Millay and the Magnolia Tree
It’s that blooming, buoyant, too-brief time of year again, when flowers abound – particularly, this week, the fragrant pink flowers of the saucer magnolia.
It was among the branches of just such a tree that a young poet posed for portraits that would become famous. Quintessentially “poetic,” the images of Edna St. Vincent Millay are immensely alluring.
They’re somewhat misleading, too, says an expert on the poet. “Here she looks demure, sweet and fragile. But there was much more to Millay than that, even at age 22,” said Holly Peppe, literary executor at the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society (who gave this talk for GVSHP last summer). “She was witty, brilliant, and quite sophisticated. She was at Vassar at the time, and well known for her independent spirit and dislike of authority.”
Millay (1892-1950), who lived in Greenwich Village for part of her adult life, was considered irresistible by many, including her early publisher, Mitchell Kennerley. He arranged for the leading portraitist of the time, Arnold Genthe, to photograph Millay in his city studio. Those photos were subsequently lost, but it was Genthe who created these famous shots of Millay outside Kennerley’s Westchester County home in 1914.
Millay would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and a lasting place in the hearts of many poetry lovers. Because she is so strongly associated with the Village (her middle name is after St. Vincent’s Hospital, where her uncle’s life was saved, and she lived in the charming narrow house at 75 ½ Bedford Street), I had somehow assumed that the magnolia photo was taken in the Village as well, conveying additional romance on both the poet and the place. Not that they need it.
Although Peppe is not aware of any other particular connection between Millay and magnolia trees, the poet was in fact something of an amateur botanist. The gardens Millay created at Steepletop, the upstate home where she lived for the last 25 years of her life, are still extensive, impressive, and can be visited beginning May 1.
By Edna St. Vincent Millay