la rotonde

Carolyn Burke

Shutters and Shudders

By Toni Bentley, The New Republic
February 27, 2006

Lee Miller: A Life
Carolyn Burke (Alfred A. Knopf, 426 pp., $35)

Lee who? Uncanny beauty, fashion model, Surrealist muse, assistant and model of Man Ray, Vogue photographer, war photographer, sexual bohemian, Lady Roland Penrose: thus is this genuinely fascinating woman identified, diffused, and therefore mostly forgotten. Even those who recall her name often are not sure why. Too many talents or accomplishments in a beautiful woman arouses suspicion. She must be a dilettante who was given the opportunities that beauties often are granted, usually by the men who want them, or something from them.

But Lee Miller cannot be so easily dismissed. Her messy, unbelievably interesting life, full of famous lovers and momentous encounters with the history of her time, provides an occasion to reflect on the problem of the intelligent beauty. It is a problem that rarely elicits understanding or sympathy. If Miller had been an ordinary-looking woman who had taken her lacerating photographs of World War II and its aftermath, she would probably be better known and more regularly praised. Talent is always acceptable as a substitute for beauty. But both? Men, and even many women, have trouble with so much kindness from fate. It must also be noted that Miller herself did less than nothing to promote her reputation. After her death, more than sixty thousand photos and negatives were found piled in boxes and trunks scattered in the attic of her English farmhouse. It is thanks to her son Antony Penrose and his wife Suzanna Penrose that we have these extraordinary images at all.

Miller's life as a Vogue cover girl who was shot by the greatest photographers of her time — Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst P. Horst, Man Ray — preceded her life behind the camera. She made the rare transition from object to subject, her intelligence and her restlessness providing the bridge from one to the other. It is as if the need to escape the narcissism that was required of her as a model forced her to pick up a camera in self-defense. Thus Miller manifested a notable androgyny, beginning as a goddess of the infamous "male gaze" and then becoming the gaze herself. In so doing, she confounded her friends, her lovers, and herself.

Now Carolyn Burke, the author of a fine biography of the poet Mina Loy, has produced the first full-length life of Lee Miller, almost thirty years after her death. Burke's splendid and gripping and thoroughly researched book offers an opportunity to re-assess the three-dimensional woman and her two-dimensional prints. To look at the photos of Miller and then the photos by he, produces a kind of visual and emotional dissonance: Miller in an elegant gown by Patou reclining languidly on a wall like a young Garbo; and then, a few pages later, her image of the legs of liberated Dachau survivors in their stripes, standing around a great white, dusty pile — the gassed, gray bones of other Jews. Concentration camps are not the usual hangouts of ex-supermodels.

The story starts with Elizabeth Miller's rape, at the age of seven. But we must begin at the beginning. She was born on April 23, 1907, the second of three children of a well-to-do bourgeois family. The only girl in the family, she immediately became her daddy's darling. Theodore Miller was a person of considerable accomplishments and intelligence, a mechanical engineer with a lifelong interest in any and all gadgets. (His father had been a champion bricklayer.) Thomas Edison was his hero. He was an Emersonian Democrat, an educated man, and a great believer in science. "What counted," writes Burke, "was what one could measure or record." He was also a defiant atheist. Waking from a coma at the age of ninety-three, as if emerging from a metaphysical experiment, he scandalized the nurses attending him by declaring triumphantly, "I want you to know that God does not exist!"

With five hundred employees under his firm but benevolent jurisdiction, Theodore Miller was the superintendent of Poughkeepsie's largest employer, the DeLavel Separator Company, whose machines separated heavier liquids from lighter ones. His delight in physical transformation and modern technology found its greatest outlet in his lifelong hobby of photography. And his blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby daughter became his favorite subject — her life lovingly documented literally every step of the way. Early on in her childhood, he gave Elizabeth her first camera. The darkroom was a sanctuary.

Miller's mother, Florence MacDonald, of Scots-Irish descent, had been Theodore's nurse during a bout of typhoid, and while she clearly made a good match with the ambitious Miller, she was the less prominent parent, and her husband ruled the roost. While Theodore doted on his little princess, who became a tree-climbing tomboy, Florence favored the eldest son, John, dressing him in girls' clothes — a habit he continued well into adulthood, with the occasional public scandal.

