The iconic image of American photographer Lee Miller in Adolf Hitler's bathtub in Munich. The image was taken on April 30, 1945, the day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin
By David Leafe
The first thing you notice about the photograph is the astonishing beauty of the woman posing naked in the bathtub, then your eye is drawn to a far more sinister detail. Next to the soap dish is a portrait of the man whose bathroom she has appropriated: Adolf Hitler.
Snapped at the Fuhrer’s abandoned apartment in Munich on April 30, 1945, the day he committed suicide in Berlin, this photographic scoop was every bit as daring and unconventional as the woman in the tub herself — fashion model turned war correspondent Lee Miller.
Described by one colleague as ‘an American free spirit wrapped in the body of a Greek goddess’, the legendary beauty once had the mould for a new design of champagne glass taken from her breast; she seduced dozens of men, including Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso — but she was no dumb blonde.
One of only two women combat photographers during World War II, she was also one of the few female correspondents who ventured into the liberated concentration camps.
Her images of emaciated survivors and badly beaten Nazi guards rescued from the hands of their former victims by Allied troops — along with others of Nazi families who committed suicide as the Allies advanced — retain their devastating power to this day. Now her reputation as one of the most extraordinary photographers of the 20th century seems set to grow even further.
As images of her steal the show at the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition devoted to Man Ray — the Surrealist photographer and artist whose lover and muse she was for three years — her son, Antony Penrose, has announced the discovery of thousands of her hitherto unseen negatives at the family farmhouse in Sussex where — as Lady Penrose — she lived until her death from cancer in 1977.
Available online from the end of next month, and including shots of the liberation of Paris in 1944, they will give fascinating new insights into her career. But they are unlikely to explain one of the great mysteries of her life.
Lee Miller in a bathing costume, posing for her lover, the photographer Man Ray
Why did a woman who had established herself as one of the most creative and free-spirited female icons of her age hang up her camera and abandon it all for the life of a country housewife, spending much of her time, according to her son, ‘in a state of depression and alcohol abuse’?
This decline is usually attributed to her suffering undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and the horrors she witnessed in the war were certainly enough to haunt anyone.
Only hours before that iconic image in Hitler’s bathroom was taken by her wartime lover David Scherman, a photographer for Life magazine, she had worn the heavy army boots pictured next to the bath while capturing the horrors at Dachau.
But it’s another photograph of Miller, again sitting naked in a bathtub, that may help explain her desolation in later life.
This image was captured in 1930, when she was 23, and the man behind the lens — as he was for numerous other nude studies of her over the years — was her father, Theodore Miller.
Their closeness is illustrated in the new exhibition of work by Man Ray. The artist himself became so besotted with Miller that he insisted they be linked by a golden chain when they were out together — but he could not hope to compete with her father’s place in her affections.
Father and daughter’s unsettling bond became clear when Theodore visited Lee and Man Ray in Paris in December 1930.
During this time, according to Carolyn Burke, author of Lee Miller: A Life, ‘Theodore relished the opportunity to do as many nude studies as he could schedule’.
These included shots of his daughter cavorting naked on her bed with stunning young female models hired specially for the occasion.
Burke describes one photograph Theodore took of her with a woman called Tytia as stopping ‘just short of lesbian sex’.
In solo poses for her father, Lee lies with her back arched over the bed, or with her legs up against the wall. All of which leads Burke to wonder what went through Man Ray’s head as he watched the two of them together.
Was there some significance in the poses of father and daughter taken by Man Ray and on show in the current exhibition. In these, sitting on her father’s lap and with her arms around his neck, Lee ‘nestles on his shoulder, gazes tenderly at him, and rests her head on his as if she felt utterly safe,’ writes Burke.
Lee Miller (right) with art critic Frederick Laws (left) at a theatre performance in 1950. In her later years Miller suffered from depression
To the casual observer, indeed, they seem more like portraits of a young woman and her far older lover than of father and daughter.
What point Man Ray was trying to make with the pictures is open to question, but Theodore’s naked photo sessions with Lee are certainly all the more disturbing for the circumstances in which they began.
When Antony Penrose began writing a biography of his mother after her death, he discovered a secret that she had taken to her grave.
Miller was an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue
Her brothers, Erik and John, revealed that in 1914, when Lee was seven, she was sent to stay with family friends near New York while her mother, Florence, was ill in hospital. While there, she was raped and infected with gonorrhoea — apparently by a male friend or relative of the family she was staying with.
Mysteriously, no action was taken against the perpetrator, presumably for fear of an ensuing scandal. This is perhaps understandable, but much harder to comprehend is her father’s behaviour at this time.
An engineer by training, he was the manager of a large factory in the upstate New York town of Poughkeepsie and was said to have taken advantage of his position by fondling his female employees.
Carolyn Burke suggests that he also had more substantial liaisons with other women and, when he did show an interest in his wife, it was to demand that she should pose naked for him in the name of art.
It was shortly after his daughter’s rape that Theodore, then 43, began taking nude photographs of her, too. The first, posed two weeks short of her eighth birthday in April 1915, shows her standing in the snow outside their house, naked except for her slippers.
