la rotonde

Carolyn Burke

The beautiful and the damned

By Kevin Jackson, The Times (London)

Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke: Bloomsbury, 448 pp., £20

Some artists lead quiet and routine-dominated lives: the Kafkas. Some lead rackety, adventurous lives: the Rimbauds. And then there are the rare artists who lead not just one, but a whole fistful of remarkable lives, any one of which might make a juicy feature film, crammed with sex, danger, celebrity and fun. At which point, cue Lee Miller (1907–1977). Depending on your bias, you could film her life as the story of one of the bravest war correspondents of the last century — the only woman photographer of the Second World War to work under enemy fire — who took part in the liberation of Dachau and Belsen and literally washed the filth of those death camps away in Hitler's private bathtub. (The filth left in her mind by Hitler's slaughterhouses never quite washed away.) Or you could tell the fairy-tale story of the pretty little girl from Poughkeepsie, New York, who ended up as a British aristocrat, pillar of the cultural establishment.

The story that people usually like best, though, is the very modern fable of the muse who metamorphosed into an artist. Variously described as the most beautiful woman in Paris, in New York, in Cairo, and in the whole world, Miller posed for, acted for or simply inspired male artists by the legion. Man Ray caught her face and body at their most glacially perfect in photos from the early 1930s; Cocteau, although more of a connoisseur of masculine charms, gave her a key role in his film Le sang d'un poète; Picasso, a lifelong friend who may also have been a lover, made paintings of her in the traditional dress of Arles. A less driven woman might have been content with such generous helpings of immortality, but she was not that placid woman. She took up the camera herself and, within barely a couple of years, had won international acclaim as a portraitist. It is as if Mona Lisa had grown bored with sitting, grabbed the brush from Leonardo's hand and set up her own thriving atelier.

This is gloriously rich stuff for any biographer, and it would take a pedant or a zealot to make it dull. Fortunately, Carolyn Burke is neither of those tiresome things: she's a good, hard-working, traditional biographer, and though her book might be faulted for one or two small lacunae, it does its perplexingly complicated subject more than justice, adding welcome depths and nuances to the familiar legend. The Miller we get to know in these pages can't have been an easy woman to live with and love, especially in the later years when her blokeish hard drinking became full-blown alcoholism, but if you managed not to have your heart broken by her, you could surely bask in her fierce loyalty and gluttonous appetite for experience.

Her life story falls into quite clearly defined periods. What seems to have been a previously agreeable childhood was torn violently apart when, at the age of seven, she was raped by a family friend. Although the psychological consequences of this violation did not detonate for some years, she was also left with gonorrhoea, and had to undergo a series of painful and invasive treatments.

The experience does not seem to have dampened her delight in penetrative sex — if she felt a "letch" for a man, she would promptly seduce him (seldom a tough job) — though she was known to say that her father was the only man she ever trusted: a curious fidelity, since one of his favourite pastimes was taking highly erotic nude photographs of her.

A brief period in Paris at the end of her teens gave her a glimpse of an ideal spiritual home; a spell at art school in New York sharpened her creative ambitions; and a chance discovery (one of many "movie moments" in the biography) soon had her launched as one of America's most sought-after fashion models.

The Manhattan of Gershwin was thrilling, but Paris had even greater charms, so she upped sticks, sought out a famous mentor in the person of Man Ray, and more or less overnight became his student and mistress. She loved Paris ardently; Paris loved her back. She became la femme surréaliste, not merely the most celebrated beauty of her day but a virtual incarnation of its adventurous, hedonistic spirit. It was wonderful, and yet it did not satisfy her. Few things did, for long.

She worked as a commercial photographer in New York; packed that in, and married a kindly, rich Egyptian businessman; was bored, fascinated and then bored again by expat life in Egypt; fell in love with an English painter called Roland Penrose (later knighted); moved to England for the war; blagged her way into her war-correspondent role . . . and never, never managed to recapture the blazing intensity she had known in wartime. In peacetime she destroyed her looks almost wilfully with booze, dressed slobbishly, suffered depressions and panic attacks; and yet she also made herself into a pioneeringly brilliant cook, and played the public role of Lady Penrose with tact and energy when the need arose. Burke relates all this with sympathy and fluency, but dodges one significant issue: just how good was Miller as a photographer? Some intelligent and well-informed critics (John Tusa, for one) can see nothing much in her beyond technical competence and a decent enough eye. For my part, and especially after pondering this biography, I'd be inclined to say that she was not only the most beautiful of all photographers, but one of the best.

A reckoning

Miller took the photograph of a dead SS guard shown in the newsprint edition of The Sunday Times, at Dachau, which she entered the day after it was liberated. This and many other traumas took an inevitable toll on her after the war, and led her to drink to excess, burst into tirades and complain of depression to her doctor. He was not sympathetic. "There is nothing wrong with you," he explained, "and we cannot keep the world permanently at war just to provide you with entertainment."