A guest post by London Historians member Martin Thompson.
Elizabeth (Lee) Miller was one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century; Vogue fashion model, fashion photographer of note with her own studio, artist’s muse, an accredited war correspondent during the Second World War covering events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, friend of luminaries such as Man Ray and Pablo Picasso and in later life becoming a gourmet cook. She was admired as much for her free-spirit, creativity and intelligence as for her classical beauty. Known as ‘Lee’ Miller she married the artist Sir Roland Penrose in 1947 and thereafter was also known as Lady Penrose.
The Imperial war Museum is currently hosting a retrospective of her work as a War Correspondent exploring the impact of the Second World War on women’s lives through photography until 24 April, 2016 and is well worth a visit.
Lee Miller was born on 23 April, 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. The name derives from a word in the local tribal Wappinger language, meaning “the reed-covered lodge by the little-water place,” referring to a spring or stream feeding into the Hudson River south of the present downtown. She was the second child of Theodore, an Engineer, Businessman and Inventor and his wife Florence a Nurse. Always a tomboy she grew up on a farm and was always trying to outdo her brothers, Tom and Erik. Her father who was also an amateur photographer was a strong influence on the young Lee and introduced all three of his children to photography at an early age often using Lee her and her young friends as models.
At the age of seven she was raped by the son of a family friend. This was kept quiet, as such things were in those days – so quiet, in fact, that no one knew about the event except her immediate family. It was only after her death that her son Anthony, spoke to his Uncle Erik and this became known. It is possible that it affected her personality as she was always restless and somewhat rebellious finding it difficult to find love and settle down with anyone.
At the age of 19 she was nearly killed when she walked in front of a truck on a Manhattan street but was saved by a passerby who managed to grab her arm and pull her away just in time. Her rescuer was Condé Nast, the founder of Vogue magazine. He effectively launched her modelling career on the cover of American Vogue, and she was photographed by the greatest talents of the day becoming one of the most sought after models in New York.
Having become interested in the work behind the camera as well as in front as a model, she moved to Paris in 1929, becoming apprenticed to the surrealist painter and photographer Man Ray as well as becoming his lover and muse. It was here that she started her career as a photographer. She was an active participant in the surrealist movement and became friends with Pablo Picasso who immortalised her in a number of his famous works, and the artist and film maker Jean Cocteau. In 1932 she returned to New York and opened a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her darkroom assistant. This was not to last. In 1934 almost on a whim, she married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey who had gone to New York to buy equipment for the Egyptian Railways; they moved to Cairo. By 1937 she had become bored with her life in Egypt and once more moved back to Paris where she divorced Aziz and met the surrealist painter Roland Penrose (later Sir Roland) who was to become her second husband in 1947 and father of her only son Anthony.
At the outbreak of World War II, Lee was living at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead with Roland Penrose when the bombing of London began. Ignoring pleas from friends and family to return to the United States, she embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official war photographer for Vogue, documenting the Blitz. Roland was called upon to work as a lecturer on camouflage and used a picture of the naked Lee covered with camouflage netting. He said that his lectures were very well attended after that with some participants coming back two or three times. He was also required to do duty as an air raid warden and Lee would sometimes join him on his rounds. From Hampstead Heath the criss-crossing searchlights, bursting flak and glow of the fires at London docks would present an awesome panorama, one that she found exciting. She also recounted that one night a barrage balloon collapsed on the house. She and the operators spent the whole night getting the thing under control, rolled up, down into the garden, through the house and through the front door. Their house, in Downshire Hill, played host to a variety of colourful characters, including the ‘Cambridge spies’ Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, although they were not known as such at the time.
Lee was accredited into the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Conde Nast Publications from December 1942. She travelled to France less than a month after D-Day and teaming up with Life photojournalist David E. Scherman, recorded the battle of Saint-Malo, field hospitals in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Her photographs, some of the first photographic evidence of the Holocaust, were a horrifying glimpse of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the camps. From Dachau she and Scherman went directly to Hitler’s private apartment in Munich. She had Scherman photograph her washing herself in Hitler’s bathtub, her boots still with the mud of Dachau on them on the bathmat. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Lee travelled throughout Eastern Europe to see and photograph the devastating aftermath of the war. She photographed dying children in a Vienna Hospital, peasant life in post-war Hungary, and the execution of the fascist ex-Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy of Hungary. After the war, she continued to work for Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities.
In 1949 Roland and Lee bought Farley Farm House in East Sussex which became a sort of artistic Mecca for visiting artists such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Jean Dubuffet, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst. Having witnessed so much pain and pointless destruction during the war, she fell into a long period of depression and alcohol abuse but reinvented herself as a gourmet cook in the 1960s having completed the cordon blue course in Paris and was featured in several magazines. She hosted Surrealist dinner parties and made wildly experimental dishes, serving her guests’ foods such as green chicken or blue fish, the latter said to have been inspired by the Spanish Surrealist painter and sculptor Miró.
Lee Miller died from cancer at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex, in 1977, aged 70. She was cremated and her ashes were spread through her herb garden. Farley Farm has now, through the work of Anthony Penrose, become a museum featuring the work, life and times of Lee Miller.
A film of her life is currently in production starring Kate Winslet as Lee Miller and is expected to be released in 2017.
The house at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead was awarded an English Heritage blue plaque in 2003. Unveiled by the playwright Sir David Hare, it reads simply: Lee Miller (1907-1977), Photographer, and Sir Roland Penrose (1900-1984), Surrealist, lived here. For historians of 20th-century photography, the plaque marks the rightful rehabilitation of a remarkable artist and character that had been all but forgotten since her death.