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This will be a multi-part series on Lee Miller. Read Part One.
“Would that I might trade my all, for Paris fog and rain,” a teenage Lee Miller wrote in her notebook. It was the 1920s, and she was a reluctant Vassar girl, a flapper eager to get back to France, where she had spent seven glorious months. The social pretension of Poughkeepsie tried her, but it was hardly the worst thing about her days. Her gonorrhea, a result of events in her childhood, still required regular treatment. How could she be truly free when the “inoculation torture” by doctors and weekly home douches, supervised by her mother, were unrelenting?
Lee needed out. Dance lessons in Manhattan led to a job in the chorus line at George White’s Scandals, considered a livelier version of Zigfeld’s Follies. So lively, in fact, that Theodore and Florence Miller were actually relieved to see their daughter become a lingerie model at Stewart & Company on Fifth Avenue. They found her an apartment on East 54th Street, paid her rent and classes at the Art Students League of New York. They visited the city often, but it wasn’t really to check up on her. They fully embraced Lee’s urbane existence as their own come the weekend, and accompanied her to fashionable restaurants and sold-out Broadway shows.
Lee came home often, but in Poughkeepsie, she was never just the Millers’ daughter; she was always her mother’s patient and her father’s subject. In 1928, Theodore was still photographing her in the nude, greatly encouraged by her expertise as a model.
Sex and love are not the same thing, Theodore repeated in the aftermath of her childhood assault.
“In each of these photographs, she distances herself from the use of her body to which her love for her father bound her—a set of responses that look back to her childhood and forward to what would become her way of dealing with those who sought to capture her image, her body, her trust,” observed the historian Carolyn Burke.
Back in Manhattan, Lee was caught more than captured, though one led to the other. The well-dressed man who had saved her from an oncoming car on a busy avenue turned out to be no other than Condé Nast. By then, Nast owned Vogue, and invited Lee to his office, known as “both an escort service and feudal village.” The magazine’s editor, Edna Chase, was looking for a new kind of model in 1927, one who wore her hair short and smacked of independence. Lee would soon make her first appearance in Vogue, not buried in the interior pages, a headless neck festooned with accessories, but rather as the March cover girl.
A month after her prominent debut, Lee was no longer a teenager. She turned twenty and was living a life altogether different than any she had known. During the day, she posed for celebrated photographers, and at night, she moved among New York’s café society. She found herself at parties with Fred Astaire, and she was courted by nearly every man she encountered. They took her to polo matches on lavish estates, and in private planes that soared over her childhood home. She had love affairs and became a mainstay of print culture, attracting New York’s most eligible bachelors and errant husbands, all the while dominating fashion spreads and advertisements.
Stateside opportunity proved be a good distraction, but Lee was not long for New York. In France, she hoped “to enter photography by the back end.” By the end of the twenties, Bernice Abbott was one of a handful of female photographers challenging the traditional power dynamic—man behind lens, woman in front of it— in Paris. Lee found her way to Montparnasse, a quarter thick with artists, and went straight to 21 bis rue Campagne-Premiere. That’s where Man Ray, the American modernist Abbott had once assisted, kept his studio.
Man wasn’t at home. When Lee found him in a corner café, fully aware the flashy sports car parked outside belonged to him. She found him inside, sitting among the likes Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and thought he looked like a caged bull in his custom made suit. Emboldened by the Pernod his landlord had plied her with, Lee made her own introduction.
I’m your new student, she informed the artist, who was seventeen years her elder and a full foot shorter. No, no, he responded. No student, and no Paris. He was off to Biarritz, to vacation at the behest of one of his many wealthy patrons.
And so was Lee. A year after she hopped in Man’s Voisin and headed to the South of France, he was indeed her teacher, her patron, and her lover. She became his assistant, his model, his receptionist, and his lover. Their age, height, and even breeding was hardly the most noticeable discrepancy. She was radiant and he reserved, and yet to onlookers, they often appeared tethered to each other. It was sometimes hard to remember who took which image, Lee would often say. Almost every photo he made for the next three years came out of their collaboration, though his name, of course, was the one it bore.
But then the Wall Street crash hit Paris, and it was Lee who could find support at Paris Vogue. She would soon take to travelling without him.
“You are so young and beautiful and free,” Man wrote in her absence, “and I hate myself for trying to cramp that in you which I admire most, and find so rare in women.”
Lee felt a magnetic pull to avant-gardist, but pushed for her own assignments. She began to hone her own artistic instincts on the urban landscape, far outside of the controlled atmosphere of Man’s studio.
And then Lee claimed her own. The studio Man found her was only a few minutes away from his own, but larger and more luxurious. She had made the request, and he obliged. Who paid the rent? Whether she was able to, or relied on Theordore or Man is unknown, but the artist supported her as an artist. He accepted her work needed to happen without his gaze, his methods, his body.
The work never threatened him. It was what Man saw when she was firmly fixed in his line of vision that tormented him.
“Lee turned up now and then between dances to tell me what a wonderful time she was having,” Man wrote of Bal Blanc, the costume ball of the season. Lee was a hit among the Rothschilds, and the masquerading princes and artists. “All the men were so sweet to her.”
The French writer and dramatist Jean Cocteau was at Bal Blanc that night, too, sweet on Lee despite the fact that he was likely sitting beside Man, watching him fret. Jean, too, had long been interested in watching Lee, and now saw the opportunity to do it without Man there. He cast her in his new film that Spring, and she soon went to work in London, bringing along the libertine ethos she had cultivated among the Surrealist set.
Lee remained close to Man, corresponding on topics technical and emotional. He was now in her life by invitation, and she still needed him, if only on the page. When she visited, Lee repaid the debt, dutifully playing Man’s muse once again, but she could also be a cruel mistress, inviting him along to soirees hosted by the many men who openly sought to replace him.
Historian Carolyn Burke describes this period as Lee’s “wanting to have her cake and eat it too.” And how could she not? Wasn’t it inevitable? Man was forty, and Lee but twenty-four. Glamorous subjects were suddenly lining up outside her studio, and she embraced the role as Man had, including the intimate privileges it brought. After photographing Charlie Chaplin laying on the floor, she accompanied him to fashionable ski resorts in Europe, chatting with the Prince of Wales on the slopes.
Man could handle much of this, he promised, but he made asked for much in return, the most important of which the truth. He wanted it on demand, and in great detail, but it was one of many things Lee no longer offered him.
It was 1932, and Lee Miller was nobody’s apprentice anymore.
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.