Savage Beauty: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Life

To be a biographer must be a great thing, I for one find the lives of the writers and artists whose work I love as interesting as their work. I’ve been deep into Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Like other poets I love, she difficult, demanding, calculating, celebrity-mongering, brilliant poet of love affairs and bohemianism and addictions. I swear I loved her for writing before I knew she had a place between Baudelaire and Byron in the annals of poete maudit.

I followed the poet from girlhood, where she was an ambitious poet, to adulthood, when she remained an ambitious child in an aging shell. The fairy tale Millay helped create of herself, as the little girl poet from Maine who gives voice to a generation of Jazz babies, a seductive whip of a girl sleeping with anybody whose anybody, falls apart.

Let the rest of us, she grows old. She doesn’t take it well. Chronic drinking develops into addiction rather than lifestyle, and a habit for morphine steals her middle age. She becomes a hollowed out thing who could no longer write. And this she records in a notebook even as she stops writing all else. What time she wakes up, what she consumes, everything until she goes to bed.

A fascinating blog called Daily Routines pieces together how various distinguished people past and present lived. Gerard Richter woke up at 6:15 am to fix his family breakfast before starting work in his studio at 8 am. The writer Haruki Murakami for example runs marathons after working all morning. Millay in her early 50s was quite the opposite:

Miss Millay
Dec. 31, 1940

Awoke 7:30, after untroubled night. Pain less than previous day.
7:35- Urinated- no difficulty or distress
7:40- 3/8 gr. M.S. hypodermically, self-administered in left upper arm…
7:45-8- smoked cigarette (Egyptian) mouth burns from excessive smoking
8:15- Thirsty, went to the ice box for a glass of water, but no water there. Take can of beer instead which do not want. Headache, lassitude…
8:20- cigarette (Egyptian)
9:00- “
9:30- Gin Rickey (cigarette)
11:15- Gin Rickey
12:15- Martini (4 cigarettes)
12:45- 1/4 grain M.S. & cigarette
1.- Pain bad and also in lumbar region. no relief from M.S.

(M.S. is a morphine shot.)

Her devoted and charming husband Eugene took care of her like she was a little child through all this, even developing his own morphine addiction to see what she was going through by attempting to quit. After he died of lung cancer in his 50s, Edna was left alone and she kicked her morphine habit, although she continued to use prodigious amounts of alcohol and other pills. Yet she was finally beginning to write poetry again. Then, a year and half after Eugen died, she fell down the stairs of her home and broke her neck.

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