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So Much More Than the Girl in Hitler’s Tub

Lee Miller and Roland Penrose Part 2. By Neal Von Flue

You can read part 1 of this essay here.

I keep saying to everyone, ‘I didn’t waste a minute all my life’ but I know myself, now, that if I had it over again I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection.

-Lee Miller

Let’s get this part out of the way. This is Lee Miller, posing in Adolph Hitler’s bathtub:

Of all the elements in this photo, the part that draws me in the most isn’t the photo of a proud Hitler sitting on the edge of the tub, or the sculpture, or the mundanity of the space, or even Lee Miller. It’s the boots. We can tell they’re soldier’s boots and the bath mat where Hitler must have stood naked, has been trampled. Based on that alone, it’s clear that she isn’t a mistress or someone familiar to The Führer. She isn’t preparing for him. She isn’t an invited guest.

In truth, she is taking her spoils of war. If she were a man, we’d have no problem piecing together that the person in the bath is an occupier, washing off the mud of war in the home of the vanquished. In fact, she is washing off the dirt of a concentration camp having been, according to her, at the liberation of Dachau earlier that day. But the photo isn’t of a man. It’s Lee Miller, a household name at the time as the only female combat photographer on the front line in Europe. And she’s an artist too, so I can’t help but feel that she didn’t climb into that tub just to get clean. She might have felt compelled to try on the porcelain skin of a monster- to see what it feels like in his private space. And If I’m accurate, that drive towards empathy and vulnerability in the face of the truly monstrous may be her greatest quality as an artist, and what will keep the nightmares fresh for the rest of her life.

But Lee Miller had 10 lives before she climbed into Hitler’s tub (and maybe a few lives after.) So with that out of the way, let’s go back.

She was born in 1907 in New York. Her father was an amateur photographer and would be her first introduction to the art form.

We know that she was raped at 7 years old, on a sleepover with a supposed family friend, and was infected with Gonorrhea. The treatment for it was so painful that her brothers had to go two blocks from their home to escape the sounds of her screaming.

At 19 years old, she unwittingly stepped off a Manhattan curb into traffic and was pulled back to safety by a passer-by, the publisher Condé Nast. He had recently acquired Vogue Magazine and her striking beauty won her an immediate career in modeling. By the time she was 20, her image was gracing the cover of Vogue. Not long after, a stock photo of her was sold to Kotex making her the first woman to appear in an advertisement for the company. The idea of a photograph of a beautiful woman in an ad for menstrual pads caused such a scandal that it ended her career as a fashion model.

Having lost a career in front of the camera, she went about a new career behind it. With a determination that would prove typical, she decided to travel uninvited to Paris and apprentice herself with the already-famous photographer Man Ray. According to an interview with Miller in 1975 the story goes that, after following him around town to learn his haunts, she waited on the upper floor of one of his favorite restaurants:

Suddenly Man Ray kind of rose up through the floor at the top of the circular staircase. He looked like a bull with an extraordinary torso and very dark eyebrows and dark hair. I said, ‘My name is Lee Miller, and I’m your new student.’ Man said, ‘I don’t have students.’ and he was leaving for Biarritz the next day. And I said, ‘So am I.’

Having been given no real choice in the matter, Man Ray took her on and she spent 4 years alongside him, She became his lover and arguably his greatest muse. It’s said that many of Ray’s commercial photos of this time were actually taken by Miller. Together they discovered Solarization, a technique which would become foundational in image processing and later, one of Photoshop’s most used filters.

Given all of that, the word “muse” seems pretty dismissive of her contributions, she was more his equal than any of his other partners. And the art world of France was a far cry from the modeling world of America so she also found herself the subject of many of Man Ray’s works.

