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Someone Very Extraordinary

On 21st July 1977 Anthony Penrose lost his embarrassing mother – someone who had been known to appear bare-breasted when he brought his friends home to tea; someone who could barely darn a sock; occasional writer of cookery books – soon to discover that he had been cheated. 

Born Elizabeth Miller, she would reinvent herself as Lee Miller and would continue the process of constantly evolving throughout her life.

The victim of rape at the age of seven, she refused to play the victim, keeping this unmentionable part of her life in its separate box, so that not even her husband would learn about it.

She was often the subject her father’s artistic experiments with photography, posing nude for him, as she would pose for others.  

Outgrowing her hometown, New York beckoned where she would have gone on ‘circulating around,’ as she put it, had she not accidentally stepped into the path of an oncoming vehicle, driven by Conde Nash, founder of the publishing empire. Her first appearance as Vogue’s cover girl in March 1927 established her as a model, and with her current look she was very much in demand, but that was not where Lee had set her sights. She wanted to be behind the lens.

Her idea was to go to Paris and ‘look up’ Man Ray. She presented herself at his studio announcing that she was his new student. In fact, for three years she became Madame Man Ray, his muse and lover. Slipping seamlessly into Parisian life, moving increasingly in the circles of the Surrealists, she also acted in Jean Cocteau’s new film project, The Blood of  Poet.  

Film proved irresistible but, again, Lee wanted to be behind the camera and the opportunity came with Stamboul, a drama set in the middle east, where she renewed an acquaintance with the distinguished Egyptian, Aziz Eloui Bey.

In the 1930s, Vanity Fair named Lee, alongside Huene, Beaton, Mauray and Genthe, as one of the seven ‘most distinguished living photographers.’ She was not only Man Ray’s equal. Increasingly she was a threat. But having achieved this level of acclaim, Lee made the surprising decision to marry Aziz Bey, announcing that she would live in Cairo and Saint Moritz.

In Egypt, she became an object of curiosity and gossip. And despite attempts to settle down, her feet grew itchy.

In the summer of 1937, on a trip to France, and in the presence of her former lover Man Ray, Lee met the wealthy English artist, Roland Penrose. He was dressed as a bandit, his hair was green, his right hand was painted blue and his pants were all the colours of the rainbow. Having only seen Lee in photographs, meeting her, he felt as if he had been struck by lightning. She awoke the next morning in his bed; she accepted his invitation to Cornwall and, from there, they visited Picasso in Mougins. After a period of indecision, Lee chose life in England with Penrose over her marriage to Aziz. 

Then war changed everything. Not overnight. Roland joined the Air Raid Protective Corps and installed a pink and blue air-raid shelter in their garden with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture at its entrance. Lee joined the staff at Brogue, but modelling leopard-skin trim didn’t seem appropriate. As clothes rationing impacted the fashion industry, she began to publish prose, document the devastation, and struck up a friendship with David Scherman, one of Life’s most inventive photographers. He would soon become part of the household, where the twenty-five year old was surprised to learn that open relationships were the norm.

After several assignments with David, Lee ordered her military uniform from Savile Row and became a war correspondence for the Conde-Nash press. In 1944, after the Allied invasion of Normandy, it was ruled that women photographers could report on the battle for France, and Brogue sent Lee to cover the American nurses’ post-invasion duties. Being Lee, she broadened her remit. She photographed the wounded. She captured the American’s first use of napalm. She subscribed to the demand for news of how celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire and Maurice Chevalier were faring, but she also reported on the altered lives of ordinary civilians. She would also become the only female photojournalist to see combat. Luxenburg and Brussels followed. Once authorised to travel, Lee drove to ‘Krautland’ where horrifying news reached press camps; the discovery of rotting bodies at a camp called Ohrdruf. Lee followed the trail that led her to the death camps.Together with David Scherman, she was among the first journalists to enter Dachau. Later he would recall, ‘Lee took the photographs I could not take.’                   

Lee found it difficult to settle into a life of domesticity. She struggled with rage and depression and was still torn by her love for two men, but at the age of forty she became pregnant. She had a terrible time of it, saying, ‘If anyone tells me how much I’m going to love it once I have it, I’ll sock them on the nose.’ Aziz came to London to divorce Lee according to Muslim law, a most amicable affair during which Aziz entertained them with tales from The Arabian Nights. The following month, Lee and Roland Penrose married. 

Worried about her age, she planned for a cesarean, was anxious that she would be a terrible mother, and left instructions for Roland in the event of her death. Her cameras were to go to someone with real talent: Cartier-Bresson or Berenice Abbott. During her musings she wrote, ‘I didn’t waste a minute of my life – I had a wonderful time…’.

This is the woman Anthony discovered as he looked through boxes and boxes of glass plates and fading photographs. Someone very extraordinary.

Jane’s novel I Stopped Time draws – albeit very loosely – on the life of Lee Miller.