That this sudden interest in his daughter’s naked form should coincide with the attack on her naturally leads to suspicion, but Antony Penrose says he has found no evidence to suggest that Theodore was her rapist, or that there was any kind of incestuous relationship between them.
‘The way he photographed her was clearly a transgression of the usual parent-child boundaries,’ he says. ‘But although it wasn’t normal, I don’t think it was harmful.’
He suggests instead that these naked photographs were Theodore’s attempt to restore his daughter’s self-esteem. ‘I believe that it was his way of saying: “We know you have this horrible disease but you are still a beautiful and clean person”.’
If so, it’s difficult to see why her father’s photographic ‘therapy’ should have extended to persuading several of her school-friends to strip for his camera, too. And despite the unbroken bond with Theodore, Lee later seems to have been uncomfortable about these shoots, particularly as she grew into an astoundingly beautiful woman.
Once, when she was 19, Theodore took her to some secluded countryside outside Poughkeepsie to pose as a woodland nymph.This was at around the time that Lee, who could never bring herself to discuss the rape with anyone, tried to confide the obliquest of references to it in her journal.
This left her in tears and feeling ‘the nearest to suicide I have ever been’, and her turmoil is perhaps reflected in those pastoral photographs.
Lee Miller was a successful model in her earlier years
‘Judging by the results, she felt uncomfortable,’ writes Carolyn Burke. ‘In some photos she covers her face with her hands. In others, she stands stiffly and shields her genitals.’
Much of the rest of her life seems to have been an attempt to escape such scrutiny, although it may not have seemed so from her early career choices, working as an exotic dancer in the chorus of George White’s Scandals, a New York revue performed in costumes stopping barely short of nudity, then as a lingerie model for a Fifth Avenue department store.
The start of her modelling career for Vogue in 1927 was a twist on the same theme but, as she took increasing interest in the techniques of those photographing her, also marked the start of her ambition to become the observer rather than the observed.
Her looks would certainly help her on her way. Her string of beaux in New York included Charlie Chaplin, who was 18 years her senior, and her ease in the company of much older men was further apparent when she travelled to Paris in 1929 and demanded that Man Ray should become her photography teacher.
Then 39, he had 17 years on his new muse. And his obsession with photographing her as a series of isolated and surreal body parts — a headless torso or a pair of legs with a circus midget between them — can have done little to dispel her childhood sense of herself as a screen on to which others could project their fantasies.
Neither can his enthusiasm for joining in the photographic sessions with her father on that visit to Paris in 1930 — sessions in which the two men photographed Lee reclining nude on a bed with three other naked women.
All the while, however, Lee was getting an invaluable training in photography from Man Ray. When she left him in 1932 and returned to New York, where she pursued an affair with Aziz Eloui Bey, an Egyptian aristocrat 16 years older than her, she became a sought-after portrait photographer.
Even so, it would take another ten years, and the outbreak of war, before she really found her forte. By then she had married and then left Eloui Bey (though they did not divorce until 1947) and begun sleeping with wealthy English artist Roland Penrose who, unusually, was only seven years older than her.
When they first paired up on holiday in France in the summer of 1937, he introduced her to Pablo Picasso and informed the great artist that he was free to share the favours of his new paramour, an offer that 57-year-old Picasso took up enthusiastically.
Miller wearing a Chanel outfit for a modelling assignment, circa Circa July 1928
That summer, Picasso painted six portraits of Lee, including one in which she had a third eye, positioned between her legs, an anatomical inaccuracy that belied their intimacy that summer.
She later discovered that Roland had bought one of the portraits and was displaying it proudly on his mantelpiece in North London.
When she finally left her Egyptian husband and moved in with Penrose months before the war began, it was clear she was keener than ever to put her days as a sex object firmly behind her.
The pictures of her in Hitler’s bathroom might suggest otherwise but they are part of a series in which she and David Scherman took turns to be photographed in the tub and, armed with the somewhat unlikely accreditation of ‘war correspondent for Vogue’, she was always determined to compete on equal terms with men.
This sometimes led her into trouble. Shortly after D-Day, she broke a rule against female correspondents going anywhere near the frontline, and followed Allied soldiers as they made their final assault on the Germans in the French town of St Malo.
For this, she was briefly arrested by the U.S. Army but, despite such experiences, the war seems to have found her at her most fulfilled. Civilian photography could never have the same appeal.
In 1949, when she and Roland moved to a farm house in Sussex, following their marriage two years earlier, Lee Miller put her photos in the attic and hardly ever talked about the war.
Nonetheless, it’s likely she missed not just the adrenaline and the camaraderie but, perhaps most important, the respect of soldiers and male colleagues.
To appreciate the importance of this, we have to remember that, as a little girl, she had learned to gain her father’s love and approval by removing her clothes for him.
At war, perhaps for the first time in her life, she was being appreciated not for what she looked like but what she could do. Adjusting to civilian life must have been a challenge indeed for the woman who always vowed she would ‘rather take a picture than be one’.
Man Ray: Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until May 27.