The New York Times
Lee Miller: A Lifeby Carolyn Burke
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
The New York Times
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
“If, like Auntie Mame, you believe that 'Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death,' you'll surely want to read Carolyn Burke's delightful biography of Lee Miller. . . . Delightful, meticulously researched, fascinating.… Miller’s life had many phases, all of them interesting, and Burke captures them in [this] fine biography.”
“Lee Miller went through life as a serial dazzler, adopting and shedding…guises a chameleon might envy.”—Janet Maslin, New York Times
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Read an Excerpt
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 Club, that they made him a member within months of his arrival in 1903. There he met local aristocrats like the Roosevelts and those who were on their way to positions of influence in banking, commerce, and politics. By the time Elizabeth was born, Theodore was known as the forward-looking manager of DeLaval’s large workforce or, alternately, as its benevolent dictator.
DeLaval had opened the plant in 1892 for the manufacture of its centrifugal cream separator (which separated cream from milk), then enlarged it the year before Miller was hired to quell labor unrest. A history of Poughkeepsie published in 1905 hails DeLaval as the town’s most advanced industry, functioning with electricity “driven by a dynamo driven by the only turbine engine so far installed in the city.” Over the years, new applications were developed for DeLaval’s machines. Theodore oversaw the production of machinery designed to clean industrial oils and varnishes, prepare blood plasma, and perform other tasks based on the principle of separating liquids from solids. The company was known as a good place to work. Theodore paid higher wages than were being paid in the rest of the county, instituted a forty-eight-hour workweek, and set up employee benefits including a restaurant, insurance, and profit sharing. To a labor force that had known harsh conditions elsewhere, he seemed a humane employer.
Nonetheless, good labor relations depended upon the employees’ knowing their place. The noblesse oblige attitude that prevailed in social circles—the river families’ distant patronage of their inferiors—operated at DeLaval. Theodore’s position, which would lead to his serving on the boards of civic institutions, planning commissions, and local banks, presupposed absolute control of his workers. The women employees whom he fondled did not complain of harassment, the members of ethnic groups—Italians, Poles, and other minorities, mostly Catholic—did little in the face of the “Wasp” values that kept them from advancing, and the few members of the town’s black community thought themselves lucky to have jobs. Theodore’s strict rule over his five hundred employees was taken for granted.
In this respect his ideas about the workforce were only somewhat more liberal than those of his cronies at the Amrita Club, which barred from membership Jews, Catholics, and blacks. Members invited their wives and daughters to a New Year’s Day tea dance, but the rest of the time women were excluded. Much of Poughkeepsie’s growth was decided at the Amrita Club’s dinner table, which was served by the best cook in town. Like the rest of Dutchess County, the city fathers were Republicans, but in this respect as in others (such as his atheism), Theodore demonstrated his independence of mind by voting Democratic. Despite these eccentricities, his preeminence was not disputed.
During the last decades of the nineteenth century, civic leaders had sought to express the town’s standing in monumental public buildings. In 1912, when the Amrita Club’s elegant new premises were completed, members concluded that they too belonged to the country’s elite—since McKim, Mead and White, the architects of New York’s Harvard Club, had designed their Colonial Revival headquarters. The new building, the mayor declaimed, symbolized “the orderly progress of a community” by incorporating modern conveniences into a design recalling the town’s colonial beginnings. Poughkeepsie was “the ‘City Beautiful,’ ” according to the board of trade. Greek Revival banks, Gothic churches, and Renaissance palazzo department stores lent a sense of history; the mansard roofs of Vassar’s Main Building evoked the Tuileries Palace, the Eastman Business College’s turrets recalled Oxbridge. Young men entering the portals of the new YMCA, whose façade evoked a Medicean palace, would emerge “the better for that beauty,” the town fathers told themselves.
The young men of the day, most of whom hoped to make their way as Theodore Miller had, no doubt felt the better for time spent out of doors rather than inside the edifices intended to civilize them. Few could afford the train trip to New York, where increasingly people of Miller’s standing would go for entertainment; many were intimidated by the idea of the big city. Young people took part in a round of local activities that began in autumn with trips to apple orchards for cider, winter carnivals, ice skating and boating on the frozen Hudson, fishing in April when the shad ran downriver, and in warmer months, garden parties and socials beneath the flowering fruit trees or among the azaleas.
The social calendar peaked in June when rowing crews from the Ivy League colleges came to train for the Intercollegiate Regatta. Poughkeepsians spoke proudly of having won out over Saratoga Springs, the home of the regatta until 1898—when the broad four-mile stretch of the Hudson north of town was deemed more appropriate than Lake Saratoga. Thousands of rowing enthusiasts came by train to stroll along the river, watch the rowers, and boost the local economy. The crews and their supporters occupied all the rooms in the area. Young men in boater hats strolled around town in the company of ladies with upswept hairdos; romances flourished. For a month the river was a watery stage crisscrossed by ferryboats full of rowing buffs and lined by viewing stands on specially fitted railroad cars.
This spectacle enchanted the local girls and decided the futures of a number of Vassar students, some of whom settled in Poughkeepsie. Elizabeth Miller had no such fate in mind for herself. She would always refer to her hometown as “P’ok”—as in poke, to prod, pry, or meddle, and pokey, as in cramped, frumpy, or, in slang, a prison—and she would do anything to épater the local bourgeoisie. Once she knew something about the Old World always being evoked in “P’ok,” Europe became her destination. By the end of her life, when she had lived abroad for fifty years, she had assimilated the Surrealists’ antibourgeois stance and accepted her odd status as the wife of Sir Roland Penrose—this after having been born into privilege, American style, and turning her back on what Poughkeepsie had to offer.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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