Take a look back on the Poughkeepsie-born photojournalist who inspired the Surrealists, befriended Picasso, and documented the horrors of WWII.
On April 30, 1945, photographer Lee Miller, a war correspondent for Vogue, took a bath. She had spent weeks documenting the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps after they were liberated by the Americans and Russians, and the experience had left her not only shaken to her core, but very, very dirty.
Creature comforts were rare, and when she and her companion, Life photographer David E. Scherman, found the bathroom in a Munich apartment commandeered by American forces, she took advantage. The apartment belonged to Adolf Hitler.
She and Scherman devised a photograph. Miller placed a portrait of Hitler on the edge of the tub, a small statue of a female nude on the vanity, and her muddy Army boots on the bathmat. She poured the bath, disrobed and stepped in.
There are several prints, but in the best known she is looking up and away, toward a distant point, pensive and beautiful, scrubbing her shoulder with a wash cloth while Hitler looks on. She has turned her gaze away from him. As Miller would put it years later, “I washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub.”
That very evening, in a Berlin bunker, Hitler put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, thus ending the reign of history’s most notorious tyrant. And this photograph, as well as many others, remain evidence of Miller’s remarkable and tumultuous life, which began in Poughkeepsie in 1907.
The 1860 house on South Clinton Street where Elizabeth Miller was born and spent the first eight years of her life still stands. She was the middle child, with two brothers, and her father’s favorite. Theodore Miller was an engineer at the De Laval Cream Separating Co., a Swedish firm with a production facility in Poughkeepsie. An avid amateur photographer, he had the disconcerting habit of photographing his beautiful young daughter unclothed, even in the snow. Theodore Miller “photographed all the women he knew nude,” says Miller’s niece, Patricia Taylor, 84, who still lives in Poughkeepsie. Her father was Miller’s older brother John. “I don’t know how he managed to undress so many damn women!” He also gave his daughter her first camera.
Taylor got to know her aunt later in life, but Miller’s wild-child reputation preceded her. Like her much-older aunt, Taylor attended Governor Clinton Elementary School, and recalls when a teacher pulled her aside and said, “‘I’m so glad you’re nothing like your aunt!’ She was late getting home one day because she stopped and had her beautiful blonde hair bobbed, much to the horror of her parents. It was the style, so she went and did it.” Much has been written about childhood trauma informing adult choices, so the rape Miller endured at age 7 at the hands of a family acquaintance no doubt fueled her restlessness and tendency to self-medicate with alcohol.
Miller blossomed into one of the great beauties of her time, with icy blonde looks and the perfect slim Jazz Age profile, her hair kept short and boyish. “Betty” became the more androgynous “Lee,” and Lee became a high-fashion model in New York City before settling in Paris in the late 1920s, where she opened a photography studio. There she fell in with the Surrealists, a group of artists pushing the boundaries of artistic expression, the quintessential American muse forever captured on film as a living Greek goddess in Jean Cocteau’s 1930 Surrealist masterpiece Blood of a Poet.
As was often the case with Miller (and other talented, spirited women), her male mentors were also her lovers, including Picasso, who painted her portrait six times. It was Man Ray who taught her to be a photographer, and in the 1930s she returned to New York City and established a successful photography studio. When war broke out in Europe, she was shooting stories for Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire during the London Blitz. Scherman, the photographer at Life — who it should be noted, shared Miller’s bed along with her future husband Roland Penrose, a renowned art critic, while she was still married to a wealthy Egyptian businessman — suggested she become a war correspondent.
Miller was one of only five women photojournalists documenting the killing fields of World War II, and the only one who saw actual combat. Though quite by accident: she showed up to document the aftermath of a battle at St. Malo in France to find it was still very much a shooting war. She pounded out sharply observed dispatches on her Baby Hermes typewriter. (Her son Antony Penrose collected these works in a remarkable book, Lee Miller’s War: Beyond D-Day.) What she saw fundamentally transformed who she was. The fashion-obsessed muse fell away, replaced by a scruffy photojournalist who wore the same uniform for weeks and bonded easily with GIs who were reclaiming the European continent, village by village.
Patricia Taylor was 10 years old when her aunt returned to Poughkeepsie after the war. “Of course, she was wrecked. She had PTSD… I remember my mother commenting, ‘Oh, her looks are gone.’ She’d been trudging along with the soldiers for over a year. Other things had taken precedence over superficial things like clothes and looks. It was a complete transformation. She became a deeper, more introspective, much more interesting person.”
Miller married Roland Penrose, who was later knighted, making her “Lady Penrose from Poughkeepsie.” She had a son, Antony, and reinvented herself yet again, this time as a gourmet cook in the English countryside, while descending deeper into alcohol dependency to counter her PTSD. Taylor last saw her aunt in 1975, two years before her death from lung cancer. “She would be drinking and talking about life and men and war… It gave her the shivers just to be in the vicinity of Hitler. We hated Hitler and Nazism and anything that smacked of it so intensely.” History has difficulty metabolizing complicated women, especially when they are unapologetic. As Miller wrote to Roland Penrose in 1947, given the chance to live her life all over again, “I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affections.” Her story may eventually make it to the big screen; actresses from Nicole Kidman to Kate Winslet have expressed interest in Miller. In the meantime, the Dutchess County Historical Society is planning to feature her in its “Women’s Voices & Talents” series, to shine a spotlight on a legacy that still flies under the radar.
“Whether it was because she was ahead of her time, or because she was a complicated-enough woman, or a woman doing very untraditional things, or all of the above, the story gets left by the wayside,” says Bill Jeffway, director of the historical society. As for Patricia Taylor, memories of her beloved and controversial aunt live on. She recalls the time after the war when her father, Lee’s brother, forgot to pick her up at the train station in Poughkeepsie. Taylor drove to fetch her, and found Miller “sitting on the bench, sobbing.” “I thought they forgot me!” she cried. To which her niece responded, “Lee, I will never forget you. I think you are the most unforgettable person I’ve ever known.”