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Lee Miller collected careers the way a fellow beauty might have collected magazine covers; she went from Vogue model to surrealist icon to fashion photographer to war correspondent. If Christie Brinkley were to dash off to Iraq and produce some of the war’s finest reportage, she still wouldn’t touch Miller’s versatility. But her accomplishments come with a mystery: They were impressive enough for a lifetime, but Miller squeezed them into half of one. After her World War II stint, she married a longtime sweetheart and spent 30 years as a housewife. Today, Miller is remembered primarily as the muse of photographer Man Ray. Those who knew her best were hard-pressed to explain her career’s screeching halt; good luck to those who barely knew her at all.
Enter Carolyn Burke. Author of a 1996 biography of modernist poet Mina Loy, Burke seems to specialize in rescuing unconventional female artists from semiobscurity. In Lee Miller: A Life, she makes a strong case for her subject’s place as a quintessential modern woman and an accomplished photographer. But besides expanding Miller’s circumscribed popular image, Burke’s portrait leaves the impression of an extraordinary personality—daring, playful, strong-willed—and a life of not always enviable intensity, with decades of creativity, travel, and amorous adventure sandwiched between childhood trauma and the depression that darkened Miller’s later years. To solve the mysteries of her subject’s decline, Burke pored over letters, journals, and favorite childhood books, and interviewed scores of her surviving loved ones and colleagues. Even such dedicated research, though, could not yield all the answers.
Some of Miller’s traits are conspicuous nearly from her birth, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1907. As a child, she was willful and tomboyish, preferring machines to dolls. Her beloved father, Theodore Miller, a trend-minded member of the town elite, initiated her career as both photographer and subject. He taught her how to use a camera; he also regularly photographed her in the nude into her adolescence and beyond.
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Whether or not her father’s hobby constituted a violation— Burke reports their intimacy went no further—an unequivocal one came at age 7. On a visit to a family friend in Brooklyn, Miller was raped by a male caretaker. Afterward, she became moody at home and was expelled from several schools for her pranks and bad-girl behavior. In the words of her brother John Miller, “she went wild.” As a teenager, by this time a knockout, Miller left Poughkeepsie. She attended art school in Paris and enjoyed a stint as Vogue’s hottest model. Meanwhile, she socialized in fashionable circles, seeming to elicit advances from every male acquaintance who wasn’t gay or too shy—and accepting no small number of them. In 1929, she returned to Paris and shacked up with Ray as his lover and apprentice.
During this period, Miller honed her technical skills in photography and was introduced to surrealism, the artistic movement that would play a key role in her life. André Breton and his cronies considered her the perfect femme surréaliste, and Ray’s erotic portraits, says Burke, “seemed to confirm the Surrealist hope that through sexual ecstasy the creative imagination would be unleashed.”
Miller’s spirit often overlapped with surrealism’s, but it also ran hard into the scene’s rampant sexism. Surrealism fancied itself a way of life that prized spontaneity and, especially in women, nudity. To a male surrealist, Burke notes, the supreme gesture of friendship was to offer his mistress’s favors. As another woman in the group wrote, “The men were expected to be very free sexually, but when a woman like Lee Miller adopted the same attitude, the hypocritical upset was tremendous.” A friend recalled her saying, “If I need to pee, I pee in the road; if I have a letch for someone, I hop into bed with him.”
Surrealism tinged Miller’s art as well as her lifestyle. In the work of her apprenticeship with Ray, she learned to freshen up everyday compositions by twisting them at odd angles. Years later, as she photographed the destruction in London during the Blitz, Roland Penrose—a British surrealist she would eventually marry—wrote, “her eye for a surrealist mixture of humor and horror was wide open.” The mixture was appealing enough that Miller has been charged with aestheticizing Nazi horrors, especially on her later trip to Germany. Those criticisms, however, get scant attention from Burke; she astutely describes and analyzes Miller’s photographs, a couple of dozen of which appear in the book, but rarely engages her detractors.
Over the course of her life, the transformations in Miller’s personality are as dramatic as her geographic and professional upheavals. As a young sex symbol, she comes across as reserved and self-absorbed. In photos reproduced here, the pretty blonde never smiles; her gaze is cool and self-possessed. But later, she became known for her generosity and boisterous joie de vivre. During the war, the erstwhile darling of the smart set fraternized with soldiers and prisoners; the former fashion model became inseparable from her combat boots. Miller’s hard-drinking war-correspondent life destroyed her beauty, but, as a younger friend recalls, “when her looks went…she never complained. She took joy in the moment.”
Strange as it may seem, World War II appears to have been the pinnacle of Miller’s life, and undoubtedly of her career. She thrived on the adrenaline of war, fearlessly braved danger and squalor, and sent home some outstanding photojournalism. But her rage at Nazi atrocities consumed her. As she told the author on the one occasion they met, “I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils.”
Judging by her postwar life, that lingering stench was potent. She moved with Penrose to the English countryside and soon gave up writing and photography. Pregnant at 39, she gave birth to a son, Antony. She channeled her energy into a new hobby, gourmet cooking, and the list of guests at the family’s farmhouse reads like a catalog of MoMA’s permanent collection. But when Miller wasn’t playing hostess—and even when she was—she spent her time drinking and fighting with her son. She and Penrose drifted apart; at parties, the same men who once scrambled for her attention avoided her sloshed reminiscences. In 1977, she died of cancer.
Burke treats this final phase with sensitivity. She plays up the positive: Miller still enjoyed her friendships and exercised her creativity through cooking (though Burke treads awfully close to glorifying Miller’s housewifery when she refers admiringly to her “Surrealist-inspired recipes”). But Burke forthrightly discusses the reality of her subject’s depression—the best rejoinder to Miller’s pose of having freely chosen her new lifestyle. This depression is also the only plausible explanation of why she abruptly abandoned her autonomy, her work, and her wanderlust.
Questions about Miller’s creative decline threaten to linger in the reader’s head long after closing the book. Burke acknowledges the challenge posed by her subject: Miller herself once wrote that she saw her life as a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces “don’t match in shape or design.” In Burke’s view, the biographer’s job consists of “the matching up of the scattered bits.”
For her part, Burke matches those bits well, weaving an engrossing narrative with her fluent prose. But occasionally she overreaches.In one example of a plausible but unsupported theory, she posits that Miller’s intense reaction to the war resulted from “the displaced anger at what had been done to her.” Diagnosing Miller with post-traumatic stress disorder, Burke suggests that her depression, while triggered by the war, originated in her rape. Making such a diagnosis would be tricky enough in one-on-one psychoanalysis, but the best Burke has to work with are secondhand accounts of the rape’s effect on Miller from her brothers; there is no testimony on record from Miller herself. (Her husband and son learned of it after her death.)
In addressing Miller’s photography, Burke gives in to similar analytical inclinations. Miller’s photos of the Blitz, Burke claims, express issues such as “the blockage, or liberation, of body and soul.” But it’s hard to see the evidence for this hypothesis; it seems based only on the assumption that an artist’s psychology must inform the art.
Maybe Miller had it right: Maybe the pieces don’t all match, and her biographer should resist trying to force them together. But Burke’s sporadic exegeses are largely the exception. Her portrait is otherwise so vivid, her research so exhaustive and aptly deployed, that Miller comes to life. And although our author sometimes errs on the side of excessive infatuation with her subject, again, her portrait gives readers sufficient information to judge for themselves.CP