending on one's perspective. At times I tired of her pouting promiscuity, her incessant mooching on the generosity of others, the constant indebtedness, and the incredible selfishness which most who knew her seemed to regard as part of her genius.
In spite of the subject's tragic life and end, the author presents us with her life in an objective yet sympathetic way without passing judgment. That made it easy to read and recommend the book to others.
And it's MILFORD, not Mitford, which is another family altogether. :)
There is a lot of information in this book. Sometimes I was confused as to when something happened in relation to other things. Milford jumped around a bit. The book is a little long and could have done with some more editing.
Fun fact - Millay's middle name is St. Vincent because her Uncle's life was saved at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village right before she was born.
Milford has included much of Millay's poetry in the book which brings her and the times in which she lived more to life..
She and her friends were such prolific letter writers, what would they have done in this day of emails and texting? We probably would have lost a great deal of the insight into their lives and emotions.
There’s way too much drama in Millay’s life to try to summarize here, from her oddly heartbreaking childhood to her wild, bohemian adulthood to her early death following increasingly dramatic hospitalizations and staggering drug use. What Milford seems intent upon us understanding is that, as worthy as Millay’s poetry may have been, her fame was also in large part indebted to her ability to create her own “cult of personality.” If it hadn’t been for the willingness of a succession of older women, dazzled by her talent and charm, to smooth her path to and through college; if it hadn’t been for a string of discarded lovers, enchanted by her beauty, intensity, and sexual precocity, to ensure her poems stayed constantly in the public eye; if it hadn’t been for her scores of fans, particularly “sexually liberated young women,” enthralled by her dramatic public readings, her risqué reputation, and her husky contralto voice, flocking to the stores to purchase her poetry – one wonders whether she would have become what she became: the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the “voice of her era.” For if F. Scott Fitzgerald can be said to have given the “Jazz Age” its voice, then Millay can surely be said to have written the libretto.
Which brings me to the quirks of Milford as a narrator. She has the oddest habit of introducing new characters without any preamble and minimal biographical information, making it very difficult to figure out which characters are “minor” and which “major.” It was frustrating to constantly have to double back to re-read character introductions when the characters suddenly reappeared, 100 pages later, without any helpful reference or context. Even the minimal biographical information she provides sometimes comes chapters after the characters have been introduced, long after it would have been useful to have. Another issue I had was with Milford’s apparent resolve to present information without endeavoring to interpret it. In general I’m grateful when biographers eshew psychobabble – but isn’t there also something a little unhelpful (if not irresponsible) about presenting two fairly significant clues that Millay was the victim of childhood sexual trauma at the hands of one (or more) of her mother’s lovers with as much detachment as she brings to reprinting Millay’s endless letters about fashion? About as far as Milford goes is to acknowledge that when Millay starts using baby talk in her letters to her family, it’s “a bad sign” – though she coyly declines suggest what it’s a bad sign of.
On the other hand, you could argue that this approach, at the least, provides ample fodder for book club discussion! Some of the questions my group wrestled with (and that I’m still wrestling with): What was the root cause of Vincent’s sexual precocity – was it a Jazz Age thing? A poet thing? A Greenwich Village/bohemian thing? A symptom of a childhood sexual trauma? A desperate cry for attention/love? How did regularly society react to her many affairs with women and married men – or, what explains their failure to react? Did the babying she received at the hands of her husband Eugin truly protect her from her mistakes, or merely enable her to continue making them? Were her many illnesses real or psychosomatic? When did she begin using morphine, and what role did it play in hastening her nervous breakdowns? Or do Millay’s alternating episodes of mania and depression provide evidence that she was struggling with bipolar disorder? What exactly were her true feelings towards the mother she outwardly adored, but who in fact abandoned her daughters for long periods of time and seems, throughout this narrative, much more interested in being Vincent’s BFF than protecting her from harm? And finally, the biggest question of all: after reading this 500 page biography, why are we all struggling with the feeling that this narrative omits almost as much valuable insight as it includes?
Biography is the art of making data into a story so the reader can feel they knew the person whose life is told; Milford does not accomplish this. Unsurprising when she sometimes lists such an inspiring documents as lists of repairs to be made to Millay's home. That said, Millay herself is such an interesting person and her poems (quoted abundantly) are sometimes so good, there is something to be taken from this book. Still, wouldn't recommend it.
I was also bothered by the unexplained shift from 'Vincent' to 'Edna' to refer to the subject.
Edna St Vincent Millay was an astonishing and creative poet inspired by her emotional pain, love, and crises. She had a fiery social conscience and a gusto for all that made her life exciting. She exhibited amazing strength, crippling fragility, and hurtful self-centered choices. Her fame, sexuality, and addictive appetites were sources of crushing hardships, intense vitality, and deep depression. Her life was a mess.
So, I guess I gave this 4 stars for the ability of the author, Nancy Milford, to get it all together... but I highly suspect it was the best possible slant and sympathetic account that could be written of this troubled woman. I was thankful Milford appropriately included many of Millay's poems. These samples provided emotional colors and whet the appetite for more.