The Lies of LEE MILLER: Hiding in Plain Sight

MAN RAY: Lee Miller, Paris, 1930[1]

This picture is nearly a hundred years old, and it’s still “a knockout”, even if the word from that era has gone out of fashion along with nude pictures of women. But this is one of the few photographs of Lee Miller where she didn’t seem to be caged by the lens. She could almost be an angel or a goddess in alabaster or Garbo. She had many lovers who were made insecure by the feeling that she was trying to escape. Not here. She is poised, relaxed, in no hurry.

Man Ray took this picture after the scifi name he gave himself covered up the real man, Emmanuel Radnitsky. You can almost hear him saying, “This woman drives me crazy, knocks me out!” But in those days, in the middle of the twentieth century, nobody wondered what the knockout was doing to the woman. Why ask? Wasn’t it her fault for being so beautiful? Now, if we want to go on looking, what should we ask?

Born Elizabeth Miller, 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, and died Lee Miller 1977, Farley Farm, Sussex, England she was the kind of person and image who inspired awe and desire. In her seventy years, she hardly lived a dull moment. In 1927, she left Poughkeepsie, and the dazzler became a top model in New York, a favorite of Edward Steichen’s at Vogue.

Then she went to Paris where she learned to become a Surreal photographer of renown in the company and the gaze of Man Ray. Then she left Ray and broke up the marriage of an Egyptian engineer, Aziz Eloui Bey, whose wife also modeled for Surrealist artists in Paris. Did that woman kill herself? There are conflicting accounts. But Lee and Aziz married and moved to Cairo.

LEE MILLER: “Portrait of Space” Near Siwa, Egypt, 1937[2]

Three years later, 1937, she met a rich English painter and art collector, Roland Penrose, at a Surrealist dress up party and left Bey to move to London with her new lover.

They arrived the day Great Britain declared war on Germany, September 3, 1939. She became a fashion photographer and then late in the war a correspondent and photojournalist for Vogue. As one in a handful of writers and photographers, she helped drag that publication from covering fashion to being part of the British war effort. There was a huge readership of women’s magazines who needed to know what was going on at the front.

The day Hitler killed himself in Berlin, Lee was in another of his apartments in Munich persuading another lover to take a picture of her in the monster’s tub. She had many decisive and rebellious moments, perhaps that’s at the heart of photography. But who was the spoiled child of a rich industrialist fighting against? Or was she running away? Where did all that boundary crossing bravery come from?

And then in 1947 she married Roland Penrose, and had a son, Antony, from whom she hid all of her history. In 1949, Lee and Roland took Antony and moved to Sussex, to Farley Farm where she kept her own untidy archive of 60,000 negatives, her war correspondence and her early diaries delivered to the attic. Roland created the Institute for Contemporary Art in London and would be knighted for his work bringing Surrealism to Britain. But Lee would deny she’d been part of that effort. And when old friends like Picasso or Man Ray visited the farm and asked about her pictures, she’d say she couldn’t find them. In interviews she talked about everyone but herself.

Antony felt Lee had “no maternal instincts. None.” Friends wondered if she hadn’t had the child to hold onto Roland. He fell in love often and he told his mistresses that after Lee had the baby, she wouldn’t sleep with him. Growing up, Antony despaired of his mother. “She was a useless drunk. This hysterical person who couldn’t do a blooming thing … most of the time she was demanding and feckless and throwing dramas at every possible thing.”[3] And she seemed to hate him, too, telling him he was “boring.”

He only discovered his mother’s genius after she died in 1977. All chaotically packed up in boxes and in closets and under her bed. What a shock that would’ve been with the regret that she hadn’t let him appreciate her. In a few years, around the time he was born, Lee had gone from knock-out to has-been — isn’t that a damaging blow? Roland said he left her out at her request. But there is plenty of evidence that he was jealous of her talent.

During the War he’d lectured soldiers on various uses of camouflage. For a series of slides on green paint, he’d asked Lee to model naked which Roland said made his lectures popular. In the photos he literally paints her the color of the grass — to make her disappear.

Dave Scherman: Experiment by Roland on Lee in camouflage paint at tea with Peter and Gertrude Gorer, Highgate, 1941[4]

This picture is a poor imitation of a great one she had taken five years earlier when Lee and Roland spent their first summer together in Mougins. (see below*). We don’t like to imagine big bad Lee Miller burying her talent for the sake of the marriage — we want to be inspired by her triumphs — but it looks like that was at least part of what went on her last thirty years.

However, we would not have heard of the photographer if Antony Penrose had not created the Lee Miller Archive and devoted his adult life to placing his mother’s work in the artistic pantheon.

