Nobody ever cared much about the girl, the flashy dame seen around town on the arm of F. Scott Fitzgerald — until Nancy Milford wrote her story. Since its publication in 1970, ”Zelda” has sold more than 1.4 million copies. Now Milford returns with ”Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay” (Random House, $29.95), the biography of another woman passed over by literary history.
If the name isn’t familiar, this battle cry of a quatrain, which helped earn Millay the Pulitzer for poetry in 1923, should be: ”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!” She died alone in 1950 at Steepletop, her home in New York, burned out from booze and morphine at the age of 58.
”She was the lyric voice of her generation,” says Milford. ”So where was it?! Why had it been lost?!” She arranged a meeting with Millay’s sister Norma, a craggy old woman wary of scholars and possessive of her family’s past. The two sat around Steepletop’s kitchen table drinking Scotch, and by the end of the day Norma had granted her full access to her sister’s literary estate. ”I went into the dining room and it was a treasure trove,” Milford remembers. Letters, photographs, drafts of poems littered the place. She found a small wooden box full of steel needles and glass vials of morphine, a window into Millay’s rabid drug addiction.
She lived the hard life of celebrity; her readings had the atmosphere of rock concerts and her sexual escapades were legendary. ”People ask, ‘Well, which lover was this one written to?’ and I think ‘Oh God, who knows, who cares? Everybody’s dead anyway,”’ says Milford. The men, the sex, the lifestyle — this biography’s dazzling color should make it another best-seller. But the real story here is about a girl and her work.