Lee Miller.

Model, photographer, surrealist, war correspondent, writer, actress, muse: Lee Miller was many things, in an extraordinary life about to be celebrated by Kate Winslet.

‘The act of writing never came easily. It took a monumental effort before she could concentrate her thoughts and focus her attention on the task. This took hours of what she termed “boondoggling”, when she would find any number of things except the matter in hand to occupy herself with. As the deadline approached, the many alternatives to work seemed increasingly urgent. She would make love, hang around the bar and get drunk, argue, sleep, curse and rail, cry, in fact do anything rather than make a start on the article.’

Antony Penrose writes of his mother, the Vogue war correspondent and combat photographer, Lee Miller. It’s August 1944 and she has just arrived in Paris moments after the city is liberated from the Germans. First she rushes to see artist chums such as Jean Cocteau and Picasso and then installs herself at the European headquarters of the allied press, the aptly named Hôtel Scribe.

‘Then, at the very last moment, she would work non-stop through the night, fortified by gargantuan amounts of cognac. The effortless, smooth flow of words that followed belied the agony that went into their production. Witty, perceptive and full of daring and oblique imagery, it’s hard to believe they are the product of such self-torture.’

Lee Miller might just be the most extraordinary woman you’ve never heard of. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she was across the course of her iconoclastic life a fashion model, surrealist, photographer, muse – the protege and lover of Man Ray, who sat for some of his most celebrated portraits and nudes, later painted by Picasso – actress, explorer, writer, war correspondent, wife, mother, award-winning gourmet cook and pioneering symbol of the sexual revolution.

Penrose’s biography, The Lives of Lee Miller, paints a captivating and historically significant portrait although he, too, knew little of his mother’s achievements until after her death in 1977, when her manuscripts were discovered in the attic of Farleys House, the family home. Her name, however, is about to be thrust into the limelight as Kate Winslet takes to the screen in the title role of Lee. ‘For me Kate Winslet is the perfect actress for portraying Lee,” Penrose tells The Pursuit Of. “I find that as a person Kate already has many of Lee’s best attributes – fiercely loyal to her friends, compassionate, generous, funny, courageous in many different ways and best of all, highly intelligent.’

The long-anticipated film is being directed by Ellen Kuras (and co-written by Penrose and Liz Hannah) and will focus on the years 1938-48, when Miller was writing and taking pictures for Vogue – the cover and pages of which, as a fashion model in the 1920’s, she had graced. The same decade includes an electric year and a half as the magazine’s war correspondent and combat photographer.

‘I’m surprised that a film has never been made about this incredible woman and I think the reason is her life was so vast that once you take a bite, you can’t stop chewing,’ says Winslet. ‘She has been misunderstood and so often viewed through the lens of a man, through a male gaze because she started her life as a model and was very beautiful. When you mention Lee Miller, you might first hear Man Ray. The part of Lee, the middle-aged woman, who threw herself at life, living it at full throttle because she knew it would hurt but she did it anyway, in search of the truth, that is a woman to admire. What she did as a female photographer on the front lines during World War II, was educate people on what actually happened during the war. Lee was the woman who was documenting war for women, through women’s eyes, for a women’s magazine.’

Not that her wartime dispatches were the usual fashion-mag fodder. Just before the Liberation of Paris, Miller was dropped, by chance, into the war-torn French coastal town of St Malo where the battle was wrongly thought to be over; women were not allowed on the frontline in WWII. She endured days of siege and witnessed a new weapon, napalm, being used for one of the first times. ‘We heard bombs approaching over our shoulders… I had the clothes I was standing in, a coupla-dozen rolls of film and an eiderdown blanket roll. I was the only photographer for miles around and I now owned a private war.’

Miller’s friend and lover, the Life Magazine photojournalist Dave Scherman, met up with her at the Hôtel Scribe. As legend has it Scherman’s pyjamas were often found under the pillows of the marital bed she shared with her second husband, the British surrealist artist Roland Penrose. Scherman recalled his first visit to the couple’s home in Hampstead in the early 1940’s, its walls completely covered in what appeared to be first-rate copies of Picasso, Braque, Miró and Magritte, amongst others, alongside a dozen pictures by Roland himself. ‘Only they were not copies,’ he said. ‘The house was mind boggling and so were Roland and Lee’s regular soirées, the guest-lists of which read like a Who’s Who of modern art, journalism, British politics, music and even espionage, though we did not know about the latter until years later. Communists, Liberals and Tories drank and jostled one another in an amicable mélange that will never be seen again.’

