Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

by Nancy Milford

Hardcover, 2001




Random House (2001), Edition: 1st, 576 pages


"If F. Scott Fitzgerald was the hero of the Jazz Age, Edna St. Vincent Millay, as audacious in her love affairs as she was in her art, was its heroine. She embodied, in her reckless fancy, the spirit of the New Woman, and gave America its voice." "The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Millay was dazzling in the performance of her self. Her voice was an instrument of seduction, and her impact on crowds, and on men, was legendary. Young women styled themselves in her image - fairylike, taunting, free. Yet beneath her studied act, all was not well." "Nancy Milford was given exclusive access to Millay's papers, and what she found was an unimaginable treasure. Hundreds of letters flew back and forth between the three sisters and their mother - and Millay kept the most intimate diary, one whose ruthless honesty brings to mind the journals of Sylvia Plath."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member kukulaj
The author seems to have tip-toed through a minefield without losing any major body parts. Millay burnt her candle at both ends, for sure! There was enough of her poetry here to keep the story grounded. Plus lots of letters. I don't know this whole world at all so whether the books is fair or
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complete, I can't judge based on any outside knowledge. The book coheres internally. It does a good job of presenting all sorts of wild facts without being judgmental.
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LibraryThing member JaneReading
I've loved Edna St Vincent Millay since I "discovered" her in high school. She saved me from losing all interest in school and she turned me into a poetry lover. I felt I was getting to know her a little in this biography. There is so much detail, so much pain, so much of her soaring spirit and
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troubled soul in this book. I read and read and read it - and when I finished it, I cried - I was saddened by her death, saddened by losing her, sad to let it go, and close the book. By the way, does anyone know if Steepletop can be found in NY?
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
Nancy Mitford presents a thorough, insightful, compelling, and penetrating look at one of America's premier poets. Working with Ms. Millay's sister Norma, who holds most of the papers not in the Library of Congress, she was able to construct an impressive and deeply detailed biography. In fact, I
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often felt at times like shouting "Too much information!"

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.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
What a wonderfully written biography of one of the greatest and most controversial writers of our time. Recommended.
LibraryThing member DonnaMarieMerritt
This is a fascinating glimpse into the life of the poet whose candle "burned at both ends." I highly recommend it.
LibraryThing member majorbabs
I really wanted to like this book, but can't recommend it. (I loved the author's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, however.) While the book is certainly well-researched, and well-written, it needs a good editor to (a) fill in the cracks of information the author left out, but which are vital to
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understanding a setting or a person; (b) make information consistent -- e.g. she's called by several different names throughout the book with no explanation as to the change -- and (c) generally improve the structure. Someday when I feel more dedicated to Ms. Millay's memory, I'll finish it.

And it's MILFORD, not Mitford, which is another family altogether. :)
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LibraryThing member onefear
Loved this book. Read it first, then picked up Epstein's bio of Millay, published the same year, after reading some on-line reviews. Many don't like Milford's book because of its length and, I would say, her tendency to report rather than process the results of her in-depth research. I enjoy both
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bio's and see them as companions to each other, but if you don't want to spend that much time learning about Millay, I would recommend Epstein's book over Milford's book. Both authors used essentially the same resources, although Milford had the added advantage of personal interviews with Millay's sister Norma before her death in 1986. Milford is a better researcher than an author, but both are well-researched; Epstein is a better writer.
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LibraryThing member gbower
Very long and detailed but worth the effort. Millay had such talents especially her poetry and her ability to entrance her audience with her voice. It is so sad that so many times such genius comes with bizarre life styles and unhappy endings.
Milford has included much of Millay's poetry in the book
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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.
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LibraryThing member olderreads
I have read quite a few biographies on her and by far, I think this one to be the most informative and enjoyable to read.
LibraryThing member Evalangui
Be forewarned, Milford is sexist and heterosexist to an educated modern reader and paternalistic towards her subjects. Furthermore, she seems to be listing what Millay does instead of telling/narrating it.

Biography is the art of making data into a story so the reader can feel they knew the person
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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.
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LibraryThing member aliform
This obsessively detailed and hyper-researched account brings back to life an inspiring woman. Millay was passionate, exuberant, hard-working, well-spoken and the subtle troublemaker everyone should aspire to be.
LibraryThing member VioletBramble
I've been a fan of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay for over three decades. All I knew about her personal life was that she lived in Greenwich Village, was bohemian and a bisexual. This well researched biography covers Millay's entire life; from her childhood where she and her sisters
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basically raised themselves in poverty to the addiction to morphine that took over her life in her last years. Milford paints a picture of Millay as a magnetic genius who easily seduced people into helping her in her career and with her finances. She shows Millay as a selfish child-like woman who manipulated those around her.
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.
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LibraryThing member devafagan
So many thoughts on this... The short version: Fascinating, sad, inspiring, disturbing. It took a while to get through, but I'm very glad I did.
LibraryThing member Dorritt
Per the forward to this long bio, Milford’s the first to have been granted access to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s private letters and journals, long held in keeping by her sister Norma. This helps explain why this narrative is so compelling: having access to the subject’s own journals
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and letters provides fascinating access to her internal as well as external life. However, this may also explain the frustrating limits of this narrative: basically, if an incident isn’t covered in the letters, it isn’t mentioned here – leading to a biography that feels weirdly limited and insular. Moreover, while letters and diary entries may be revealing, they’re not necessarily complete, and they’re not necessarily trustworthy. In this case, it’s necessary to remember that our subject, Millay, wasn’t just a poet – she was also an accomplished actress, an erratic diarist with a tendency to omit unpleasant events, and an expert manipulator (especially of men and older women) with a gift for self-delusion. At the end of 500 pages I guarantee you’ll know a lot more about Millay, her life, and her canon; just don’t expect to have gained much insight into the forces that likely played the greatest role in shaping her life and character, which (based on clues in this text) may have included abandonment issues, bipolar disorder, and childhood sexual trauma.

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?
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
I must say up front that I generally don't find biographies to be among my favorites. I've always said that a book should not be rated based on whether or not you like the characters. It seems you should not have to be in love with admirable traits - nor despise the failings - of a character in
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order to be swept away by a story. However, when the story is a focused biography it's difficult for me to be influenced by much else. I didn't like her much...

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.
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LibraryThing member Tinamonster
Again, the writing and story overcomes a subject that isn't simpatico. She had a very interesting life and she makes the most of her charm and ambition, a playbook from which we could all take a page.
LibraryThing member lschiff
Fascinating and very readable biography.


Lambda Literary Award (Nominee — Biography — 2001)


Original language



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