Q: You once met Lee Miller in Paris. Can you tell us a little about that meeting and what was it about her that made you want to tell her story?
A: By chance, I found myself next to Lee Miller during a slide talk on Man Ray given in Paris by Sir Roland Penrose, her husband. Though the unfashionably garbed woman seated beside me no longer looked like the blonde beauty of Man Ray’s photographs of her from the 1920’s and ‘30’s, I recognized her profile—the one being shown on the screen as “solarized” by Man Ray. We got into conversation, which continued after the talk at the Café de Flore and the next day at her apartment. She told me about her childhood in Poughkeepsie, her flapper days as a model in Manhattan, working with Jean Cocteau on his provocative film Blood of a Poet, and life in Egypt during her first marriage but said little about her years as a World War II photojournalist. At the time, I felt an affinity with this brave, quirky woman, whose death of cancer three months after we met came as a shock. My feelings intensified when I later saw her photographs, especially those from the death camps. It was astounding to learn that the beauty who had inspired Man Ray and Cocteau was the same person who unflinchingly photographed at Buchenwald and Dachau.
Q: Although she could have remained a 1920s flapper out of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Miller became, first the muse for great artists like Man Ray, Cocteau, and Picasso, and then an artist/photographer in her own right. Was it merely fate, such as her first meeting with Condé Nast who literally pulled her out of the way of an oncoming car, or was there something in her nature that drove her?
A: Lee Miller responded to accidents of fate by embracing them, especially when they allowed her to move in new directions. In childhood she learned the rudiments of photography from her father; during adolescence she took dance lessons, studied stage design in Paris and painting at the Art Students League in New York. Miller believed that she was meant to be an artist but it was not until she began modeling for the great photographers of the ‘20s—Steichen, Genthe, Hoyningen-Huene—that she turned to photography as her art form. Working with these men, she absorbed techniques that served her well when she became Man Ray’s assistant in Paris in 1929—a job she talked her way into despite his initial lack of interest. They soon became lovers. Within a short time, she was taking commissions as his partner, “Madame Man Ray.” Yet within a few years, Miller’s need to control her fate drove her to leave him and set up her own photographic studio in Manhattan.
Q: How did her childhood trauma of being raped by a family friend, and then the subsequent nude photography she posed for as a teenager for her father, effect her as an adult?
A: Miller dealt with these experiences by pretending that they hadn’t happened. Not even her closest family members knew that for years she underwent excruciatingly painful treatments for the gonorrhea resulting from the rape—treatments at first administered in secret by her mother, a trained nurse who abhorred both germs and scandal. Her father’s peculiar attempts to help his daughter get over her sense of being damaged goods included telling her that sex and love were different things and taking nude photographs of her in the name of Art, as if to reinforce the idea that she should forget or detach from what happened to her.
During her adolescence the ethos of “Flaming Youth” seemed to confirm the desirability of what we might call a split between body and psyche. As an adult, Miller made it a point to embrace masculine freedoms. She took it for granted that she should choose her sexual partners; her many lovers remained close to her after the end of their affairs. At age 40 she wrote, “I keep saying to everyone, ‘I didn’t waste a minute, all my life—I had a wonderful time,’ but I know, myself, now that if I had it over again I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affections.”
Yet the damage done in her early years caught up with her after the war and her marriage to Penrose—in her bouts with alcoholism, depression, and her disinclination to go on with her photographic career despite the wide acclaim it won her. “I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside,” Miller told an interviewer toward the end of her life, as if she had internalized the puritanical mind set she always claimed to despise.
Q: Although she was considered by some to be a beauty on par with Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, what were her own feelings about her beauty?
A: Lee Miller made use of her spectacular looks to get where she wanted to go, often charming admirers from whom she had something to learn. She was quick to see that her beauty allowed her to move freely in a number of worlds—the Social Register as depicted in the pages of Vogue, where she posed as a “young thing,” the smart set of New York’s artistic bohemia, later, French high society, whose adventurous members sponsored the avant-garde projects that mobilized her artistic spirit. Yet during the war she was happy to abandon fashionable life, and fashion itself, to don her army uniform. Throughout the years of her travels with the G.I.s, the woman who had been known as a snappy dresser wore olive-drab fatigues—as if delighted to shed the obligation to be a beautiful object and become a full participant in history as it was happening. Toward the end of her life, she clearly didn’t give a damn about her looks. Perhaps she was glad to be free of them!
