Wednesday Feb. 22, 2017

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Recuerdo

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came
       soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold

We were very tired, we were very merry
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-
       covered head,
And bought a morning paper which neither of us
       read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and
       pears,
and we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

“Recuerdo” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Public domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the first president of the United States, George Washington, born in the Colony of Virginia (1732). Washington’s own father, Augustine, was a tobacco farmer, landowner, and slaveholder. Augustine had inherited much of the family’s estate from his grandfather, John, who had emigrated from England to Virginia in 1656. Augustine died suddenly of illness when George was just 11 years old, but George’s mother, Mary, remained influential in his life and lived to see her son elected as president. George traveled 50 miles to Mount Vernon to see his mother the day after he was elected, where he found her on her deathbed with breast cancer. Washington told her that he was going to decline the office, but she insisted that he “go and fulfill the high destiny which Heaven has foreordained you to fill.” Washington served as president for eight years. In his Farewell Address to the nation, he warned that his greatest fear for the new country was that forces would try to divide Americans and undermine the country’s principles. He argued that its citizens should come together to resist those people: “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

It was on this day in 1879 in Utica, New York, that Frank Winfield Woolworth opened his first five-and-dime store in a one-room shop on Bleecker Street. The room was 13 feet wide by 20 feet deep and the rent was $35.00 a month. He called his store “The Great Five Cent Store,” and everything inside was only five or ten cents. Woolworth promised that just a nickel or a dime would buy anything in the store, and he sold gravy strainers, purses, biscuit cutters, candlesticks, pie plates, boot blacking, baseballs, pencil charms, and police whistles. One woman was so excited that she showed up the night before, knocked on the door, and asked to buy a five-cent fire shovel. Frank Winfield Woolworth sold her one.

F.W. Woolworth was born in Rodman, New York (1852). Once, when he was a child, he and his brother traveled into Watertown to buy a birthday present for their mother. They’d saved 50 cents and were quite proud, but when they decided to buy a silk scarf in one store, the salesperson mocked them for paying in loose change and urged them to save up more money and buy a proper gift the next year. Woolworth never forgot that. When he decided to open his own store as an adult, he vowed that people would be able to buy many things for just 50 cents, not just one or two items, and that his customers would be treated equally, whether rich or poor.

Later, after Woolworth’s became an international chain, with more than 1,000 stores across the world, the New York Sun said of Woolworth, “He won a fortune not in showing how little could be sold for much, but how much could be sold for little.”

It’s the birthday of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (books by this author), born in Danzig — now Gdańsk, Poland — in 1788. Schopenhauer believed that we live in a dual universe: the one that we perceive with our limited human senses and reasoning, and the universe as it truly is, which is unknowable and may or may not conform to our construct of “reason.” He was also pessimistic, believing that happiness is an illusion, our desires can never truly be satisfied, and the only way to attain peace of mind is by maintaining very low expectations. He was interested in Eastern religions and agreed with the Buddhist viewpoint that the nature of life is suffering, so happiness was simply freedom from it. His views on women influenced early feminists, who rejected his claim that women were childish and meant to obey. Schopenhauer never married.

It’s the birthday of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892) (books by this author), considered one of the finest American poets of her time. One of her best-known poems, “First Fig,” became emblematic for certain wild-hearted young people during the Jazz Age. Millay liked to say she was born “between the mountains and the sea” in Rockland, Maine. She and her two sisters were raised solely by their mother, who tried to instill in them a sense of independence and art. Millay longed to be a pianist, but her teacher said her hands were too small, so she focused on poetry instead. She was a tomboy; her family called her “Vincent.”

When Millay was 19, her mother saw a poetry contest in a magazine called The Lyric Year and encouraged Millay to enter. Her poem, “Renascence,” came in fourth, though everybody thought she should have won, including the second-prize winner, who offered her his $250 prize. She found a champion, though, in arts patron Caroline Dow, who saw such promise in Millay that she offered to pay her tuition at Vassar College. Millay loved college life, even though she was older than most of the other women. She wore men’s clothes, wrote and starred in a play called The Princess Marries the Page, and delighted in campus hijinks. Once, when she sent in a sick excuse to a class, the teacher stopped her later in the hallway and said, “Vincent, you sent in a sick excuse at nine o’clock this morning and at ten o’clock I happened to look out the window of my office and you were trying to kick out the light in the chandelier on top of the Taylor Hall arch, which seemed a rather lively exercise for someone so taken with illness.” Millay responded, “Prexy, at the moment of your class, I was in pain with a poem.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay headed to Greenwich Village after graduation, just in time for the Jazz Age. She spoke six languages, had affairs with men and women, and wrote for Vanity Fair magazine. One of her friends described her as “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine.” She made friends with fellow writers E.E. Cummings and Eugene O’Neill and wrote to a friend, “People fall in love with me and annoy me and distress me and flatter me and excite me.”

She lived in an attic apartment at 75 ½ Bedford Street that was nine feet long and six feet wide. It was the narrowest house in New York City and is today known as “The Millay House.”

Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1923) for her book, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Her other books include Renascence and Other Poems (1912), Fatal Interview (1931), and Collected Sonnets (1941).

After an affair with a French violinist didn’t end well, she married and bought a big house she called “Steepletop” in Austerlitz, New York. She built a cabin where she could write and cultivated the gardens. Steepletop had a spring-fed pool and Millay enjoyed swimming in the nude. She gave readings all over the country.

Edna St. Vincent Millay died in (1950). Her husband had passed away, and she’d drifted into alcoholism and ill health. She was found at the foot of the stairway at Steepletop. After she died, her sister turned Steepletop into the Millay Colony for the Arts.

Millay wrote: “My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — / It gives a lovely light!”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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