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  • Written by Carolyn Burke
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Lee Miller

A Life

Written by Carolyn BurkeAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Carolyn Burke


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: October 06, 2010
Pages: 448 | ISBN: 978-0-307-76663-2
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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A trenchant yet sympathetic portrait of Lee Miller, one of the iconic faces and careers of the twentieth century. Carolyn Burke reveals Miller as a multifaceted woman: both model and photographer, muse and reporter, sexual adventurer and mother, and, in later years, gourmet cook—the last of the many dramatic transformations she underwent during her lifetime. A sleek blond bombshell, Miller was part of a glamorous circle in New York and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s as a leading Vogue model, close to Edward Steichen, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso. Then, during World War II, she became a war correspondent—one of the first women to do so—shooting harrowing images of a devastated Europe, entering Dachau with the Allied troops, posing in Hitler’s bathtub. Burke examines Miller’s troubled personal life, from the unsettling photo sessions during which Miller, both as a child and as a young woman, posed nude for her father, to her crucial affair with artist-photographer Man Ray, to her unconventional marriages. And through Miller’s body of work, Burke explores the photographer’s journey from object to subject; her eye for form, pattern, and light; and the powerful emotion behind each of her images.A lushly illustrated story of art and beauty, sex and power, Modernism and Surrealism, independence and collaboration, Lee Miller: A Life is an astute study of a fascinating, yet enigmatic, cultural figure.

From the Hardcover edition.


A Poughkeepsie Girlhood


On April 23, 1907, Theodore Miller entered the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth, in his diary, noting the time of day (4:15 p.m.), the place (the Miller home, 40 South Clinton Street, Poughkeepsie, New York), her weight (seven pounds), and the names of those in attendance (Dr. Gribbon and Nurse Ferguson). His firstborn, Elizabeth’s brother John, had come into the world two years earlier, but the little girl—Li Li, then Te Te, Bettie, and in her twentieth year, Lee—would always be her father’s favorite. Her blue eyes and blond curls enchanted him. Whatever name she went by, she was his Elizabeth, whose growth he would continue to document, one might almost say obsessively.

By the time Elizabeth was born, Theodore Miller was the superintendent of Poughkeepsie’s largest employer, the DeLaval Separator Company (its machines separated heavier liquids from lighter ones). An ambitious man of thirty-five who was on his way to becoming one of the town’s elite, he had married three years earlier after securing his position at DeLaval’s recently enlarged plant on the bank of the Hudson River. Florence Miller, his wife, is not mentioned in the diary entry, as if her part in the arrival of their daughter could not be reckoned among the facts and figures that gave him his grip on the world. Perhaps it was taken for granted. Like most men of his time, Theodore believed that a woman’s place was at home, a man’s with the new world of science and technology—the forces that enabled entrepreneurs like himself and the country as a whole to move forward.

Theodore always said that he came of a long line of mechanics. A tall, erect man with penetrating blue eyes, he might have stepped out of a Horatio Alger novel. Born in 1872 in the aptly named Mechanicsville, Ohio, he grew up in Richmond, Indiana, at that time the largest Quaker settlement in the country. Although the Millers were not Quakers, he thought well of this sect despite his opposition to formal religion and, in adulthood, his atheism. More important to him than the Society of Friends and the Inner Light were facts. As a youth he had worked in a roller-skate-wheel factory, then a machine shop where he operated lathes. Earning his qualification in mechanical engineering through a correspondence course reinforced the idea that hard work led not only to self-improvement but also to material rewards.

When telling his children about his rise in the world, Theodore emphasized the Miller self-reliance. His ancestors included Hessian mercenaries who had fought for the British in the Revolutionary War; his father was famous as the man who laid seven thousand bricks a day when helping to build Antioch College; his older brother, Fred, was an engineer widely known as the editor of the American Machinist. Theodore’s career illustrated the belief that a self-confident man could try his hand at anything. In his twenties he had worked in New Jersey at a U.S. Navy shipyard, in Brooklyn at a typewriter factory, in Mexico at the Monterrey Steel Works, and in Utica, New York, at the Drop Forge and Tool Company, where he became general manager. So intent upon making his way that he did not think about marriage until he turned thirty, he then proposed to Florence MacDonald, the fair-haired Canadian nurse who had cared for him during his treatment for typhoid at Utica Hospital.