There have been two biographies, “The Lives of Lee Miller,” by Antony Penrose (1985) and “Lee Miller: A Life” by Carolyn Burke (2005) and I have three other books that collect her art as well: Lee Miller Photographer by Jane Livingston ( 1989); Lee Miller’s War: Photographer and Correspondent with the Allies in Europe 1944–45” with a foreword by David E. Scherman and edited by Antony Penrose (1992); and “The Art of Lee Miller” by Mark Haworth-Booth (2007).

There are many discrepancies in these publications. And too many “facts” taken for granted. She said so little about her past — even her diaries were missing critical events like a rape at seven. That horror was remembered by her older brother John about sixty years after the fact. John would have been nine when it happened, and he was in his seventies when he finally spoke about it.

He was vague on who committed the assault: a friend of a friend called “Uncle Bob” or his friend a sailor home on leave. But does a nine-year-old in 1914 know enough about rape to remember it — or does he recall a moment when he and his kid sister played doctor together?

Then there’s the gonorrhea John said Elizabeth (Lee’s given name) contracted from the rape. That continued the trauma for her and the family. Her mother, Florence, a nurse, had to administer the invasive and painful douches with a hose up Elizabeth’s vagina. Or they were administered at a hospital which he also said she visited several times a week. What John remembers was his sister screaming behind closed doors. A knockout means so many things.

John said their mother cleaned the bathroom like it was life or death. He observed Florence developing a germ fetish and he said later that his mother was becoming jealous of Elizabeth. But maybe he was speaking for his own mixed feelings. Something else happened at this time that may have traumatized John and he may even have blamed it on Elizabeth. Florence stopped dressing her eldest son in girl’s clothing.

Whatever did or didn’t happen sexually, one impression Elizabeth must’ve taken away from this period was that two of the people who loved her most felt a rivalry with her. And that may explain her attraction to Roland Penrose, a competitive lover. You can run as far away as you want but you’ll always be the image in your mirror, knocked out by the way others see you. Was Elizabeth Miller a wild child, or an abused daughter in Poughkeepsie?

There was another crushing event that year which does not rely on John’s memory. Their father, Theodore Miller, was obsessed with his daughter. He was a man of many unpleasant surprises and this one could have elicited awful confusion in Florence.

Theodore Miller, was an amateur photographer who in pursuit of “art” had photographed Florence naked during their years of courtship. But when their daughter was born, he turned his camera on her. He filled albums with pictures of her and captions in purple ink. He kept diaries, mostly about her, leaving out his wife and sons. Antony wrote that “the core of [Elizabeth’s] character had been assembled, stamped and sealed for life at an early age under the supervision of a remarkable mechanical engineer: her father, Theodore Miller.”[5]

Lee Miller, at the end of her life wrote in her diary: “I looked like an angel on the outside. That’s how people saw me. But I was like a demon inside.” This is often quoted to explain her but the last line, which is seldom added, helps a lot: “I had known all the suffering of the world since I was a very little girl.”[6]

One day in December 1914, when Elizabeth was seven, Theodore said he was going to take a new kind of picture of her. It would be an “art” photograph, and John said he enlisted Florence as “Supervisor.” They went outside in the snow. Poughkeepsie in December. Florence held Elizabeth’s coat while the child did as she was told and dropped her nightgown.

Theodore Miller: Elizabeth Miller, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1914.[7]

Notice that her feet are dark to the calves and her hands to mid forearms. They must’ve been frozen. How long was she out there waiting for that shutter to click? Her nightgown, under her slippers, has snow over it. Had she been there waiting long enough for it to snow?! In this one event — which was only the beginning — the family became dysfunctional. Elizabeth started having dark moods that her father placated with presents. She rebelled in school, was kicked out; he’d pay for her to go to another. And what could Florence do about any of it? Her daughter had contempt for her.

Throughout the rest of her childhood, as long as Elizabeth was willing to go on sacrificing her safety, her control, her innocence, she held her parents in thrall. When she was twenty her father paid for her to live in New York. But weekends he wanted her home so he could photograph her naked again.

Theodore Miller: “Nude study of Lee by her father” July 1, 1928, Kingwood Park, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1928.[8]

The caption here is revealing. It says “Lee” even though she was still Elizabeth when the picture was taken. Later in her father’s life — he lived to ninety-nine — she went back to Poughkeepsie and organized his pictures. On this one she wrote “me, Lee Miller.” Her father never exhibited the pictures, even if he said they were art. But he did not destroy them. He gave them to Lee — and she kept them all her life.

