Girl Poet of the Jazz Age, Greenwich Village Sexpot

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay , by Nancy Milford. Random House, 550 pages, $29.95.

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay , by Daniel Mark Epstein. Henry Holt, 300 pages, $26.

Edna St. Vincent Millay–famed lover of scores of men and women, a poet whose passionate verse set the Jazz Age generation on fire, an alcoholic morphine addict, a propagandist, actress and playwright–was a rather boring person. Not boring in her deeds, certainly, but in her private life a petty, petulant, vain woman of uncommon self-absorption, endless intestinal troubles, constant baby-talk and countless other sentimental cutenesses.

She called herself “Vincent”–and sometimes “Little Wincy-Pince.” She wrote frequently to her “Muddy” and her husband, “Skiddlepins.” When engaged in epistolary flirtation, she was painfully obvious. She wrote to a married man of her acquaintance, “People fall in love with me, and annoy me and distress me and flatter me and excite me and–and all that sort of thing. But no one speaks to me. I sometimes think that no one can. Can you?” Most of her correspondence is about humdrum matters: “You see, we have had living with us for three weeks now six masons, four plumbers, two carpenters, two ineffectual and transient servants, and fifteen insubordinate and mischievous berry-picking children … they appear in the morning before we are dressed and tramp through the bedrooms without knocking, bearing ladders and bricks and trowels and buckets of cement.” She rarely mentions other people, except in terms of her own feelings about them.

The strength of Millay’s poetry comes from the same selfishness that weakens her diaries and correspondence. Beginning with “Renascence,” the poem that introduced her to fame, Millay’s best work was born of close examination of her own emotions, her experience of love and her fascination with death. A Few Figs from Thistles , the volume that cemented her status as America’s star “girl poet,” reflected her experiences in Greenwich Village in the 20’s. She lived in a series of cold-water walk-ups, wrote and performed for the Provincetown Playhouse, ran with the literary crowd at countless liquored-up cocktail parties and in speakeasies like Chumley’s. She thrived on the fleeting affairs, the excitement of living in a community of artists, the thrill of feeling young and free and full of life: “Cut if you will, with Sleep’s dull knife, / Each day to half its length, my friend, / The years that Time take off my life, / He’ll take from off the other end!”

In What Lips My Lips Have Kissed , Daniel Epstein explains that “Vincent, standing five feet, one inch, had measurements of 34-22-34. Her breasts were surprisingly large and perfectly formed …. So when this small, mysterious child-woman took her clothes off, and stood naked before a man for the first time, the light of her beauty was blinding. There were many men who were never able to get over it.” Though Mr. Epstein was born too late to actually clap eyes on Millay’s “petite but perfectly formed figure” (he’s had to content himself with the worshipful examination of a collection of nude photographs), he’s clearly besotted, and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed is an extremely silly book. But it does give you an idea of why Millay had such a busy time in the Village.

Later–20 years and several unspectacular volumes of poetry later–as a married woman living on a farm in upstate New York, she produced a new and different popular success: the sonnet sequence Fatal Interview . These poems grew out of her affair with 23-year-old George Dillon, and in addition to her usual intensity and vividness, the book reveals a new maturity. “Of all alive/ I only in such utter, ancient way / Do suffer love; in me alone survive / The unregenerate passions of a day / When treacherous queens, with death upon the tread, / Heedless and willful, took their knights to bed.” The frolicsome playfulness and carefree attitude that marked Figs has faded. Fatal Interview addresses the loss of power and the passing of time. “When we are old and these rejoicing veins / Are frosty channels to a muted stream, / And out of all our burning there remains / No feeblest spark to fire us, even in dream, / This be our solace: that it was not said / When we were young and warm and in our prime, / Upon our couch we lay as lie the dead, / Sleeping away the unreturning time.”

When Millay turned her artistic attentions away from her inner life, to write patriotic doggerel or to tell touching tales, her work suffered. Always vulnerable to the lure of the sentimental, she succumbed totally in her weaker poems. “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” tells the story of an impoverished mother who weaves on a harp in order to provide a wardrobe for her son. It could be the cast-aside draft of an Oscar Wilde fairy tale: The little boy wakes on Christmas morning to find his mother sitting at her harp with “A smile about her lips, / And a light about her head, / And her hands in the harp-strings / Frozen dead. / And piled up beside her / And toppling to the skies, / Were the clothes of a king’s son, / Just my size.”

Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty is the product of 30 years of work, and it shows. The book’s great strengths are the interviews with Millay’s friends and family, which serve as a counterweight to the daily schedules and complaints about illness in the diaries and correspondence. (A sample of the latter: On visiting one of Paris’ most famous salons, she wrote, “It’s going to be awful, such a noisy crowd … I’m going to wear my simple little black ensemble from Worth’s.”)

Everyone who knew her agrees that Millay was unusually vibrant and magnetic, but her own papers do not show this, and we get a better sense of her from others’ memories. Norma Ellis, the poet’s sister, recalls “There was this Swedish writer …. He’d been in the bath, he said, when a bee alighted on the tip of his penis …. And as quick as a wink Vincent said, ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I.’ You see, she could say such things, and did say them, immediately, without a moment’s thought.” A friend remembers “She was a little bitch, a genius, a cross between a gamin and an angel …. She really never loved anyone except herself …. She might have left [my husband] alone, but not that, either … she twisted a little green ring on her finger. ‘Josef gave it to me,’ she said absolutely brutally, ‘But he really cares for you.'” Savage Beauty would be a better book if Ms. Milford had lavished less attention (and fewer pages) on minutiae gleaned from Millay’s personal papers, and made more of the revealing gossipy anecdotes provided by her contemporaries.

Ms. Milford opens a window on Millay’s fascinating relationship with her mother, Cora. It was, to put it mildly, complex. In one letter, Millay wrote, “If I didn’t keep calling you mother, anybody reading this would think I was writing to my sweetheart. And he would be quite right.” Or this: “Do you suppose, when you & I are dead, dear, they will publish the Love Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay & Her Mother ?” But like all her love affairs, the poet’s affair with Cora was tortured. She could be a cruel daughter. In Paris, where the two women shared an apartment, Vincent drove her mother crazy with her romantic indiscretion. She had an affair with the painter Daubigny, about whom Cora said, “She knows he makes me ill near to death …. O Christ! Why am I her mother! Why am I so near that I must know? … It is as if I were in the room. She does not always lock her door–I have blundered in there more than once and surprised her in his embrace–God damn his soul!” When Vincent became pregnant (by person or persons unknown), Cora concocted an herb mixture to abort her potential grandchild. Nine years later, Cora’s death sent her daughter on a binge of drunkenness and morphine abuse which ended when she died falling down a flight of stairs; Millay was 58 years old.

Ms. Milford’s previous book, the best-selling Zelda , a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, succeeded in part because Zelda herself is so compelling–her fiction is of little interest compared with her Catherine-wheel life. This time around, the opposite is true. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry is vital, visceral, immediate and delightfully lyrical. Yes, she lived in Greenwich Village in the 20’s and in Paris in the 30’s; yes, she was a self-described nymphomaniac, a colossal celebrity, the recipient of dozens of honors. But the best of her liveliness and her passion she poured into her poetry, which is still the truest record of the lovely light shed by a candle burning at both ends.

Alicia Brownell is deputy books editor of The Observer .