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Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  8,927 ratings  ·  536 reviews
Thomas Hardy once said that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The most famous poet of the Jazz Age, Millay captivated the nation: She smoked in public, took many lovers (men and women, single and married), flouted convention sensationally, and became the embodiment of the New Woman.

Thirty years after her landmark b
Paperback, 608 pages
Published September 10th 2002 by Random House Trade (first published January 1st 2001)
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Start your review of Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
For your ears. You can thank me later.

I've decided that I like Edna St. Vincent Millay more as a person than as a poet. I feel bad about that, to a certain degree. Because how would I know about her if not first for her poetry? She gained popularity for her writing, and her personal life was secondary (sorta).

Nancy Milford does a great job here of researching Vincent's life, primarily through talking with Vincent's sister, Norma, who passed away in 1986. (One note of serious annoyance: Nowhere i
Rosemary Lerit Titievsky
Aug 29, 2007 rated it really liked it
This is one long book and I wanted more. Not more pages. More poetry. And way more salaciousness. Alas, Nancy Milford is a patient professional who carefully presents well-documented facts with little innuendo.

The story of Edna is beyond fascinating. This sort-of homely girl from Maine uses her mind and ability to pierce through people's facades to seduce her way through life. But there's so much more to the story. She works hard and deserves her successes. She loves to be loved, cares to be car
Aug 01, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: readitlovedit
I'm biased because Edna St. Vincent Millay is my absolute favorite poet. So learning more about her was very interesting to me.

The book itself is incredibly well researched, really delving into the wild life of this amazing women.

She's not really someone you can idolize or look up to, but she is someone you can fall in love with, and that shines through beautifully in this biography.

I will warn that it is a bit heavy, and getting through the entire thing does involve a little slogging, but for s
Mar 31, 2009 rated it really liked it
What a riveting biography of a remarkable literary and feminist icon. It took Nancy Milford 30 years to write this biography of "Vincent" - and after you read it, you can understand why. Milford remains remarkably true to her sources - a vast treasure trove of at-that-point-unseen letters, journals, notebooks, unfinished works, and more from Edna St. Vincent Millay's estate. In the book, she lets the sources stretch their legs and breathe, allowing us readers to stew in Vincent's rich, impeccabl ...more
Julie Ehlers
I haven't read a lot of biographies of writers, but this year I read two, and I think I've figured out what the biggest challenge is in documenting the life of a creative person: Most of them don't leave behind much writing about their creative process. As a result, any biography of a writer is going to focus on what can be documented—their various relationships, their travels, the awards they've won, bad behavior that others witnessed and never forgot. This is all well and good—after all, I thi ...more
Jul 24, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography
This book is far too long for the subject matter at hand. I could certainly have stood 100 fewer pages of ESVM's whining. In hindsight, it was a poor choice for my first biography. It has left a horrible taste in my mouth for the entire genre.
I found the author's insertion of herself into the story irritating. The flow (or lack thereof) was not well served by the constant excerpts from letters to and from Millay. I realize that these are the documents upon which the biography is founded, but th
Jun 20, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anyone looking for a psychological read
I will admit that I didn't know of Edna St. Vincent Millay before starting on this book and so I greatly enjoyed the introduction to her poetry - certain poems are excerpted at length in this book and I found them to be lovely and insightful. Moreover, the portrait of Edna and her entire family was detailed, layered and complex. In fact, the entire description of Edna's life called out for psychological interpretation at nearly every turn. Although I never felt that I really liked any of the cha ...more
Meghan Pinson
May 30, 2010 rated it it was amazing
As a third grader, I read every biography our school library held. They were all library-bound, olive drab or dull blue, stamped on the spine in white or black letters with a name and a subtitle. My favorites were Benjamin Franklin and Helen Keller; from then on, I wanted to get into publishing and Radcliffe College, and the astronaut dream was jettisoned. After I exhausted those two or three library shelves, though, I let the biographical form go, and only a few have passed through my hands sin ...more
What a splendid research work made by Nancy Milford in describing the life and work of this remarkable poetess.

