Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in 1892 in Maine, grew to become one of the premier twentieth-century lyric poets. She was also an accomplished playwright and speaker who often toured giving readings of her poetry. All of that was in her public life, but her private life was equally interesting. An unconventional childhood led into an unconventional adulthood. She was an acknowledged bisexual who carried on many affairs with women, an affection for which is sometimes evident in her poems and plays. She did marry, but even that part of her life was somewhat unusual, with the marriage being quite open, and extramarital affairs, though not documented, are quite probable.
At the young age of seven, Edna’s mother asked her husband to leave the family home. After that point he held a negligible role in the girl’s life. Edna and her two sisters moved, with their mother, to Newburyport, Massachusetts where, to Edna’s delight, she was given piano lessons. Edna (who insisted on being called Vincent and who even entered writing contests under that name) and her sisters were encouraged in their literary and musical leanings by their mother. Then, in highschool, Millay’s interests expanded to include theater. She performed in numerous plays and wrote a
Halloween play for her classmates to act out.
Millay enjoyed her free-spirited childhood and adolescence and the creativity that it inspired. At the age of twenty, she entered her poem “Renascence” into a poetry contest for the The Lyric Year, a contest from which 100 poems were to be chosen to be published. It was, at first, overlooked as being too simplistic, however, one of the judges took a second look at it and the poem, now one of her most well known, ended up winning fourth place. It was that poem which really started her on her literary career, beginning with a scholarship to the then all female college of Vassar.
Millay kept up her writing, both poetic and dramatic while at Vassar. It was during this time that she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Harp-Weaver and other Poems. Also during her college career she broadened her sexual horizons to include relationships with women. The most notable of these affairs was one with the English actress Wynne Matthison. Matthison was not the only woman she was involved with, though, and she kept in contact with some of them throughout her life.
Millay’s first book of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems was published in 1917 and well received. Then A Few Figs from Thistles was published in 1922 and sparked some attention as well as controversy with its feminist leanings. In particular the poems within maintained that the sexual freedom formerly commandeered by men was equally valid for women. This feeling is particularly obvious in the sonnet beginning “What lips my lips have kissed,”.
Keep in mind that all of this was accomplished during Millay’s college years! After graduation the woman moved to Greenwich Village in New York, a particularly free-thinking and artistic borough. She kept up her writing as well as her involvements with women, but also began to take men as lovers though it would seem that none of them were able to “sway” her from her natural lesbian leanings. The following paragraph is quoted from another web page dedicated to Edna St. Vincent Millay, which is located at Sappho.com.
In Great Companions, Max Eastman relates an interesting story about Millay that, if true, reveals something of her attitude about own sexuality. According to Eastman, while at a cocktail party Millay discussed her recurrent headaches
with a psychologist. He asked her, “I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex?” She responded, “Oh, you mean I’m homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual, too, but what’s that got to do with my headache?”
Millay did eventually marry Eugen Boissevain, who managed her career and was a great source of support. The marriage, as mentioned above, was agreed to be open and Millay herself said that they maintained their personal freedom, living more as great friends than as husband and wife. Millay, a smoker in an age of smokers, succumbed to her failure in 1950 at her home, Steepletop, in Austerlitz New York. Boissevain, who was considerably older, had died the previous year.