- 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.
Unlike a traditional father, he actively promoted her picaresque, away-from-home existence from the beginning, which even included a stint in the chorus of The George White Scandals before she started modelling, together with her later global wanderings, her war correspondent’s dangerous life, her many liaisons, foreign marriages, journalistic writings and multiform photographic accomplishments. Instead of copying her father’s well-planned, practical existence – and as if at his bidding – she proceeded through life with no calculation, seizing the day.
Theodore instructed Elizabeth in the camera and its workings while she was still a child, making her familiar with his stereoscopic collection of geographic and historical wonders. He taught her many other technical facts and processes, the kind of thing to which she always remained drawn, and gave her a chemistry set one Christmas. Other aspects of her education and cultivation were rather neglected, although she managed to scrape through high school and she read a great deal, including movie magazines. Burke points to the influence on her of Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos – and she does seem to have modelled herself, if not on Lorelei Lee, certainly on Jordan Baker (neutral first name included), whom Nick Carraway describes as wearing her evening dresses as if they were tennis outfits.
It’s no surprise that this insouciant flapper’s first move towards real work was to go back to Paris in 1929, when she was 22, this time to apprentice herself to the pioneering Surrealist photographer Man Ray. With her gift for live drama, she met him by chance in a café near the studio where she had just been told he had gone away for months, and instantaneously became his technical assistant, pupil and mistress. The potent, quick-working camera, the roving eye of the 20th century, was her obvious sphere; and she could be both its model and its practitioner for art’s sake – that is, for its own sake.
The teenage Elizabeth had developed on her own the film-inspired, Fitzgerald-like chic that eventually swept her into fashion modelling. Hers was the first generation of well-brought-up young girls to be guided by media imagery; but Miller was unusually suited to it, already accustomed by her father to feeling that her own great value was as a camera’s subject. One could even say that she was urged by him to make a spectacle of herself for it; and fashion and French Surrealism gave her ample scope for that. Lee Miller’s whole sense of visual art was bound up in the camera: she had a technical and psychological artistic sense that was not painterly at all, despite her close friendship with Picasso and many other painters.
The aesthetics of fashion didn’t interest her either, although in Paris she got work at French Vogue (she needed the money), posing for Man Ray’s pupil Hoyningen-Huene, along with the latter’s pupil, Horst P. Horst, in some of the most celebrated images in the history of fashion photography. She was able to use the cachet she had already acquired in New York by posing for the great Steichen, Man Ray’s teacher. In Paris, she was soon spending equal amounts of time with Montparnasse artists, as Man Ray’s model, and with Vogue-related café society as a fashion model, her tall blondeness and effortless self-presentation welcome (and gossip-worthy) everywhere. Miller began to appear in Man Ray’s Surrealist photographs, both whole and in detached parts, nude or strangely decked, bound, free or lashed by shadows.
At the same time, she did a great deal of the technical work his photography required, becoming his indispensable collaborator and the object of his obsessive passion, as well as a competent professional herself. Lee Miller’s pictures from 1929-30 have been mistaken for Man Ray’s, although she eventually worked out a style of her own, curiously devoid of complete human beings. One shows two shod male feet on the pavement before a strangely spread sheet of black metal which looks like a black satin slip; another has a gloved female hand apparently exploding as it turns a doorknob; she also did many curious architectural studies.
In due course she grew impatient of Man Ray’s possessive tutelage and opened her own Paris studio as a portrait photographer, acquiring clients from among her social, artistic and American connections, and finding her own apartment. In her work she sometimes applied Surrealist effects: the angle of Charlie Chaplin’s antic portrait crowns his head with a glittering chandelier, like an emerging bouquet of bright ideas. She even agreed to appear as the Muse in Jean Cocteau’s Surrealist film Le Sang d’un poète. That aroused Man Ray’s jealousy even more than her moving out and moving on.