She also burned up the burgeoning Surrealist movement, becoming friends and occasional collaborators with everyone from Max Ernst to Pablo Picasso (as well as Valentine and Roland Penrose.) She starred as an armless marble statue in Jean Cocteau’s surrealist film masterpiece “Blood of a Poet”. She made her own contributions to the movement and inspired work from all of them. Her son Antony Penrose later said of this time:

When Lee arrived in Paris she had, in a way, been a Surrealist for some time — before the movement even had a name — because she had that determination to pursue her life free of the constraints of society which the Surrealists were already rebelling against…The Surrealist movement was going in tremendous force, and she was ready-made for it, and it for her.

And when she left Man Ray, he used the breakup to make some of his most well-known works. He focused in on sections of her- as if he was trying to understand her by separating parts from the whole- he aggressively cropped her head out of images, he put her eye on the swinging end of a metronome (with instructions to smash it with a hammer when you can no longer handle the ticking.) And he painted her lips across the sky, in a piece called “Observatory Time: The Lovers” which he worked on for 2 years after she left him.

This Man Ray painting of Lee Miller’s lips would later be the inspiration for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Lee returned to New York, opening a portrait studio with one of her brothers and putting on a successful solo show. But in 1934 she met a wealthy Egyptian businessman, and she was off again to live in Cairo. She focused on her surrealist tendencies there; refining her craft on expeditions while also rubbing elbows with the Egyptian elite. She would take day-long trips into the desert, and she took one of her most famous photos on one of those trips, a piece she called “Portrait of Space.”

And it would directly inspire Rene Magritte to paint “Le Baiser”:

But Lee didn’t last very long in Egypt. Her boredom with the Egyptian social circle coupled with her growing adoration for a newly-single Roland Penrose found her leaving her businessman in Cairo, and moving to England.

Her and Penrose lived together. And by doing so they embarked on some of their greatest work; collecting and strengthening the art movement that resonated so strongly with them. Picasso and Ernst, Miro and Cocteau, Dali, and even their previous lovers, Man Ray and Valentine Penrose; all of them became spokes on the Surrealist wheel. And Lee and Roland became the hub.

Until the war came.

A brief diversion to explain why Lee adored Roland:

Roland spent his war years as a Captain of the Royal Engineers, teaching the art of concealment and camouflage, writing the home guard manual on this new form of art in warfare, and all the while ensuring important artists received safe passage out of Europe.

But there’s another story about Roland Penrose from his time before the war, that I think does a great deal to illustrate the kind of presence he was for the Surrealists, and also how he managed to cultivate such loving devotion from someone as formidable as Lee Miller.

This painting by Penrose is titled “Portrait”. When submitted for an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1940, It was rejected on the grounds that it was offensive, likely because of the inclusion of the word “arse.” He was offered the opportunity to replace it.

In it’s place Penrose submitted a painting of a group of hands, which they accepted and showed, and which was later discovered to spell “SHIT” in sign language.

Lee Goes to War

During the height of the Blitz and against friend’s protestations, Lee left Roland and registered as an accredited war photographer for Vogue.

She got to France one month after the D-Day invasion and, alongside fellow correspondent David E. Scherman, rode the crest of the American fight through Europe.

She wrote fiercely, and Vogue published. Every day, she would meet at least one soldier who would go slack-faced at the sight of her, there at the front; Lee Miller who used to grace the covers of fashion magazines- who had been photographed, painted, and idolized by the world’s best artists- now in olive drab and covered in mud, with cameras and bags hanging on her slim art deco neck.

She never shied away from a picture or story, no matter how grotesque. She was there in the aftermath of battles (and sometimes dropped into them), she saw assassinations, murders, suicides. She walked into Buchenwald and Dachau with the men, and all the while her camera clicked. She found death everywhere, in every bomb-opened building, in piles of bodies, in the beds of field hospitals, in the reeds of the canal.

She took pictures and sent them home with hastily scrawled and occasionally furious reports, indictments of humanity, meditations on destruction. She developed a journalistic voice. She let her anger show, her grief, and her sense of humor.

