This essay following Edna St. Vincent Millay to Croton-on-Hudson by train is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
There Isn’t a Train Millay Wouldn’t Take
Several summers ago, I set off for the Hudson Valley, riding the train from New York City that slides along the watery vein of the Hudson River to Croton-on-Hudson. I was reading Savage Beauty, my favorite biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, and following a path Millay took ninety years before me as she visited the bucolic neighborhood where her friends were gathered, a spot they had dubbed “a suburb of Washington Square.” There, on a stifling day in July, she fell for Eugen Boissevain as they played a game of charades. The time I intended to spend in the town was a perfect match weather-wise.
Though Millay motored north for many of her trips later in life, she also loved taking the train, her conduit into New York City the Metro-North Hudson River line when she commuted to the city from Vassar where she attended college. She was top of mind when I disembarked at the Croton-Harmon station and hailed a cab, a tired Lincoln that was a far cry from Boissevain’s big beautiful Mercer into which she would have climbed upon arrival.
In her book, Milford describes the summer encampment these city-dwellers had created on Mt. Airy Road as “Greenwich Village in summer array…dumped down with almost deliberate pageantry upon the grass.” Boissevain and writer Max Eastman would contribute to the pageantry by playing tennis in their white flannels on a clay court behind artist Boardman Robinson’s house. As my sad cab pulled away from the train station, I looked toward the platform, picturing the men stepping out of the convertible, laughing and hugging Millay as she stepped onto the sidewalk.
Taking possession of the chintz-drenched room I had been assigned at a B&B, I dropped my suitcase, lightened the load in my backpack, and headed for the library—a trek made massively uncomfortable by the heat and humidity. I asked for the book of her letters edited by her friend Allan Ross Macdougall because I wanted to read the ones she had written while staying with Boissevain in situ.
It was a pleasant experience to hear what she had to say, her letters lively and intelligent. I exited the library to a blast of heat that has scorched the grass so that it crunched underfoot. I wondered if it had been equally searing when Millay and Boissevain married on the lawn of the Robinson house on July 18, 1923. Hoping to pass by the home where they fell in love and married, I made my way to the neighborhood where the house still stands, the pilgrimage beginning at a quaint, ivy-choked street sign.
I climbed the ruddy asphalt that led to the top of the sizable hill and was disappointed to find that the houses were all hidden by dense canopies of hardwoods and shaggy pines, the driveway to the saltbox that Robinson had owned disappearing as it led into the woods. There was nothing I could glean without trespassing so I turned around and made my way to the Black Cow Coffee Company in town to escape the heat.
I was sipping an iced Mingus Java at a table by the window when I noticed a stack of burlap bags filled with Javanese beans on the floor. Boissevain had imported coffee beans from Java, such an interesting coincidence that often happens when I have been intentional about researching another writer’s life. A month before my pilgrimage to Croton, I made a serious effort to get to know Millay by spending several days combing through her papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale. Seeing her life through the letters written to her, many of them from the friends she traveled to Croton to visit, tipped me off as to how important those lazy days of summer in Croton-on-Hudson were for her. It was on Mt. Airy Road where Millay learned she had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, which must have sparked a rousing celebration.
The letters written to Millay made it clear that the group wasn’t attempting to escape the intellectualism they cultivated in the city by traveling to the country; the nature surrounding them was simply a change of venue because they carried their intellectual stimulation with them. Catching the train back to the city a day and a half after I had arrived, I felt grateful to have ventured to the town where authors whom I admire saw critiquing each other’s works and reading their own writing aloud as far more important than clipping the hedges. Proof of this is the fact that neighbors complained because they ignored the landscaping around their homes in favor of their intellectual pursuits.
I arrived at Grand Central Terminal that evening feeling antsy, as I often do when coming off a literary adventure so I decided to have a drink before taking the subway back to Brooklyn. I sat at the bar, looking up at that glorious ceiling, thinking how amazed Millay must have been on her initial walk through the statuesque building. It was only three days old when she first set foot within it on February 5, 1913.
According to Milford, the woman who picked Millay up at the station said she never forgot how the young woman stood in the middle of the terminal, awestruck, looking like a little girl. Four years-and-change later, it was the same with Millay’s youngest sister Kathleen, whom the middle sister Norma met at the station. The majestic building must have seemed all the more awe-inspiring to the trio given they were so poor growing up in Maine that they ice-skated in their kitchen when the river flooded their home and the water froze because they had no heat.
Spending so many years sunk in poverty must have made Millay’s pleasure in grabbing New York City by its balls all the more satisfying. She took no prisoners in establishing herself, working her strange brand of magic on a tough city, and on a group of powerful men and women she took as lovers and cultivated as friends. I raised my glass of wine to her and to the other writers who’ve made NYC home for at least part of their lives as I watched the tourists and locals scurry through the station that night.
The two decades I spent in Gotham, though they seem fleeting in hindsight, were important ones because I had the opportunity to live in a place where so many words have been put on the page. The city also supported my roaming, making it easy for me to travel by rail to so many places where other writers had lived. The wine had helped me relax. With the psychic disquiet dissipated, I felt completely spent. Joining the throng of commuters taking the escalator down into the subway, I found I had a snippet of one of my favorite poems by Millay running through my mind: “…there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, No matter where it’s going.” I would have to say I agree, though I prefer the ones I take to be leading me back in time so I can mine history for inspiration.
The Train Leading to Millay © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.by