Besides handling Man Ray she was juggling several men, among them Aziz Eloui Bey, an Egyptian aristocrat twenty years older than she was. Her work and her image were appearing in magazines and exhibitions, she was a much discussed figure, a famously fascinating woman – inner and outer pressures were increasing. The art dealer Julien Levy, one of her Paris lovers, was showing modern photographers’ work in his New York gallery; he made it clear that Miller might do very well with portraits there, so she upped sticks and returned. Back in New York, she renewed her contacts and did commercial work for Vogue as well as portraits. But after a period of hard work, glossy success and acute celebrity among celebrities (Salvador Dalí and Pavel Tchelitchew, Virgil Thomson and Lincoln Kirstein, Gertrude Lawrence and Agnes de Mille), during which her sense of artistic accomplishment dwindled and her affair with Aziz Eloui intensified, she married the Egyptian and fled the whole vain show. That was in July 1934, when she was 27.
Miller then spent three years leading the life of the Cairo idle rich, while the Depression blanketed America. ‘Lee embarked on marriage as if it were a holiday,’ Burke writes, and felt that ‘Aziz would take charge’. It doubtless was, and he did, but that brought her no peace. She startled Cairo society with peculiar Surrealist parties, sped off into the desert with various amorous companions to explore and photograph exotic sights, and eventually sailed off to other countries to meet other people, while her benevolent husband waited and footed the bill. According to Burke, ‘she began planning her escape’ in May 1937 – an escape from the life, though not yet an escape from the man. She wrote home about her fits of what she called ‘the jitters’, while Aziz wrote to her parents that he wanted nothing more than ‘to bring peace to her soul’.
She chafed under the Cairo routine of racetrack, opera, polo, discreet adultery and gossip over drinks at Shepheard’s Hotel, all so different from self-aware Paris and adventure-crammed New York. But, though mutinous, she played the game, made the right appearances and even some friends, and she never disgraced her husband, whose self-imposed paternal role kept him complaisant about the men he was aware of. And she kept on photographing. Her shot of the great pyramid, taken from its summit, was of its huge shadow on the barren land, with little buildings grovelling below. An urban view from above shows hectic crowds skirting an omnibus in a street crisscrossed by hectic strings of little flags.
In the summer of 1937 she escaped back to Paris, where Max Ernst introduced her to Roland Penrose, a wealthy English artist and collector who worshipped Picasso and frequented the free-loving Surrealists, whose work he had helped launch in England. He had seen Man Ray’s erotic images of Lee Miller and immediately lost his heart to her when they met. He invited the whole French group to Cornwall for several summer weeks: photographs (one of which is shown here) record bare-breasted girls lolling with artists amid bottles and cheeses in the speckled sun. Others, from the same summer, show similar scenes in Mougins, where Picasso was the master of revels and made several paintings of Lee.
Lee and Roland became lovers in an atmosphere charged with erotic energy, spurred by the making of Surrealist art and its assumption that free and inventive sexual expression was a moral and aesthetic duty. They parted in September with the understanding that they would pursue independent amorous lives; but they wrote to each other constantly over the next two years.
She needed his letters and his love. She drank too much and the photos show her getting fatter. With Roland her True Love in the background, Cairo became less boring, but she escaped it frequently to travel with him (and with other lovers), now increasingly uneasy both about her marriage and about the world. When war eventually came, it proved an opportunity for Miller to transform her life and herself, further and finally.
She left Aziz and Egypt for London and Roland in June 1939, after Hitler had annexed most of Czechoslovakia, although she refused to marry Roland and left Aziz still planning their shared future. In July, the lovers visited Picasso in Antibes for what Burke calls ‘the last Surrealist picnic’ (Max Ernst, Man Ray and semi-nude ladies). And on 1 September, when Hitler invaded Poland, they sailed back from St Malo as the Western powers declared war on Germany, reaching London on 3 September in time for the first air-raid sirens.
As an alien in England, Lee couldn’t work for the government as Roland could, but she signed up at British Vogue (‘Brogue’, the staffers called it; French Vogue was ‘Frogue’) to do wartime fashion work for Audrey Withers, its Oxford-educated, socialist editor. All the fashion magazines on both sides during the Second World War tried, not unsuccessfully, to sustain the idea that feminine elegance is all the more important as life becomes more unbearable and threatening. Withers urged women to ‘practise the arts of peace’ in wartime, so as to ensure the survival of those arts in happier days – Hector told Andromache the same thing in beleaguered Troy.
Fabric was rationed, and pared-down fashions appropriate to women’s wartime occupations were invented; tips on how to save, mend, revive and remake clothing were offered, along with ways to stay physically attractive; and haute couture continued to exist and to be strikingly illustrated, to raise spirits and feed the imagination. With Penrose’s help, Surrealist art in London was similarly trying to stay alive.
