Lee Miller was brought up in Poughkeepsie, New York. The daughter of a highly successful engineer with a penchant for photography, she served as a model at a young age, posing for many of her father’s photographs. His shots of his young daughter in the nude, however, raise disturbing questionsones that author Carolyn Burke explores but cannot answer. Miller remained close to her father, who continued to photograph her in the nude even after she was raped, at the age of seven, while staying with family friends in Brooklyn, New York. Years later, Theodore continued to photograph his daughter in the nude when she became Man Ray’s lover and model.
Miller’s mother, Florence, remains something of a mystery in this biography. Apparently she condoned her husband’s exploitation of their daughter as part of his “art,” but what else she may have thought of this quasi-incestuous relationship eludes the biographer’s research. Florence, trained as a nurse, gave her daughter painful treatments for the gonorrhea Lee suffered as a consequence of the rape. The whole family, including Lee’s brother Erik, could hear Lee’s screams coming from the white-tiled bathroom where Florence administered the excruciating douches required then to eradicate the disease.
Miller broke away from her family to study stage design in Paris for nine months. There she began a surprisingly active and apparently untroubled sex life. Although she returned to Poughkeepsie to study at Vassar College, her eventual move to New York City and to some kind of career in the arts was inevitable. Her first success came as a model for Vogue magazine. She was photographed in haute couture, but she showed her versatility in poses that were both sophisticated and virginal. It was, however, as a photojournalist and war correspondent that she would make her mark. By 1934, Vanity Fair magazine deemed her one of the seven most distinguished living photographers in the world.
Miller’s life in some ways resembles those of other famous women of her period. Like the writer Martha Gellhorn, who left St. Louis for Paris, Miller checked into a maison de passe, a hotel for prostitutes. Gellhorn also modeled clothes in Paris and developed a taste for European life. Gellhorn sought out older male writers (including H. G. Wells and Ernest Hemingway) who mentored her writing, just as Miller sought out Man Ray, who not only put her in front of his camera but also taught her how to use the camera to photograph herself and others. Both women went beyond their mentors in seeking out history-making events that led to their fame as war correspondents.
Miller seems even more heroic than Gellhorn. Not only did Miller overcome a feeling that her life was irrevocably blighted by her childhood rape, she also achieved distinction as a pioneering photojournalist, taking some of the most arresting photographs of the Blitz (turning it into a “theater of war,” Burke suggests), the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps (especially Dachau, where her contemporary Gellhorn alighted and set what is perhaps her most important novel, Point of No Return, 1989).
Unlike Rebecca West, who did so much to open the world’s eyes to fascism and communism, or Lillian Hellman, who rivaled Miller in the culinary arts and shared a knack for self-dramatization, or Gellhorn who grew bored when she could no longer live for adventure, Miller found a way to come to terms with her own theatricalitythat is, her desire to put...
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