The image is striking, no wonder it became famous. This exquisite woman catches your eye, one of those high-cheeked WASP beauties men were raised to revere and women were raised to emulate—then envy. She soaks regally in a bathtub, her shoulder luridly exposed, the tub shielding the rest of her body. The scene is intimate, familiar, yet alluring: you see soap dishes, washcloths, faucets, a bathmat, the usual white grouting.
But you start processing anomalies. Amid this seemingly middle-class, mid-20th century setting, there’s an aristocratic surprise: a small nude marble sculpture supervising the bather. It gets weirder. Eddies of dirt have blackened some of the bathmat, and the culprit is clear. This delicate model was wearing two combat boots standing in the foreground, with mud caked on their heels.
To the woman’s right, an official portrait of Adolf Hitler slouches on the bathtub’s ledge, providing the punchline. Lee Miller, a former model and ace wartime photographer, is in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub, in Munich on April 30, 1945, the day he killed himself.
The night before, Miller, and David E. Scherman, who photographed her, had visited Dachau, among the first correspondents to document the Nazi concentration camp horrors. (He’s too scrawny for his bathtub photo to work as well). The mud sullying the bathmat is muck from the human hell they discovered.
Miller’s beauty contrasts with the Nazi ugliness she witnessed. Her delicious little soak imperiously and idealistically reflects good defeating evil. Her immersion symbolically attempts a cleansing, having seen the worst humanity can produce. Alas, just as we all remain scarred by the Holocaust, Lee Miller, this 38-year-old goddess, lived another 32 years as a drunk, with her loved ones convinced that she, too, never recovered.
Luxuriate in the images on Elizabeth Lee Miller’s website, riding the rollercoaster that was her life: there she is, ultra-fashionable in a ’40s-style beret and trenchcoat, there she is, erotically charged, as in her elongated, photograph of her neck. Pablo Picasso appears, sometimes looking like a jolly old neighbor in a cardigan, sometimes like the artistic genius in a suitably stereotypical smock. Europe is omnipresent, sometimes looking monumental, sometimes looking like a graveyard. See the cathedral, St. James’ Piccadilly, photographed from the floor looking upward, its roof blown off; see the Nazi S.S. guard with his tongue protruding grotesquely from his mouth after hanging himself. Miller reported that his overfed body contrasted with the “heap of bony cadavers” in the death pile now shared by innocent victims and sadistic victimizers. There, “he looked shockingly big,” she wrote, “the well fed bastard.”
The Hollywood version of Lee Miller’s life would start in 1927 with this gorgeous 19-year-old almost run over by a truck in Manhattan. The person who saved her life, Conde Nast, who was busy founding his fashion publishing empire, exclaimed: “Gosh, you’ve got the makings of a great model.” And voila, she ended up on Vogue’s cover, then perpetuated the twenties cliché of the flapper: sporting a boa, swigging bootlegged gin, dancing the Charleston, hobnobbing with Fred Astaire and Charlie Chaplin.
Scandal soon intruded. The pioneering photographer Edward Streichen sold a photo of her to Kotex, making her the first real woman pictured in a menstrual hygiene ad. Suddenly unhireable because of her association with the unmentionable, she fled to France in 1929.
In Paris, she found refuge from the Roaring Twenties’ surreal lifestyle in Surrealism. She began a torturous relationship with the edgy photographer and artist Man Ray, 17 years her senior (who decades earlier had just plain old Emmanuel Radnitzky of Williamsburg). Assistant and lover, muse and tormentor, she would say, “I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside.” This admission summed up many of her rocky romantic roads.
Furious, especially after she starred in his rival Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde film, The Blood of a Poet, Man Ray chopped her up metaphorically, developing disconnected photos of her different body parts. “Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more,” he would write.
Returning to New York in 1932, she opened her own studio, a bold move for any artist during the Great Depression, let alone a woman. In 1934 she moved to Egypt with her first husband Aziz Eloui Bey, photographing breathtaking desert landscapes. Three years later she met the British Surrealist Roland Penrose, following him to London, as the Second World War erupted. By 1940, she was photographing a devastated London for British Vogue during the Blitz and by 1942 was trudging around battle-scarred Europe, as an American war correspondent.
Other photographers caught the war’s sweeping, destructive vistas. Lee Miller zoomed in on the faces, humanizing the suffering. Her son and biographer Antony Penrose would write that her notes reflected “the level of coldness and anger” consuming her as she witnessed the inconceivable. “Believe it…,” she wrote in 1945, “this is Buchenwald Concentration Camp at Weimar… No question that German civilians knew what went on.” After the war, she documented Eastern Europe’s chaos before returning to England. In 1947, while pregnant with their son Antony, she married Roland Penrose who soon established the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
The Penroses lived for the next three decades at Farley Farm House, near East Sussex, which today is a museum depicting their lives. Her son remembers Miller lurching from the maternal to the monstrous. She occasionally found solace in what he calls “surrealist gourmet cooking,” including green chicken and a blue fish inspired by a Joan Miro painting.
Her family attributed her despair to untreated post-traumatic stress. They were half right. You need not have survived the concentration camps to be a World War II survivor. Witnessing such evil was soul-crushing. But after Miller died of cancer in 1977, while writing her biography, Antony discovered a secret she even hid from her husband. In 1914, the 7-year-old Lee Miller was raped while visiting family friends. She contracted gonorrhea, which then required months of painful, invasive, humiliating treatments. A year later, her father Theodore, started photographing her nude, merely the most public dimension of his creepy relationship with her.
Her son assumes the rape by a relative made Lee feel “the world had failed her and the only person who was really going to care for her was herself.” When he told his father, Antony says “it was an incredibly touching moment. He said, ‘I wish we’d known—it would have enabled us to understand.’” Such trauma also explains her alluring aloofness as a model and her frustrating fickleness as a lover, wife, and mother.
Back then, society demanded a stiff upper lip—and Lee Miller survived. We moderns assume that had she shared openly, she would have worked it through. In truth, assessing our world, seeing that, for all our therapizing, so many of us are still hurting and now just wallowing, I have my doubts.