How could she explain to anyone, much less her son, that this picturing went on until she was thirty? There is a feeling of bondage in her pose, hands behind her back, head turned away, hair cropped like a boy’s but missing between her legs, her breasts small, unthreatening. When this was taken, Theodore was also begging his daughter’s friends to be photographed naked with her in lesbian poses. They went along with this, they said, because they didn’t want to feel like “prudes.”

EDWARD STEICHEN: Elizabeth Miller, third from left, Vogue Magazine, 1928[9]

Elizabeth had had her picture drawn on the cover of Vogue. She was an icon of the Roaring Twenties, a Flapper Girl. She was a favorite of the highest paid photographer at Conde Nast, Edward Steichen. He was also the first curator of photography at the new Museum of Modern Art. How could her friends in Poughkeepsie refuse her father if Elizabeth stayed silent?

Then, showing she wasn’t just a victim, she decided she wanted to be a photographer. Steichen said Man Ray, an American ex-pat in Paris, was changing photography into an art form, and gave Lee a letter of introduction. Theodore bought the ocean liner ticket to France and gave her money to set herself up there.

In Paris she delivered Edward Steichen’s letter to Man Ray and he and Miller quickly became inseparable, lovers and photographers. So that no one was quite sure which one of them actually made the famous pictures. When they invented the style, they called “Solarisation,” they were both in the darkroom and couldn’t remember exactly how the magic had happened.

LEE MILLER: Lilian Harvey Solarised portrait, Lee Miller Studio, New York, 1933[10]

It was in this three-year period that Elizabeth took the name Lee. That was also under the influence of the fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene who loved photographing her in androgynous clothes with boys who had haircuts like hers. Man Ray photographed her more than Theodore had ever dreamed he could, night and day, clothed and nude. Ray’s pictures took Lee from model to artist’s muse. But having experienced this process she wanted to be the photographer. “I would rather take a photograph than be one,” she told an interviewer after she left Ray.

Here is one of her early attempts at making Surrealist art in Paris in 1929. She was working as a photographer at a hospital to subsidize her income. She was in the room for a radical mastectomy operation, and she asked if she could take the severed breast home. A knockout. She put it on a plate and took an exposure, turned the plate and took another, and printed them side by side. It’s as if they are on one woman’s body. But she left a gap between the frames as in the stereoscopic images her father made of her.

LEE MILLER: Untitled [Severed breast from radical mastectomy], Paris, 1929[11]

Man and George thought this picture was appalling. What did they know about the violence in being photographed naked by your father? This was the first time Lee made the connection between breasts and death, one she would make again and again in her work. And after she stopped being a photographer and started cooking instead, she made Surrealist dishes like “Cauliflower Breasts” she’d dye green and put two on a plate side by side for guests to cut up and eat.

Lee began pulling away from Ray. In these years he wanted to establish himself as a painter so he was happy to have Lee take the portraits that he was commissioned to do. Until a wealthy art patron asked for her and then Man turned furious. She got her own apartment. He spent every night there with Lee. Who paid for it?

Theodore came for a visit. He photographed Lee naked in the same bed she shared with Man. A friend from Poughkeepsie had come to Paris to model and she posed with Lee in the bed. Man hired some models to spice it up further. When Theodore was finished, Man took some photos of all the women naked in more lesbian scenarios.

Will it surprise you to know that Man was into bondage sexually? He made metal collars and dresses for one client who liked to restrain his wife during sex. Man photographed Lee in these costumes.

MAN RAY: “la femme surrealiste” Lee Miller, Paris, 1930[12]

Theodore had penetrated with his lens every close relationship Lee had had since she was seven. It made her passive or even a masochist. Who else goes home at the end of her life when she might be celebrated at last and closes-up? Roland, also liked to tie Lee up during sex and handcuff her. In so many pictures, the knockout is a prisoner.

MAN RAY: Lee and Theodore Miller, Paris, 1930[13]

While still in Paris, Lee started an affair with a nice older Egyptian, Aziz Eloui Bey, whose wife modeled for Surrealist artists, too. He was wealthy and paternal. He was an engineer like her dad. But didn’t take pictures. He promised to leave his wife. He wanted to marry Lee. She moved to New York and for two years tried to be a commercial photographer on her own. And though she had a roster of top portrait clients for Vogue, the business defeated her. Rather than move back to Poughkeepsie, when Aziz was free Lee married him and moved to Egypt.

