Sunday, April 27, 2008

Edna St Vincent Millay Gets Off Sinclair Ross

Milton Berle tells a great story about a meeting with Norm Crosby in which the latter's love life was discussed. Berle was backstage at a benefit, getting ready to go on, when he was tapped on the shoulder by Crosby. "Where were you?!" Berle asked, turning. "You fucker; you're supposed to introduce me. I'm on in thirty seconds!" "I'm sorry. I lost track of time," Crosby said, a sheepish smile on his face. "Joan and I were fooling around, and...You'll never believe this, but I discovered a new way to have sex." "No shit," said Berle, one eye on Crosby, one eye on the stage. "Well," Norm said, shrugging his shoulders, "a little."

It's more or less common knowledge that Sinclair Ross was gay, but not many people know of his one-night tryst with the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay. Nancy Milford, author of Savage Beauty, a biography of Millay, uncovered the anecdote during the course of her research into Millay's life. She was advised, for a bevy of legal reasons, to excise the story from her text, but it survived the "urban legend" stage to trickle down the ivy-covered wall and into the gossipy academic domain.

It happened in 1938, three years before Ross published As For Me and My House. Sinclair was in Boston visiting relatives, and he was introduced to Millay through Henry Allen Moe, who headed the Guggenheim Foundation. Moe, who suspected Ross's homosexuality, was also familiar with Millay's tendency to "generate a lot of laundry--mostly sheets." Moe, a muscular Christian type, pointed Ross at Millay, and urged him to "just once, give it a try." Ross hesitated, but one night at Moe's, after a few drinks, Millay was enjoying the chase. Moe had alerted her to the plan to deflower Sinclair (Jim), and she "thought it would be a lot of fun."

Finally, toward the end of the evening, Millay managed to trap Ross in Moe's guest bedroom. She'd finished half a bottle of Gordon's gin, and Ross was half-drunk on Creme de Menthe. "I'll tell you this," Ross said to Millay. "Put on a baseball mitt and I'd be a little bit excited."

The rest of the story is, according to Moe, as follows:

"Ross asked Millay what she was going to do. She told him she was only going to recite a poem, and that he should just relax. He sat down on the bed, and as soon as Millay'd finished the last stanza her shirt came off. Ross was flustered. He didn't know what to do. He said something like, 'I can't do this. No.' Edna just looked at him and said, 'Calm down, huh. We'll try it your way first. If you don't like that, I've got an emery board in my purse.'

"Forever afterward Ross sweared that nothing had happened, but Edna insisted that she'd scored a conquest. The only thing that made me doubt him was that, later, about a day or so, he came down with a terrible stomach ache, and was in bed for a few days. When I finally saw him again, he said, " time I'll wash my hands.'"

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