- Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke
Bloomsbury, 426 pp, £12.99, March 2006, ISBN 0 7475 8793 0
Lee Miller invented her first name as if to veil her femaleness when she was a society beauty and fashion model in the 1920s. It went along with a new shift in the style of sexual excitement, a new pleasure in androgyny: what Carolyn Burke discreetly calls ‘a redistribution of sexual energies’.
Later, her neutral first name helped to advance her short New York career as a professional portrait photographer, before women were wholly welcome in the field; and much later, long after she had distinguished herself as a French Surrealist icon and a British war correspondent, her name could sometimes be confused with Lee Friedlander’s, even though he was a very different artist with a long-term, stable fame. Lee Miller’s fame kept growing, but it was unstable, even too fragmented to outlive her. Right now her name is largely unrecognised, except by experts in either photography or Surrealism, or by those eager to retrieve the honour of all women whose creative work was allowed to lapse unexamined in a man’s world.
But when Elizabeth Miller, born in 1907 and comfortably reared in Poughkeepsie, first arrived in New York and attracted public notice, she did it by typifying the post-Great War flapper, a new creature who threatened old norms of female being and behaviour. Fashion for young girls began favouring a garçonne effect, with minimal breasts, cropped hair, and legs exposed by short tunics belted around slim hips, as if to suggest the ravishing boys of Greek antiquity. The avowed social aim was an equality with men that allowed comradeship with them, and a share in their style of personal freedom – political rights for women were something separate, a real fight inaugurated long before.
Eros remained central to the new modish effects, so that brilliant lipstick and nail varnish also came into their own as hems rose and breasts diminished, provocative shoes appeared and whalebone vanished; and Lee Miller seemed the perfect embodiment of this new feminine ideal. Everyone was aiming at it, but Miller at 18 apparently had a cool self-assurance and a strong-willed, unforced recklessness, along with a sense of humour, that blended with her great natural beauty to make her instantly magnetic. With no specific ambition, training or calling, her success was certain – but as what, exactly?
Then one day, stepping off the kerb into New York traffic, she was snatched back from being run over by Condé Nast himself, who took one look and invited her to his office. Fashion modelling and high society swiftly ensued. The only thing she had done before was to go to France right after leaving school, chaperoned by her French teacher; but she soon ditched Mademoiselle to remain alone in Paris. With her parents’ permission and financial support, she stayed on to learn the rudiments of stage design and lighting, along with lessons in love, and she wrote to friends and family that she immediately felt at home there.
No wonder. 1925 was the year of the city-wide International Art Deco exhibition, and Paris was the hub of modernity as well as the right place to lead a traditional vie de bohème. Elizabeth’s lasted seven months before her return to a short stint at Poughkeepsie’s Vassar College, where she mainly did student theatre and entertained beaux from Yale, before decamping for New York to find real opportunities – more fun, more beaux . . . Perhaps the performing arts? Or maybe painting? A not very interesting situation, common to many well-brought-up American girls then, even those who were less pretty.
Apart from exceptional beauty, three things made Elizabeth Miller different from most girls in similar circumstances. The first was her talent, which emerged only gradually – unless you count accidentally falling into the arms of the owner of Vogue as the sign of a certain gift. The second was her intense relationship with her father, who confirmed his deep love for her by frequently taking her photograph, often in the nude; and the third was that she had been raped at the age of seven while visiting family friends, by someone in whose charge she had been temporarily left.
The child contracted gonorrhoea as a result. This rape was no fantasy, as her swift removal home and lengthy medical treatment show. This was administered behind closed doors by her mother, a former nurse. The evidence comes from interviews with her younger brother, who remembered her screams but at the time knew nothing of the reason. That was 1914: no antibiotics, no penicillin; nothing but repeated, painful and prolonged application of harsh chemicals plus uterine probes to drain secretions, followed by strict prophylactic measures to prevent the infection of others, and not a word about any of it to anyone, ever – not even in the girl’s own brief, self-conscious private journal, during a recurrence when she was 19, the first of several.
She wrote then of herself as an angel on the outside but a fiend within, and later spoke of her fits of black depression – confirmed by others – that included a ‘swollen awkward feeling’ dating from childhood. She and her fertility had survived, but her psyche was clearly shaken, and her personality took its definitive shape. Her brother reports that following the episode and its aftermath, she was ‘wild’, meaning intractable. One gets the impression that her notable fearlessness arose from the sense that the worst had long since happened. She was unassailable, even if doomed or damned, and essentially double, able to put her body into the world as if it were separate from herself.
The little girl’s mother had been the relentless agent of a painful cure, instead of a source of comfort; but for that, she had her father. His photography of her nudity, which began soon after the forever unmentioned rape and continued into her adulthood, seems like his way of reassuring her, of renewing her faith in her female core and in his enduring support. His later nudes display her tempered, classical figure as a version of the Venus of Cyrene. Like photos of that statue, they capture the safe, distancing look of physical perfection, as if this father were comforting and preserving his daughter in these harmonious pictures, certainly not wishing to dominate or shame her. One could go on to suggest that her androgynous style was the more attractive for being based on a deep impulse of affinity with him, not just fashion awareness. Her populous sex life might be seen as an echo of his discreet, steady womanising, the recurrent assertion of personal liberty by kindred unquiet spirits.
Carolyn Burke, a very level-headed biographer, is at pains to say that despite this father’s nude photography of his daughter (which her mother approved of: it was Art), there was never any physical funny business between them. And that seems right, even though the two might share a hotel room when he went abroad on business and she visited him. Letters and interviews dwell on the way father and daughter understood and trusted each other to an unusual degree, not engaging in interpersonal dramatics but sharing an unspoken view of the world, always most at home together. He died just short of his 100th birthday, and she only seven years after him, at 70.
Theodore Miller, besides being a camera addict – his enthusiasms included stereoscopic photography – was devoted to science, technology, atheism and an old-fashioned, pragmatic American liberalism. He was a well-educated engineer, an important citizen who ran a separation plant which was Poughkeepsie’s largest employer. He kept a journal in which he recorded facts and events, mentioning no feelings of any kind and displaying few in life. Theodore’s devotion to his questing daughter seems like a channel for the love of personal freedom that he couldn’t enact himself, as if he saw her as his private emissary into the world, a being conjured with his camera to be his flexible, unconstrained female counterpart.
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