Lee Miller

One hot morning in July of 1937, I woke up needing to hug a tree. So Hugh suggested we drive to Mougins for a brief vacation because that area of the Côte d’Azur was full of pines, olives, and cypress trees.  Ahh, j’adore!

We checked into the Hôtel Vaste Horizon and were sitting on the terrace having an aperitif when Picasso and Dora Maar showed up. Dora looked so sad and Picasso looked so full of himself. Picasso had many visitors including Lee Miller, Roland Penrose, Man Ray with his new girlfriend, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington as well as poet Paul Eluard and his wife Nusch. The group kept mainly to themselves but one evening I ran into Lee on the terrace. She’d obviously been drinking and was quite talkative. Lee was exquisite and it was easy to see why men swooned over her. Fascinated by her presence, I took advantage of her altered state to ask personal questions.

She was there with Roland Penrose, a surrealist painter who, like the other men present, for some reason treated Picasso as a god. And, as an offering to this god, they had their girlfriends take turns sleeping with Picasso despite the fact that he was there with Dora, his official girlfriend.

Hugh and I were jumping the waves when the Picasso group arrived. Jealous of the diaper bathing suits all the women were wearing, I decided to make myself one, too.

My talk with Lee the night before made me wonder if beauty isn’t really a beast. Everyone wanted Lee but for all the wrong reasons. She was still a teen when she moved to New York City (maybe to get away from her peculiar father). One day as she was crossing the street, a car almost hit her. Luckily a man pulled her away in time.  That man was Condé Nast and, like most men, he was overwhelmed by Lee’s beauty. He convinced her to model for VOGUE initiating her successful modelling career. But the thrill of being on magazine covers quickly dissipated. Lee wanted more. She wanted to be on the other side of the lens.

So, at the age of 22, Lee arrived in Paris determined to study photography with Man Ray. She stalked the Bateau Ivre bar on Blvd Raspail not far from his studio in Montparnasse until he showed up. Then she boldly went up to him and said “My name is Lee Miller and I’m your new student”. May Ray told her he didn’t have students plus he was on his way to Biarritz to which Lee responded “So am I”.

For a month the two went riding around the south of France in Ray’s Voisin cabriolet wearing matching berets. Back in Paris, Lee rented a room on rue Campagne-Première near Ray’s studio and started studying photography with him. For 3 years the relationship was very stimulating and they enjoyed experimenting together (as with solarisation). But Ray became too possessive.  He continued the role of guru and went into a rage when Lee used some of his trashed negatives to experiment on her own. Feeling claustrophobic, Lee fled to NYC leaving behind a Ray who sunk into depression. Fixated with his ex-lover, for two years he worked on a painting of Lee’s lips floating over Paris.

Back in New York, Lee set up a photography studio hoping to earn a living as a commercial photographer. She was sponsored by a couple of boyfriends and all went well until she got The Itch again. Her sails were hungry for a wind to sweep her away again.

While vacationing with Charlie Chaplin in Saint Moritz, Lee met Aziz Eloui Bey, an Egyptian railroad magnate in his forties. For some reason Lee married Aziz and went to live with him in Cairo. But Cairo was dull and Lee was easily bored. Initially photography helped to distract her but in 1937, she couldn’t take it anymore and boarded a steamer headed for Marseilles. Back in Paris, Lee started making the rounds. And it was at a Max Ernst dinner party that she met Penrose.

I had quite enjoyed Lee’s psychological strip tease that night on the terrace but, once our vacation was over, life took my thoughts in another direction. Then, years later, Hugh & I went to visit our friends, Rita & Demetri, who were now living in south Essex. They were quite excited about their new rural lifestyle and insisted on driving us around the countryside. One lovely home particularly stood out. Connie said it was Farley Farm, the home of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose.

So Lee was living in England now! My mind immediately flashed back to our evening together. Exploding with curiosity, I had Rita tell me everything she knew about her.

On September 1, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and a new wind set Lee’s sails in another direction. She convinced VOGUE magazine to let her be their WWII photojournalist.  The only female photographer with the permission to travel in a war zone, Lee was audacious and dared to go everywhere to take photos.

Straight out of a Hemingway novel, Lee was tough, hard drinking and hard talking. And looked like an angel. She used a Rolleiflex without a telephoto lens. This meant getting close to the action often risking her life. But nothing she’d seen during the war could compare to the Nazi atrocities of Buchenwald and Dachau. The emaciated bodies piled up like rubbish was too much for her and would leave her psyche permanently scarred.

Finally the Allies took control. While in Munich, Lee broke into Hitler’s apartment and took a bath in his tub just hours before he committed suicide.

The war was over but not its consequences. Having photographed so many horrors radically changed something inside of Lee. And all those dead bodies she’d photographed kept coming back to haunt her. Maybe she thought that a “normal” life would make those monsters go away. So in 1946 she married Penrose. The couple bought Farley Farm and had a child. But the monsters remained. Sometimes, to obliterate their presence, she started drinking. And menopause didn’t help either. Despite a facelift, the mirror was no longer her friend.

The war had obviously left Lee suffering from PTSD. She sought refuge in food by becoming a gourmet cook. Lee collected cookbooks and studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. And, when not entering cooking competitions, she enjoyed inviting friends to the farm to enjoy her meals. Guests included Picasso, Mirò, Renato Guttuso, Henry Moore, Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst.

In 1977, at the age of 70, Lee died of cancer. She was cremated and her ashes dispersed in her herb garden.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)


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