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“A biographer couldn’t ask for a more compelling subject, and Lee Miller couldn’t have asked for a more insightful and eloquent biographer. Carolyn Burke writes with lucidity and energy. As adept a storyteller as she is an ardent scholar, she is generous with details yet never gets bogged down. Fluent in the nuances of ambiguity and cued to the obdurateness of paradox, she provides thoughtful and measured analysis that is genuinely enlightening and never intrusive . . . Miller’s story of personal reinvention and artistic evolution blazes right along, and Burke feeds the flames with just the right mix of straight-ahead chronicling and shrewd commentary, steering the reader to the apex of Miller’s life, her courageous and artistic response to World War II . . . No one who reads Burke’s involving biography will ever forget Miller. So visually rich and electrifying is her story, a movie version seems inevitable. But whatever interpretations the future may bring, Burke’s vital and incisive portrait will be the wellspring. Demonstrating the same clarity of observation and sensitivity to subtleties that distinguish Miller’s photographs, Burke indelibly portrays a radiant woman forced to look into the heart of darkness, and an artist who cast light on a brutalized world, illuminating its abiding beauty and grace, and enhancing our empathy and awe.”
“Delightful, meticulously researched, fascinating . . . [Miller] was a woman who needed no exhortation from anyone to “Live! Live!” Her life was filled with adventures . . . Miller’s life had many phases, all of them interesting, and Burke captures them in [this] fine biography.”
–Washington Post Book World
“Compelling, riveting . . . It seems fitting that Carolyn Burke, whose first biography corrected history’s error of undervaluing the avant-garde poet and artist Mina Loy, has written Lee Miller: A Life. [Miller is] a forgotten visionary photographer who was muse and lover to some of the most influential artists of the early 20th century, as well as one of the few women able to transcend this role and become an artistic force in her own right . . . The photograph that may give the truest glimpse into Miller’s nature is a portrait shot in Hitler’s bathtub . . . A woman caught between horror and beauty, between being seen and being the seer.”
–New York Times Book Review
“At last, a life and an album about Lee Miller, one of the most beautiful women who ever lived . . . A remarkable book . . . [Burke] lets the facts speak for themselves. And the facts are vivid . . . For the first time the ravaged arc of Lee Miller’s life is clear, beautiful but lined in pain.”
–New York Observer
“Fascinating, remarkable, memorable . . . [A] singular life . . . It’s one of the great joys of reading: a story about someone you’ve never heard of, giving you insight into something you didn’t know you cared about. That’s the gift from author Carolyn Burke . . . A captivating read, one that raises questions in the reader’s mind about how things have changed–and how they’ve stayed the same–in women’s lives over the past century . . . Burke’s book is what biography ought to be . . . Lee Miller: A Life belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in how people of [Miller’s] generation dealt with their times.”
–Santa Cruz Sentinel
“[Lee Miller’s] peregrinations reminded me of innumerable others’–Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, and Jill Craigie . . . [But] of all the women I have in mind, Miller strikes me as the most heroic. [Miller’s photographs] dramatize art and history, making both more accessible . . . Burke brilliantly draws on Miller’s own history to understand the photograph [of Miller in Hitler’s bathtub]. Gellhorn, Hellman, West, and Sontag never acknowledged just how self-conscious they were about writing themselves into the world’s consciousness. Miller is their superior in understanding what it meant to model yourself after others in order to make yourself the next model . . . Miller was an exceptionally honest artist-observer, one who knew just how deeply implicated she was in her scenes . . . This handsomely produced and impeccably written and researched book is surely a state-of-the-art biography.”
–New York Sun
“Illuminating . . . As a disciple of Alfred Steichen and devotee and lover of Man Ray in Paris, [Miller] played the ingénue a little but was more knowing than all that; indeed, she recalled, she was a bit of a fiend. Ray came eventually to regard her as a threat, though it was likely for the ever-deepening quality of her work as a photographer. [She] had the kind of life that the present-day bohemian can only aspire to; yet Miller fully came into her own as a combat correspondent (for Vogue) in Europe during WWII . . . Burke’s graceful biography restores Miller to attention; students of art photography, in particular, will want a look.”
