Steepletop: The Edna St. Vincent Millay House

Heart, have no pity on this house of bone:
Shake it with dancing, break it down with joy.
No man holds mortgage on it; it is your own;
To give, to sell at auction, to destroy.
~ Sonnet 29 from Fatal Interview

Edna St Vincent Millay house - Steepletop

Those four lines of poetry are the best ever written, in House Crazy Sarah’s humble opinion.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet who was a feminist and saucy free spirit of the roaring twenties era.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

She lived with her books, her husband, her many boyfriends (and girlfriends) in this beautiful white farmhouse near Austerlitz, New York.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

She named it Steepletop after the pink wildflower that grows in abundance on the property. Her former home and the large gardens are now maintained by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society.

Steepletop was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

The Millay Colony for the Arts, founded by Norma Millay Ellis, the sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay and heir to her estate, is located on an adjacent plot of land.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

Edna, or Vincent as she preferred to be called, was originally from Maine but then went abroad to Paris and eventually moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. However, she reportedly felt too distracted by all the bohemian energy of the big cities.

Millay looked to the country life for solace and in 1925 she bought the Steepletop house, barn, and outbuildings on 453 acres for $9,000. She maintained it as a working farm, and did some of her most important literary work there.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

But it wasn’t all solitude and farm life at Steepletop in upstate New York. Millay had a constant stream of house guests from writers to artists to bohemian philosophers. The farmhouse was party central for this creative crowd in the roaring twenties.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

Despite living here with her husband Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch importer, Millay famously had open affairs with both men and women.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

If these walls could talk!

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

House Crazy Sarah loves this old photo of Edna (Vincent) in which she lays her head adoringly on the fireplace mantle:

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

The photo below depicts that same fireplace (albeit obscured by a lamp):

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

Built in 1892 – coincidentally the same year Millay was born – the Victorian home was reportedly stripped-down and simplified by Millay to create more of a rustic New England farmhouse. The home still holds all of her furniture, books, and belongings and remains largely the way it was on the day she died – October 19, 1950.

She was 58 years old at the time of her death.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

How did Millay die? She took a bad tumble down the farmhouse’s steep, narrow staircase and broke her neck on the first-floor landing. Some say it was an accident, others believe it was suicide which would fit with the angst-y, artistic temperament of the poet. She was drug dependent and depressed from the death of her husband in her final years.

In this photo of Millay’s bedroom (below), you can see her actual pink robe draped across the bed…

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

In in the decades since her death, the house was only gently lived in by her sister, Nora Millay Ellis, who lived there for the next 36 years until her death in 1986 at age 93. Nora carefully preserved the house and kept all the rooms as her sister had left them.

The Kitchen Makeover

One of the more fascinating things about Steepletop is that the kitchen was remodeled by Ladies’ Home Journal in the late 1940’s. The magazine’s editors got wind of the battle Millay and her husband were having with the local authorities to have their home connected to the power grid. Eventually the couple won out but the old home’s kitchen still had wood burning appliances and an old ice box for a fridge.

In exchange for a photographic spread in the Journal, the poet got a brand new state-of-the-art kitchen with an electric stove, electrified refrigerator, double porcelain sink, and large chest freezer.

Look at the before and after photos:

The layout of the room was slightly altered as well. A wide picture window was installed above the sink, while an interior door was moved to make room for a breakfast nook.

Here’s what the Ladies’ Home Journal spread looked like:

House Crazy Sarah loves vintage mid-century kitchens, but folks, how cool was the original 1892 kitchen?!

Moving on from the kitchen, have a peek at the monogrammed towels in the bathroom:

Edna St. Vincent Millay's house

 

The Library

Edna’s most favorite room in the house was her study, otherwise known as the library.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's library

Apparently, no one, not even the hubby, was allowed in the poet’s book-lined private sanctuary.

All of the Millay’s books remain as she left them.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's personal study

There is also a small bed tucked into the book shelves, where Edna would read and write.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's personal library

Edna St. Vincent Millay's personal library

House Crazy Sarah can relate. She does her best work from the comfort of her bed.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's personal library

Edna St. Vincent Millay's personal library

What a splendid collection!

The Writing Shed

Apart from her library, there was one other sacred spot on the property: Edna’s writing shed.

The private shed was hidden away in a grove of pine trees and it is said that Millay spent several hours there a day writing. As with her library, NO ONE was allowed to interrupt or join her in the cabin.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's writing cabin

 

The Infamous Outdoor Pool

Many photos exists of the follies by the outdoor pool on the grounds of Steepletop. In its heyday, the pool was the focal point for many summer parties but it was also a place where Millay enjoyed swimming by herself in the nude.

Edna St Vincent Millay house pool

Today the pool is forlorn and neglected, just a shell of the romantic scene it once was.

Edna St Vincent Millay house pool

The Millay Society had been giving tours of the house and grounds to help raise money for upkeep and restorations but recent posts on their website (January 2020) seem to indicate that the house is not currently open for tours.

Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay house

Hopefully this is not a permanent closing because the farmhouse and grounds are amazing time capsules from a glittering era in American literature.

The grave sites of the poet, her husband, and mother are also located on the property.

grave of Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

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Sources:

https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Edna-St-Vincent-Millay-s-home-opens-to-public

https://www.thekitchn.com/kitchen-tour-edna-st-vincent-m-81063#gallery/3754/1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steepletop

http://www.millay.org/millaycollectiveworks.php

http://babioledewindsor.blogspot.com/2013/10/fall-in-berkshires-steepletop.html

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