When she appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1927 at age 19, Lee Miller instantly became the new “It Girl” of the flapper era. A cool blond with a knowing look in her eyes, she suddenly had an open ticket to all of society’s soireÌes with the rich, powerful, and famous. It was a heady world that author Becky E. Conekin chronicles in her new book, Lee Miller: A Life in Fashion (Monacelli Press, $45).
It’s a far cry from the relatively staid life that Miller lived in Poughkeepsie. Soon after the birth of their only daughter, Elizabeth (her original name), in 1907, Florence and Theodore Miller moved from South Clinton Street to a 165-acre property in the Kingwood Park section of the town. A social climber, Theodore was the manager of the DeLaval Separator Company, one of Poughkeepsie’s most prominent businesses a century ago (he was also an amateur inventor and photographer who took many art nudes of his daughter). Lee’s brother, John, went on to become a demi-celebrity in his own right as a prominent aviator who ran in the same circles as Amelia Earhart. While he stayed in Poughkeepsie (and passed away there in 2008 at the age of 102), his sister had other plans.
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After less-than-noteworthy stints at the Oakwood School (she was expelled for insolence) and Putnam Hall, a prep school whose graduates often went on to Vassar College, Miller took off for New York City in 1926. A hop to Paris — where there was no Prohibition, garrets were cheap, and internationally known artists were everywhere — soon followed. She worked with the famed surrealist artist and fellow ex-pat Man Ray and promptly became his lover. Picasso painted her portrait and became her friend. She made a living as a model and, later, as a sought-after fashion photographer for British Vogue.
But in 1943, Miller traded glamour and gowns for a drab olive military suit and flats to become a wartime correspondent for the magazine. Teaming up with photojournalist David Scherman, she even gained access to Adolph Hitler’s Munich apartment after he had fled. While there, Miller and Scherman staged an iconic photo of Miller taking a bath in the Fuhrer’s own tub — on the same week that he committed suicide.
But after the war, the mercurial Miller longed for something less exciting, and so did another about-face. She married a chap named Roland Penrose, moved to the English countryside, and tended to her son, with cooking (she befriended renowned chef James Beard) and entertaining becoming new passions. She died in 1977 at the age of 69.
We chatted with author Conekin about Miller’s legacy:
How did you become aware of Miller?
I was working on my Ph.D., and I’d come across references to her from time to time. I thought, here is someone who was fascinating and immensely talented yet under-represented.
What’s the deal with her father and the photos?
He was a crazy, reckless guy. She probably had a father complex, but she clearly didn’t hate him, even though he took those photos. When Time magazine said she had the most beautiful navel in Paris, he sued them for saying that, and won.
Is it true that much of Man Ray’s work can really be attributed to her?
There’s a chance there’s a lot of stuff that’s really hers. She didn’t take herself that seriously at that point. She was learning her craft. They were making great art.
Tell us about her relationship with Picasso.
She had a very long-term friendship with him. And there’s much speculation that they were lovers.
People find her to be such an enigmatic beauty, and yet when you read about her antics, she seems very approachable. What was she really like?
She seems like one of my friends. She was loud, she smoked, and probably cursed. Also she did crazy things, like using the dishwasher to clean lettuce. She put snowballs in the freezer in case someone wanted to throw them in July. She had a great sense of whimsy.