Picture this: A willowy figure draped in a satin dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin, paired with Boucheron jewelry and blonde hair in a bob. In May 1931, Lee Miller was posing for American magazine Vogue. A few years earlier, while standing on the corner of a street in Manhattan, the then 19-year-old woman was almost knocked down by a car. A passer-by seized her arm and pulled her to safety just in time. Her savior was none other than Condé Nast, the U.S. press tycoon, and their chance encounter proved to be decisive.
Lee Miller became firm friends with the businessman. Struck by her beauty and daring, he launched her modeling career. She was soon posing for Edward Steichen, the star photographer at Vogue, and became a symbol of the Roaring Twenties flapper. However, her mind seems to be elsewhere in these photos, and she actually found modeling quite dull. “I would rather take a picture than be one,” she once said.
At the age of 22, Lee Miller dreamed of going to Paris. On the advice of Edward Steichen, she packed her bags and traveled to meet a fellow American, the Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who lived in the French capital. One day, she bumped into the artist by chance in a café, and asked him to hire her as an apprentice. The reluctant Man Ray told her that he did not work with assistants and was about to go on vacation. Without blinking, she said: “I know, I’m coming with you.” She continued to insist and the artist finally agreed to teach her about photography. She posed for him as a model and learned his craft. This creative collaboration soon led to a love affair.
Lee Miller discovered Paris of the Surrealists with Man Ray. The artists in this avant-garde movement drew on the subconscious, the dream world, and chance. She spent time with poets Paul Eluard and André Breton, and painters Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and Marcel Duchamp. In her elegant, unsettling photographs inspired by this movement, Lee Miller took revenge on a stolen childhood turned upside down by a rape. She took pictures of unlikely objects such as mouse tails and mannequin body parts – as if to scoff at her former job – and even a sliced breast removed during a mastectomy, which she placed on a plate between a fork and a knife, ready to be devoured. This was a step too far for the editor in chief of Vogue Paris, Michel de Brunhoff, who ordered her to leave the studio.
In 1930, Lee Miller took her professional life into her own hands and moved, alone, to Montparnasse, where she opened her own studio. She worked for the fashion houses of Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel, and continued her role as a muse by appearing in Jean Cocteau’s 1930 Surrealist movie The Blood of a Poet. Meanwhile, her relationship with Man Ray was struggling. Lee Miller believed in free love, while he was possessive and jealous of her flings with other men. After three years of close artistic and romantic collaboration, she left Man Ray despite his threats of suicide. In 1939, she traveled to Antibes to reunite with her lover, British painter Roland Penrose, who was spending the summer with Picasso and Dora Maar.
From Fashion to War
Two months later, on September 1, Hitler invaded Poland. The American embassy urged Lee Miller to return to the United States, but she decided to join Roland Penrose in London instead. She began working for the British edition of Vogue, documenting England as the country was bombed, and photographed the lives of women contributing to the war effort, including nurses, military auxiliaries, and pilots in the women’s section of the Royal Air Force. Her images of women prepared for combat, wearing uniforms, equipped with gas masks and anti-fire shields, heralded her first steps in war photography.
In late 1942, Lee Miller was accredited by the U.S. Army to document the war in Europe; she was one of the few female photojournalists to receive this authorization. Her mission began in July 1944, a month after the Normandy landings. Wearing combat fatigues and a helmet, the photographer covered the advances of Allied troops across Europe exclusively for Vogue, who decided to expand its editorial policy in light of the situation.
A few miles from Omaha Beach, she reported on suffering soldiers and hardworking nurses from an American field hospital. While there, living in the mud and blood of the battlefield, she drank with the men, learned to overcome her fear, and even claimed to have grown fond of the smell of gunpowder. Lee Miller then left to photograph the liberation of Saint-Malo in Brittany, but she had been misinformed. When she arrived, the town was still under German control. As the only reporter in the area, she was able to photograph the American bombardment. “Gunfire brought more stone blocks down into the street,” she wrote. “I sheltered in a Kraut dugout, squatting under the ramparts. My heel ground into a dead, detached hand, and I cursed the Germans for the sordid ugly destruction they had conjured up in this once beautiful town.”
Unbeknownst to her, her photographs of plumes of white smoke in the sky above Saint-Malo were evidence of the early use of napalm, which had been dropped over France by U.S. warplanes. These images were immediately censored by the military. Lee Miller was placed under house arrest in Rennes for having failed to respect the rules of her mission by photographing a combat zone when she should have stayed behind the lines.
During the war, she was no longer an onlooker but a soldier, as highlighted by David E. Scherman (“Lee became a G.I.”), her associate and a Life magazine photographer, who later became her lover. As soon as she was released from house arrest, she went to Paris and photographed the liberation of the city on Place de la Concorde in August 1944, followed by the liberation of Alsace. Taking a neutral stance, she also took stark pictures of women with shaved heads – a punishment for having had relations with the German occupiers.
Her most striking images were of the liberation of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps in Germany, which she photographed in April and May 1945. Lee Miller discovered piles of corpses and emaciated, haggard survivors who stared into her camera. She was immensely shocked and decided to reveal the crimes committed by the Nazis. One such image was of a group of American soldiers examining a train car loaded with cadavers. A stunned Lee Miller sent a telegram to the Vogue editor in London: “I beg you to believe it to be true.”
In Hitler’s Bathtub
In the midst of the horror, Lee Miller kept occasional pinches of humor. As if she were on a fashion shoot, she would hone in on details such as a pair of makeshift boots made with scraps of leather by a former Buchenwald prisoner. In the ironic photo caption, she wrote that “striped pajamas will never be fashionable again.” Her self-portrait in Hitler’s bathtub is another famous example.
On April 30, 1945, Lee Miller and David E. Scherman were sent to a building requisitioned by the U.S. Army in Munich. When they arrived, they realized that they were in Hitler’s old apartment. “I washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub,” she said. While this subversive staging was a chance for Lee Miller to symbolically wash herself clean, her posing nude with a portrait of the Führer, who had committed suicide just a few hours earlier, sparked a scandal.
The return to peace was challenging. Lee Miller suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and was unable to sleep without considerable amounts of alcohol and sleeping pills. She then became pregnant at the age of 40, and moved to Sussex in England with her husband, Roland Penrose. However, Lee Miller was never made for life as a homemaker, and the images of the death camps continued to haunt her.
She later discovered a passion for cooking, which helped with her depression. She organized an entirely white meal for 100 people, and invented Surrealist dishes for her friends including green chicken, blue spaghetti, breast-shaped cauliflower, and marshmallow and Coca-Cola ice cream! Lee Miller passed away from cancer in 1977, at the age of 70. After her death, her son Antony Penrose discovered her negatives and published her biography, The Lives of Lee Miller (translated in French as Les vies de Lee Miller) in 1985. A pluralized title that perfectly describes the destiny of this extraordinary woman.
Lee Miller in Film
A movie had to be made about such an incredible life. Lee is set to be directed by American filmmaker Ellen Kuras and will be in theaters in 2023. Kate Winslet is cast in the role of Lee Miler, with Jude Law as her husband Roland Penrose, and Marion Cotillard as Solange d’Ayen, the fashion editor of Vogue Paris, all set to a soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat.