I met Peter Bergman, executive director of the society, who showed me around the house and grounds, left dilapidated when the last resident, Edna's sister Norma, died in 1986. The gardens that Millay nurtured have gone to seed, though her writer's cabin, in a grove of pine trees, is intact; the swimming pool where Eugen, Edna and friends disported in the nude is cracked and full of brackish water; and the first floor of the house remains closed because of water damage, except for the slate-floored entry with the poet's Size 3 boots in the corner.
After Millay died — as dramatically as she lived — from a fall down the staircase in 1950, Norma left every detail intact, living amid her late sister and brother-in-law's belongings, hoping someday to turn the house into a museum. The Millay Society now owns the property, relying on donations for upkeep and renovation. As a result, visitors are bound to find Steepletop a work in progress, but singularly authentic. "The house has a life," Bergman said. "It feels like someone lives here."
Steepletop, 436 E. Hill Road, Austerlitz, N.Y.; (518) 392-3362, http://www.millay.org. Closed Wednesdays. House tours Fridays-Mondays; garden tours daily, until Oct. 17; $25 for both house and garden, by reservation. The Millay Poetry Trail is open daily.
"The terrace at Bellomont on a September afternoon was a spot propitious to sentimental musings, and as Miss Bart stood leaning against the balustrade … the landscape outspread below her seemed an enlargement of her present mood… She found something of herself in its calmness, its breadth, its long free reaches… Was it love, she wondered, or … the spell of the perfect afternoon, the scent of the fading woods, the thought of the dullness she had fled from?"
"The House of Mirth"
It's thought that Millay and Wharton crossed paths in Paris in the early 1920s, but did not become friends. In fact, it's hard to imagine two more different women, one a reckless free spirit, the other a society woman raised in the upper echelons of Gilded Age New York and Newport, R.I.
To her mother's despair, Edith was a bookish little girl; she spoke French, German and Italian and started her first novel when she was 11. Still, she came out at the obligatory debutante ball and was courted by several gentlemen, including Teddy Wharton, whom she married in 1885.
By the time the Whartons moved to Lenox in 1901, Edith had published her first book, "The Decoration of Houses," co-written with architect Ogden Codman, advocating a departure from the then-popular Victorian style. Plans for the new house, known as the Mount, closely followed the book's proscriptions, resulting in an elegant white mansion with 35 rooms.
The design of the house was inspired by the couple's frequent trips to Europe; between 1885 and 1914, they crossed the Atlantic nearly 70 times, prompting Edith's friend Henry James to call her the "pendulum woman." In 1903, she set out for Europe again to research a series of articles that became the book "Italian Villas and Their Gardens," an important source for the Mount's landscape, including a long, winding drive, formal flower parterres and a cool, green Italian sunken garden.
Edith and a small, select group of friends passed pleasant afternoons alfresco, but mornings were her private time, spent in bed writing compulsively on a lapboard, surrounded by papers and pampered dogs, all miniature breeds such Pomeranians and Skye terriers. They looked on as she completed her first bestselling novel, "The House of Mirth," in 1905; several dozen more books followed, along with a Pulitzer Prize and the French Legion of Honor.
Her halcyon days at the Mount ended in 1911, when Teddy's mental health began to deteriorate and she moved permanently to France. After the Whartons' departure, the estate suffered as it changed hands many times, ending as home to Shakespeare & Company, a Lenox theater company.
In 2001, work to refurbish the Mount began, at a cost of about $15 million.
Executive director Susan Wissler told me more needs to be done, but visitors find the gardens lavishly abloom and the house handsomely restored, with Wharton's books lining shelves in the first-floor library. Other rooms, such as the dining room and Edith's suite, were decorated by local designers because the Whartons took their furnishings with them when they moved out.
After my tour, I stayed for a reading of one of Edith's short stories in the terrace café, one of many events offered at the Mount. "The Mission of Jane," published in 1904, is about how an adopted daughter brings together a loveless couple by growing up to be such an annoying young woman that her parents can't wait to get her out of the house when she marries.
Pure Wharton in the perfect setting.
The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, Mass.; (413) 551-5107, http://www.edithwharton.org. Open daily May-October; admission $16, plus $2 for docent-led house and garden tours.