Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s seven-hundred acre estate in the Berkshires, Steepletop, is a literary gem. I visited Steepletop for research for my novel, Fallen Beauty, and wish to share some background about the home and the legacy of the poet, and encourage travelers to visit this site so rich in natural beauty and literary history.

 Dr. Holly Peppe, a Millay scholar and the literary executor of the estate, was kind enough to share her knowledge of the family and of Steepletop with me. Her work on Millay, including the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Millay’s Early Poems, a collection she annotated and edited, has helped keep Millay’s memory alive. Her other critical essays about the poet appear in various anthologies and in the new Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Harper Perennial, 2011). As one so close to the family, Dr. Peppe gave me keen insights on the fascinating Millay women, and voiced her wish to rekindle public interest in one of our greatest American poets.

ERIKA ROBUCK: As one who believes that books and writers find us when we need them, I am curious about the commencement of such “relationships.” When did your relationship with Edna St. Vincent Millay begin?

HOLLY PEPPE:  You might say it was a winding road! My mother read poetry to me as a child and sang songs every evening at the piano, so I was exposed to the musicality of words early on. By the time I was in high school, I considered poetry a second language—my favorite pastime was writing poems and songs and reading every poet I could find. My favorites were Neruda and Borges. I started out as a music major in college but switched to English and earned a B.A. and Masters before moving to Rome, Italy where I directed the American College of Rome’s English Department for a few years. Inspired by a favorite book, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet –a work that I encourage all writers to read—I made a summer pilgrimage to Switzerland to visit a water castle and other places where the German lyric poet Rilke lived and wrote, ending the tour with a visit to his grave. I was in love with him and his work and decided that I would return to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate, with Rilke as my subject.

Unfortunately, the Ivy League university where I had earned my Masters rejected my plan, noting that I could not earn a doctorate in English if I wrote about work that had been translated from another language. Instead I would need to find a poet who wrote in English. So I chose Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose poetry I admired, only to have this second topic rejected by the English department because Millay was not considered a “major American figure.” I was told I could combine my research on Millay with work on another poet or two, like Robert Frost, Marianne Moore or Louise Bogan, and the combo would equal one “major” writer! My frustration with that plan, which I considered absurd, led me to the University of New Hampshire, where I was told they would accept Millay as a dissertation if I would educate a doctoral committee about her work. Because she was a bestselling poet, most scholars had considered her poems “too accessible” and “popular” and therefore not worthy of serious study. I disagreed on all counts and set out to prove them wrong.

My research led me to Steepletop, where Millay’s sister, Norma, age 89, was still living and working as the poet’s literary executor. The Director of the Millay Colony, an artists’ enclave across the hill from Millay’s home, told me Norma was largely unapproachable. Nonetheless, armed with gifts from Rome and my determination to write about her older sister, I made the trek to the top of the hill in Austerlitz to visit. Luckily Norma accepted me as an ally and over the next few years, where I spent days and weeks at a time at Steepletop, we became good friends.

Getting to know the poet through the eyes of her fiercely devoted sister was a moving experience and before long, Millay became far more than a dissertation topic or even a favorite poet to me—she became a living memory.

Even on my first visit to Steepletop, the place seemed to exist outside of time. Norma and her husband, Charlie had carefully moved in around Vincent; she left her sister’s clothes and shoes in the bedroom closets. (Norma’s own clothes were hanging on the shower rack in the bathroom). Millay’s evening purses, with lipstick still inside, were left in place, tucked lovingly into the mahogany bureau’s drawers.

There were times when I felt Millay’s presence everywhere, like the night Norma asked me to try on Millay’s gowns. Dutifully I modelled them, one after another, including the long red velvet and black taffeta dresses the poet had worn on her reading tours. For a graduate student in awe of her subject, it was thrilling!

ERIKA ROBUCK: Was Norma pleased to have a scholar studying her beloved sister?

HOLLY PEPPE: Oh, no—not at all! She didn’t believe in academia and said most professors drained poetry of its passion. So she insisted that before she would discuss a poem with me, I would need to memorize it. This is what prompted me to learn many of the poems and sonnets by heart, which was indeed more enriching than simply reading and analyzing them one after another. In the end, we spent two to three hours a day talking about Millay’s poetry—its origin, form, meaning, and so forth.

ERIKA ROBUCK: How did it feel to be living in Millay’s house?  

HOLLY PEPPE: I felt like I was living in a dream. Many times, especially when Norma and I were sitting in the living room, sipping wine and eating our meals from decorative metal trays as Millay sometimes had, I gazed around in appreciation and wonder at the whole experience.

ERIKA ROBUCK: When I visited Steepletop, I was taken aback by the life force left in the house and grounds. For a place that has been almost untouched since the days of the poet, the atmosphere is very active. Has anything troubling, haunting, or fascinating ever happened to you at the house?

HOLLY PEPPE:  Yes, and though I’m not generally a believer in the paranormal, I absolutely believe there is a spirit or two in residence at Steepletop. So much happened there—from Millay and Eugen’s legendary parties, to the 1936 car accident that resulted in Millay’s addiction to morphine, to Millay’s and then Norma’s death in the house 36 years later.

My first encounter was the night Norma died –she was in Millay’s bed in an upstairs bedroom. I was with Norma’s dear friend Elizabeth Barnett, who would inherit her role as literary executor. In the middle of the night, Elizabeth and I got into my car and followed the hearse down the hill to the funeral home. A few hours later, sad and exhausted, we drove back to Steepletop, only to find that the strings of Christmas lights surrounding the house were blazing with an array of color, having somehow turned themselves on! Instead of being frightened we were instantly delighted—we knew it was the spirit of Norma, welcoming us home.

A few weeks later, when I returned to the house to discuss Norma’s memorial service with Elizabeth, we heard a loud crash upstairs. When we went to investigate, the wooden bar in Millay’s closet holding the gowns had crashed to the floor. Was it Norma this time, or the poet herself sending us a message? We weren’t sure.

And finally, on the afternoon after Norma’s memorial, I was bidding Elizabeth goodbye on the front porch when the light above me started blinking, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until it went out. “I guess she doesn’t want you to leave,” Elizabeth said with a smile.

ERIKA ROBUCK: Why is preserving the legacy so important to you, and what would you like readers to know about Steepletop?

HOLLY PEPPE: I promised Norma, and then Elizabeth, I would carry on as the next literary executor, a keeper of the flame. I want people to know that Millay’s impressive body of work is of vital importance to the American literary tradition. It was this poet, who was also a playwright, essayist, and short story writer, who infused new life into traditional poetic forms and brought new hope to a generation of youth disillusioned by the political and social upheaval of the First World War.

I also want to introduce readers to her deftly crafted sonnets and lyrics not only addressing typical poetic subjects — love, loss, life, and death and so forth– but also tackling the social issues of the day: political injustice, discrimination, and personal freedom.

It’s an exciting time in the world of Edna St. Vincent Millay! The Millay Society Board, is intent on preserving the beauty and spirit of Steepletop.  On behalf of my fellow Board members, I’d like to invite readers and others to visit this National Historic Landmark, Millay’s beloved country home. There you can walk through the newly restored gardens and rooms in the house where, at every turn, it feels like the poet herself might just walk in the door.

ERIKA ROBUCK: These are lovely sentiments for a worthy cause, and I encourage all to visit this fascinating place, and learn more about Edna St. Vincent Millay. Thank you, Holly.

Steepletop is open from May 23 2014 – Oct 20 2014, and reservations are required. Call 518-392-3362 or visit the website at millay.org for more information.