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
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.
She lived with her books, her husband, her many boyfriends (and girlfriends) in this beautiful white farmhouse near Austerlitz, New York.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite living here with her husband Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch importer, Millay famously had open affairs with both men and women.
If these walls could talk!
House Crazy Sarah loves this old photo of Edna (Vincent) in which she lays her head adoringly on the fireplace mantle:
The photo below depicts that same fireplace (albeit obscured by a lamp):
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.
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…
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’s most favorite room in the house was her study, otherwise known as the 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.
There is also a small bed tucked into the book shelves, where Edna would read and write.
House Crazy Sarah can relate. She does her best work from the comfort of her bed.
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.
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.
Today the pool is forlorn and neglected, just a shell of the romantic scene it once was.
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.
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.
Seems like it was a nice life for a while there. I think I prefer the original kitchen–that remodel must look so out of place in an old house like that.
I also wish they would have kept the original old kitchen – those cabinet! That stove!
i am so delighted by your doing this ,, it is definitely my cup of tea.. when i went to visit 5 years ago , the first thing i saw was a book by George Bernard Shaw. was it An Intelligent woman’
s guide to Socialism and Capitalism??. and I became a member on the spot and hope others willl. and i would like to know about other historic women’s houses you have visited.