Originally created 09/17/06

Take literary pilgrimage to New York

AUSTERLITZ, N.Y. - Twin baby grand pianos stand in the living room of a white clapboard farmhouse high on the Taconic Ridge on the border of New York and Massachusetts. Here the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay composed and played duets. The sculpted bust of the Greek poet Sappho still dominates one corner, while a painting depicts Millay's husband and sister swimming naked in the outdoor pool, now filled with murky water beneath a heavy canopy of trees.

It's as though Millay had stepped out for a moment, awaiting some of her admirers to restore the house, known as Steepletop, to its heyday.

Steepletop, which three years ago opened part of its grounds to the public, is one of several destinations in the area associated with literary figures from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Other sites include the homes of James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, and just over the Massachusetts state line, Edith Wharton. All are located in scenic areas where you can hike, enjoy fall foliage and visit other attractions.

At Steepletop, beyond the gate and around the corner, past an artists' colony and starting down the hill, a poet's walk leads through hardwood forest to Millay's grave. The trail, nearly a half-mile, invites visitors to read 11 poems excerpted along the way, the moss underfoot is bright green and little trod.

"All I could see from where I stood/Was three long mountains and a wood," the first poem began. Renascence put young Millay on the literary map in 1912, more than a decade before she arrived at Austerlitz, 30 miles southeast of Albany, with panoramic vistas of western Massachusetts and overlooking the Hudson Valley. It concludes, "And he whose soul is flat - the sky/Will cave in on him by and by."

Steepletop was a 700-acre private estate for Millay's bohemian lifestyle - including music, gardens, cocktails and all types of social drama. This year, 230 acres of Steepletop were sold to New York by the Millay Society for $1.69 million to join a nearby state forest preserve.

Her sister, Norma, used another piece to establish the adjacent artist colony in the 1970s. The society plans to use its windfall from the sale to start restoring the farmhouse where Millay died in 1950. It will also work on the remaining land and hire staff to raise funds to complete the job.

"We want to open this house as a museum," board member Frank Crohn said.

The poetry trail and gravesite are open to the public, but the farmhouse and immediate grounds are closed, except for special events or by appointment. Norma Millay, who lived there until her death in 1986, kept her sister's things largely undisturbed, which conservators say will make it a particular jewel on the string of literary sites in the Northeast.

Those include Washington Irving's manor home, Sunnyside, on the banks of the lower Hudson River in the neighborhood where his Headless Horseman rode in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. At the Quarry Farm in Elmira, in New York's Southern Tier, Mark Twain summered for two decades and wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

JAMES FENIMORE COOPER'S mark is all over Cooperstown, settled by his father in what has become known as "Leatherstocking Country" from Cooper's novels of the colonial wilderness, including The Last of the Mohicans.

The cottage where Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of the seagoing adventure Kidnapped, spent an Adirondack winter has been preserved at Saranac Lake.

In the nearby Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, Edith Wharton's estate The Mount, has three acres of formal gardens and a sprawling classical-revival house. Wharton, the author of the Victorian novel The Age of Innocence, designed both house and gardens and wrote on the subject near the turn of the century.

In 1925, two years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Millay bought Steepletop with husband Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch merchant. She was found dead by the caretaker one October day 25 years later on the narrow stairs, where she fell. She was 58 and had lived alone since her husband's death a year earlier.

"She was frail," said Holly Peppe, a Millay scholar and board member. "She was never that well."

The girl from Maine attended Vassar and lived in New York City and traveled in Europe. Neither Millay nor her sisters, an actress and writer, had children. In winter, Boissevain snowshoed or skied two miles down the back road to the post office, but it was no lonely mountaintop existence.

"There was a lot of partying going on here," Ms. Peppe said. The poolside bar was set inside an old stone foundation. The standing joke was the flowers were watered with gin.

Millay was a national celebrity, and her readings would outdraw Robert Frost's, Ms. Peppe said. With lyrics such as "What lips my lips have kissed ...," she was tagged a love poet, but she considered that limiting and not completely accurate.

"She had a real dramatic flair and people loved her. She was like Madonna of the time," literary executor Elizabeth Barnett said. "And the dresses. We have all of the gowns that she wore. They were just breathtaking."

The library upstairs holds hundreds of books more or less as she left them, on subjects from the law and science to social justice and literature. A map shows the route of her 1943-44 cross-country reading tour. Her orange armchair is threadbare.

Within an open marriage, Millay had "a rather torrid affair" with George Dillon, who was 13 years younger and collaborated with Millay in translating Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, Ms. Peppe said.

In 1951, Norma Millay, whose husband, Charles Ellis, painted the swimmers, moved in. Both, in addition to Boissevain and Millay's mother, are buried near the poet.

The gardens around the house, which Millay once tended, are overgrown. The trail to the gravesite, where someone recently left a hand-written poem titled "For Vincent," is not.

In Mariposa, posted along the walk, Millay wrote: "Butterflies are white and blue/In this field we wander through./Suffer me to take your hand./Death comes in a day or two."


STEEPLETOP: Austerlitz, N.Y., on the Taconic Ridge, 30 miles southeast of Albany; www.millaysociety.org.

Estate of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: The farmhouse and immediate grounds are closed except for special events or by appointment, but 10 of her poems are posted along a half-mile trail leading to her gravesite. The trail is open year-round. The trail is marked by a sign on East Hill Road, reached from State Route 22; parking at the trailhead.

QUARRY FARM: Elmira, N.Y., summer home of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his family in the 1870s and 1880s. The house and farm, which belong to Elmira College and serve as a residence for Twain scholars, are closed to the public except for special events. A building known as The Study - built by Clemens' brother- and sister-in-law so he would have a place to write undisturbed - was moved to the campus in 1952 and is open weekends through October (and daily May-Labor Day). Free admission. The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies- or (607) 735-1941 - sponsors conferences and lectures.

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON COTTAGE: 44 Stevenson Lane, Saranac Lake, N.Y.; www.saranaclake.com/famattractions.shtml or (518) 891-1990/1462. The author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lived here in the winter of 1887-88 to treat pulmonary illness. Open July to Columbus Day, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to noon and 1-4 p.m., and by appointment. Adults, $5.

SUNNYSIDE: West Sunnyside Lane, Tarrytown, N.Y., off Route 9. Washington Irving, who wrote Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, lived here for many years. Open daily except Tuesdays, April 1-Oct. 28, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Oct. 29-Dec. 31, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Last tour an hour before closing; www.hudsonvalley.org/sunnyside/index.htm or (914) 591-8763. Adults, $10. The Croton Aqueduct Trail connects Sunnyside with Lyndhurst, a 67-acre 19th century estate.

FENIMORE ART MUSEUM: 5798 State Route 80, a mile north of Cooperstown, N.Y., on the west side of Otsego Lake; www.fenimoreartmuseum. org or (607) 547-1400. James Fenimore Cooper, the author of The Last of the Mohicans, spent part of his youth on the family estate on the shores of Otsego Lake and was buried in Cooperstown in 1851. He lived as a gentleman farmer at Fenimore Farm, now the Fenimore Art Museum, which has an exhibit on the family. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 1-Oct. 9; Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Oct. 10-Dec. 31. Adults, $11. Also in Cooperstown, National Baseball Hall of Fame.

THE MOUNT: 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, Mass.; www.edithwharton.org or (413) 637-1899. Edith Wharton designed and built The Mount in 1902, based on principles outlined in the 1897 book she co-authored, The Decoration of Houses. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., early May-Oct. 29. Adults, $16. Guided mansion tours are given on the hour, garden tours twice daily.


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