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Edna St. Vincent Millay Museum May Close

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Apr 27th, 2018

Edna St. Vincent Millay's house at Steepletop

Will the Edna St. Vincent Millay residence and museum close? They say they are in danger of shutting their doors due to recent expenses of renovating the old house. They have no endowment and they say they need to create an endowment of about one million dollars to ensure that operating expenses will be met. They run small poetry workshops and feature readings of their poets living in summer residence at the site, which is open from May to October.

Along with Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac, William Everson, and Richard Wilbur, Edna St. Vincent Millay remains one of the great poets of the twentieth century. Noted as the first self-consciously feminist poet of North America, she was famous for her wit, insouciance, and spontaneous humor. As a writer she was a master of the sonnet form, influenced deeply by the French Renaissance poet Louise Labé as well as William Shakespeare. She was also a playwright.

Vincent (that’s what her family called her) died prematurely at the age of 58 (one year after her husband) in 1950 from a heart attack, falling down a flight of stairs. Educated as a scholarship student at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, she led a troubled, melodramatic, bohemian life in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, yet in 1925 she settled down in a rolling, abandoned berry farm which she called Steepletop, the name alluding to the pink-flowered Steeplebush that grew wild in the fields. She had nearly an encyclopedic knowledge of flowers and spent much of her summers working in the garden and writing at night. Millay had an extensive, eccentric, charming garden which has never been restored. She had a horse she rode nearly daily.

The rural refuge she built is still there in Austerlitz, a remote corner of New York State geographically in the Berkshires near the Massachusetts border. While easily accessible by car off Route 22, the museum is not on your way to anywhere, unless you are traveling to Boston from Dutchess or Putnam County. The house remains as she left it: the house still holds all her furniture, books, and other possessions, many of which remain where they were on the day she died on October 19.

Robert Frost’s small cottage in Ripton, Vermont, was preserved due to Robert Frost’s patron Dulcie Scott, heiress of the Scott paper fortune; she was the generous patron of Frost’s independent Bread Loaf School, now administered by Middlebury College. Despite Millay’s brilliant poetic achievement, she found no patron with deep pockets and there is no adjacent university in town.

I’ve been to Steepletop more than once. High up on mountain, it is a genuine Berkshire experience with convivial poetry readings. House tours ($16) are conducted Friday through Sunday. For more information visit their website, which features audio clips of Vincent reading her poetry: A recording of Millay reading her poem "Recuerdo" appears below.