Monday, April 28, 2008

Whatever Happened To Edna St. Vincent Millay's Dildo?

Walter Benjamin writes something about the deluding capacities of the relic. Just because the B-52s composed Love Shack on John Lennon’s Steinway doesn’t mean the song channels the dead Beatle in any metaphysical way. Same goes for D.G. Jones’s Butterfly on Rock. Just because Jones wrote the thing on Sea-Hi takeout menus doesn’t mean the book tastes like rice.

But it’s fun to own things possessed by (literary) celebrities, and many authors have adopted sacred totems as the means to extract stories from their pale and poorly toned bodies. Sinclair Lewis wore a pair of Mark Twain's slippers while writing; Jean Anouilh smoked one of Ibsen's pipes; Gilbert Parker wore Felicite Angers's chastity belt.

The Holy Grail, if you will, of literary relics, is an ivory dildo once owned by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The dildo’s existence first entered the popular imagination in 2001 with the publication of Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty, a Millay biography. In Milford’s preface we get an excerpt from a letter written to her by Edna’s sister Norma, in which the latter admits to having burned the famous pole--though it wasn’t easy. "I tossed it in the fire, but it wouldn't catch. It just kept getting blacker and blacker. You know how long it takes to burn one of those things? A lot longer than it takes to cool one down, I'll tell you that much."

Most people figured that was the end of it; the dildo was buried in a Maine dump, cracked, and finished. But that’s just not the case. That dildo's been Canadian-owned for more than fifty years. And if it could speak...Gwen Davies'd sue it for copyright infringement.

Edna’s ivory dildo is kind of a legend in the Canadian literary community. The shaft, about twelve inches long and eight inches in circumference, was said to be modelled after the penis of Zwelunke Obi A Mulla, a nineteenth-century Zulu chief famed for his ability to communicate with the animals of the African interior. (Incidentally, Dr. Dolittle was based on Obi A Mulla, but producers axed the large penis references, fearing it would scare children and anger pregnant women. The original script called for Harrison to wear “long shorts--long as necessary to conceal the ‘device.’” Eventually though they just went with grey pants.)

The actual dildo was white, an irony that never ceased to amaze Millay. “Apparently the black-tusked ones went extinct. At twelve by eight, it ain’t tough to figure out why.”

Carved with a concentric “rope’ pattern of thick, cylindrical bands, the toy had an ebony grip, which was drilled-through to accommodate a thick leather thong. The thong acted as an ersatz handle, which could be used to clip onto or loop around a laundry peg for open-air drying. This was, of course, in the days before dishwashers.

After Millay’s death in 1950 the dildo was boxed, wrapped in brown butcher paper, and sent to Gabrielle Roy. A note attached to the parcel stated simply, "Here. You need it more than I do. ESVM." It stayed with Roy just long enough to inspire Street of Riches and Where Nests the Water Hen, disappearing from her bedroom after a visit from Douglas LePan. It’s rumoured that LePan sent the tool to Henry Kreisel as a belated wedding present, but it’s more likely that it remained in LePan’s possession until 1966 when, upon visiting Margaret Laurence at Elm Cottage, Adele Wiseman discovered it hanging from a pot rack in Laurence’s kitchen.

“Margaret!” Wiseman said, shocked. “Don’t you know where that goes?”

“Sure,” Laurence said, demurring, “but I can’t keep it there, can I?”

After that, the trail of Edna’s dildo becomes a little hazy. Some say it went to Atwood, some say it went to Marie-Claire Blais. The Atwood angle seems credible, and some theorists have suggested that The Handmaid’s Tale is nothing more than a crude pun. "See her chipped tooth," an academic wag is said to have commented. "Nuff said." The only other thing I’ve heard re: the dildo is that Brian Moore inherited it from Laurence’s daughter, had Mordecai Richler’s face scrimshawed onto the business end, then sent the package to Timothy Findley.

It’s interesting to think that some of the greatest works of Canadian fiction could’ve been inspired by a large African dildo. But sometimes art imitates life.

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