One summer not long ago, I caught a Metro North train bound for Croton-on-Hudson where I hoped to glean sensory details for a book I’m writing. I decided to take the local so I could linger and write as I trundled along the watery vein of the Hudson River. I was following a path Edna St Vincent Millay took ninety years before as the poet made her way to Mt. Airy where friends were gathered, falling for the man she would marry on a warm day in July as they played a game of charades—a day very much like the one I experienced weather-wise as I moved through the lush afternoon on a powerful literary adventure.
Taking a Train
with Edna St Vincent Millay
Though Edna motored north for many of her trips as an adult, she loved taking trains. She would ride the same line I was taking many a time as she commuted to the city from Vassar where she attended college. Did she stare out the window at the flat expanse of the Hudson at Riverdale and marvel at the rocky cliffs on the other side as I was? I wondered. Have the number of tracks expanded since she rode this spine of steel nine decades ago? Geese peppered an inlet at Yonkers, the mid-rise condo buildings surrounding it not even imagined then, making me question what would have been in their place during her time.
The river grew wider and the striated rocky shelf of the Palisades across the water elongated at Greystone, a plume of green rising above the datum and cascading over the toothy stones in spots. At Hastings-on-Hudson, looking toward the river, a wide swath of weed-pocked concrete languished on its banks where the old Zinsser Chemical Plant once stood. The demolished factory produced mustard gas when it was in operation, as it would have been when she passed by in 1923, a thriving business just over a decade old at the time.
Turning away from the water that yawns toward the other shore at Ardsley-on-Hudson, I packed my things and prepared to disembark at the Croton-Harmon station. As I hailed a cab and gave the driver the address of the B&B where I would be staying, I thought about how the guy in the tired Lincoln was a far cry from how I imagined Edna’s ride. Taking a cue from Nancy Milford, who wrote Savage Beauty, my favorite biography of Millay, I pictured a “big beautiful Mercer” pulling up for her, one just like the car owned by Eugen Boissevain—her future husband. Milford described the summer encampment they created on Mt. Airy through the words of one of Millay’s cadre of pals: it was “Greenwich Village in summer array…dumped down with almost deliberate pageantry upon the grass.”
Edna St Vincent Millay in Croton-on-Hudson
Milford noted how Eugen, who would be Edna’s only husband, and Max Eastman would play tennis in their white flannels on a clay court behind Boardman Robinson’s house. I pictured the two men, rattling up in the convertible, laughing and hugging Millay as she stepped off the train—their country casual attire contrasting her city clothes. This is a far cry from my chauffer, who was sitting drinking a soda when I motioned for him to roll down his window.
He was short and stout, his dark skin and black hair wet with perspiration, and was dressed in a sloppy tee shirt and wrinkled cargo paints. His lumbering car creaked in an odd way as it turned corners, making me feel a bit nervous that the back axel would roll out from under me at any moment. Thankfully, it didn’t and I arrived, taking possession of my chintz-drenched room without incident.
As soon as I checked in, I dropped my bags, grabbed my backpack and headed for the library, a bit of a trek in the heat and humidity I realized as I passed through the quaint downtown area, though worth it once I was there. I asked for the book of Edna’s letters, edited by her friend Allan Ross Macdougall, which I knew they had tucked away in the reference-only section.
Not far from where she would have written them, I combed through the missives she penned nestled into Eugen’s house, making notes about her frame of mind. One of them was to Edmund Wilson, whose journals and correspondence I’ve explored at Beinecke Library at Yale. I’ve gone through her papers, as well, the peek into the memorabilia that has survived her awe-inspiring!
Back to my time in Croton: after finishing the chapter containing her letters written from the town, I walked through the grass as I retraced my steps so I could feel how it crunched underfoot. I imagined it would have been similarly brittle when she and Eugen married on the lawn of the Robinson house on July 18, 1923—a day that Milford described as brilliantly sunny and hot. Within 24 hours Millay was on her way to surgery, her poor health weighing on her even when she was encamped with her friends enjoying the birdsong in the mornings and the fresher air of the country.
