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This will be a multi-part series on Lee Miller.
A couple of years ago, I walked into San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum and asked for a ticket to a visiting exhibition.
“One for Man Ray,” the man who took my credit card replied. The show was called “Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism,” but I decided I liked him anyway. He was wrinkled and shrunken, and he’d made a real production out of putting a well-worn bookmark into his library copy of The Metamorphosis.
A few minutes later, I stood in front of the exhibition’s introductory wall text, excited to put Carolyn Burke’s excellent biography of Lee Miller to use, but I had trouble drowning out those around me.
“Who’s Lee Miller?” a man next to me asked.
“I guess it was his muse,” shrugged a female companion.
The exhibition specifically says “Partners in Surrealism,” I thought, although she wasn’t totally wrong—Miller had been Man Ray’s muse. But during the three years they lived together in Paris, she’d moved on from being his muse/model to his student, his assistant, and his collaborator. Hence the exhibition’s subtitle, “Partners.” Besides, the point of an exhibition is to learn more about a subject that interests you, and thus I kept my sometimes pedantic mouth shut, and imagined running into them in the inevitable gift shop where we’d all be dumped, finding them engrossed in a lively conversation.
This didn’t happen. I eavesdropped on them, and others throughout the rooms, among the goods for purchase and amongst the cream and sugar in the café, but everything was Man Ray. Man, man, man.
When a woman that beautiful is so many things, when she lives her life in so many different ways and moves to so many foreign countries, there seems to be a need to simplify. And that’s how Lee Miller—daughter, model, muse, war photographer, wife, divorcee, wife, chef, and mother—became one of the, as Burke writes, “most remarkable, and underrecognized, photographers of the last century.”
And yet, Miller is one of the most recognizable subjects from the last century, which is also a part of the problem. No matter the pose, props, mood or medium, her beauty is arresting. She was on the cover of Vogue, as a statue in Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, relentlessly pursued by so many artists hypnotized by the contours of her face and the lines of body. She exuded a magnetism that enthralled her contemporaries, and allowed the intensely social woman to move about the world, to traverse spaces and inhabit roles her gender and breeding usually precluded. Time has done nothing to enervate her appeal, or the ease in which we fall under the spell of it. We see her, and the tendency is to stop there.
That’s why I’m calling this a “multi-part series,” and I’ll start from the beginning. I don’t think you’ll mind—except, perhaps, for this first part. This is a head’s up that the first part of her life, the focus of the rest of this essay, includes really unsettling episodes.
In 1907, Elizabeth Miller was the second child born to Theodore and Florence Miller of Poughkeepsie, New York. She was her father’s favorite from the very beginning. He would call his only daughter Li Li and Te Te and Bettie; Lee would come twenty years later.
In a 1914 family photograph, she stands relaxed in her birthplace, topped by a large, loose bow, just slightly shorter than her older brother, John, donning short pants and a thin tie. She is couple of feet taller than her younger brother Erik, still wearing black stockings under his plain jumper. The children, all dressed simply in white, light fabrics, are squinting and grinning at the camera. Their parents are in back of them, not touching their children or each other. At least three feet stands between the couple. Florence wears a heavy skirt and a button down blouse with an exaggerated cuff and collar, but her dress is otherwise as simple as her children’s clothing, her smile slightly more reserved. She was a little self-conscious, and didn’t share many details from her past. Theodore is in a three piece suit. His lips are slightly slanted, but he’s not quite smiling, a fitting expression for a man who preached self-reliance and taught his children to revere inventors. The Millers look like happy and peaceful in their portrait, not an old family with a mansion along the Hudson River and a long legacy, but on their way to becoming one the most respectable families in town.
Less than a year after the photo was taken, Florence was feeling ill, and sent Elizabeth to stay with family friends in Brooklyn. Astrid Kajerdt had no children of her own, and delighted in her seven-year-old charge.
“She really is the most important person in the house at the present, but I will try my best not to let the gentleman spoil her.”
Elizabeth’s caretaker wrote to the Millers often, chronicling the smallest details of their adventures in the city, until something happened that could not, at the time, be written about in a letter, or spoken about over the phone. It was best to just send Elizabeth home.
One day, Astrid went shopping, and left Elizabeth with another houseguest. He was a sailor on leave, maybe a nephew or some other close relation. We don’t know who he is, or the details of what happened, but the man raped a seven-year-old girl.
And it wasn’t over, even after Elizabeth was rushed back to Poughkeepsie. The sailor had given Elizabeth gonorrhea. Theodore, who kept copious journals crammed with facts, is silent on the matter. It was not spoken of, and to maintain secrecy, Elizabeth was isolated after she returned home from the trauma, and then exposed to more.
For the next year, at least two times per week, Florence took Elizabeth to nearby Vassar Hospital for treatment. At the time, this began with an antiseptic sitz bath. A solution of potassium permanganate was then used to “irrigate” her bladder. Imagine Elizabeth, a seven-year-old girl, watching a doctor and nurse come at her time and time again with the equipment this involved: a glass catheter, a douche can, and long rubber tubing. Finally, Elizabeth was douched with mix of boric acid, carbolic acid, and myriad oils.
And then there were the home treatments. John and Erik were supposed to be none the wiser, but twice a week, they saw their mother, who had been a nurse before she married Theodore, lead Elizabeth into her bathroom. They heard their sister cry out as Florence probed her cervix with cotton-wool swabs in search of secretions, and then applied picric acid in glycerin.
This routine ensured there was no return to normalcy, to safety and comfort. A psychiatrist had advised her parents to teach Elizabeth that sex was different than love, to be at ease with her body, but these treatments probably sent the young girl a very different message.
Medical intervention fell under Florence’s purview, but Theodore was in charge of his own therapy. In a photograph of Elizabeth, taken almost a year after the last family portrait, her bothers and mother are nowhere to be found—though Florence often supervised what would become regular photo shoots. Theodore isn’t in the frame, either, but rather behind the camera.
Elizabeth is still seven, just two weeks away from her birthday, but there’s no bow in her hair this time, which hangs plainly, nor clothes on her body. There’s snow on the ground, thus her feet are covered, and it looks like she’s wearing house slippers, not winter shoes. Her fingers are not curled into fists, but they’re not relaxed, either. Her shoulders are raised up against her ears. She doesn’t look happy, but she doesn’t look upset, either. She’s cold, her naked flesh exposed from the ankle up. Her face is complacent, her eyes fixed on her father’s lens.
How did Theodore determine that taking naked photographs of his young daughter, recovering from a rape and venereal disease, was the right course of action? He took the doctor’s orders and melded them with Paul Chabas’ September Morn (pictured), a young, naked woman emerging from the water, a scandal even then, now in the Met Museum’s collection.
As incredibly uncomfortable as the photographs make us, there’s nothing to suggest Theodore did more than take nude portraits of his daughter, and Elizabeth, even after she becomes Lee, never suggests anything to the contrary. She does, however, allude to the rape in her diary, a “swollen awkward feeling which ha[s] followed me from childhood.” Theodore remains a presence until his death, someone she calls upon for comfort and security, and would be the only man, according to Erik, with whom she felt comfortable with, and loved by.
But the photos weren’t entirely for Elizabeth’s benefit. Theodore was a man of progress, one with artistic sensibilities who celebrated innovation. And she would be, for the first of many times, a man’s muse.
Burke, Carolyn. Lee Miller: A Life.
Penrose, Antony. The Lives of Lee Miller.(Antony Penrose is Lee Miller’s only child.)
Prodger, Phillip et al. Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism.
Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.