During a visit to a family friend in Brooklyn in 1914, young Elizabeth was raped by a male friend of the friend. She was rushed back to Poughkeepsie with great concern, but also great secrecy. The details of the crime remain unknown, but the results were clear. The seven-year-old contracted gonorrhea and was thus traumatized, repeatedly over the years, not only by the illness but also by its horrific cure. For the next twelve months, isolated from any social intercourse, she had to visit the hospital several times a week and, at home, endure antiseptic baths administered by her mother, followed by an "irrigation" of the bladder with potassium permanganate using a glass catheter, a douche can, and a rubber tube. This pre-penicillin medieval torture was followed by a douche with a mixture of boric acid, carbolic acid, and oils. Twice a week, the little girl's cervix had to be probed with a cotton swab to remove infected secretions and then daubed with "picric acid in glycerine." Elizabeth's brothers were not told what was wrong with their sister; they just heard her screams from the bathroom and then watched as their mother disinfected every surface the contaminated little girl had touched to prevent further infection.

Miller never mentioned her rape, but it haunted her forever, and it haunts Burke's book. The beautiful little girl became "wild" after this, her brother John later observed. Within the year, Theodore proposed a new kind of photo for his daughter: mimicking the scandalous painting "September Morn," which featured a nubile naked girl, he had the eight-year-old Elizabeth pose naked but for her slippers outside their house in the freezing snow. "December Morn" was the first of many nudes that Theodore would take of his daughter over the next few decades.

Daddy took lots of naked pictures of his grown daughter. Lee sitting on a table, facing forward, one leg crossed, barely hiding her sex, looking sideways; Lee in the bathtub; Lee naked with naked girlfriends. "Theodore was always begging us to pose for him in different stages of undress," said Tanja Ramm, a close friend. "If you didn't do it, you'd feel prudish." The photographs can be dated as late as the 1930s.

Burke handles this curious situation with a simple telling of the facts. Florence was often in attendance at the photo sessions. There was never any sign that Elizabeth's intimacy with her father went further than posing for his lens. Many people — including her brothers — attested that Miller adored her father and trusted his love probably more than that of any man who followed. OK. Got it. No funny business — except that all of this is funny business. Burke shies from further interpretation; but to look at these nudes and see them, inevitably, through the eyes of the father is creepy to say the least, and incestuous to say the obvious. While one can believe that Theodore meant well and adored his daughter, he would be regarded very suspiciously today.

Between her rape and her nude photo shoots, Elizabeth became — surprise! — a rebellious teenager. She cursed, she smoked, she performed practical jokes for which she was expelled from her Quaker boarding school. But other influences were at work to inspire her dramatic persona. She was enthralled by performers — Bernhardt, Pavlova, the Denishawn dancers, the Ziegfeld girls, all of whom she saw perform on stage. She took some "interpretive" dance lessons and acted in a few local plays, but reserved her highest respect for women writers. She emulated her idol Anita Loos by writing movie scripts with her girlfriend that were "full of naked sinners on bearskin rugs." Theodore could have shot the movie.

When Elizabeth was seventeen, her mother attempted suicide by gassing herself in the car — she had fallen in love with another man — but Theodore saved her just in time. As with Elizabeth's rape, it was all very hush-hush. Florence proceeded, against Theodore's advice, to see a well-known Freudian analyst, and remained in her marriage. He, meanwhile, had numerous affairs over the years and was still pinching his caretakers' bottoms from his wheelchair in his nineties.

A year later, at age eighteen, Elizabeth sailed to Paris for the first time, chaperoned by her Polish French teacher Madame Kohoszynska, who was wonderful but couldn't speak French. Unnoticed by Madame, they checked into a maison de passe, a brothel. "It took my chaperones five days to catch on, but I thought it was divine," Miller gleefully recalled. She spent her days watching clients go in and out of rooms, and shoes being changed in the hallway with regular frequency. "I felt everything opening up in front of me," she said. Her future was found and she declared Paris "my home!" She stayed seven months studying at a school for stage design and learning the language.

Back in Poughkeepsie, she was out rowing on a local lake with one of her many eager suitors when the young man dove off the side of the boat. Elizabeth watched as his dead body was dragged from the lake a few hours later. His mother blamed her. Soon came an aborted stint at Vassar, after which Elizabeth, financed by her father, moved to New York and enrolled at the Arts Students League. She was discovered by no less than Condé Nast himself. Standing on a street corner, the founder of the magazine empire pulled Miller back on the curb out of oncoming traffic. Between her beauty and her babbling in French he immediately suggested that she visit his offices. She appeared shortly thereafter on the cover of the March 1927 issue of Vogue in a drawing by George Lepape, a cloche framing her face.

