A couple college friends and I decided to visit the home and gardens of famous poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Austerlitz, NY. We were eager to find out whether the rumors we’d heard about her – that she jumped from a dorm window at Vassar College—where we went and Millay graduated from in 1917, were true.
Her infraction, presumably to meet up with a boy or two, violated the school’s parietal rules that prevented members of opposite sexes visiting each other’s dorm rooms. Though originally told she couldn’t march in graduation, then Vassar President Henry Noble MacCracken reversed the decision, perhaps recognizing the bad publicity Vassar would receive if it punished its famous poet. (The parietal rules were lifted in 1969 when the college began admitting men.)
This year is Millay’s 125th birthday and also the 100th anniversary of her Vassar graduation. To honor the event, the college library has devoted several display cases to Millay, displaying artifacts from the house that are curated with some of her poems printed alongside.
The house tour (no photos allowed) included visits to her bedroom, study, dining room, living room, complete with two grand pianos; and her library. Pouring rain prevented us from walking around the gardens except to see the in-ground pool, secluded by landscaping where Millay was known to have wild parties that included bathing “au natural,” considered shocking at the time.
Millay, who was called “Vincent, “ conveniently masking her gender from publishers eager to print her poems, grew up in Maine, the eldest of three sisters. Her mother taught her to read through poetry and to play piano. Showing a talent for poetry at a young age, she entered and won a local contest. She enrolled at Vassar in 1913, already a published poet, and continued to write poems and plays to help support her studies until she graduated in 1917.
Millay moved to Greenwich Village, NY, and developed a reputation as living a bohemian lifestyle—attracting many lovers and partying, all the while writing to rave reviews and robust sales.
In 1925, Millay married Dutch businessman Eugen Boissevain, and after her 8-month, around –the- world honeymoon, she answered an ad in the New York Times for a rundown Victorian farmhouse in Austerlitz, NY. They purchased the property, that included 600 acres of land and began restoring the house and transforming the grounds into various gardens.
She lived at Steepletop, named for a plant known as steeplebush, until her death in 1950. In 1978, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society was created and restorations began to open the house and grounds to the public.
After our tour, we returned to Rachel’s house and enjoyed reading some of Millay’s poems as we drank wine, acting out the lines in true Millay fashion.