Her father didn’t visit her in Egypt. And Bey gave her annuities to live on. She lasted until 1937 playing cards and gossiping in clubs. She didn’t take any pictures until after she went to a Surrealists’ costume ball where she met Roland. They went to Mougins for the summer together.

*LEE MILLER: “Picnic” Lee Miller, Paul and Nusch Eluard, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin. Ille Sainte-Marguerite, Cannes, France, 1937[14]

Picasso had finished “Guernica” in Paris in June and he went to Mougins to rest with his new girlfriend Dora Maar. Artist friends joined them: Paul and Nusch Eluard; Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington; Man Ray and his new girl Ady Fidelin; Lee and her new lover Roland. Roland was a Quaker and Lee introduced him to orgies. There is an exhibition in England now of the six paintings Picasso made of Lee that fall and 150 of the 1,000 photographs she would take of him over the next forty year friendship.

Lee Miller and Picasso Exhibition at Newlands House Gallery, Petworth, West Sussex, England September 10, 2022 — January 8, 2023

LEE MILLER: Picasso, Hotel Vaste Horizon, Mougins, France, 1937[15]

After Eluard offered his wife to Picasso, Roland did the same with Lee. This has been written about often, but Antony still isn’t sure they had sex. Or he thinks speculating will make us curious to see the pictures. He’s become a canny curator.

PICASSO: “Lee Miller and Pablo Picasso,” Mougins, 1937[16]

I don’t think there is any doubt about what happened between Lee and Picasso. He painted many pictures in which the details of sex were in close-up: a penis going into a vagina, a tongue on a penis, fingers on a clitoris. But here, he has pulled back to tell a story about the couple. As in Theodore and Man Ray’s pictures her arms are tied behind her, she’s looking away and her face is covered in a kind of shroud. Depression, perhaps. Though her vagina is offered up, his tongue, long as a snake, can’t reach it. And is that a dead bird facing him on the end of it? Pleasure that couldn’t take flight?

So far we’ve had a woman in one hell of a struggle, but she’s about to meet the best guy she ever knew. I’m sorry it wasn’t Roland Penrose though he and Lee did move to London where they lived together in an apartment to which she invited every intellectual, artist and, as it turns out, spy, she met. She became a fashion photographer again at British Vogue: called Brogue. Her rival was the portraitist of royalty and show people, Cecil Beaton. But he was a studio photographer and during the war Lee took the models onto bomb sites in the city.

Then an American photographer for Life magazine, Dave Scherman, was sent to London. He was invited to stay in the apartment with Roland and Lee. Theirs was an open relationship. Lee and Dave started an affair. He was nine years her junior. And maybe that’s why she let herself fall for a good guy. Scherman realized Lee needed to cover the war and at his suggestion she got American Vogue to send her to France for them, for Brogue and French Vogue, Frogue.

It’s 1944, she’s still only 37! And she took this portable Rollieflex, that she’d bought to use in the desert in Egypt, and she became a bona fide professional journalist, words and pictures both from the front and then the liberation of Europe. Dave would shut her up in a room and ply her with cognac to get those pieces written but outside in battle or at the recently liberated concentration camps she was all nerve.

In his foreword to “Lee Miller’s War: Photographer and Correspondent with the Allies in Europe 1944–45,” David E. Scherman wrote, “Of all her many prodigious lives, perhaps the most important, exciting — and above all self-fulfilling — one emerges in this remarkable book.” It is a great book. I hope you can get your hands on it.

There was doubt about the reality of the evil that had transpired particularly in the death camps as they were opening up in April 1945. Eisenhower implored photographers to get pictures for the American public to see. He needed Americans to know the truth. America and President Truman were planning the bomb on Hiroshima for August.

Lee was incensed that Germans said they didn’t know what had been happening. Even the people living close to Dachau. She saw a train with nearly 5,000 dead people on it — beaten, starved, shot up bodies — made her outraged. She climbed inside the car so she could get the soldiers looking at the piles of mangled bodies as a way of saying the neighbors had to have known. Next to the barracks, she took pictures of the mounds of naked lifeless bodies emaciated from hunger, waiting to be burned, so you have to look into their open eyes. The last knockout. It hurts to see the close-ups of SS men beaten blunt and bloody by freed prisoners, but you know you’ve got to face them.

Her lens was so close on a family of suicides, decomposing Nazi sympathizers in Leipzig, I think I can see cobwebs forming in their nostrils. Margaret Bourke-White also had the guts to photograph them, but she did it overhead in full shot.[17] If you can freeze in the snow when you’re seven because you’re told to, for some reason you don’t understand, you still wonder for the rest of your life why you didn’t say, “No.” For once in her life, during the war, Lee Miller was on solid moral ground.