Not yet twenty, Miller was launched as a top model into New York society. She wrote in her diary of her "supreme egoism." With her shimmery bobbed hair, smooth fine features, and slim body, she perfectly embodied the flapper, the garçonne, the sexually free modern woman. A mini-scandal ensued when an elegant shot of her by Steichen showed up in magazine ads for the "new and improved" Kotex sanitary pads.

After two years of New York celebrity, Elizabeth found that she had absorbed a lot from the distinguished photographers for whom she had posed, and she wished to learn more about their work. Armed with an introductory letter from Steichen to Man Ray, an American expatriate painter and photographer who had acquired widespread fame in Europe for his experimental Surrealist images, she set sail again for Paris. This was the beginning of her nomadic multi-continental existence. She said later that she went to Paris "to enter photography by the back end," by studying with the masters. In this she was not alone; she was in fact in the vanguard of women entering the art form behind the camera. Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott, and Germaine Krull were all beginning their careers in the 1920s.

In true bohemian fashion, two of Elizabeth's young American lovers were friends and tossed a coin to decide who would see her off from the pier. Alfred de Liagre (who was to become a well-known Broadway director) won the bet, but the other swain, a pilot, flew his plane overhead, dropping a cascade of red roses on the ship's deck at Elizabeth's feet. Flying back to his airfield, he picked up a student for a flying lesson, and their plane crashed, killing both of them. (Burke, curiously, declines to mention this tragic ending to a grand romantic gesture.) Elizabeth, now twenty-two, already had two dead lovers to her credit. Somewhere across the Atlantic, between New York and Paris, the femme fatale called Lee Miller was born.

In Paris, she went straight to the home of Man Ray, but was told that he had left town for the summer. She proceeded to a local café and in walked Man Ray. "I asked him to take me on as his pupil," she recalled in one understated version of the much-told tale. "He said he never accepted pupils, but I guess he fell for me. We lived together for three years and I learned a lot about photography." Man Ray's affair with Kiki de Montparnasse, the unforgettable and flamboyant model of some of his greatest portraits, had been over for a year, and he was, as he recalled, "ready for new adventures." He got them. Miller — seventeen years his junior and a good head taller — became his student, his assistant, his receptionist, his collaborator, his muse, his lover, and finally his misery.

"I have loved you terrifically, jealously," he wrote in the middle of their affair, while Miller was openly having others. "It has reduced every other passion in me, and to compensate, I have tried to justify this love by giving you every chance in my power to bring out everything interesting in you." "For the first and last time in his life," said a friend, "Man had to surrender. To have this fascinating, intelligent woman as his mistress was fatal." But the endless melodrama notwithstanding, their artistic collaboration was magnificent. "I do not photograph nature," Ray explained, "I photograph my fantasy." He got plenty of that from Miller, with her body frequently sectionalized in his images of her, as in "La Prière," with her back and backside scooped in Sadian worship, and in "Observatory Time," with her lips — and lips alone — floating enormously across the sky. He placed her all-seeing eyeball at the tip of a metronome's pendulum, and in numerous photos her nude torso is headless.

Miller was unintentionally responsible for the discovery of "solarization," a photographic technique that produces enhanced edges in a photograph due to a partial reversal of the black and white of the negative. In the darkroom one day, she accidentally turned on the light while some negatives were still being developed. Man Ray was furious, but as the model was no longer available to redo the photos, they developed the images anyway. Thus accident was, as usual, the mother of invention.

By 1930, Miller and the Russian émigré Tatiana Iacovleva — muse to the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and later the infamous wife of Bertrand du Plessix and mother of Francine du Plessix Gray — were called the most beautiful women in Paris. Miller met all of Parisian society. She even starred, to Man Ray's consternation, as the painted Muse in Jean Cocteau's classic experimental film The Blood of a Poet. In December 1930 her father came to Europe, and took photos of his twenty-three-year-old daughter nude in the tub in their shared hotel room in Hamburg. Back in Paris, Man Ray and his mistress's father indulged their mutual delight in photographing scenes of three or four naked girls frolicking on a bed with Miller as the centerpiece. As testament to this extraordinary father-daughter relationship, Ray produced one of his most moving images of Miller in profile, conservatively clothed, nestling across her father's lap, eyes closed, resting her head upon his shoulder. Oh, that every woman could be so trusting of her father.

