LEE MILLER: A Life
By Carolyn Burke
Knopf. 426 pp. $35
If, like Auntie Mame, you believe that "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death," you'll surely want to read Carolyn Burke's delightful biography of Lee Miller. Here was a woman who needed no exhortation from anyone to "Live! Live!" Her life was filled with adventures -- in New York, Paris, Cairo, London and the battlefronts of World War II. She caroused with Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, peeled off her clothes to pose for avant-garde masters, then switched roles to become a photographer for Vogue. Charlie Chaplin posed for her; so did Colette, Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier. After she settled down with the British painter and curator Sir Roland Penrose, she took up cooking with gusto, befriending such culinary legends as James Beard and planting a country garden of earthly delights.
But as in Candide, the best of all possible worlds can contain troubles. Burke's meticulously researched biography begins with Miller's birth in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1907. Her father, Theodore, was a successful engineer and avid photographer; her Canadian mother, Florence, a former nurse, doted on golden-curled little Elizabeth. Variously called "Li Li, then Te Te, Bettie, and in her twentieth year, Lee," she grew up on a 165-acre farm in idyllic surroundings. If her story were told in a series of snapshots, you would see her climbing trees, sledding down hills, riding the toy locomotive that her brother and father built. What would surely be omitted from such an album is an incident that took place when she was 7: While her mother was sick, Lee was sent to Brooklyn to stay with friends, during which time she was raped by a young sailor who unexpectedly returned home. The trauma was compounded when she contracted gonorrhea.
"Judging by Lee Miller's adult life, she never quite awoke from this nightmare," Burke writes. "Decades later, [she] put her outraged emotions into her compositions -- where enigmatic doorways hint at damage to the house of her self."
But readers may sort out the many fascinating details of her life and come to a different conclusion -- that she managed her fears quite successfully. Miller was blessed with supportive parents: Her mother's training as a nurse helped immensely in dealing with hospital and home care, and hiring a psychiatrist probably speeded her recovery. And later, she had plenty of devoted friends and lovers to support her.
By the time she turned 18, Miller knew what she wanted -- "La vie de boheme." She sailed off to France in 1925, enrolled at a school that taught stage design and promptly fell in love with the city: "One look at Paris, and I said, 'This is mine -- this is my home.' " The book hints at an affair with Ladislas Medgyes, her Hungarian stage artist instructor, but when Mom arrived after seven fun-filled months, Lee had to kiss Paris goodbye.
Back in Poughkeepsie, she joined Vassar's Experimental Theatre and became adept at stage lighting. She saw many plays during this period of her life, from "Emperor Jones" to "Hedda Gabler," and persuaded her father to let her take dance lessons in New York. The gorgeous girl soon found work on the chorus line of George White's "Scandals" (a rival of the Ziegfeld's Follies), along with Louise Brooks. Then one day (this is straight out of Hollywood fantasy, but Miller claimed it really happened), she was about to cross a street, almost got hit by a car and fell into the arms of Conde Nast -- yes, the man with the vast publishing fortune. After seeing her Parisian attire and good looks and hearing her "babbling in French," Nast practically hired her on the spot.
At Vogue, she posed for the creme de la creme of renowned photographers -- Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst. Soon she was milling about at swank parties with the likes of Frank Crowninshield (the editor of Vanity Fair), Dorothy Parker and Charlie Chaplin -- and having "more affairs than Lorelei Lee," Anita Loos's heroine in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But she was also planning her next move.
As she continued to model for photographers, she thought of trading places. Her father was an accomplished photographer; why not become one herself? She returned to Paris in 1929, determined to become Man Ray's assistant. With an introduction from Steichen and a portfolio of her modeling, it must have been easy to convince the avant-garde master to take her on. At the time, his mistress -- and the subject of many of his photos -- was the legendary model Kiki de Montparnasse. But out she went from his studio, to be replaced by the blonde American goddess. One of Ray's finest works, "Observatory Time -- The Lovers," shows Miller's luscious lips looming large above a landscape, floating among dappled clouds like a combination of erotic fantasy and nightmare. After three years with Ray, Miller left to establish her own photographic studio, but they remained lifelong friends.
Miller's life had many phases, all of them interesting, and Burke captures them in 17 chapters. After "Montparnasse with Man Ray," "La Femme Surrealiste" and "The Lee Miller Studio in Manhattan" come three chapters devoted to her time as Madame Eloui Bey: She met and married Aziz Eloui Bey, a Francophile Egyptian, and lived in Cairo until the monuments bored her stiff.
But it was World War II, with all its drama, that truly brought out Miller's talent. In London during the Blitz, she worked with Edward R. Murrow's friend Ernestine Carter to produce a book, Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, which she dedicated to Winston Churchill. Through Conde Nast, she obtained a press pass to cover the Allied liberation of France; then she hitched a ride to witness the fall of Nazi Germany, along with Life photographer David E. Scherman (another amorous conquest), and raced east to Hungary and Romania. In a lighter moment, Scherman took a shot of Miller washing herself in Hitler's bath in his abandoned Munich apartment. She photographed the victims and survivors of Buchenwald and Dachau. Readers of Vogue saw her horrific pictures in the June 1945 issue of their fashion magazine.
The war left her appalled, and she was a wreck by the time she returned to England. She'd stopped taking care of herself and drunk heavily with her comrades in arms. She lost her once svelte figure.
Carolyn Burke met Miller in 1977, the year she died. Miller immediately confided to Burke that she was dying of cancer. Something must have clicked between them, and the chance meeting eventually resulted in this fine biography. (Burke's 1996 book, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, was about another free spirit, who painted and wrote poetry in Paris.)
Burke acknowledges her debt to Miller's only son, Antony Penrose, who, sadly, was estranged from his mother until the final stage of her life. After her death, Penrose discovered a cache of her photographs and negatives. The two books that he produced, The Lives of Lee Miller (1985) and Lee Miller's War (2005), are indispensable to a full appreciation of her talents.
After reading this book, I watched Rosalind Russell play "Auntie Mame" in the 1958 film version on DVD, and it struck me that Miller's life -- far more eventful than Mame's -- has tremendous theatrical potential. Put up an enormous painting of her sensuous lips as a backdrop, fire up the city lights of Paris, roll out the battle scenes from St. Malo to Nuremberg and give her a champagne bath in Hitler's apartment. And if this book ever gets produced on Broadway, don't forget to fill the stage with the aroma of her cooking. After all, her life was indeed a banquet. *
Kunio Francis Tanabe is the art director and a senior editor of Book World.
(photograph by Lee Miller, cropped from a larger photo)Pablo Picasso with Lee Miller during the liberation of ParisWar correspondent Lee Miller in 1944