The pair traversed Europe in the wake of the crumbling Third Reich. ‘Germany is a beautiful landscape dotted with jewel-like villages, blotched with ruined cities, inhabited by schizophrenics,’ she wrote for the ‘Victory’ issue of Vogue in June 1945. ‘There are blossoms and vistas… tiny pastel plaster towns, like a modern water colour of mediaeval memory. There are little girls in white dresses and garlands, children with stilts and marbles and tops and hoops; mothers sew and sweep and bake and farmers plough and harrow; all just like real people. But they aren’t. They’re the enemy. This is Germany and it is spring.’

‘I’m surprised that a film has never been made about this incredible woman and I think the reason is her life was so vast that once you take a bite, you can’t stop chewing,’ says Winslet.

Miller and Scherman were among the first to enter Dachau after the concentration camp was liberated. Sensing the denial to come she cabled British Vogue editor, Audrey Withers, with the words: ‘I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE.’ The glamorous Miller had become as battle hardened as the toughest soldier but the horrors of Dachau would haunt her for the rest of her life. Some time later, Scherman took a photo of Miller bathing naked in Hitler’s Munich bathtub, arguably her most enduring image. A small framed photo of the Fuhrer perched on the edge of the tub and a legless statue of a naked woman (props no doubt added by the ex-Surrealist) make for a de Chirico-esque oddness, her army boots muddying Hitler’s otherwise pristine white bath mat in the foreground.

In her frontline photojournalism, Miller witnessed heavy fighting in Luxembourg and Alsace, the link up of the Russian and American armies at Torgau as well as Hitler’s home, Wachenfeld, burning in Bavaria on the eve of Germany’s surrender. She continued on to document the immediate and often harrowing post-war situations in Austria, Hungary and Romania, not returning to England, and Roland, until 1946. Late one evening back at home, she received a foot massage from her husband. ‘Darling, that’s wonderful, it gives me such calm. If only someone had massaged Hitler’s feet like that there would have been no massacres.’

These wartime escapades, though, were almost lost to history. ‘A few weeks after Lee died, my wife Suzanna went up into the attic of Farleys searching for baby pictures of me to compare with Ami, our baby daughter,’ says Penrose. ‘She came down with some pages of manuscript densely typed on the very thin paper that was used for making carbon copies. She said “I think you ought to read this”. I had no time to spare but I sat on the stairs and began.

The pages were all jumbled up and I started in the middle of a page with a line that began ‘Machine gun fire belched from the end pillbox …’. It went on for many pages, a vivid account of an infantry assault on a heavily defended fortified position. There were descriptions of bombing raids, shelling, dead and wounded, prisoners, civilians and collaborators. I searched but there was no by-line. I wanted to know who wrote this amazing prose – thinking it must be some seasoned LIFE Magazine combat photographer. My father solved the problem by producing back numbers of Vogue and there it was – titled St Malo. It had been written by Lee, the woman I regarded as a neurotic flake. That was the moment I decided I had to find out more. Suzanna and I dragged all the boxes from the attic and started going through them. My quest to discover this person who had been my mother was the catalyst for what led to the forming of the Lee Miller Archives.’

Penrose describes a ‘turbulent’ relationship with his mother, who realised from the outset she was without maternal instincts. Born in 1947, he was raised by a series of nannies at Farleys while Miller spent much of her time in London. ‘Lee was, on the whole, kind. She was very caring and concerned about my safety even when I was an adult. She could be good company and knew a lot about different things but in terms of a mother/son relationship she was absent.’ 

The pair declared war on each other when Penrose was a teenager and did not make up until 1974.  ‘It was Suzanna who made the bridge between me and Lee. Courageously as a young bride she would invite Lee, now an internationally famous chef, to dinner in our home and they got on really well. I remember saying to Suzanna – “What are you doing inviting her – don’t you know, she is the enemy?” Suzanna replied “Well she is not my enemy, and if you shut up long enough you will find she just wants to be your friend”. And Lee and I became friends but like two battle-scarred warriors who realised they should have been fighting on the same side.’

Encouraged by Roland, a year or two after the discovery of the manuscript Penrose realised there was a book in his mother’s story. He connected with Scherman, who became his unofficial editor and gave him the book’s title. However it still seemed as if a large piece of the puzzle was missing.