After France fell and London became a steady target, Lee began to photograph the Blitz. Her Surrealist eye for unsettling juxtapositions served her well: a photograph called Non-Conformist Chapel shows the building’s doorway vomiting a torrent of rubble, an indigestible congregation. A book of her comic-horrific photographs was published under the title Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain under Fire specifically to help persuade the still isolationist United States to join the war. Lee Miller seemed to come back to life, to cease being prone to the jitters and to relish the atmosphere of hard work and perpetual risk, along with the grim gaiety of the English mood in 1940.
Miller’s editor was focusing the magazine on the social changes in wartime England that created new roles for women, as appropriate to a woman’s magazine. But she had come to know the American photographers and writers covering the war in England for Time-Life, who after Pearl Harbor became US army correspondents. She envied the men their licence to experience and capture the look of real action. The photographer David Scherman, her new American chum and lover, from whom she learned a lot, pointed out that she was ‘a perfectly bona fide Yank from Poughkeepsie’ and could herself qualify for such a job; so with Withers’s backing she sought and received accreditation as Brogue’s war correspondent, with an American army commission.
She and five other women journalists at Brogue now wore military uniform with sensible shoes and a ‘war correspondent’ label. They were nominal colleagues of Margaret Bourke-White, the only female photojournalist or writer in the wholly male sphere of combat reporting, but they were still confined to England. Miller’s assignments were to show the hard, masculine work efficiently being done by the ATS, the Wrens and the American army nurses in Britain.
Penrose was often away. In one of his absences, his divorced wife, Valentine, fell on hard times and Miller invited her to join their household, to everyone’s satisfaction. She soon invited David Scherman to do the same, and that went equally smoothly. Complete sexual tolerance was still the watchword, even though French Surrealism was no longer the ambience. The Penrose ménage was relaxed and easy-going in the midst of shortages and constant danger, enjoying a mixture of wartime camaraderie and heightened sexual awareness. Photographs from these years show Miller ceasing to be a conscious beauty and becoming one of the boys, relishing a sexual freedom that encompassed male lovers and male friends, sometimes the two in one. Burke makes little of any lesbian possibilities for her subject in all of this, or at any time. Miller was a man’s woman; any erotic play between her and another woman would be for the male eye, usually via the camera.
After D-Day, Miller’s lust for risk was at length satisfied when SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, commanded from England by General Eisenhower) permitted female journalists to stay in France while reporting on the fighting there; and Brogue’s editor decided that it needed stories on the war itself, not just on the home front. Miller flew to France. She was now officially a reporter as well as a photographer, and her writing proved to be excellent – as one had guessed it would be, from the many candid, intelligent letters Burke has quoted throughout.
She came under fire at St Malo, where she found herself in combat boots and battledress, washing in her helmet, eating K-rations and photographing the action from as near as possible. During a burst of gunfire:
I sheltered in a Kraut dugout, squatting under the ramparts. My heel ground into a dead, detached hand, and I cursed the Germans for the sordid ugly destruction they had conjured up in this once beautiful town . . . I picked up the hand and hurled it across the street and ran back the way I’d come, bruising my feet and crashing in the unsteady piles of stone and slipping in blood.
When the town surrendered, the Germans were astounded to see a woman behind the camera; and when Scherman arrived, he found her looking like an ‘unmade, unwashed bed’, one among the other GIs. She had been the only photographer to stay throughout the siege and she took amazingly precise shots of the battle, which Brogue duly published with her story.
It was total liberation from fashion shoots, celebrity portraits, Surrealist photography and Cairo society. Miller’s war was as destabilising as anyone’s, just as she seems to have wished. Worse was ahead; but first she witnessed the liberation of Paris (where Penrose, also in uniform, came to meet her, and take turns with Scherman in her bed): ‘Paris had gone mad. The long, graceful dignified avenues were crowded with flags and filled with screaming, cheering, pretty people. Girls, bicycles, kisses and wine, and around the corner sniping, a bursting grenade and a burning tank. The bullet holes in the windows were like jewels, the barbed wire in the boulevards a new decoration.’ She checked on old Paris friends – Picasso and Dora Maar, the Eluards – but very much wanted ‘to go to the wars again’ instead of dutifully covering the Rebirth of Haute Couture, her next assignment.
