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Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay Hardcover – September 4, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Fans of Zelda, Nancy Milford's groundbreaking (and bestselling) biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald's tortured wife and muse, have been waiting impatiently since 1970 for Milford's promised follow-up about poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). It's finally here, and they will not be disappointed. Milford's vivid narrative limns an electric personality with psychological acuity while capturing the freewheeling atmosphere of America in the turbulent years following World War I. After "Renascence" was published (when she was only 20) and she moved to Greenwich Village, Millay was the queen of bohemia, taking lovers with zest and voicing the reckless gaiety of a generation in her famous lyric, "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." With her flame-red hair, milk-white skin, and a voice that thrilled audiences (making her poetry readings a welcome source of income), Millay was the archetypal "new woman": powerful, passionate, and not to be ignored. But Milford makes it clear that her first loyalty was to her mother and sisters, and her deepest commitment to her writing. This juicy chronicle has famous names aplenty--critic Edmund Wilson and Masses editor Floyd Dell were among the men devastated by her refusal to be faithful--and lots of dissipation: Millay drank heavily and became addicted to morphine. It also takes a perceptive look at how an artist draws material from her life and at the strategies she uses to protect the wellsprings of creativity. Brief passages interspersed throughout delineating Milford's interactions with Norma Millay, the poet's younger sister and literary executor, might have been self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing; instead they offer intriguing snapshots of the complex process by which biography is made. The resulting book is a tour de force, and wildly entertaining as well. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Milford hit the New York Times bestseller list 30 years ago with her acclaimed biography of Zelda Fitzgerald; she now seems poised to do it again with this outstanding biography of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Like Fitzgerald, Millay (1892-1950) was a Jazz Age phenomenon, causing a sensation wherever she went; lines from her brief poem, "First Fig" ("I burn my candle at both ends/ It will not last the night... ") would become the rallying cry of a generation. She was notorious for her sexual unconventionality and (as Edmund Wilson put it) "her intoxicating effect on people... of all ages and both sexes." How a lyric poet could have achieved such celebrity is the conundrum at the heart of Savage Beauty. Millay, as Milford depicts her, was a troubled genius who used her prodigious gift to propel herself out of rural poverty and into the center of her age. She carefully cultivated the reporters and patrons who took the "fragile girl-child" under their wing. But her delicate image masked a force of nature whose incendiary wit and insatiable ambition took the public by storm. Milford deftly links the lyric intensity of Millay's work with her ravenous appetite for life. Whether tracing her ghoulishly close relationship to her mother and sisters, her years at the center of cosmopolitan life or her morphine addiction and untimely death, this account offers its readers a haunting drama of artistic fame. A true paradigm of literary biography, this finely crafted book is not to be missed. (Sept. 11) Forecast: Zelda, a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, sold 1.4 million copies. In addition to a nine-city author tour and first serial publication in Vanity Fair, Mitford will be interviewed in the September issue of Harper's Bazaar. Expect lots of excellent reviews and return trips to the printer once the 75,000 initial run sells out. Along with this bio, Modern Library will issue a new edition of Millay's poetry, edited by
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (September 4, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039457589X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394575896
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #474,825 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Karen Sampson Hudson on July 25, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book, one of two biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay out this year, provides us with a full-fleshed view of the lyric poet. Nancy Milford had unparalleled access to the correspondence of Millay, and interviews with her surviving sister, Norma. Milford wrote the book over a period of years, allowing her study of Millay some time for seasoning and reflection.
The early slangy, insouciant letters between the poet and her mother and sisters, are a delight, revealing their loving, teasing relationships. (I admit to being surprised by their wide use of baby talk.) Since Millay moved in literary circles and knew many writers, the letters back and forth to lovers and friends are wonderfully expressive. Many female readers may wish that their husbands and boyfriends could write of love and longing as eloquently!

Milford reveals how Millay labored over her art, how creating her lyrics which seem to flow smoothly and effortlessly, required energy and commitment on her part to produce.

She details Millay's slide into alcoholism and drug dependence in her later years. One wonders how intelligent, educated people like Millay and her husband Eugene could fall into such a state, but apparently there was no one in their lives to do what today is trendily called "an intervention," and as they became more and more isolated, Millay's physical decline was accelerated.

Kudoes to Nancy Milford for a comprehensive biography of a passionate American poet!
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Todd V. LEONE on December 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Edna St. Vincent Millay, long my favorite poet, lived a fascinating, wild and even shocking life. Learning the truth about her may disturb some people, but I was happy to learn the details, sordid and exemplary. Nancy Milford writes engagingly and her biography of "Vincent" became for this reader quite a page-turner. The author's use of correspondence to and from Millay, and about Millay, reveals the character of this jazz-age poet with a sense of immediacy and freshness. (In that sense, this biography has a great deal in common with David McCullough's current best-selling and very engaging biography of John Adams.)
Millay drank, was dependent on prescription pain killers, was promiscuous, and otherwise flouted the conventional morals of her time. She also wrote exquisite poetry and expressed not only beauty of spirit and self, but from time to time high-mindedness -- for example, in trying to evoke the national conscious during America's isolationist response to the rise of fascism in Europe.
This biography is worth reading, as is Millay's poetry.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Peggy Vincent on May 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A phenomenon when she burst onto the literary scene in the Twenties, Edna Millay, I believe, would herself be pleased with this phenomenal biography. I discovered Millay's poetry when I was in high school in Kansas in the Fifties, the Beatnik era, but in Kansas, I certainly knew no Beatniks. Millay became my muse, the poetic string connecting me to another world beyond the endless fields of corn and wheat. I visited her home in Greenwich Village, read all of her poetry, and can still quote long passages from memory.
Savage Beauty, a large book, does ample justice to the large personality of Millay, chronicling her life and lifestyle, both of which were 'unconventional,' in every sense of the word. Such was the impact of this genius, this 'force of nature,' that she willfully created her persona, in the process lifting herself and her dependent family out of poverty and onto the front pages.
The intensity of her poetic works is mirrored in the intensity with which she lived her life. Her short signature poem 'I burn my candle at both ends; it will not last the night. But ah my foes and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light' became a slogan for an era - and even more, a definition of her own life, at the end of which she did, indeed, flame out in an excess of living.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 9, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Nancy Milford must surely be the best biographer in our county today. From the moment I began SAVAGE BEAUTY I could think of little else. I read it straight through in 2 days. There is nothing stilted or contrived in Ms Milford's writing as her flawless prose moves quickly from page to page telling the story of a beautiful, talented, dreamer who is always just a step away from never-never land. Milford captures this character just as she did Zelda and maybe even more so!
As a young person I underlined everything of Edna St. Vincent Millay's in green ink (green ink was a strange necessity at the time). This Poet's work, however, was not to be talked about at my parents home. I remember writing many of her poems on index cards and carying them in my pocket.
Several years later I was living in Cambridge with my husband who was in graduate school at Harvard. It was there that I discovered her earlier work. While in college in Va. I was the script editor of our Sophmore play "The Women". I was overwhelmed by the interest in Vachel Lindsay and ee cummings. Why?? Lawrence Ferlingheti and "friends" only echoed what Millay had said years before. Being from the South, my roomate, the soccer "Destroyer" from New Jersey was suddendly explained. Ms. Milford's book put Millay's life in perspective and also mine. "Vincent" changed a generation. But then so does Nancy Milford. SAVAGE BEAUTY makes this available to all of us. The best, and best written nonfiction read of the year. Thank you. Atlanta
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