Poets and Writers - - Contents - –ADRI­ENNE RAPHEL

Ef­forts are un­der way to keep Edna

St. Vin­cent Mil­lay’s home open;

Sue Lan­ders be­gins role as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Lambda Lit­er­ary; Na­tional Book Foun­da­tion re­ceives $1.4 mil­lion to ex­pand pro­gram­ming; a Q&A with Jen­nifer Baker, the ed­i­tor of Ev­ery­day Peo­ple; and more.

In 1925 poet Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay and her hus­band, Eu­gen Jan Bois­se­vain, an­swered an ad­ver­tise­ment for an aban­doned blue­berry farm for sale in Auster­litz, New York. They bought the prop­erty for $9,000 and named it Steeple­top after the Steeple­bush, a wild plant that stud­ded the grounds with spiky pink blooms. Over the next twenty-five years, the farm­house and sur­round­ing sev­en­hun­dred-acre es­tate in the Berk­shires near the Mas­sachusetts bor­der be­came Mil­lay’s refuge, a haven where she could fo­cus on her writ­ing sur­rounded by forests, foothills, and wildlife.

To­day the house is open to the pub­lic and is run by the Mil­lay So­ci­ety, a non­profit trust ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing the poet’s legacy. When Mil­lay died in 1950 her sis­ter Norma moved into the house, and after Norma’s death in 1986 the es­tate passed into own­er­ship of the so­ci­ety. Since 2010 guests have been wel­come to visit Steeple­top and im­merse them­selves in Mil­lay’s life by tak­ing tours of the house and grounds. The es­tate, how­ever, is in dan­ger of clos­ing after the cur­rent sea­son, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion has launched a cam­paign to keep it open to the pub­lic.

Ac­cord­ing to the Mil­lay So­ci­ety, it costs $225,000 per year to run the prop­erty, which gen­er­ates only $75,000 per year from vis­i­tors and do­na­tions, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion hasn’t been able to close the gap. With help in the form of $1 mil­lion in fund­ing, Steeple­top could re­main open for at least three more years; $5 mil­lion to $6 mil­lion would en­sure long-term fi­nan­cial health. (Steeple­top is a sep­a­rate en­tity from the Mil­lay Colony, a writ­ers and artists res­i­dency lo­cated just across the hill from the farm­house, though res­i­dents are af­forded ac­cess to the Steeple­top grounds. The Mil­lay Colony is not in dan­ger of clos­ing.)

Holly Peppe, Mil­lay’s lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor and friend of the fam­ily who once lived in the house with Norma, says

the cam­paign has two ideal out­comes: to garner enough smaller do­na­tions from many sources to keep Steeple­top run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent en­tity, or for a larger in­sti­tu­tion to part­ner with the Mil­lay So­ci­ety. Amherst Col­lege, for ex­am­ple, owns and op­er­ates the two prop­er­ties that form the Emily Dick­in­son Mu­seum, in Amherst, Mas­sachusetts. Other nearby writ­ers’ homes in New Eng­land and New York are largely kept open by a com­bi­na­tion of grants, tour sales, rentals, pro­grams, and in­di­vid­ual do­na­tions. Within just a few hours’ drive from Steeple­top, tourists can visit the Mount, Edith Whar­ton’s pala­tial es­tate in Lenox, Mas­sachusetts; the Mark Twain House and Mu­seum in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut; Ar­row­head, Her­man Melville’s home in Pitts­field, Mas­sachusetts, with the fa­mous view of whale-shaped Mount Grey­lock; and a num­ber of homes for­merly owned by Robert Frost.

But even among this abun­dance of lit­er­ary es­tates, Mil­lay’s stands out. “Steeple­top goes be­yond the home it­self,” says Bar­bara Bair, cu­ra­tor of the Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay col­lec­tion at the Li­brary of Congress. “It is spe­cial in that its sur­round­ing grounds are still places of nat­u­ral beauty—func­tional nat­u­ral beauty— where peo­ple can still walk, pic­nic, read, ob­serve a blos­som, or lis­ten to the birds, all with Mil­lay’s spirit al­most man­i­fest around them.” Vis­i­tors can peek in­side a small wooden shed where Mil­lay used to write in the com­pany of her Ger­man shep­herd, Al­tair; the shed still con­tains two small desks and a type­writer. They can wan­der the gar­dens, fields, and wooded grounds where Mil­lay and her hus­band threw ex­trav­a­gant par­ties— dur­ing which guests played ten­nis, drank at the well-stocked out­door bar, and lounged in the spring-fed pool, where, leg­end has it, Mil­lay de­creed that guests could swim only au na­turel. Vis­i­tors can also walk on the “po­etry trail,” a path through the woods that leads from Steeple­top to the burial site of Mil­lay, her hus­band, and her sis­ter, marked with plac­ards of Mil­lay’s son­nets along the way.

Blair calls the es­tate a “time cap­sule, a worm hole of con­scious­ness that brings yes­ter­day right into to­day.” Norma and the so­ci­ety pre­served the house at Steeple­top as though “Vin­cent”—as Mil­lay was known to fam­ily and friends—had just stepped out for a drive. “Her gowns are hang­ing in the closet, shoes in the shoe rack, her feath­ered hats, her mono­grammed purses with lip­stick and blush,” Peppe says. Vis­i­tors to the house get a fuller pic­ture of Mil­lay, who, de­spite her rep­u­ta­tion as a for­mal­ist “song­bird poet,” was also a fem­i­nist who spoke out pas­sion­ately for women’s rights and had mul­ti­ple open re­la­tion­ships with women and men. In her wardrobe taffeta dresses hang next to her hunt­ing jacket (“Mil­lay had her own .22 [ri­fle],” notes Peppe), and Steeple­top’s kitchen is still dec­o­rated as it was for a 1949 Ladies’ Home Jour­nal ar­ti­cle meant to show Mil­lay’s “do­mes­tic” side, with

blue walls and salmon Nau­gahyde cush­ions. Ac­cord­ing to Norma, her sis­ter didn’t have much of a do­mes­tic side. Peppe says that when Norma first showed her the kitchen, Norma ex­ploded: “For God’s sake, she wrote po­etry here—her hus­band, Eu­gen, or one of the maids did the cook­ing!” she said.

Though Steeple­top’s fu­ture is un­cer­tain, Mil­lay’s work is cur­rently en­joy­ing some­thing of a re­nais­sance. In 2016 Yale Univer­sity Press pub­lished the first schol­arly an­no­tated edi­tion of Mil­lay’s po­etry and plans to pub­lish two new col­lec­tions of the poet’s let­ters, di­aries, and jour­nals in 2021 and 2022. Peppe says that pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of Mil­lay has also re­cently grown. A few decades ago Mil­lay was ac­knowl­edged more for her celebrity—she had “rock-star fame,” says Peppe—than for her writ­ing, but she is now be­ing rec­og­nized as “much more of a mod­ern poet than she was made out to be.” Mil­lay’s son­nets in­verted gen­der roles, giv­ing the fe­male speaker author­ity in a form tra­di­tion­ally re­served for ex­pres­sions of male de­sire. “She wrote di­rectly and openly about women’s sex­u­al­ity, chal­leng­ing ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships in this world run by men,” Peppe says. “She was pi­geon­holed as a love poet, even in her life­time. Now she’s fi­nally be­ing in­cor­po­rated into the canon. Mil­lay is an im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal fig­ure and an im­por­tant lit­er­ary fig­ure, and we’re just now find­ing out all about it.”

Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay and her hus­band, Eu­gen Jan Bois­se­vain, at Steeple­top, in Auster­litz, New York, in 1925.

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