‘After my first research trip to New York I went on to California to visit my uncle Erik,’ says Penrose. ‘I told him I had a wealth of information and stories but I could not understand Lee’s personality: why it was so difficult for her to have loving relationships, why she was so promiscuous, why she was so fearless in the face of danger, loyal to her friends, and such a keeper of secrets. Erik, after some thought, told me the deeply held family secret. Lee had been raped at the age of seven and infected with venereal disease. This was 1914 and the antibiotics needed to cure her had not been invented so she suffered crude, painful and ineffective treatments until her early twenties. The family had enforced strict secrecy over the event as in those days, the victim was liable to be blamed and Lee would have been condemned to a life on the fringe of society. In one stroke everything in her life became clear, including the importance she attached to secrecy. She had not even told my father or her closest female friends.’

Further tragedy struck as a teenager, when Miller’s first crush took her rowing on a lake. Jumping overboard in some kind of prank, the boy suffered heart failure and died. She carried the combined scar of both events silently throughout her life.

Adding to the strangeness of her early years, Miller posed for her father Theodore, an engineer and amateur photographer, in the nude. ‘It’s very difficult to completely unpick this,’ says Penrose, ‘and people are often trying to make out there was an incestuous relationship. We’ve found no suggestion that there was and what I believe may have been happening was that her father was trying to give her confidence in herself so that she could overcome the childhood trauma.  Because the feeling must have been that she was damaged goods.’

She was certainly confident in front of the camera. At 19, she stepped into the path of a speeding car in New York and a bystander yanked her to safety at the last second. It was Conde Nast, who put her on the cover of Vogue. Her modelling career took off like a rocket but the other side of the camera beckoned, and she was determined to learn from the best. She travelled to Paris and tracked down Man Ray. ‘I went to him and said, “Hello, I’m your new student and apprentice.” He said, “No you’re not. I don’t have students or apprentices.” I said, “You do now.”‘

Three years ensued as his collaborator and lover. As legend goes it was actually Miller who discovered Ray’s trademark technique of solarisation – the act of re-exposing photographic paper to create tone reversal – accidentally, after she switched the light on when a mouse ran across her foot on the dark room floor. She carved out her own photographic career in Paris, as well as collaborating with Ray, and shot regularly for Patou, Shiaparelli and Chanel – even combining her talents and appearing as the model in photographs she herself took. 

At 19, she stepped into the path of a speeding car in New York and a bystander yanked her to safety at the last second. It was Condé Nast, who put her on the cover of Vogue. 

Cutting a path to the epicentre of the male-dominated world of the Surrealists, she starred in the 1932 Cocteau film, Blood of a Poet. But having imbibed all she could from Ray – and in the confusion of falling for an unassuming Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey, alongside a series of periphery romances – she returned to New York, alone, and established herself as one of the city’s most sought after fashion and society photographers.

Two years in and just as that career was skyrocketing, Aziz turns up, they marry and she moves to Cairo. Boredom set in quickly: the casino and country club life was not for her. But excitement came in the form of long-range desert travel and the joys of photographing villages and ruins, where she truly came into her own as a photographer.

In 1937, she attended a Surrealist costume ball at the home of the Rochas sisters in Paris and met Roland Penrose. Two mornings later, following a wild dinner party at Max Ernst’s studio, she awoke the Englishman’s arms. She gradually and amicably split from Aziz, who gifted her a large share portfolio, and the new lovers were with Picasso and Dora Maar in Antibes when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. A strongly worded letter from the US Embassy was waiting for her upon the couple’s return to Roland’s home in England: she had to board the next ship to the US as they could no longer ensure her safety. Laying the cornerstone of her greatest adventure yet, Miller tore up the letter and remained in England.

The effort Miller made to keep her internal demons, the ‘winged serpents’ at bay, was tremendous. She took the decision early on not to allow her childhood traumas – nor the conventions of being a woman – to restrict her, developing her own code of personal freedom. Life was to be celebrated and enjoyed and for the most part, at least until after the war, she succeeded. 

‘We had no understanding of PTSD and the propensity for alcohol abuse and depression that it brings and until we saw her photographs and researched the horror of the concentration camps, we had no idea of what caused her suffering,’ says Penrose. ‘When she was motivated, she was unstoppable, but sometimes the ability to get motivated eluded her for months at a time. In these doldrum situations she would remain in a state of inactivity and indecision until something – perhaps a trivial thing or the need to help a friend would nudge her out of it and she would get going again.’

Penrose looks forward to the film taking Miller’s life and work to a wider audience, much like Farleys – a Surrealist temple in Sussex open to the public at times throughout the year – and the extensive archives that bear her name. ‘I think Lee’s legacy is to make us realise we should not accept the limitations others attempt to place on our lives. If an ambition is creative and conforms to the tenets of peace, freedom and justice and you will do no harm, just do it.’

From a story originally published in WISH.