Millay and Company on Mt Airy Road
She and Eugen would have a long, tumultuous relationship, one she grieved until her last day alive because he dared to die before her. About a month after the fateful game of charades that brought them together, Edna was notified she would be the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry while staying with him on Mt. Airy. Six months after they married in Croton, she penned a letter from a train as she embarked upon her first big reading tour, which was taking her to Chicago: “It’s wonderful to write to you, my dearest. It takes the sting out of almost anything, I find. I wanted you so last night. I was pretty unhappy.”
I made my way back to town with her sentiments floating through my mind, stopping in at the Black Cow Coffee Company. As I sipped an iced Mingus Java at a window table, a sizzle of serendipity ran through me—Eugen made his fortune importing coffee beans from Java and I was staring at a stack of burlap bags filled with Javanese beans: Sometimes the plumb lines into history are so surprisingly strong!
The two-day trip left me feeling fed by echoes of the past in a similar way as I imaged the group of Bohemians would have been sated by their trips to the little town. I was studying the sky from the train station platform as I was about to leave when the thought popped into my mind: The sky isn’t enough. As beautiful as it can be in its perfect blueness flecked with puffy clouds, there has to be more.
What occurred to me is that I doubted the nature surrounding them would have inspired admiration enough to have drawn them there if they had not brought their entertainment with them. They enjoyed the country because they imported the level of intellectual stimulation they were accustomed to in the city. Proof of this is the fact that they neglected the gardens stretching in front of and behind their summer digs more often than they tended them. The country was simply a change of scenery for her and her pals like Eastman, Robinson and Arthur Davison Ficke, who was often in tow.
Edna St Vincent Millay Arrives in New York City
When I arrived at Grand Central Terminal that evening, I decided to have a drink before heading back to Brooklyn. I sat at the bar thinking how amazed Millay must have been on her initial walk through the statuesque building, which was only three days old when she first set foot within it on February 5, 1913. According to Milford, Mary Alice Finney, who met Edna there that day, said she never forgot how the poet stood in the middle of the terminal, awestruck, looking like a little girl.
Four years and change later, she had both her sisters with her as she and Kathleen met Norma there. I think about the three of them in the majestic building, so poor when they were growing up in Maine they ice-skated inside their home when the river flooded and the water froze from a lack of heat, creating the perfect ice-skating rink in their kitchen. They certainly took full advantage of the lack, turning it into a positive as they had “gleefully” ricocheted around the room. This confident slight-of-hand is something Millay would do throughout her life until drugs and alcohol took a detrimental hold on her.
Beginning life so poor must have made Edna’s pleasure in grabbing New York City by its balls all the more satisfying. She certainly took no prisoners once she established herself, unleashing her magic on a tough city, and a cadre of powerful men and women she had as lovers and friends. That’s not to say she never experienced hard times. To hear Norma tell it, there were stretches when the three of them nearly starved and froze to death before Edna’s fame caught hold.
I haven’t come across any images of Millay in GCT but I did find the picture of her standing in front of the arch at Washington Square Park above, her hat tipped jauntily to cover her right ear and her eyes bright as her mouth slants down in a queer sort of frowning smile. The monument frames her as if the city is celebrating her, and given hers is one of a smattering of names New Yorkers remember of the untold number who have called the city home, it did.
In her poem “Travel,” Millay wrote, “…there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, No matter where it’s going.” As I watched tourists and locals scurry through the station, I raised my glass of wine to her and to the other writers who’ve made New York home for at least part of their lives. It’s not easy to put down roots in NYC, but it seems at this point in my life it was well worth it if only for a time because I’m glad I had the opportunity to live in a place where I imagined more words had been put on the page than almost anywhere else in the world.
The stimulation of that thought alone courses through my veins as I write this on another day as summer has morphed to fall. I share Millay’s excitement over train-travel—preferring it to catching a plane as I set off on literary adventures, which I can’t wait to record once I was back in my little corner of the universe.
I’ll be back at it one week from today as I trundle to New Haven to return to the Beinecke Library where I will make my way through Thornton Wilder’s papers, and you can bet I’ll share my experience with you when the dust of combing through another person’s literary life has had a chance to settle. Thanks ever so much for stopping by and taking the time to ready my literary ramblings. I’m eternally grateful!
The Modern Salonière and Taking a Train with Edna St Vincent Millay © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by