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A Garden of Verses

In the bathroom, her monogrammed towels still hang. Her makeup is there, on the little vanity. On the table in her private library is a yellowed copy of the New York Times from April 24, 1950. In every room, it's as if she is still in the next.

The house, you see, passed to her sister, Norma Millay Ellis, who lived there until her death in 1986. Norma kept it as a shrine to Edna. In the 1970s, she established the Millay Colony for the Arts and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, both in the hopes that her sister's work would never tumble down the stairs.

But in the firmament of American literature, perhaps no bright star flickered so soon after an artist's death -- though her reputation was already fraying in her last decade.

Bergman hopes to change that. A writer with an eclectic career in the arts, he began as a child actor, worked for a decade at the Library & Museum for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and came to Steepletop from Arrowhead, Herman Melville's historic house in the Berkshires.

Bergman -- he's 62 but still with youthful curly hair, albeit white -- was appointed by the Millay Society's board 18 months ago to direct efforts to restore the house and its garden and grounds, along with a series of outbuildings that include Millay's writing cabin. The grounds are open, as is a trail to the Millay family grave site, but the house won't be ready for public tours until at least 2010, Bergman says. He works out of a converted garage near the house that doubles as a Millay gift shop and exhibition gallery. He reckons it will take more than $3 million to repair the house and gardens. For now, he is trying to raise funds to pay for a garden historian to prepare a cultural landscape report that will document how the garden was planted and used by the Boissevains. This will cost about $60,000.

Like any poet worth her salt, Millay had deep knowledge of the natural world and infused her work with it. She grew cultivated plants, had a large fruit and vegetable garden, and there was a whole hillside field of wild, low-bush blueberries for the picking. She named the property after a beautiful pink flowered native spirea called steeplebush. In July and August it is joined by a related white flowering spirea that creates a cloudlike blanket over the upland meadow above the farmhouse. Look back from this vantage point, and you have a stunning view of the Berkshires in nearby Massachusetts.

Wendy Carroll, a landscape architect who is guiding the garden restoration, has been clearing invasive plants and other weeds from overgrown areas, and she has uncovered many plants that the poet installed decades earlier, including a ring of white flowering peonies below the huge hemlock tree beside the house. In the vegetable garden, she has been digging out weeds and cutting back quince shrubs that had obliterated a grass path.

She is unearthing the wholesome and inspiring landscape, but on the other side of the house, the character of the gardens shifts from bucolic to bacchanalian. Around a ruined stone bar, Edna and Eugen built a vine-clad pergola and installed a well-stocked bar, which included a nude painting by Norma's husband, the artist Charles Ellis.

"The bar had come out of a speakeasy that had been closed in Albany," Bergman said. "It's mahogany and has bullet holes."

One watering hole leads to another: the concrete, spring-fed swimming pool that the poet had built. All around, arborvitaes were planted to screen this pleasure garden from the mountain road below, and the back of the pond had an arborvitae hedge that incorporated two changing rooms. The Boissevains and their guests would bathe and frolic in the nude.

"Nudity was a big element here," Bergman said. "She liked the freedom of it." This extended to her weeding, which she recorded in her diary. "Got a marvelous tan."

If the house has remained unchanged, the garden has not. The arborvitae are now tall, sickly trees, and the sense of enclosure is long gone. Big conifers are pushing menacingly into the hill above the pool, whose water is black-green opaque and home to brown frogs.


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