But she did it, and then wrote about some celebrities – Dietrich, Maillol, Astaire, Colette, who was amused to find Cocteau’s moving statue turned into a soldier – before being sent to Luxembourg to cover the fighting. There she was delighted to find her beloved 83rd Division from St Malo, who had declared her AWOL when she left them; and it’s clear she was now a divided creature. A photo shows Lee behind the wheel of a jeep, squinting into the sun, wearing a lumpy army overcoat with pushed-up goggles and no hair showing, looking quite alien to the fashion model standing next to her. She was suffering from strain again, and once more drinking a lot. Writing wasn’t easy – she called it ‘stone-wringing’.
After another stint in Paris doing yet more fashion work for Frogue, Miller was sent to Germany – Aachen, Cologne, Frankfurt – in March 1945, where she found herself loathing all Germans, ‘grinding my teeth and snarling and constantly going around full of hate’. The war-torn, suffering German population had accepted Nazism, but all the individual victims of its horrors now brazenly denied supporting Hitler, while the fortunate seemed to deny that ‘Hitler did anything wrong except to lose’. Perhaps Miller was feeling helplessly included by her own Hessian ancestors in the utter badness of all Germans.
Among much gross destruction, she photographed the sprawled bodies of the city treasurer of Leipzig, his wife and their blonde daughter (her striking look-alike) after their triple suicide in papa’s office. Before shooting this scene, she was careful to place the Führer’s photograph prominently, and she took the pictures from close up. Burke makes much of the fact that the well-defended Bourke-White took hers from above and at a distance, but Lee Miller could arrange no distance for herself.
No horror matched that of the camps, for which nobody was prepared. Miller was present at their discovery or immediately afterwards, and she sent unspeakable pictures back of Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, together with a cable saying: ‘I implore you to believe this is true.’ After the German surrender, some were published in both US and UK Vogue’s victory issues, above Lee’s cable: ‘Believe It.’ Her accompanying story began with the physical beauty of Germany and the mild peaceable air of its people, with photos to match, juxtaposed with the most unspeakable ones. ‘There are millions of witnesses and no isolated freak cases,’ she wrote.
Nevertheless the most famous Lee Miller image from this period is the one of her sitting in Hitler’s bathtub in Munich, taken by Scherman. Responses to this picture vary, some wonder how she could stand being naked there, maybe scraping up Hitler’s skin particles on her bare bum; but she said that when she and David went to investigate Hitler’s apartment, they seized the opportunity to have their first bath in weeks and took a whole group of pictures of each other in it. Much later she added: ‘I wanted to wash off the stink of Dachau’ – but why did they put the Führer’s photo next to the tub? Then we learn that Miller also lay down on Eva Braun’s bed, when she investigated her Munich apartment, certainly not out of weariness. It was as if she wished to absorb the whole war with her invincible body. This was 1945; she was 38.
The war was clearly the climax of her life. After it, her moral and creative energy seemed to disperse and reshape to allow more conventionally feminine modes, which still brought no ‘peace to her soul’. She began, however, by spending a year and a half in desperate-seeming attempts to continue working as she had been doing, writing, travelling, photographing, being with Scherman and others, even while suffering more and more depression, needing strong coffee and benzedrine to get through the day, strong drink and barbiturates to get through the night. The great game was over, and its outcome seemed bitter, perfidious, often disgusting.
She was a demobbed soldier and a displaced person, feeling especially so in Vienna, where she loathed the famous music that kept the hateful, Hitler-embracing Austrians happy. ‘Arpeggios give me the shudders,’ she wrote. ‘This is a silly, fatuous town. It’s not evil, wicked or tragic. Tragedy is the fate of the undeserving, not the earned justice of the wicked Nazis.’ And later: ‘A more disorganised, dissolute, dishonest population has never existed in the history books.’ Onwards next to Hungary and Romania, to more drink and more depression; she wore herself out and exhausted the patience of both Penrose and her Brogue editor, neither of whom had been hearing from her. Under separate kinds of dire threat from each, she went back – and all the way home to New York. There Vogue welcomed her as a heroine for her war pieces and pictures; but she hadn’t seen her parents in 12 years, and she had to take Penrose to Poughkeepsie.