“Those who knew [Miller] say that she always provided an intriguing study in contrasts. A model-turned-photographer-turned-war correspondent, she later added gourmet chef to that list of hyphenates. In her world, a closetful of Vionnet gowns and combat boots made sense . . . Unlike other books on Miller, which consist mostly of photographs, [this] is a thoroughly researched account of her life [and] remarkably diverse accomplishments . . . Miller’s life unwound like a mad Surrealist film–the cast of characters and roles she would play were wildly colorful and made for quite outré stories . . . She had lived, by the end, many extraordinary lives . . . Captivating.”
“[Miller’s] surrealist background led her to taking stunning photos of the London Blitz, but she shot her most memorable–and disturbing–images accompanying American troops from Paris to Dachau as a war correspondent for Vogue. Burke’s meticulously detailed biography reveals how keenly Miller’s wartime experiences haunted her during her final troubled decades, but it also probes sympathetically into the artist’s other significant trauma . . . Burke writes with a careful sense of how Miller might have approached her work and of how it is perceived by modern viewers. Her descriptions of Miller’s imagery are so vivid that, despite the dozens of photographs reproduced here, readers will find themselves wanting to see more. As the first major biographer outside the Miller family, she traces a dynamic life that embodies the spirit of the 20th century’s first half.”
Praise from the UK:
“Superb . . . Just as Miller lived what seemed like 10 lives, so Burke has done enough work for 10 books. The effect is never stifling, however. [Burke] never let[s] a good tale slip by. She is the ultimate photographer’s assistant: setting up the background against which her subject can shine, clever, capable, sympathetic, and never in the way.”
“[Miller’s photographs] are hard to forget. Until relatively recently, however, Miller’s fame, as a flawless beauty, photographic collaborator and model, overshadowed her artistic legacy. This first full-length biography . . . shows how Miller’s complex nature contributed to this neglect . . . The biography truly comes to life when [Miller] became a war correspondent . . . Carolyn Burke’s sympathetic tribute sheds further light on the lives of this highly original, often misunderstood woman.”
“Meticulous . . . Lee Miller was an astounding woman, brought memorably to life in this astounding book.”
“Illuminating, revelatory, perceptive . . . A welcome and long overdue biography sure to become essential reading for any student of the history of art and photography in the 20th century. [Burke] strips away the myth to uncover not only Miller’s artistic achievement, but her true character . . . Such is the subtlety of Burke’s approach to her subject that almost by stealth the reader becomes aware, in a similar way perhaps in which it dawned on the young Lee Miller herself, that she was destined to be something special. [Burke writes] with poignant acuity [and] bring[s] her subject to life . . . [Lee Miller: A Life] reads not only as serious biography but often like a picaresque novel . . . More than a biography, this book provides a rare and valuable sideways look at the mid-20th century avant-garde and high-society . . . It takes the reader deeply and unforgettably into the psyche of the strange little girl from Poughkeepsie who grew to become one of the most extraordinary women of her time.”
“There are the rare artists who lead not just one, but a whole fistful of remarkable lives, any one of which might make a juicy feature film, crammed with sex, danger, celebrity and fun. At which point, cue Lee Miller . . . [Lee Miller: A Life] does its complicated subject more than justice, adding welcome depths and nuances to the familiar legend . . . Burke relates all this with sympathy and fluency.”
A trenchant yet sympathetic portrait of Lee Miller, one of the iconic faces and careers of the twentieth century.
Carolyn Burke reveals Miller as a multifaceted woman: both model and photographer, muse and reporter, sexual adventurer and mother, and, in later years, gourmet cook—the last of the many dramatic transformations she underwent during her lifetime. A sleek blond bombshell, Miller was part of a glamorous circle in New York and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s as a leading Vogue model, close to Edward Steichen, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso. Then, during World War II, she became a war correspondent—one of the first women to do so—shooting harrowing images of a devastated Europe, entering Dachau with the Allied troops, posing in Hitler’s bathtub.
Burke examines Miller’s troubled personal life, from the unsettling photo sessions during which Miller, both as a child and as a young woman, posed nude for her father, to her crucial affair with artist-photographer Man Ray, to her unconventional marriages. And through Miller’s body of work, Burke explores the photographer’s journey from object to subject; her eye for form, pattern, and light; and the powerful emotion behind each of her images.
