In 1973 Norma Millay Ellis, herself a painter and the sister of poet/activist Edna St. Vincent Millay (who preferred to be called Vincent from a young age), founded the Millay Colony for the Arts in upstate New York a residency for visual artists, writers and composers. The first residents arrived in 1974 and lived and worked in a small building on the Millay estate. In 1976, Norma gave the Colony the barn that Edna/Vincent built along with her husband Eugene Boissevan, in 1926 from a Sears & Roebuck kit. Renovated to accommodate four artists (studios and bedrooms) it is a much beloved space that has provided hundreds of outstandingly gifted artists the quiet tranquility essential to create exceptional works.
Norma died in 1986 at the age of 92: her life’s dedication to art and artists — coupled with her sister’s genius — has allowed the Millay Colony for the arts to evolve and thrive.
In the mid-1990’s, the Board and staff worked with a team of six artists with disabilities to design an environmentally-friendly building using the principles of universal access. The Main House features ADA-accessible bedrooms/studios/bathrooms/kitchen and shared living spaces, accommodating a range of physical abilities.
As we approach our 50th anniversary in 2023, we are thrilled to have hosted @3000 composers, visual artists, poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, playwrights, screenwriters and filmmakers to Steepletop.
EDNA/VINCENT & NORMA
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine on February 22, 1892. Raised by a single mother along with her two sisters, she preferred to be called Vincent from a young age. She published her first poem, Renascence, at age twenty and her first book Renascence and Other Poems in 1917. Upon graduating from Vassar, she moved to NYC’s Greenwich Village and immediately became a fixture on the literary scene.
Vincent and her sister Norma soon joined the Provincetown Theatre Group, and in 1918, she directed and took the lead in her own play, The Princess Marries the Page. In the next several years, openly bisexual and gender-nonconforming, she explored sexuality and feminism in her poems and attracted a series of high-profile male and female lovers. Experiencing a meteoric rise in fame and popularity, she travelled around the country to colleges and universities giving poetry readings attended by frenzied fans (much like the rock stars today). By 1923, she was one of the first women recognized for literary achievement and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
At the same time, Vincent married the Dutch merchant Eugen Boissevain. Their “open marriage” was a source of both controversy and admiration. In the mid-1920’s, they purchased a 635-acre blueberry farm in Austerlitz, a country hamlet in Columbia County, a few hours drive from NYC. Vincent told her mother she had found “a piece of heaven” and named the property “Steepletop” after the Steeplebush plant that blossomed in the fields.
Vincent was also a fierce activist against WWI, giving voice to those she felt were silenced. In 1927, she was arrested for protesting the (then proposed) execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Edmund Wilson, the influential literary critic and writer, defined Vincent as “a spokesman for the human spirit.”
Vincent lived, worked and hosted legendary gatherings (clothes of any sort were banned from the pool) 1925 until her death in accidental death from a fall in1950.
In 1951, Norma Millay Ellis and her husband, the painter Charles Ellis, came to live at Steepletop, where they continued Vincent’s legacy and founded the Millay Colony for the Arts. Forging partnerships with longtime friends, Norma was instrumental in building the organization’s endowment as well as initiating funding partnerships that last to this day, including the Roscoe Lee Browne Foundation that annually funds a poet of color.