The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society: Saving Steepletop
July 13 fundraiser latest Millay Society effort to preserve Millay's property
AUSTERLITZ, N.Y. — "I, too, / Live in this garden."
The words in Edna St. Vincent Millay's 1935 poem, "Steepletop," can be found on a sign near the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet's gravesite. Located at the end of a trail that cuts through a small portion of Steepletop's 192 acres, Millay's verse pays homage to the bucolic country estate where she spent the last 25 years of her life, the place where she gardened, bird-watched, hunted and, yes, wrote and wrote and wrote. The home was meaningful enough to Millay that she had her mother, Cora, buried in a spot next to where Millay and other family members now rest.
Demise is top of mind at Steepletop lately. In November, The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society announced that the property would be closed to the public this season due to financial crisis. The nonprofit that manages the National Historic Landmark had been hosting house and garden tours from May through October since 2010, averaging 750 visitors per year early on but drawing 1,500 by 2018, according to Mark O'Berski, vice president of the society's board. But continuing to financially support such programming endangered the site's future.
"We determined that our only option for preserving the extensive site, buildings, gardens and collections was to close our seasonal operations," board president Vincent Elizabeth Barnett reflected in a recent letter published on the organization's website.
Annual deficits have been common since the site opened to the public, literary executor Holly Peppe said. According to a 2017 federal form 990, the organization lost $128,494 during its 2017 fiscal year. The year before, it lost $124,421.
"What happened over the years was that our business model, which was raising operating costs from fees and donations, did not cover the cost of maintaining and restoring the property, and it didn't cover the cost of safeguarding the Millay collection of artifacts," Peppe said during a phone interview.
Millay isn't alone in its financial struggles. Strapped with small staffs and tight budgets, house museums across the country have been facing economic ruin since the recession. Yet, the Institute of Museums and Library Services estimated that in 2014, nearly half of the roughly 35,000 museums in the U.S. were still historical societies, historic preservations and historic houses and sites. Thus, the subject of historic house survival has inspired plenty of scholarship and economic debate ("Are There Too Many House Museums?," a seminal 2002 article queried). No surefire solutions have emerged, though.
"All house museums are challenged," Peppe said.
Berkshires cultural buffs probably don't need the reminder. Edith Wharton's old Lenox home, The Mount, was nearly foreclosed on just over a decade ago. Backed by a robust "Save the Mount" campaign under the leadership of Executive Director Susan Wissler, the Lenox institution recovered and is in the process of building an endowment that can lead to a less stressful future.
The Millay Society is hoping for a similar rebound, albeit with a different ultimate goal. A fundraising campaign to save Steepletop began in 2018. The immediate objective is to raise $1 million to keep the site open for three to five years. It's a lofty goal — from 2013 to 2017, the society received a total of $282,774 in public support, according to the 2017 990 — and even if the organization reaches that number by next season, that doesn't necessarily mean tours will start immediately.
"We would love to reopen the site, but that's not really our main goal now. Our main goal is to continue to maintain, restore and safeguard the property. That's why we're asking for donations, to help us do that while we look for sustainable solutions, ideally an institutional partner or two to help us secure the site's future," said Peppe, noting that the organization is in talks with colleges, universities and other institutions about that partnership.
Locals may be familiar with Bennington College's 2017 acquisition of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury, Vt., from the Friends of Robert Frost, or the Amherst College-helmed Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. Steepletop's aim might be more of a collaboration than those situations; Peppe couldn't go into specifics about the conversations had thus far. But one thing is certain: The society needs more donations. To help its fundraising campaign, the society announced this spring that there would be one exception to this season's closure: On Saturday, July 13, the site will host a daylong fundraising event. "Afternoon on a Hill" includes a reading of Millay's work by, among others, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Tyne Daly, who is on the society's board; house and gardens tours; and a wine-and-cheese reception.
"July 13th, everything will be revived," Peppe said. "The house will be revived."
Built in 1892, Millay's farmhouse is a time capsule, impressive even by house museum standards.
"We have this exceptional situation because the sister, Norma Millay, decided that she would make Steepletop a shrine to her sister," Peppe said of the home's previous inhabitant.
Norma kept her sister's clothes in the closet, purses in the drawers and books on the shelves, going to great lengths to preserve her sister's spirit.
"She lived around the memory of her sister, so her own cosmetics she kept in a box and left Millay's cosmetics out where they could be seen," Peppe recalled. "She hung all of her clothes on the shower rack, rather than putting them in the closet, and then the living room is exactly as it was. She left all the furniture. It's like you step back in time when you walk into the Millay house."
