Edna St. Vincent Millay’s work in progress, Conversations at Midnight, is burned in a hotel fire on Sanibel Island, Florida, on this day in 1936. She recreated the work, which was published in 1937.
Millay had been a successful poet for more than a decade when the manuscript burned. One of three daughters of a divorced nurse, Millay learned independence and self-reliance early and infused those qualities into her poetry. She began publishing poetry in high school. In 1912, the year she turned 20, her poem “Renascance” appeared in a literary review and drew the attention of a benefactor who made it possible for Millay to attend Vassar. The year she graduated, in 1917, her first volume of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems, appeared.
Millay moved to New York City, where she lived a hectic, glamorous life as a writer and actress in Greenwich Village. One of the first women to write openly and without shame about her lovers, Millay had numerous affairs. In 1920, her famous poem “First Fig” set the tone for the 1920s, with its resounding lines, “My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night.”
Millay’s fast-paced life took a toll. Exhausted, she traveled to Europe and from 1921 to 1923 took a long rest. Meanwhile, she married Dutch importer Jan Boissevan, who gave up his business to devote himself to Millay. The couple moved to a farm in upstate New York, where Millay continued to write verse and plays. That year, she published The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.
A passionate proponent of civil liberties, she was arrested and jailed for supporting Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists condemned to death for robbery and murder. In the 1930s, she wrote anti-totalitarian poetry for newspapers, as well as radio plays and speeches. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1944 and endured two years of writer’s block afterward. She broke down again after her husband’s death, in 1949, and she died of a heart attack a year later.