A lushly illustrated story of art and beauty, sex and power, Modernism and Surrealism, independence and collaboration, Lee Miller: A Life is an astute study of a fascinating, yet enigmatic, cultural figure.
About the Author
Carolyn Burke, a biographer, art critic, and translator, has taught at Princeton and the University of California at Santa Cruz and at Davis; at the Universities of Western Sydney and New South Wales in Australia; and at the Sorbonne and the University of Lille in France. She received critical acclaim for her book Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy from The Washington Post (“[a] brilliant biographer”), The New Republic (“superb”), and the San Francisco Chronicle (“impressive . . . does full justice to Loy’s varied accomplishments”). Born in Australia, she now lives in Santa Cruz, California.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A Poughkeepsie Girlhood
On April 23, 1907, Theodore Miller entered the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth, in his diary, noting the time of day (4:15 p.m.), the place (the Miller home, 40 South Clinton Street, Poughkeepsie, New York), her weight (seven pounds), and the names of those in attendance (Dr. Gribbon and Nurse Ferguson). His firstborn, Elizabeth’s brother John, had come into the world two years earlier, but the little girl—Li Li, then Te Te, Bettie, and in her twentieth year, Lee—would always be her father’s favorite. Her blue eyes and blond curls enchanted him. Whatever name she went by, she was his Elizabeth, whose growth he would continue to document, one might almost say obsessively.
By the time Elizabeth was born, Theodore Miller was the superintendent of Poughkeepsie’s largest employer, the DeLaval Separator Company (its machines separated heavier liquids from lighter ones). An ambitious man of thirty-five who was on his way to becoming one of the town’s elite, he had married three years earlier after securing his position at DeLaval’s recently enlarged plant on the bank of the Hudson River. Florence Miller, his wife, is not mentioned in the diary entry, as if her part in the arrival of their daughter could not be reckoned among the facts and figures that gave him his grip on the world. Perhaps it was taken for granted. Like most men of his time, Theodore believed that a woman’s place was at home, a man’s with the new world of science and technology—the forces that enabled entrepreneurs like himself and the country as a whole to move forward.
Theodore always said that he came of a long line of mechanics. A tall, erect man with penetrating blue eyes, he might have stepped out of a Horatio Alger novel. Born in 1872 in the aptly named Mechanicsville, Ohio, he grew up in Richmond, Indiana, at that time the largest Quaker settlement in the country. Although the Millers were not Quakers, he thought well of this sect despite his opposition to formal religion and, in adulthood, his atheism. More important to him than the Society of Friends and the Inner Light were facts. As a youth he had worked in a roller-skate-wheel factory, then a machine shop where he operated lathes. Earning his qualification in mechanical engineering through a correspondence course reinforced the idea that hard work led not only to self-improvement but also to material rewards.
When telling his children about his rise in the world, Theodore emphasized the Miller self-reliance. His ancestors included Hessian mercenaries who had fought for the British in the Revolutionary War; his father was famous as the man who laid seven thousand bricks a day when helping to build Antioch College; his older brother, Fred, was an engineer widely known as the editor of the American Machinist. Theodore’s career illustrated the belief that a self-confident man could try his hand at anything. In his twenties he had worked in New Jersey at a U.S. Navy shipyard, in Brooklyn at a typewriter factory, in Mexico at the Monterrey Steel Works, and in Utica, New York, at the Drop Forge and Tool Company, where he became general manager. So intent upon making his way that he did not think about marriage until he turned thirty, he then proposed to Florence MacDonald, the fair-haired Canadian nurse who had cared for him during his treatment for typhoid at Utica Hospital.
It was typical of their union that the children heard more about the Millers than about the MacDonalds. Florence told them little of her background except that her people were Scots-Irish settlers from Brockville, Ontario, where she was born in 1881, and that her parents had died when she was a girl, after which she went to live with relatives. Only later did they learn that the MacDonalds had been defeated by their hard, rocky land, and that Florence had had little education apart from nurse’s training. Then, nursing was one of the few paths open to women from poor families. There were more opportunities in the United States than at home but the work required dedication. Florence would have earned little more than room and board at the training hospital in Utica—except for the hope that once certified, she could work anywhere. Theodore Miller may have won her heart, but he was also a good catch.
