A Garden of Verses
Saturday, August 16, 2008
AUSTERLITZ, N.Y. The staircase looks innocent enough, three narrow steps up to a landing, turn left, 11 more steps up to the second floor of this sprawling white clapboard farmhouse called Steepletop. But this is a house full of dark memories, and none more spooky than on these stairs.
"I must warn you not to use the spindles for support," says Peter Bergman, leading a visitor on a tour. "And mind your left shoulder on the overhang at the top."
"Are these the stairs, where . . . ?" asks the visitor.
"There's only one set of stairs in this house," he replies.
Sometime in the dawn of an October morning almost six decades ago, the undoubtedly inebriated poet Edna St. Vincent Millay tumbled down these stairs, landing in a crumpled heap on the lower landing. Hours later her farm manager found her and summoned a local doctor, but it was too late. Her neck was broken, and she had died as fiercely and adamantly as she had lived. Her death at 58 extinguished an incandescent chapter in American literature. In the 1920s, when she came to Steepletop, Millay was one of the most famous women in the United States, not just for her poetry and plays, but as a bohemian who predated the sexual revolution and feminism of the 1970s by half a century or more.
"Everything she did made headlines," said Bergman, executive director of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. "She was a rock star."
Like a lot of rock stars, Millay had been in a downward spiral for years before her actual fall. Addicted to alarming doses of morphine and other drugs, reliant on wine and gin, and never far from the next cigarette, she had gone into physical, emotional and creative decline in the years leading up to her death.
Bergman rejects the idea that she may have thrown herself down the stairs, and said that she was beginning to write brilliantly once more after weaning herself off the dope and emerging from the grief of the death of her husband, Eugen Boissevain, the year before. Bergman thinks of her late, sparse and ingenious sonnet "Chaos," written before Eugen's death. "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines/And keep him there; and let him thence escape/If he be lucky."
Chaos doesn't reign at Steepletop today, but the house itself is in a form of time warp: gloomy and worn, yes, but intact and pretty much the way it looked on Edna's last day. The shades are drawn to protect its belongings from sunlight, and this adds to the pallid dinginess of walls that are whitewashed but nowhere papered.
But it was this way then. One of her former lovers, the writer and critic Edmund Wilson, visited her toward the end, in 1948, and he found the comparison to his earlier visit in 1929 to be painful: "The couches looked badly worn; the whole place seemed shabby and dim." Boissevain was gray and stooped, and the once alluring, heartbreaking poet -- slender and crowned with a mop of red hair -- looked aged and shaky. "There was a look of fright in her bright green eyes." The episode is recounted in Nancy Milford's 2001 biography of Millay, "Savage Beauty."
The house is imbued with Edna from top to bottom. In the drawing room, there's her Steinway piano along with a second, lesser grand piano for guests. The kitchen still contains the modern breakfast bar and counters and appliances that Ladies' Home Journal designed and installed for her, after the farm was electrified in the 1940s.
Upstairs, Bergman opens some drawers in Edna's bedroom to reveal her collection of handbags. Another drawer contains her wool socks. When she wore clothes, Edna wore only the best. Until three years ago, her gowns, capes and dresses all hung in the closets here. Now they have been cleaned and stored.