Through her letters and the correspondence between Edna Millay (she signed her letters as Vincent) and her family and her friends (Edmund Wilson,George Dillon - they translated Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal") we can follow her brilliant career and how she met some remarkable writers and poets.

Millay was the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Some of Millay's works published un
Jul 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorite-books
Review: Savage Beauty written by Nancy Milford
I began this book not having the slightest idea about Edna St. Vincent Millay other than a few poems of hers I remembered from a poetry collection, and came away from it enthralled as much with the story as I was with the care Nancy Milford took in every detail, every analysis, every description. A biography has twin hearts: the first being the story, the life itself, and the second being the biographers interpretations- of not only the happenings, b
May 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was my second read, and I loved it just as much as the first time.
Jun 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: writers, women, women writers
This is a remarkable biography, for a multitude of reasons.

First, I must admit my own ignorance when it comes to much of Millay's work. I think I was surprised by how well-known she was in her day. I took advanced English courses in high school, studied English quite a bit in college, and yet my knowledge of her was so very limited, and the same went for my English nerd friends who I brought her up to. This either reflects poorly on the school systems, the way that fame of women is regarded, the
Sep 18, 2010 rated it liked it
I've been reading the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay lately, so I was pleased to find this book in one of the boxes that my aunt sent at the beginning of the winter. I knew very little about the poet and her life, so this biography, thirty years in the writing, makes me want to take a new look at the poems. Although I feel that there are some faults in Milford's biography, seeing the poetry against the background of a life, often troubled but always adventurous, added a new dimension to my un ...more
Julie Christine
A few thoughts as I continue to reflect on this book and ESVM.

There was so little social/historical context until ESVM marched in protest for Sacco and Vanzetti- so little sense that the poet was aware of and engaged in a world beyond what gave her immediate pleasure. Little mention of WWI, the flu (except for ESVM's ode to a lost college mate), the women's suffrage movement- I felt a little lost in trying to place the poet's open sexuality, her college and young adult affairs in relation to wh
Ned Ryerson
Jul 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Just started this, but so far so good. Millay was a very "out there" character for her time. She was promiscuous and not choosy about which sex she slept with. She smoked and drank and partied. She was politically vocal and active. She hated the Lindberghs and publicly spoke out against them when they were advocating the Nazis. People adored her, but also hated and feared her. Thomas Hardy once said that there were only two good things about America--the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St Vinc ...more
Robert Vaughan
Sep 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I devoured this book and it broke my heart. Three sisters. All so clearly close. And what talent this poet had. The third woman to win the Pulitzer for Poetry. And it also rather bothers me that so few people even know her name among my contemporaries. Read this biography, please!
Jul 11, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: everything
I was introduced to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay this past semester when I took an Intro to Poetry class. We read “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” and “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why.” From that point on, I have been a major fan of Millay’s work and I wanted to know more about her. So I looked around for a good biography to read and found Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Vincent (as Millay was known by family and friends) was a fascinating wom
Apr 13, 2020 rated it liked it
I thought "God, when will I ever finish this book? Why am I so committed to it?" I think because, in the nick of time, the morphine addiction started, which is always titillating. Then of course I had to plug through the awful boring part of any addiction. :/ Spoiler alert: she dies. Everyone dies, and the narrative of their life is over.

