Alexis Coe’s past essays on history for The Toast can be found here. Alexis’ column is brought to you courtesy of a sweet and generous sponsor who wishes to be known as The Ghost of Jane Addams. Her first book, which started as an installment of “Archival Mix,” is now available!
By the spring, all of Montparnasse knew that Lee Miller was in love with Aziz Elou Bey, a wealthy, married Egyptian businessman. She had left Man Ray, who was said to be packing a gun and subsisting off liquids. By the time she bought a ticket to New York on the Ile de France, he had finished her going away present, a sketch of her eyes and mouth he then covered with her name. He repeated the process on the back.
Elizabeth Elizabeth Elizabeth Elizabeth Lee Elizabeth.
He sent her another version, lest she miss the point, with the addition of a postscript: “I am always in reserve.” Man watched her ship depart before returning to his studio to capture his misery. He posed shirtless, with a noose around his neck. His eyes were focused on the small gun in his hand. No one knew if it was loaded.
In New York, Lee set up shop with great success. Critics praised her ingenuity, though her Manhattan photographs lacked the passion and experimental efforts of her Paris work. Still, she could support herself while indulging in all the city had to offer, running with socialites and Broadway stars.
And yet, when Aziz arrived stateside, Lee dropped everything. At the age of twenty-seven, she married the forty-seven-year-old twice in one day. They had a civil ceremony and another, in accordance with Muslim law, at the Egyptian consulate. She agreed he could take more wives. They would live in Cairo and Saint Moritz.
Lee wanted Man to have her studio. She had, after all, advertised it as the American “Man Ray school of photography.” When he didn’t respond to her offer, she sent word through friends. By the time she left New York on the Conte di Savoia, Man had finally cabled: PULL YOUR OWN CHESTNUTS OUT OF THE FIRE.
During her first few months as Madame Eloui Bey of Egypt, Lee didn’t pick up a camera. The sewer system had collapsed, and she was plagued by mosquitoes. Instead of making friends at lively parties and street cafes, wives of Aziz’s friends invited her over, motivated by obligation and curiosity. Unlike Lee, many of the Egyptian wives were confined to women’s quarters. In these haramleks, female relatives could go years without seeing a man outside their family. Never one to shy away from the spotlight, Lee took momentary joy in shocking the women, telling them about her professional and salacious endeavors in Paris and New York, “which were as fantastic to them as the Arabian Nights were to me.” She miscarried, but her childless marriage was just another strike against her. She would always be a foreigner.
By May 1937, Lee planned her escape. Rather than watch her suffer through another brutally hot summer, Aziz arranged for Lee to stay in the finest hotels in France. He had business to attend to in Egypt.
The night she arrived, Lee wasted no time seeking out her old Surrealist crowd. She found Max Ernst at a costume party, who introduced her to Roland Penrose, an English painter. In two days time, she awoke in Roland’s bed. She kept her hotel room, but only returned to it when she needed a change of clothes. Letters to Aziz were vague. He didn’t need to know that she drank wine with Picasso during the day, and enjoyed bondage with Roland at night.
But when the summer ended, Lee didn’t stay. Roland saw her off with Picasso etchings and an antique necklace. They didn’t promise fidelity, but frequent correspondence.
The moment Lee boarded the Mohamed Ali el-Kebir, she was reminded of the misery she felt as Madame Eloui Bey. “The heat—the bad food—the mutual suspicion & hostility” defined her life as sea, just as it did in Cairo.
Lee tried to make the best of it. Snakes were charmed, and wild horses tamed. After France, Egyptian society felt especially tame, and she and Aziz weren’t having sex. She was too jittery to sleep, and too sad to keep creating her own adventures. She wanted to be in Europe, where Hitler was aligned with Mussolini, and rearmament had begun in Bulgaria.
Still, Lee wasn’t ready to divorce Aziz and support herself, and yet she couldn’t live without Roland. A deal of sorts was struck between husband and wife: she would go to London and be with Roland, and Aziz would support her until she could take care of herself. She arrived shortly after Hitler had forced nonaggression treaties on Estonia, Latvia, and Denmark. Aziz asked to meet in Saint Moritz, but instead she went with Roland to see Picasso in Antibes, where the Surrealists were grasping at a fleeting existence. By the time they returned to London, air-raid sirens were sounding, and a letter from the American Embassy urged her to return to the United States.
She decided to stay. Roland joined the Air Raid Protective Corps, but Lee was a foreigner, unable to enlist in the auxiliary forces. Lee watched the Nazis’ night raids on London through the lens of her camera, and took to the streets during the day, shooting the Blitz’s aftermath. She photographed the angels of St. James’ Church raising their trumpets towards the sky, rooms full of broken glass, and entryways with bricks flowing out of them. Ernestine Carter, a friend of Edward R. Murrow, quickly put together a book of her images, Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire.
And that was how Lee Miller found a way out of her marriage.
In 1942, she wore a badge on her jacket identifying her as U.K. Vogue’s war correspondent, travelling with the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. She returned to her beloved France, but now there were loops of barbed wire among the austere Norman architecture, and signs with American road names next to familiar villages. She captured the “dirty, disheveled, stricken figures” in hospitals, the minefields and machine guns. She shot abandoned pets making their own way and women taking morphine for hysteria. Lee unknowingly photographed America’s first use of napalm, a print that would be confiscated by censors. At night, bedbugs crawled all over her body, and during the day, she ate K rations. It was the happiest she’d been in years.
In Germany, Lee could find no citizen willing to admit to being a Nazi, but many who suddenly made claims to Jewish relatives. She found liberated prisoners to be more forthcoming, taking down their stories of torture and photographed their emaciated bodies. Lee was firmly anti-German by the time she entered Dachau, where she shot heaps of bones and lampshades made of tattooed skin. She never kept her distance.
By the time the BBC announced that Hitler had committed suicide, Lee had bathed in his home at 16 Prinzregentenplatz in Munich. She deemed his art collection mediocre, but the tiled tub appealed to her. Her body hadn’t met with soap for weeks. Placing a photograph of Hitler on the rim of the bathtub, as though forcing him to bear witness, she soiled his bathmat with her army boots. With the scene set, Lee climbed into the tub, allowing her body to rest where Hitler’s once had. In the photograph, she’s scrubbing her shoulders with his washcloth. Her eyes aren’t focused on the lens. Her expression is difficult to read.
NO QUESTION THAT GERMAN CIVLIANS KNEW WHAT WENT ON, she cabled to London on May 8th, the day Germany surrendered.
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.