Another Miracle

With $400 in the bank and no clear plan for the future I quit my job at the restaurant and decided never to work again at anything but my art. I was twenty six years old.  I spent days and weeks working in my crummy apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dreaming about my stay at Steepletop, and wishing I could go back. I could see myself gallivanting about the fields and rolling hills of the Berkshires.   One day the phone rang. It was the director of the Millay Colony. I hadn’t heard from her in months. “Could you do me a favor? Help me please. Come back to Steepletop for a little while.” I couldn’t believe my ears.

The caretakers had left suddenly and Norma, at 86 years old, could not be left alone on the 600 acre property. I could live in the caretakers’ little farmhouse, but would have no other responsibility except to be there. I was to eat with the artists in residence, and was free to work all day. When I told my friends in Boston that I would be gone for a few weeks, many eyebrows raised. They knew how much I loved Steepletop and how elastic time could be for me. They were right. I came back about a year later to put my stuff from Boston in storage.

It took about a month to find new caretakers. Norma Millay and I were becoming closer and closer, and so she allowed me to stay on after the search for the caretakers concluded. To top it all off, I had fallen deeply in love with a radical feminist writer sixteen years my senior who was there as a resident. She was finishing her book, « Women Who Kill ».  There was a small cabin close to Norma’s house. It had been an icehouse.

Years before, they were about to bulldoze it when Norma’s husband decided to fix it up as his little hideaway. It was just one room with a sink and a fireplace. There was a screened-in porch on the back, just above a little brook. Hummingbirds frequented the reeds and wildflowers which grew there. The front door opened onto Norma’s garden. This was to be my new home.   A riot of flowers awaited me every morning. I furnished it with an oriental rug, an antique patchwork quilt, a Japanese woodcut, an American Impressionist pastel, and an armchair and reading light in front of the fireplace. It was my villa, my castle, my chateau. I was in paradise. A dream come true. Freedom to work in a peaceful and inspiring place. Talented and creative people coming and going. My patron and my true love were with me. In the evening, I would take my meals with Norma and the numerous and varied guests who came to visit her. They were mostly writers and Hollywood actors who had come to pay homage to their mentor. They came bearing gifts: lobsters, caviar, T bones. Those were Norma’s favorites. There had to be shad row. She could not imagine living or worse dying, without having some in the freezer at all times.  I painted in the fields, in the sun, in the nude. I swam every day. The pool was built in the foundation of an old barn. It was fed by a mountain spring and was freezing. The surface was covered with leaves and pine needles from a low branch which hung way out over the water. You could not see below, which was fortunate. Who knew what creatures lived or died at the bottom? One entered the pool through the ‘dingle’ a large, naturally round hollow, surrounded by a cypress hedge.

The hedge had been planted and trimmed to create several ‘rooms’. First a small corridor guarded by a marble sculpture of cupid on a pedestal. Then there were two ‘dressing rooms’, the men’s and women’s, each furnished with cast iron dressing tables and chairs. Next you entered the pool area, scattered with marble benches and fountains. There was a wooden bar at the far end. A roof was built onto the one remaining stone wall of the barn, and was covered with a gnarled, spiraling wisteria.

There was a mirror above the bar, reflecting the greenery. The entirety was overgrown and slightly decayed, but was all the more fairy-like for it. Bathing suits were unheard of.   I worked and worked. In the evening, after a whiskey and soda with Norma, I’d sit quietly and very still by the apple orchard and watch the deer come out to feed on the fallen fruit as the sun slowly set. Artists came and went. Spring turned to summer and then to fall. It started to turn cold. Norma was getting older and we were concerned for her health. Suppose we spend the winter in LA, her actor friends suggested. We were off to Hollywood…….