In 2016, I wrote a post here about finding a 1927 edition of The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). I had been in a relatively affordable antique store in my suburb of St. Louis. Used books were in bookcases in the back, and this little poetry book cost all of 75 cents.
What intrigued me was the owner’s name, written in a beautifully even script on the inside front cover. I like looking at names, inscriptions, and margin notes in old books, because they offer a connection to an earlier time and how someone responded to the same book I’m reading.
In this case, the name was Winifred Donlea. The small, slender hardback volume had no other writing in it. I turned to Dr. Google, and I wrote about what I’d found.
Two years later, a comment showed up on the post: “Your story is a very personal gift for me and my family. Winifred Donlea from Barrington, Illinois is my mother. She often recited the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and many other poets. My mother was a schoolteacher, a principal of public and private, primary and secondary schools and a university professor.” The writer went on to say that Donlea’s first marriage was to another writer, Harry Thornton Moore, and that they married on the first day of spring in 1933 with the money he earned for his first published poem.
Moore eventually became a professor at Southern Illinois University—Carbondale. He died there in 1981. Carbondale is less than two hours from St. Louis, and I wonder if that’s the connection for how Winifred’s book ended up in the local antique shop, where I found it two or three years later.
Winifred married a second time, and the writer was her son from that marriage. He also said that she “led a flamboyant and peripatetic life traveling and living all over North America, western Europe, and Africa. The character Auntie Mame, from the book and the film, was somewhat like Winifred Donlea. She died in Cape Town, S.A. on the eve of her final destination, which was Ireland, where she planned to stay for the remainder of her life.”
His comment triggered another comment from a professor at Amherst College, who was researching a writer and publisher named Caresse Crosby, for whom Harry Thornton Moore was the literary executor. Among Crosby’s many accomplishments is the invention of the brassiere.
The conversation about Harry Thornton Moore and Caresse Crosby went offline. I was left with the charm of the story and the gratification of knowing that my interest in book inscriptions had led to this fascinating account. Usually, a search for a name of a book owner stops in a dead end. This one didn’t.
Almost two years passed. Then I received an email from Winifred’s son. He asked if I might consider selling the book to him. By this time, I’d grown rather fond of the little volume of poetry, knowing the story of its first owner and having reread it several times. But the request was a no-brainer.
No, I wrote back, I wouldn’t sell it. But I would give it to him. For a woman known to recite poetry by St. Vincent Millay and other poets to her family, her book, the book she held in her hands and likely recited from, needed to be with the family.
In early December, The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems was carefully packaged and sent priority mail to Maine, where Winifred’s son lives. A week before Christmas, I received this note: “The lovely Edna St. Vincent Millay book arrived safely. The book has come home.”
I think Winifred would be pleased.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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