During a visit to St. Moritz with Charlie Chaplin — also a likely lover — Hoyningen-Huene introduced Miller to a handsome and wealthy Egyptian businessman named Aziz Eloui Bey and his beautiful wife Nimet, whom Miller befriended and photographed. Bey was almost twenty years Miller's senior, and they began a secret affair that would result over the course of the next few years in devastation for Man Ray — he made a self-portrait with a gun to his head. It also was the cause of the suicide of Nimet, in a hotel room from alcohol poisoning.

By 1932, Miller had returned to New York alone and, with the financial backing of several businessmen, opened her own studio. She employed her younger brother Erik as an assistant and photographed, in addition to fashion shoots, many artists of the day — Joseph Cornell, Gertrude Lawrence, Virgil Thompson, and John Houseman (who wrote of his "unrequited lust" for her). Miller's images were shown at the Julien Levy Gallery, with whose eminent owner she had an affair. It was at this time that she took the famous portrait of herself in profile, short, wavy hair held back with a headband, clothed in rich, ruched velvet, looking like a flapper transplanted as Renaissance maiden. The photo was intended as an advertisement for the headband.

After less than two years of her New York life, a success by any standard, she again changed course. Bey arrived in America, and in June 1934 she abruptly closed her New York studio, married him, spent her honeymoon at Niagara Falls like a good American bride, and then sailed, like Cleopatra, for Alexandria and a new life in Egypt as Madame Eloui Bey. For the next few years, she played bridge, drank martinis, took long desert safaris, learned snake-charming, raced camels, skied on sand dunes, and photographed the epic landscape from the top, and bottom, of pyramids — and became, as was her way, increasingly bored. "I could easily and with pleasure become an alcoholic," she wrote.

The human costs of her adventurous way of living continued to mount. Of one photography expedition, she wrote to her brother: "Unfortunately I ran over a man or something . . . it spoiled the trip . . . but the pictures are swell." On her love life, she reported in an equally cool fashion that "If I need to pee, I pee in the road; if I have a letch for someone, I hop into bed with him." And there were several abortions along the way. (The gonorrhea had not left her infertile, as it did in 50 percent of cases at the time.)

The summer of 1937 found her back in Paris, without her husband, in a whirlwind of social activities. At a costume party in Paris she met Roland Penrose, a wealthy British painter and writer who was an eager member of the Surrealist circle. After waking in his bed two mornings later, she embarked on a passionate affair with Penrose, and a wild summer of bohemian partner-swapping and exhibitionism that included a visit to Picasso at Mougins. There Lee was painted by Picasso six times and gladly loaned to him by Penrose for a night or two. Back in Roland's bed, he introduced her to bondage, apparently with her full compliance. (Later he gave her a set of handcuffs made from Cartier gold.)

Eileen Agar, a friend, wrote in her memoir that in the South of France that summer there was "Surrealism on the horizon, Stravinsky in the air, and Freud under the bed." Meanwhile, the adoring Bey was sending Miller money for her summer sojourn.

Back in Cairo, Miller kept up a constant correspondence with Penrose and made plans for future European exploits. "I want the Utopian combination of security and freedom" she wrote to her husband in November 1938, not only hinting at her double life but stating her lifelong credo, "and emotionally I need to be completely absorbed in some work or in a man I love. I think the first thing for me to do is to take or make freedom — which will give me the opportunity to become concentrated again, and just hope that some sort of security follows — even if it doesn't the struggle will keep me awake and alive."

To another lover, Bernard Burrows, she stated a year later, "You see darling, I don't want to do anything 'all for love' as I can't be depended on for anything. In fact I have every intention of being completely irresponsible." (Burke's version of this declaration is: "I don't want you to do anything 'all for love' as I won't marry you, I won't live with you and I can't be depended on for anything.") It was 1939 and Hitler was about to provide Miller with an opportunity to unleash herself "completely."

She left Egypt — "I'm never returning," she wrote — for England and remained in Europe for the entire war. She began working again for "Brogue," as British Vogue was called, and remained in London photographing the Blitz, which resulted in a book published in 1940 called Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, edited by Ernestine Carter and written by Edward R. Murrow. She was living with Penrose, and soon his ex-wife Valentine moved in and completed the family. Miller was appointed a war correspondent for Condé Nast and in July 1944, just over a month after the Allied invasion of Normandy, she was sent by Audrey Withers, the editor of Vogue, across the channel to report on the battlefield duties of American nurses. She proceeded, often against Army orders, to traipse through war-torn Europe with her camera and notebook in hand. She became lovers with Dave Scherman, a brilliant young photographer on assignment from Life. In Paris for the Liberation, she stayed at the Hotel Scribe, which had been requisitioned — the Nazis had used it as their press bureau — for Allied journalists, and she was a happy participant in the celebratory festivities of drinking, eating, and bed-hopping.