Still, that doesn’t mean she had to be brave or take great pictures or write moving prose! But she was and she did all of that. And it made her feel good.

This brings me back to the picture Dave Scherman took of Lee in Hitler’s tub. She arranged the objects. I see it almost like a stage set expressing her inner drama. I’m not sure she ever saw herself more clearly: naked but unseen. Lee placed her soldier’s boots, muddy from her trip to Dachau earlier that day, so they would soil the white bathroom rug. And that photograph of Hitler looking at the statue of the naked girl, well, she could be Lee and he could be Theodore. Notice the similarity of the stance of the statue and the picture Man Ray took of Lee in 1930 at the beginning of this piece. How scathingly Lee stares at the clay figure. I was you.

DAVE SCHERMAN: Lee Miller, Hitler’s apartment, Munich, 1945[18]

If at long last during the war Lee found herself, then what? Dave was crazy about her. He thought she was a knockout. But she was difficult. She drank a lot. She slept around. She wanted to keep being a correspondent but even her editor at Vogue couldn’t get Lee to file stories regularly. She thought maybe she needed to go back to Roland. Dave quit waiting and fell in love with a researcher at Life and they went home to America.

Lee was forty. She had thirty more long years to feel bad. Antony thinks the war tore her apart and the rape. It must’ve been a lot of things: so many failed relationships. Being closer to her dad than anyone. At the end of her life, in bed with cancer, she wrote, “I keep saying to everyone, ‘I didn’t waste a minute all my life’ — but I know myself, now, that if I had it over again, I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection.” [19]


Author’s Note: This is an important story for me personally. When I read Antony Penrose’s revelatory biography “The Lives of Lee Miller” that came out in 1985, I was involved in a court case with my family that led to me facing my own experience having been sexually interfered with by my father. That reckoning freed me to have a child. And a few years later Lee Miller’s story inspired me to become a photographer.

On a very different note, the fashion historian Ami Bouhassane is Antony Penrose’s daughter and she is a trustee of the Lee Miller Archive and a co-director of the Penrose Collection and Farley’s House and Gallery. She did a podcast series Lee Miller: Fashion in Wartime Britain that I highly recommend. It’s a deep dive into Lee Miller’s work during World War II as well as fashion and women’s magazines in the 1940s Britain. It was part of the publication of a book she wrote the introduction for: “Lee Miller: Fashion in Wartime Britain” by Robin Muir and Amber Butchard.

[1] “Lee Miller: Photographer” by Jane Livingston, California International Arts Foundation, 1989

[2] “Lee Miller: Photographer” by Jane Livingston, California International Arts Foundation, 1989

[3] Wikipedia

[4] “Scrapbook: 1900–1981” by Roland Penrose, Rizzoli International

[5] “The Lives of Lee Miller,” by Antony Penrose, Thames and Hudson, 1985, p.8

[6]Lee Miller Working,” by Cassie McGettigan, Women Working, March 26, 2013

[7] “Lee Miller: A Life” by Carolyn Burke, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p.19

[8] “The Lives of Lee Miller” by Antony Penrose, Thames and Hudson, 1985

[9] “13 Iconic Pictures from One of Art History’s Most Legendary Women” by Gabriel H. Sanchez, April 17, 2019, Buzz Feed News

[10] The Art Story

[11] “The Art of Lee Miller” by Mark Haworth-Booth, Victoria and Albert Museum Publications, 2007, p.89

[12] “Lee Miller: A Life” by Carolyn Burke, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p.96

[13] “Lee Miller: Photographer” by Jane Livingston, California International Arts Foundation, 1989

[14] “The surreal(ist) lives of Lee Miller” by marinayogina, posted April 30, 2019

[15] National Gallery of Scotland, Exhibition Highlights, Lee Miller and Picasso, May 23, 2015-September 6, 2015

[16] Lee Miller and Picasso, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, review: ‘refreshing’ by Alastair Smart, August 5, 2015, The Telegraph

[17] “Leipzig Suicides” by Maragret Bourke-White, April 13, 1945, Life Magazine

[18] “Lee Miller and David Scherman: The Photographers Who Took a Bath in Hitler’s Apartment,” October 30, 2020, Vintage News Daily

[19] The Guardian, “Lee Miller: war, peace and pythons” by Blake Morrison, April 22, 2013



Top Writer: Photography. I know you are looking. Have a look with me. I will say what I think is worth your time reading.

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Lucy Gray

Top Writer: Photography. I know you are looking. Have a look with me. I will say what I think is worth your time reading.