la rotonde

Carolyn Burke

Fleeing the Demons

By Alison Rowat, The Herald (UK)
November 22, 2005

Lee Miller: A Life, by Carolyn Burke: Bloomsbury, £20

A tale of twenties New York. A beautiful young woman steps into the path of an oncoming car. At the last second she is pulled to safety by a stranger. He turns out to be Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue. Captivated by his fallen angel, he puts her on the cover of his magazine and makes her immortal. Such a wildly improbable scenario could only happen to the utterly fabulous Lee Miller.

Giddiness is an occupational hazard for any writer who comes within a mile of Miller's life. The woman Cecil Beaton described as looking like "a sunkissed goat boy from the Appian Way" was the original It girl who had it all. As well as a photographer in her own right, she was Man Ray's muse and a friend to Picasso, Cocteau and Chaplin. Later, her photos and despatches from the Second World War made her a legend among war correspondents. In one last display of surrealism, her final incarnation before her death in 1977 was as a cookery writer.

To think of Miller is to see her as she is on the cover of Carolyn Burke's book, an impossible, beguiling beauty. But the face that was her initial fortune would later obscure her achievements. "Because she did not pursue a conventional career," writes Burke, "her reputation, until recently, has been eclipsed by her legend, and the famous men who helped construct it."

Born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie to a well-to-do family, young Elizabeth (she later changed her name to the deliberately androgynous Lee) wanted for nothing. There was one thing no amount of money could change. At the age of seven, Elizabeth had been raped by a babysitter. The experience broke her spirit and the gonorrhoea she contracted condemned her to years of painful, invasive treatment. She grew up hating herself. "I looked like an angel," she would later say, "but I was a fiend inside."

Knowledge of the rape colours everything that comes next. Instead of a spoiled flapper, Miller appears a woman constantly in need of reassurance, running helter skelter from her past. She craved distraction and new experiences. The outbreak of war, by providing her with both, would prove her finest hours.

Flying under the bizarre flag of Vogue's war correspondent, Miller reported from the battlefront, was there when the death camps were liberated and was one of the first photographers into Hitler's home after the war ended. It was there that the famous picture of her in the fuhrer's bath was taken. Burke, an art critic when she is not being a biographer, describes with perfect exactness how Miller, ever the aesthete, staged the shot for maximum effect. After the war, life for Lee would never again be as exciting. The bird did not take well to going back into the gilded cage, and her frustration played itself out in alcoholism and depression and a troubled relationship with her son, Antony Penrose.

Interest in Miller has been revived recently by her son's books and several major exhibitions of her work. Between the personal and the critical there would not seem much more to say. Burke, to her immense credit, defies such reasoning. She met Miller while working in Paris on a biography of Mina Loy and knew she had found her next subject. That was thirty years ago. This, clearly, is not a woman who rushes into print.

In all, it took seven years to research and write this biography, and it shows. Just as Miller lived what seemed like ten lives, so Burke has done enough work for ten books. The effect is never stifling, however. Miller was a creature of context, rising or falling according to the times. To understand her, one needs to understand those times. Burke renders them superbly, never skimping on salient details or letting a good tale slip by. She is the ultimate photographer's assistant: setting up the background against which her subject can shine, clever, capable, sympathetic, and never in the way.

She makes an exception to this rule when it comes to Miller's strange relationship with her father. Theodore Miller first photographed his daughter in the nude when she was 18 months old and continued the sessions into adulthood. Burke, along with the reader, struggles to understand this. Though she does not believe the relationship was incestuous she remains troubled by it, returning to it again and again.

Miller, at least in public, did not seek protectors and was devoted to her father. She was always brave enough to defy convention, bold enough not to make excuses. "If I need to pee, I pee in the road," she told a friend. "If I have a letch for someone, I hop into bed with him."

As Burke shows, the truth was more complex, the price to be paid for such freedom higher than anyone knew. Liberated as she was, Miller herself was aware that limits had been imposed on her life.

In a letter to her husband, Roland Penrose, she once wrote: "I keep saying to everyone, 'I didn't waste a minute, all my life — I had a wonderful time', but I know, myself, now that if I had it over again I'd be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affections."

After reading this superb work, one can only echo those regrets.