She subsequently traveled with her camera to Brussels, Alsace, Frankfurt, Aachen, and Heidelberg. In Leipzig, she photographed the corpses of the city's treasurer, his wife, and their daughter (who looks eerily like young Elizabeth), suicides from poison. In Berlin, she was famously photographed by Scherman taking a bath in Hitler's tub. (Could one get clean in such a place?) Later, down the street, she took a nap on Eva Braun's bed. In Dachau and in Buchenwald, she photographed survivors scavenging in garbage for food, the piles of the starved but freshly dead, the pits of decomposing skeletons, the utter desolation of mass murder. Those images are unforgettable.

With her constant supply of cognac in a flask, as well as an assortment of uppers and downers, Miller was by the end of the war worn, haggard, ill, depressed, and alcoholic. Unable to return to normal postwar life, she continued across Europe documenting the devastation. In Bucharest, she found a gypsy with a trained bear and got the massage of her life, providing a rare sweet and humorous moment, captured astonishingly on film by Harry Brauner. "The bear [Miller surmised she was three hundred pounds] knew her business," wrote Miller. "She sat her great, furry, warm bottom down on the nape of my neck, and with gentle shuffles, went from my neck to my knees and back again . . . I felt marvelous afterwards, racing circulation, flexible and energetic."

In Vienna, a well-equipped children's hospital had everything but drugs for its tiny patients, and thus they died, one after the other, producing Miller's most moving piece of prose and the haunting photograph to match.

For an hour I watched a baby die . . . He was the dark dusty blue of these waltz-filled Vienna nights, the same colour as the striped garb of the Dachau skeletons . . . a skinny gladiator. He gasped and fought and struggled for life, and a doctor and a nun and I just stood there and watched. There was nothing to do. In this beautiful children's hospital with its nursery-rhymed walls and screenless windows, with its clean white beds, its brilliant surgical instruments and empty drug cupboards there was nothing to do but watch him die. Baring his sharp toothless gums he clenched his fists against the attack of death. This tiny baby fought for his only possession, life, as if it might be worth something. . . .

Below this entry the page is slashed by the nib of Miller's pen.

Back in England, she was granted a divorce by Bey and married Penrose. They moved to a sprawling country estate called Farley Farm. There she continued her slapdash bohemian existence with a constant rotation of houseguests, and produced with Penrose, at the age of thirty-nine, a son. She was disinterested in motherhood and the relationship with her only child involved years of mutual verbal abuse and belittlement. A rapprochement of sorts occurred shortly before her death.

For her remaining thirty years, Miller was a ruin. Despite a face-lift, she became barely recognizable for her early beauty. She drank, gained weight, lost interest in sex, caused frequent hysterical scenes, and watched while her husband took a series of young lovers. She lost interest in photography and took her only solace in a passion for cooking, which resulted in a friendship with James Beard, and in winning the rather dubious honor for the best open-faced sandwiches from the Norwegian Tourist Board. She called cooking "pure therapy." But it did not cure her. "I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils," she told Burke shortly before her death. In 1966 Penrose was knighted — he called himself "Sir-Realist" and Miller became "Lady Penrose from Poughkeepsie." She died eleven years later of cancer, at the age of seventy. The obituaries were brief and inaccurate.

Miller's legacy resides in a few haunting images: Miller on her father's lap, Electra triumphant, an American pietà; Miller's vacant radiance solarized, epitomized, and deconstructed by Man Ray; and then Miller herself looking deeply into the wide-open eyes of a dying child and making us look with her into that abyss. Rarely, if ever, has a woman wielded such potency, and such vulnerability, both before and behind the lens. Yet by the end of this sad, busy life, as Burke tells it, one retains little love for Miller. Can a life be both fascinating and empty? While Miller certainly had moments of distinction behind her camera, the pervasive inconsistency in all her endeavors leaves her a shadowy figure.

Jane Livingston has suggested that Miller's tragedy was "that the artist never really wholly believed in the reality of her own driving gift and powerful achievement" — the problem of the talented woman again. There is something to this, obviously; but I cannot escape the feeling that finally Miller was a party girl at history's party. And yet there may be some edification even in this stern judgment — the encouraging thought that nobody is too small or too obscure for his or her own times, and that history, and art, may find even a girl from Poughkeepsie.

Toni Bentley is the author, most recently, of The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir (Regan Books).