I liked the parts where she was a hot popular talented lesbian, and then when every man fell in love with her, and when later she was in fully poly relationship
Jul 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, nonfiction, biography
Wish I could give 4.5 stars. Fantastic biography -- fascinating and exhaustively documented from beginning to end. Much of that is due to the fact that Edna St. Vincent Millay lived such a *life* and had such entirely engrossing relationships while composing her classic poetry. The book jacket reviewers call her life both "inspiring and cautionary" and ... yeah. There's a hell of a lot of caution in there as well. But you can certainly say that Ms. Millay never shrunk from living. Great book.
Jun 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Milford's critical biography of Millay is a masterpiece: detailed, meticulous, and stark. Vastly more textured than Epstein's biography (which I also enjoyed, but for different reasons), with the weight of Millay's personal papers and correspondence adding an almost uncomfortable level of intimacy. If Milford wrote a second book about the process of writing this book (including detailed descriptions of ALL her interactions with Norma Millay at Steepletop), I would read that as well.
Sep 01, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
The thing about biographies is that I float around the house for days, pretending to be the dowdy best friend of the subject. Or alternatively the glamorous best friend, if my biofeedback is in alignment. And I floated on this one for WEEKS. Just a great combination of interesting circumstances, genius, weird personalities and all things fabulous. And a darn good poet.
Sep 15, 2010 rated it really liked it
I was working for Virginia Hamilton Adair when I read this book. I was telling her about it, and said that Edna's mother had to work all the time, and they didn't have money, but she made sure they were surrounded by poetry.
"Poultry ?" says Virginia, "Why would they want to be surrounded by poultry?"
What a good laugh we had over that.
May 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
An exquisitely rendered biography of a complex and talented American icon.
Jee Koh
Dec 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
Savage Beauty does not dispel the impression that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a major life but a minor poet. This well-written biography quotes many poems in full, including "Renascence," which early won Millay warm admiration from poets and editors, and financial support for an education at Vassar. The biography occasionally grades the poems it quotes, saying of one "extraordinarily lovely" and of another "masterful." It is, however, more interested in identifying the addressee of the poems, an ...more
Mar 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
It is astonishing how much research went into this biography. I feel like I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay. I love reading about the various artists in this time period of the Jazz Age. There is an amazing amount of detail gathered about her life, family, friends, and ambitions. In addition, it was a look
into the story and meaning behind much of her poetry. So much of which comes directly from her journals or her sister's recollections. In it's thoroughness, the book is quite long. In being a biog
Apr 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I loved this biography so much, still thinking about it a lot a month after reading it. I'd read a few Millay poems but knew nothing about her -- so this book read almost like a fictional story where I was like, WHATS GOING TO HAPPEN TO EDNA?!? Except it was her actual life. Brings up a lot of interesting themes -- sister/mother dynamics, ambition, selfishness/freedom vs. dependency in romantic relationships, devotion to writing/poetry, bohemianism, love for home&country vs. restlessness/expat l ...more
Gillian Neimark
Apr 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A stellar, stunning work, prodigious and relentlessly, empathetically researched, and both a thrilling and depressing read. This is the second biography of a memorable woman writer I've read this year (the Shirley Jackson bio was the first)--and both are chastening in their depiction of how private pain, and the difficulties of being a great woman writer in this society, take a terrible toll in the end.
Dec 17, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: kindle
I actually didn’t finish this book. It’s clear I’m not going to finish it so I’m giving up on it.

This is actually a good and interesting book. When I read it I enjoyed it but I just didn’t feel like getting back to it. It was too long for me.
May 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
You may know a few of her poems and have a sense of her public persona. But if you read this book you’ll feel like you live with her for years. Painstakingly researched, rich and human telling of a life. You’ll feel like you lived with her while, maybe, never truly — despite reading hundreds of her letters — knowing her. Maybe everyone in her life felt that way.
Jan 22, 2018 marked it as to-read
Mentioned in Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford - 1/22/2018
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Nancy Milford (born March 26, 1938, in Dearborn, Michigan) is an American biographer.

Milford is best known for her book Zelda about F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda Fitzgerald. The book started out as her master's thesis and was published to broad acclaim in 1970. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, spent 29 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, and has si

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“I am wild, if you like; but I stayed in my burrow a long, long time, - nibbling your straws and snapping at your fingers, but always just a little out of reach. Until at last I got to trust you so much that one day I ventured out for a minute, - and you threw rocks at me. And I will never come out again.” 10 likes
“Well, I have lost you; and I lost you fairly; In my own way, and with my full consent. Say what you will, kings in a tumbrel rarely Went to their deaths more proud than this one went. Some nights of apprehension and hot weeping I will confess; but that’s permitted me; Day dried my eyes; I was not one for keeping Rubbed in a cage a wing that would be free. If I had loved you less or played you slyly I might have held you for a summer more, But at the cost of words I value highly, And no such summer as the one before. Should I outlive this anguish—and men do— I shall have only good to say of you.” 7 likes
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