Their life together as members of Poughkeepsie’s bourgeoisie began when they married in 1904, after he had settled into his position at DeLaval. It would have required an adjustment on Florence’s part to manage a household staffed with servants, including some from the town’s black community. In the few family photographs taken before 1904 Florence is a shy, slender young woman. She was happy to trade her white cap and nurse’s uniform for the large-brimmed hats and flowing gowns of the 1900s, to collect bric-a-brac for her new house, and in time, once her children were at school, to educate herself.
Although Florence took her turn giving the tea parties expected of the Poughkeepsie ladies with whom she mingled, some insecurity prevented her from enjoying these occasions. She fussed about details. Unsure which of Poughkeepsie’s many Protestant churches to attend, she tried them all. Traces of her time as a nurse were still discernible in her bathroom, where white tiles and a doctor’s scale implied that cleanliness was next to godliness. Florence retained a horror of germs and a reverence for doctors. She was also in awe of her husband, who was nearly ten years older and the mainstay of their comfortable life.
The Millers often told their children a story from their early days in Poughkeepsie. Because of Theodore’s position, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution invited his bride to join this ultraconservative organization. Florence filled in the genealogical forms required of new members. Her husband’s Hessian forebears, who had fought against the revolution that gave the group its name, raised a few eyebrows, but as soon as the membership committee saw that she was Canadian, the invitation was withdrawn. Having been treated as less than loyal Americans, the Millers turned the incident into a joke. And since it was impossible to infiltrate the old families whose cupolaed mansions overlooked the Hudson, they made the best of the matter by establishing themselves as citizens of the new century.
Depending upon whom you were talking to, Poughkeepsie in the 1900s was either a declining regional capital or an industrial center ready to take advantage of its strategic location. Both accounts were accurate. To the town’s more progressive citizens, its values seemed Victorian. Yet at the same time, institutions like Vassar College—located two miles east of town—were trying out new ideas about women’s social and intellectual potential, and forward-looking businesses like DeLaval, a Swedish firm, were rethinking the relations between civic and professional life. Many Poughkeepsians believed they lived at the center of things. The New York Central’s trains sped north along the Hudson to Albany and south to New York City, the bridge across the river encouraged trips west to New Paltz and the Catskills, the Dutchess Turnpike ran east past rich farmlands to Connecticut.
Since the eighteenth century, the “river families,” the old guard of Dutchess County, had looked down from their hilltop estates on the villages along the Hudson’s shores as if they were the fiefs in some American version of feudalism. Poughkeepsie, a town of twenty-four thousand when Elizabeth was born, had always been something of an exception. Its inhabitants prided themselves on their town’s history as a seventeenth-century Dutch settlement and an early state capital, the site of New York’s ratification convention for the U.S. Constitution, and from the 1860s on, the hub of swift railroad connections to the north and west. Although the symbol of the new century, the Twentieth Century Limited, flew past Poughkeepsie on its way from New York to Chicago, the city’s position halfway between New York and Albany was thought to ensure its influence—provided the town fathers could agree on what was meant by progress and how to go about implementing it.
Prominent Poughkeepsians looked to technology as the way to be “up-to-date.” At a time when civic leaders all over the United States indulged in boosterism to enhance their town’s reputation at the expense of neighboring ones, they proclaimed Poughkeepsie’s superiority over its rivals, Syracuse and Albany. Yet in reality it had grown very little since the 1870s, a number of businesses having failed or gone elsewhere. Industries clustered along the Hudson in former times had included shipbuilders, dye mills, a brewery, and an ironworks, many of which had been replaced by larger, more modern concerns like DeLaval and Queen Undermuslins, a manufacturer of women’s underwear. What was good for these businesses was good for Poughkeepsie, town officials said, as were recent municipal gains like electric lights, telephones, and macadam paving. But there were those who said that they had been right to decline Thomas Edison’s offer to make Poughkeepsie the first fully electrified American city, after which he bestowed the honor upon Newburgh.
In Theodore Miller’s espousal of modern technology, he spoke for the “progressives,” those who favored any and all improvements. His credentials—a professional engineer’s license, membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and his new post—so impressed members of the town’s preeminent social group for men, the Amrita Clu…