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Millay, Edna Saint Vincent (1892-1950)  
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Poet and playwright Edna Saint Vincent Millay expressed her bisexuality in both her life and her work.

Like all persons heavily scrutinized by the public eye, Millay always had to pay some deference to the reputation that preceded her. She achieved fame early on in life as the pretty, petite "It Girl" of poetry, a characterization that always followed her. Her turn toward politics and social criticism in the 1930s was unpalatable to many--some critics accused her of prostituting her talent--as if that move was inappropriate for her.

The irony of that resistance is that Millay's work and life was about playing but also transcending prescribed social roles; she habitually complicated set norms and stereotypes, and confronted and embraced supposedly contradictory positions.

Millay is a poet well known to a wide reading audience: Our understanding of her personality has no doubt been limited by her fame and by a public unwillingness to allow her the complexity we demand of literary figures who have not achieved her popular appeal.

Part of her complexity includes her sexual orientation; she expressed her bisexuality in her work and life, but her homosexuality has not been fully explored either critically or biographically.

She was born on February 22, 1892. In her childhood and adult life, those close to her called her Vincent. At an early age, Millay learned a self-sufficiency and independence more typical of males of the time, but also enjoyed an interdependence with the females of her household.

Millay grew up in an unconventional family from which her father Henry had been asked to leave when she was seven by her mother Cora Buzelle Millay, at least in part because of his gambling.

According to biographer Joan Dash, Millay's first known lover, Floyd Dell, reported that "'Her mother had expected a son, and when the child was a girl, she brought her up, she told me, like a son--to be self-reliant and fearless and ambitious.'" Cora worked as a district nurse and often left Millay and her two younger sisters to play and fend for themselves for extended periods.

However, she was said to be a very dedicated mother who fostered the girls' talents and creativity in music and literature (she boasted the best library in Camden, Maine). They were a tightly knit family and Millay remained highly devoted to her mother and sisters into her adult life.

Cora's determination to see her daughters succeed led to Millay's first real notice, as she urged Millay to enter a poetry contest in which her poem "Renascence" placed fourth. Publication of the poem that many thought should have taken first prize brought her introductions to the New York literary scene and in turn a scholarship to Vassar at age twenty-one.

Millay balked at Vassar's control over her personal life and its exclusion of men from campus, probably not because she felt deprived of male companionship (she had shown no interest in the many boys attracted to the Millay household) but because her sex meant containment for the first time. Rebellious at school, she nevertheless took advantage of the Vassar years to form intense female friendships and reinforce the feminist views ingrained in much of her verse.

Although best known for her lyrical poetry written often in traditional forms like the sonnet (she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for The Harp Weaver), Millay was involved also in the theater--writing, directing, and performing in plays at Vassar and as a member of the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village in her years right after college.

While playing the lead in her own The Princess Marries the Page at Vassar, she was approached by the British actress Edith Wynne Matthison, who, excited by the performance, came backstage to kiss Millay and invite her to her summer home. Millay felt great passion in the kiss and the two exchanged letters, providing one of her few known straightforward pronouncements of lesbian love:

"You wrote me a beautiful letter,--I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was.--I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. . . . When you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to You."

After finishing A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), the volume of poetry that brought her much attention for her descriptions of free and cavalier female sexuality, Millay began working on a five-act verse play Vassar had commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of its Alumnae Association.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay.
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