I could add a hundred more. Each one more devastating than the last, and each one seen firsthand by Lee Miller.

Here she is with a helmet specially designed to accommodate her camera. You can also begin to see the toll it’s taking on her. The war is hardening the thing in her eyes which had beguiled the greatest artists of her generation.

After the liberation she left the war like many of the men did; full of ghosts. She went home to Roland, they married and had a son, but she found that she wasn’t fit for motherhood. Her relationship with their son was said to be close, but cold. She suffered nightmares and she drank heavily.

They lived in a place called Farley Farm– a little cottage that sat in the shadow of the Long Man of Wilmington and, as if Lee had resigned from a life full of tragedies and deep feeling, she took up cooking and entertaining their friends. And entertain they did. In the freedom of post WWII life, they hosted some of the world’s best artists at Farley Farm. They had a guest book that everyone signed, scribbled, or wrote poetry in. There were Henry Moore sculptures in the yard. Picasso painted the kitchen tile. People stayed as long as they wanted and they did their best to enjoy the heyday of their artistic movement. Roland worked to educate people on Surrealism by writing biographies of notable figures, all of whom happened also to be his friends.

Lee spent the rest of her life this way; cooking, entertaining, drinking and silently suffering. She boxed up her incredible body of work and put it away in the attic. Her son Antony grew up on Picasso’s knee, played with his Uncles Man Ray and Joan Miró with no knowledge of his mother’s contributions- her time as a surrealist muse, an artist, a war correspondent.

As Antony grew, the space between them also did. They had a strained relationship and it wasn’t until she passed in 1977- and they had spread her ashes in the herb garden that she loved to tend- that Antony opened the boxes in the back of the attic behind the priceless paintings and the other work that couldn’t fit downstairs. In those boxes, Antony found over 60,000 negatives taken by his mother.

And with this new understanding of the causes of her moods and her distance- her phenomenal life- he set about the beautiful and noble work of setting the record straight.

He now runs his childhood home Farley Farm, as a museum dedicated to his parents and their friends, and the art movement that they loved so dearly.

In 1946, Roland and Lee took a trip to America. While traveling they did some press, including a radio interview show. The show is built around a wonderful conceit (the kind you can only find in 1946 radio shows.) It’s hosted by the actress Ona Munson, who receives visitors in the social room of a decadent nightclub. The interview is brisk and clearly scripted, but also covers a great deal about Lee and Roland. It’s fascinating to hear their voices captured. And like the photo of Lee in Hitler’s tub, it has layers.

Ona Munson was made famous for a small part in Gone with the Wind, which unfortunately left her typecast. She was also a closeted lesbian, attempting several “Lavender” marriages (how Hollywood referred to lesbians and homosexuals marrying in order to conceal their orientations.) She was a figure in a secret group of lesbian actresses called “The Sewing Circle” and her typecasting- along with the need to hide her true self- caused deep depression and drug abuse.

9 years after this interview, Ona Munson would take her own life by overdosing on barbiturates, leaving a note that said:

This is the only way I know to be free again…Please don’t follow me.

In this interview, you can hear these world-weary figures coming together, furnished with the dreaming bubbly sounds of a fabricated nightclub to act out a scripted, but not-untrue story. Trying to smile after a war. And like the surface deep shock-value that we now get from of seeing a woman in Hitler’s tub, it has the sad effect of reducing this incredibly complex woman into broad, out-of-the-tube strokes.

It’s more theatre than interview. They speak of Dachau and Buchenwald in hushed tones, but never too gravely.

To juxtapose and draw lines- to infer more than one meaning in a relationship- or more precisely, to infer your own meaning in a thing, is a trait that we owe to these Surrealists. And we owe our knowledge of them to Lee Miller and Roland Penrose- and now their son Antony.

An imperfect collaboration in a world that wasn’t always easy.

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Images are © their respective owners and used for review purposes only. Thank you, Lee.

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