Q: While she had been a photographer in her own right, what catapulted her into becoming a war correspondent/photographer? And what were the circumstances of the famous photo of her taking a bath in Hitler's bathtub?
A: Miller was living with Penrose in London during the blitz: some of her most stunning photos of war damage there were included in Grim Glory, a 1940 picture book intended to gain American support for Britain. As a foreigner Miller couldn’t enlist in the service branches open to women, but she documented their war work for U.K. Vogue. Writing the stories that accompanied her photos during the build-up to the 1944 invasion, she learned from her friend David Scherman, a Time-Life photographer, that she too could get accreditation from the U.S. Army—her passport to the war zone.
From then on, she covered battle fronts from St. Malo to liberated Paris to the downfall of Germany—where, after a harrowing day documenting the liberation of Dachau, she and Scherman were billeted at Hitler’s house in Munich, then U.S. army headquarters. Neither of them had bathed in weeks. After arranging the room like a set (with a classical statue and a photo of Hitler), they took turns photographing each other. Miller sent back her images minus the sequence in Hitler’s tub, a macabre souvenir that would not be published for decades. Though she once joked about washing off the dirt of Dachau in Hitler’s own tub, she told her intimates that the stench still remained in her nostrils.
Q: What would you consider to be her best or most haunting photograph from the time she was a war correspondent during World War II?
A: The moving German Guard, Dachau, an image that meets reality on its own ground. We see the dead guard floating in his water-logged uniform, a diagonal mass in the water that will be his grave. This elegant composition documents the war while using light and shadow to hint that the guard's death, though justified, is somehow redemptive. Its mysterious beauty implies the issues—grief, responsibility, memory—that would haunt Miller long after the end of the war.
Q: How do you balance images of Lee Miller as war correspondent and fashion icon? Which aspect of her life do you feel she is remembered more for today, and do you think she would want to be remembered that way?
A: It still amazes me that someone who began life in upstate New York in the early years of the twentieth century should have accomplished so much, in so many arenas. So I’d have to say that these seemingly diverse images of Lee Miller, as fashion icon and as photojournalist, demonstrate her remarkable range, and that furthermore, they suggest that we are all capable of more than we imagine or accept given the limits of background and/or training. John Houseman’s recollection of a battle-weary Lee in Montparnasse at the
liberation of Paris in 1945 brings together these disparate aspects of the whole-hearted person she was: at that moment, “she became the symbol of freedom, the statue of Liberty walking into La Coupole.”
Q: You also wrote the biography of Miller’s contemporary Mina Loy, the poet/painter. Was it these particular individuals or the time period in which they lived that drew you to their stories?
A: Again I’d have to say both. I first heard of Mina Loy when living in Paris and immersing myself in the lives of the expatriates—Joyce, Pound, Stein, Brancusi, Man Ray, Natalie Barney, and Djuna Barnes, all Mina’s friends. (In another fortunate accident, I was living on the rue Campagne-Première, the one-block street where Mina, Man Ray, and later Lee Miller resided.) I learned about Lee while researching Mina’s friendship with Man, so you could say that one remarkable woman led me to another. Certainly the time period played a large part in my choice of subjects, but also the accomplishments of both women and their ways of taking or making freedom, to borrow a phrase from Lee Miller—who, by the way, was a friend of Mina Loy’s though almost entirely unlike her.
Q: Your upcoming book is on fin-de-siècle France, is it also a biography?
A: I suppose you could call it a historical fiction, or to be more precise, a biographical mystery. It has characters who existed and some I’ve made up; they all become involved in the search to solve a crime that actually took place, but somewhat differently from the way I tell it. To my delight, when things are going well, my characters speak to me. I take down what they say, as I did in my role as biographer. One kind of writing seems to have inspired the other. And in my imagination, I’m still immersed in those expatriate circles, hanging out in the Montparnasse cafés or walking down the Boulevard Raspail to the one-block street I shared, at different times, with my characters.