Monday, October 26, 2015

XEdna the Queen Bee of Ragged Island (Superseded)

Edna and Eugen - Anemone and The Rock.
Edna St. Vincent Millay and my great-uncle Eugen Boissevain were married in 1923.

Eugen's first wife Inez Milholland died tragically in 1916 and he threw himself into his business importing coffee from Java with his two Dutch brothers Robert and Jan.

It was a good time to buy and sell coffee from Java, and for a while the Boissevain brothers had special access. Eugen became a wealthy man in the postwar years and was able to retire soon after he married.

He wanted to look after Edna, who was constantly sick, and help her manage her literary affairs in a way that would capitalize on her fame and generate income for them both (which became important after 1929). She is said to have been the only female in the 20th century to have made a living from her poetry. (The other poet to have done the same was W. H. Auden. All the other poets had day jobs to put food on the table.)

They (or, more probably, Eugen) purchased the 600-acre property called Steepletop in Austerlitz, N.Y. the year they were married.

Ten years later, they purchased Ragged Island in Casco Bay, Maine. In a previous century it was called Cold Arse Island. My mother, Eugen's niece, had good information about Eugen's activities because Eugen's sister Olga, my Granny, was living with us in Washington, D.C. at the time.

Edna decided that she should be the Queen Bee of Ragged Island, the only female allowed. She told Eugen that he was not to invite any other woman, or allow any other woman, to come on the island. My mother told me that Eugen asked Edna:
"Even Norma?"
Norma was Edna's sister, younger by one year. She did not have Edna's talents, or even the talents of their younger sister Kathleen, but she envied Edna's fame and many friends. Kathleen, who had literary aspirations along Edna's lines, was four years younger than Edna and shared a portion of Edna's literary capability. She was also apparently was less of a clinging vine to Edna than Norma. It was about Kathleen that Edna wrote her famous letter to her mother Cora in which she said that if her sister wanted to publish a book of her poetry, she knew what she was getting in for. Kathleen was a grownup and could do as she damned pleased, she said, foolhardy though it might seem to her mother. Kathleen sadly died at 47 in 1943, seven years before her Edna. Her literary papers are available in four parts at the New York Public Library; in a word, she did not come close to Edna's success. Norma's triumph was to outlive them both.

Edna answered Eugen:
"Especially Norma!"
(My mother told me that Eugen was asked frequently to protect Edna from Norma's threatened visits to Steepletop. Norma surely resented Eugen's being the gatekeeper and on the maps of the Austerlitz "Millay Estate", which Norma occupied after Eugen died in 1949 and Edna in 1950, there is no mention of Eugen. The place where Eugen is buried, next to Edna, was labeled on the maps "The Millay Graves". I hope that the Millay Colony has rectified this erasure of the name of Edna's husband, caretaker and patron. In fairness to Norma, there were many others who resented Eugen. No less a person than Edmund Wilson, in his book on The Twenties, cannot conceal his astonishment that he would be rejected by Edna as spouse material in favor of Eugen, whom he describes as "a Dutch importer". I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Wilson when he was living in Cambridge, Mass. in the early 1960s with Mary McCarthy.)

Ragged Island today is not inhabited, at least year round. It provides habitat for many nesting seabirds, including the eider duck, black guillemot, greater black-backed gull, herring gull and osprey.

It was the subject of a well-regarded 1914 watercolor by John Marin in which the island and the water are juxtaposed in an innovative way that is described as creating "vertigo".

The island when purchased was described as occupying 85 acres. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant program in 2008 awarded a $323,000 Coastal Wetland grant to secure seabird-nesting protection of the 77-acre (310,000 square meters) natural area. So the island has eroded, or the area was measured differently the second time. With all the debris left by the birds, one would expect the island to grow, maybe?

John Felstiner wrote about Steepletop and Ragged Island in The American Poetry Review Vol. 36, No. 3 (May-June 2007), 45-48. "There, there where those black spruces crowd": To Steepletop and Ragged Island with Edna St. Vincent Millay.

My wife Alice and I would like to visit Ragged Island and other haunts of young Edna, and her mother and sisters.

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