Norma died in 1986, years after she had founded the The Millay Colony for the Arts, an organization distinct from the Millay Society that continues to bring artists to the property for residencies, and the Millay Society. The society's mission has been "to foster and appreciate Millay's literary legacy and to restore and preserve this unique site," according to the nonprofit's website. The objectives support each other; a visit to Steepletop might encourage the uninitiated to read Millay's work, and Millay's verse provokes curiosity about her private life.
"Even though she used conventional forms, she had all these bold new themes that were very modern and are still very modern," Peppe said. "In the '20s and '30s, it was shocking for her to talk about gender equality, which is what she was doing, asserting the right to gender equality, sexual freedom independent from marriage."
Born in 1892 to a Maine family of modest means, Millay was called "Vincent" by those closest to her. She attended Vassar College after receiving support from an audience member who heard her recite "Renascence." She eventually moved to New York City, where she quickly rose through the Greenwich Village literary and social ranks. The author of the famous line, "My candle burns at both ends," lived up to those words in the Big Apple.
"She took advantage of every opportunity," Peppe said.
In 1923, Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for a poem, "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," her collection, "A Few Figs from Thistles" and a group of sonnets. Millay became immensely popular — Peppe said that the poet's 1931 book of sonnets, "Fatal Interview," sold 66,000 copies during its first seven months — but she didn't get her due from the critics.
"Popular poets were not considered intellectual poets and, therefore, they were often ignored by the academy," Millay said.
For that reason, Peppe chose Millay as a dissertation subject during graduate school in the early 1980s. Over the course of three years, she regularly visited Norma at Steepletop, the property Millay and husband Eugen Boissevain purchased as an escape from the city in 1925. (Its name stems from the property's abundant steeplebush.) Millay embraced the wild in more ways than one in Austerlitz, N.Y. She was an avid gardener and hunter — Peppe likes to point out that Millay owned a .22 rifle — and Millay and Boissevain hosted more than a few epic shindigs. In an essay posted on Vassar's website, Peppe details a 1930 house party that drew about 50 visitors to the home.
"The main attraction, besides drinking, swimming in the nude, and other revelry, was a play by a touring group of actors, the Jitney Players, who performed in an amphitheater they constructed on the rise above the house," Peppe writes.
The pool and bar escapades were pretty standard, according to Peppe. On Monday, caretaker Prescott Haley started a property tour for this reporter at that outdoor party space, which is just down the hill from the home and across the road from an old building that houses his apartment. Along with head gardener and office administrator Kimberly Favre, Haley is one of two employees kept on to maintain the grounds during the closure.
"We didn't just say, 'We're closing because we have no money,'" Peppe said. "We said, 'We're closing because we want to be sure that we are able to preserve and sustain the property, restore the property.'"
Indeed, a John Deere trip around the premises revealed that the grounds hadn't been overtaken by weeds and scat. To the contrary, Haley has the pathways that wind through picturesque meadows in immaculate condition. An old tennis court space between two fields, complete with net poles, a scoring table and an equipment shed, was remarkably maintained.
"For me, it's just the same," Haley said of his job before and after the closure.
Millay's writing cabin is still a work-in-progress. Haley has been helping restore the room; during this visit, only the original stove and a funky smell remained, but the caretaker said that the plan is to move Millay's writing desk, currently housed in the restored icehouse, back to the cabin soon.
At Steepletop, Millay worked on, among other texts, a book of sonnets called "Fatal Interview" and the libretto for an opera, "The King's Henchman," that debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927. Though it's tempting to say Steepletop's beauty and Millay's dedication to gardening — the peonies along a side of the home are ones she planted, according to Haley — influenced her poems, natural allusions were central to Millay's work long before she arrived in Austerlitz.
"Nature is her major source for imagery really all the way through," Peppe said.
Eventually, health issues began to diminish Millay's poetic powers. In 1950, she died after falling down some Steepletop stairs. But with #MeToo and other movements addressing many of the issues Millay referenced in her work, her literary legend continues to grow.
"It's absolutely time for Millay to take the stage again, and I see it," Peppe said.
She would know; as Millay's current literary executor, Peppe is privy to just about any artistic reference to Millay's work and life. This past fall, an off-Broadway musical, "Renascence," celebrated Millay's modernity, and Peppe said that a screenplay about Millay is circulating. But Steepletop adds a layer to Millay's story that is vital for people to witness with their own eyes, according to Peppe.
"If we want to preserve American literature and culture, it's a responsibility for those of us who consider those things important to try and keep history alive if we can," she said, "and for all of us to remember where some of our great writers and artists and musicians did their work."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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