Edna St. V. Millay Found Dead At 58
Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES
AUSTERLITZ, N.Y., Oct. 19–Edna St. Vincent Millay, the famous poet, was found dead at the foot of the stairs in her isolated home near here at 3:30 P. M. today.
Her physician said she died of a heart attack after a coronary occlusion. She was 58 years old.
She was dressed in a nightgown and slippers when her body was found by James Pinnie, a caretaker, who had arrived to fix a fire for the evening. The Columbia County coroner estimated that she had been dead for eight hours. Her nearest neighbor lived a mile away.
Miss Millay had lived alone in the Berkshire hills near the Massachusetts border, ten miles southwest of Chatham, N. Y., since her husband died on Aug. 20, 1949. He was Eugen Jan Boissevain, a retired New York importer.
Spokesman for Three Decades
Edna St. Vincent Millay was a terse and moving spokesman during the Twenties, the Thirties and the Forties. She was an idol of the younger generation during the glorious early days of Greenwich Village when she wrote, what critics termed a frivolous but widely know poem which ended:
My candle burns at both ends, It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, It gives a lovely light!
All critics agreed, however, that Greenwich Village and Vassar, plus a gypsy childhood on the rocky coast of Maine, produced one of the greatest American poets of her time. In 1940 she published in THE NEW YORK TIMES Magazine a plea against isolationism which said, “There are no islands any more,” and during the second World War she wrote of the Nazi massacre of the Czechoslovak city of Lidice:
The whole world holds in its arms today The murdered village of Lidice, Like the murdered body of a little child, Innocent, happy, surprised at play.
Before this, when Miss Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1922, her work had become more profound and less personal as she grew out of the “flaming youth” era in the Village. The nation and the world had become her concern.
Was Raised in Maine
Miss Millay was born in Rockland, Me., on Feb. 22, 1892, in an old house “between the mountains and the sea” where baskets of apples and drying herbs on the porch mingled their scents with those of the neighboring pine woods.
She was the eldest of three sisters, brought up by their mother, the former Cora Buzelle. Of the younger sisters, Norma became an actress and Kathleen a writer, whose first novel, published in 1927, was succeeded by fairy stories, short stories, plays and verse.
Floyd Dell, novelist and unofficial historian of the Village in the early Twenties, has written how the mother worked to bring up her daughters in “gay and courageous poverty.”
Edna, the tomboy of the family, was usually called “Vincent” by her mother and sisters. Her talent was recognized and encouraged and poetry was read and reread in the household. At 14 she won the St. Nicholas Gold Badge for poetry, the first of many honors. In the poem that gave its name to her volume, “The Harp-Weaver,” some have discovered the inspiration of her poor youth and her mother’s devotion.
Edna entered Vassar late. She was then 21 years old, but when she was 18 she had finished the first part of her first long poem, “Renascence,” and at 20 had ended it. It was published in a prize contest, which incidentally, it did not win. Sonnets and lyrics followed while she still was in college. She was graduated in 1917 and came to live in the Village, remaining for years, something of a tradition in her college.
Miss Millay, says Floyd Dell, was in those days “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine,” young, red-haired and unquestionably pretty. But the Village was the wartime Village, and Miss Millay took the radical stand of opposing the US entry into the World War.
John Reed, Communist and war correspondent who wrote for the radical left magazine “The Masses,” was among her friends.
Inez Milholland, feminist leader, to whom the sonnet “The Pioneer” is a tribute, was one of her admirers.
In a play, “Aria da Capo,” written in 1921, she expressed her hatred of war, and it has been recorded that she haunted court rooms with her pacifist friends, reciting to them her poetry to comfort them while juries decided on their cases.
With Provincetown Players
At first poetry in Greenwich Village did not pay, and Miss Millay turned to the theatre, briefly. She acted without pay with the Provincetown Players in their converted stable on Macdougal Street and got a part in a Theatre Guild production. For some time she did hack writing for magazines under a pseudonym.
It was her second volume of verses, “A Few Figs From Thistles,” that turned national attention to the nine-foot-wide house on Bedford Street where she lived. There followed “Second April” in 1921 and “The Lamp and the Bell” and a morality play, “Two Slatterns and a King,” in the same year, and in 1922, with the Pulitzer Prize, her position as a poet was established.
“The Harp-Weaver” was published in 1923, and then the Metropolitan Opera House commissioned Miss Millay to write a book for the score of an opera composed by Deems Taylor. For her plot she went to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Eadgar, King of Wessex, a story not unlike that of Tristan and Isolde, and the result was “The King’s Henchman,” called by one writer the most effectively and artistically wrought American opera ever to reach the stage.
It was produced at the Metropolitan Opera as the most important production of the 1927 season, with Lawrence Tibbett, Edward Johnson and Florence Easton, and later was taken on an extensive tour. Within twenty days of the publication of the poem in book form four editions were exhausted, and it was calculated that Miss Millay’s royalties from her publishers ran to $100 a day.
In the summer of 1927 the time drew near for the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Boston Italians whose trial and conviction of murder became one of the most celebrated labor causes of the United States. Only recently recovered from a nervous breakdown, Miss Millay flung herself into the fight for their lives.
Contributed Poem to Fund
A poem which had wide circulation at the time, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” was her contribution to the fund raised for the defense campaign. Miss Millay also made a personal appeal to Governor Fuller.
In August she was arrested as one of the “death watch” demonstrators before the Boston State House.
With her were John Howard Lawson, the playwright; William Patterson of the American Negro Congress, Ella Reeve, “Mother” Bloor a leader of the US Communist Party, and others.
“I went to Boston fully expecting to be arrested–arrested by a polizia created by a government that my ancestors rebelled to establish,” she said, when back in New York. “Some of us have been thinking and talking too long without doing anything. Poems are perfect; picketing, sometimes, is better.”
Miss Millay was married to Mr. Boissevain in 1923. They spent most of their married life at Steepletop, their Columbia County home. They traveled to Florida, the Riviera and Spain and, in 1933, bought an eighty-five acre island in Casco Bay, Me.