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Carolyn Burke

The Many Faces of Lee Miller:
A blazing story of personal reinvention and artistic evolution

By Donna Seaman, Chicago Tribune
December 25, 2005

Lee Miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke: Knopf, 426 pages, $35

Who was Lee Miller? A great beauty and a brilliant yet overlooked photographer. A small-town girl who defied convention. A fashion model, an artist's muse and a war correspondent. A witness to humankind at its best and worst. A biographer couldn't ask for a more compelling subject, and Lee Miller couldn't have asked for a more insightful and eloquent biographer.

Carolyn Burke writes with lucidity and energy. As adept a storyteller as she is an ardent scholar, she is generous with details yet never gets bogged down. Fluent in the nuances of ambiguity and cued to the obdurateness of paradox, she provides thoughtful and measured analysis that is genuinely enlightening and never intrusive. Burke met Miller by chance while researching her first book, a life of poet and artist Mina Loy, and knew instantly that Miller would be her next subject.

Elizabeth Miller was born in 1907 in the pretty but staid Hudson River city of Poughkeepsie, New York, the second of three children and the only girl. Her Indiana-born father, Theodore, was an ambitious mechanical engineer. Her Canadian mother, Florence, was a nurse, shy and reserved. Blue-eyed and blond, Elizabeth was strikingly beautiful even as a child, and clearly her father's favorite. The fact that Theodore expressed his adoration by photographing his photogenic daughter in the nude well into her adulthood is one of the more inscrutable aspects of Miller's complex existence.

Burke describes Elizabeth as a confident and happy tomboy until age 7, when she suffers a shocking ordeal while staying with family friends: She is raped, and infected with gonorrhea. The treatment, administered by her mother, is invasive, further complicating the trauma of the rape and its psychological repercussions. But everything is hushed up, and Elizabeth is encouraged to resume her life as though nothing happened. Theodore continues to lavish affection on his daughter, and perhaps intends to reassure her, and toughen her up, by having her pose naked in the snow two weeks before her eighth birthday.

Smart, headstrong and rebellious, Miller is expelled from nearly every school she attends. Bored with life in conservative Poughkeepsie, she finds an outlet for her burgeoning creativity studying stage design and painting. Daring, sexy and free of any sense of obligation to anyone else, especially her many male admirers, Miller is at loose ends in New York City when, in a scene right off the silver screen, she steps in front of a speeding car and is swept out of harm's way. Her savior? Publishing magnate Condé Nast, who promptly invites her to work for Vogue.

Tall and chic, her fair hair bobbed, her azure gaze steady, Miller epitomizes the new look for the modern woman, the very image Vogue is seeking to promote. She changes her name to the sleekly androgynous Lee, debuts as a cover girl and makes the most of her sudden fame. Burke suggests that Miller's ready success as a high-fashion model derived from her experiences posing nude for her father. Miller possesses a cool and detached demeanor, one of presence and absence. Miller could become, at will, a living statue, which is exactly the role she later played in Jean Cocteau's famous art film "The Blood of a Poet."

Was this disassociation from her physical self an unconscious reaction to being raped? And what exactly went on between father and daughter? Burke is judicious in her efforts to understand these essential facets of Miller's life. In contemplating a set of Theodore's nude studies of Lee, Burke writes, "We wonder why a father would take such pictures, why a mother would not intervene, and what long-term effects such sessions would have on a moody nineteen-year-old whose early sexual experience still haunted her."

Yet Burke also understands that Lee "became complicit in their sessions and may have taken pride in her dual role as object and collaborator." Certainly Lee feels at ease enough to encourage her female friends to pose nude with her for her father, and Theodore and his daughter remain exceptionally close until his death.

Determined to live as freely, actively and ambitiously as a man, Miller decides, after two years in front of the camera, to take charge of its all-seeing eye. Encouraged by photographer Edward Steichen, she heads to Paris and hooks up with Man Ray, a Surrealist experimenting with painterly photography techniques. As his lover, muse and protege, Miller collaborates in some of his most haunting works and takes photographs of her own that evince an edgy and ironic wit and "an eye for unsettling moments."

On the Vogue payroll and embraced by the Parisian art world she has it made, but Miller is not one to get comfortable. Instead she abruptly ends her intense relationship with Man Ray and returns to New York in 1932 to open her own studio. She soon reigns supreme as the photographer for the elite, then executes another about-face and marries wealthy, well-connected Egyptian Aziz Eloui Bey.

"Lee embarked on marriage as if it were a holiday," Burke writes, and so begins the "black satin and pearls" chapter in Miller's life, a time of luxurious, often hedonistic leisure. But Miller is too restless, inquisitive and independent to lead this pampered life for long. She flees Cairo and returns to Paris and portraiture, taking elegant and evocative photographs of the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Margot Fonteyn, Dylan Thomas, Igor Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Colette and Elsa Schiaparelli. She also falls in love with Roland Penrose, a wealthy English artist and collector eventually knighted by the queen.

Miller's story of personal reinvention and artistic evolution blazes right along, and Burke feeds the flames with just the right mix of straight-ahead chronicling and shrewd commentary, steering the reader to the apex of Miller's life, her courageous and artistic response to World War II. Miller truly comes into her own during the London blitz, photographing women contributing to the war effort in images of resonant respect and striking design. Donning a soldier's uniform with "War Correspondent" stitched above her heart, she heads for the front, where she risks her life documenting pitched battles, the wounded and the nurses who care for them. Writing vivid and quirkily precise dispatches to accompany her arresting photographs, Miller is among the first to reach the death camps.

Concealing an intimacy with suffering and secret valor beneath the carapace of her beauty and elan, Miller faces this hell on Earth without flinching, taking meticulously composed and bleakly beautiful photographs of atrocities beyond comprehension. Her dispatches smolder with anger compounded by her bitter awareness of how perfectly her looks exemplify the ideal Aryan female. In Munich Miller and her fellow photographer and lover, David E. Scherman, visit Adolf Hitler's house, where Miller, drawing on her theatrical side and taste for irony, has Scherman take a startling photograph of her bathing in Hitler's tub.

But as Miller travels across Eastern Europe reporting on the aftermath of the war, emotional burnout and spiritual exhaustion set in. Surprised to find herself pregnant at 39, she marries Penrose. After the birth of their son, she turns away from photography and writing and takes up gourmet cooking. The fire in her heart is banked down to embers, and Lady Penrose keeps a low profile, often with a drink in hand. When she spoke with Burke not long before she died in 1977, Miller said:

"I got in over my head. I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils."

No one who reads Burke's involving biography will ever forget Miller. So visually rich and electrifying is her story, a movie version seems inevitable. But whatever interpretations the future may bring, Burke's vital and incisive portrait will be the wellspring.

Demonstrating the same clarity of observation and sensitivity to subtleties that distinguish Miller's photographs, Burke indelibly portrays a radiant woman forced to look into the heart of darkness, and an artist who cast light on a brutalized world, illuminating its abiding beauty and grace, and enhancing our empathy and awe.

Donna Seaman grew up in Lee Miller's hometown, Poughkeepsie, New York. She is an associate editor for Booklist and host of the radio program "Open Books" on WLUW 88.7 FM.