During the couple’s 1946 US visit, friends and family across the continent noticed the physical and psychological changes in her. She was fat, sad, irritable, worn (‘inarticulate from shock’, she described herself), her former beauty lacking, along with any concern at all for fashion. She had nevertheless preserved her strong will, and once back in London, after absorbing Penrose’s relations with a new mistress, she went on travelling continuously to do fashion shoots for Brogue and Vogue – until everything changed again when she found herself pregnant. Hasty divorce and remarriage followed, along with real illness and confinement to bed; and after writing a moving letter to her mother expressing considerable fear, and a testamentary letter expressing her deep love for Penrose, she had a son by Caesarean section in September 1947, when she was 40.
Under the circumstances, which included postwar rationing, motherhood was predictably no joy, and the project seems to have been Miller’s most salient personal failure. She was a negligent mother; and she and Anthony Penrose were estranged from very early on. He was completely reconciled to her only after her death, when all her papers and tens of thousands of her photographs were discovered in the attic, and he learned what he had missed.
She had repudiated her whole first life, sealing it away unclassified for others to deal with. The attic was in the East Sussex farm she and Penrose bought early in 1949, eventually making it the weekend theatre for their lively social performances, among them her increasingly intense culinary efforts, which created yet another legend around her. Burke publishes some of her recipes as an appendix.
Slowly she transmuted herself into an unstable compound of rakishly hospitable Lady Bountiful in the country (Picasso’s visit was a great success, as he seemed to enliven the whole farm and environs; Miller herself never blended with the local pastimes and persons, never took walks except to the nearby pub) and dignified Mrs Ronald Penrose in London. Penrose had always wanted to fix her there, personally supporting and advising his Institute of Contemporary Arts, and aiding his later efforts to gain establishment support for it. Photographs show an increasingly monumental Miller, gowned, coiffed and smiling among grand personages.
The other side of all this was her chronic misery, fury and rebelliousness, which took the form of drunkenness and embarrassing behaviour in both town and country, accompanied by a devastating inability to write or take pictures. Intermittently, she got both talents back, wrote more for Vogue, mostly about food, and took more photographs, now sometimes for Magnum; but she never ceased to suffer from the psychological effects of her war and postwar time, together with who knows what from the damage in her buried past.
The couple did a great deal of globe-trotting to visit old friends; the marriage took a severe blow when Penrose yet again fell for somebody else; both her parents died. Penrose was knighted in 1966. The Lee Miller who became Lady Penrose collected many new friends and a grandchild to sustain her, and to mourn her when at length she died in July 1977, after gallantly and humorously enduring a combination of allergies, rheumatism, recurrent pneumonia and lung cancer.
The fifth and final part of Burke’s biography, minutely chronicling all the above, has none of the drive and suspense of the first four. Her early Lee Miller resembles a fictional character: a Roth-ish, Updike-like or O’Hara-oid American Girl of the 20th century, facing many different challenges accompanied by lots of sex and drink, while war, politics and culture surround and feed her choices and emotions – or even more, a 1940s-movie adventuress-heroine, with her instantaneous professional successes and dramatic personal encounters.
It’s sad to watch her outlive her novelistic and cinematic mode, avoiding a tragic death or a wretched fate but not managing a smooth fade-out while still lovely. Instead we see her persisting and unevenly surviving, flourishing as a beloved wild character and suffering a gradual decline, losing her elegance, her sexual readiness, her inward balance and her health (though never her charm, which animates all these pages).
Burke is deeply committed to the real Lee Miller, and not at all to fiction. She came under Miller’s spell during their one encounter in the year she died, and since they planned to meet again but never could, Burke determined to write about her, clearly meaning to do her complete justice and leave nothing out. As a consequence, her painstaking book has a comforting density, to balance the volatile character of her subject and to allow scope for the welcome detail she never omits. All major and minor connections, acquaintances and milieux, all small and large journeys, all kinds and degrees of attempt, failure and triumph are here, liberally enlivened with quotes from Miller herself. There are too few illustrations, but that may not be Burke’s fault; and of Lee’s photographs Burke sometimes gives more ponderous critical assessments than we need. But her book makes it very clear that they don’t make girls like that any more.