It was typical of their union that the children heard more about the Millers than about the MacDonalds. Florence told them little of her background except that her people were Scots-Irish settlers from Brockville, Ontario, where she was born in 1881, and that her parents had died when she was a girl, after which she went to live with relatives. Only later did they learn that the MacDonalds had been defeated by their hard, rocky land, and that Florence had had little education apart from nurse’s training. Then, nursing was one of the few paths open to women from poor families. There were more opportunities in the United States than at home but the work required dedication. Florence would have earned little more than room and board at the training hospital in Utica—except for the hope that once certified, she could work anywhere. Theodore Miller may have won her heart, but he was also a good catch.

Their life together as members of Poughkeepsie’s bourgeoisie began when they married in 1904, after he had settled into his position at DeLaval. It would have required an adjustment on Florence’s part to manage a household staffed with servants, including some from the town’s black community. In the few family photographs taken before 1904 Florence is a shy, slender young woman. She was happy to trade her white cap and nurse’s uniform for the large-brimmed hats and flowing gowns of the 1900s, to collect bric-a-brac for her new house, and in time, once her children were at school, to educate herself.

Although Florence took her turn giving the tea parties expected of the Poughkeepsie ladies with whom she mingled, some insecurity prevented her from enjoying these occasions. She fussed about details. Unsure which of Poughkeepsie’s many Protestant churches to attend, she tried them all. Traces of her time as a nurse were still discernible in her bathroom, where white tiles and a doctor’s scale implied that cleanliness was next to godliness. Florence retained a horror of germs and a reverence for doctors. She was also in awe of her husband, who was nearly ten years older and the mainstay of their comfortable life.

The Millers often told their children a story from their early days in Poughkeepsie. Because of Theodore’s position, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution invited his bride to join this ultraconservative organization. Florence filled in the genealogical forms required of new members. Her husband’s Hessian forebears, who had fought against the revolution that gave the group its name, raised a few eyebrows, but as soon as the membership committee saw that she was Canadian, the invitation was withdrawn. Having been treated as less than loyal Americans, the Millers turned the incident into a joke. And since it was impossible to infiltrate the old families whose cupolaed mansions overlooked the Hudson, they made the best of the matter by establishing themselves as citizens of the new century.

Depending upon whom you were talking to, Poughkeepsie in the 1900s was either a declining regional capital or an industrial center ready to take advantage of its strategic location. Both accounts were accurate. To the town’s more progressive citizens, its values seemed Victorian. Yet at the same time, institutions like Vassar College—located two miles east of town—were trying out new ideas about women’s social and intellectual potential, and forward-looking businesses like DeLaval, a Swedish firm, were rethinking the relations between civic and professional life. Many Poughkeepsians believed they lived at the center of things. The New York Central’s trains sped north along the Hudson to Albany and south to New York City, the bridge across the river encouraged trips west to New Paltz and the Catskills, the Dutchess Turnpike ran east past rich farmlands to Connecticut.

Since the eighteenth century, the “river families,” the old guard of Dutchess County, had looked down from their hilltop estates on the villages along the Hudson’s shores as if they were the fiefs in some American version of feudalism. Poughkeepsie, a town of twenty-four thousand when Elizabeth was born, had always been something of an exception. Its inhabitants prided themselves on their town’s history as a seventeenth-century Dutch settlement and an early state capital, the site of New York’s ratification convention for the U.S. Constitution, and from the 1860s on, the hub of swift railroad connections to the north and west. Although the symbol of the new century, the Twentieth Century Limited, flew past Poughkeepsie on its way from New York to Chicago, the city’s position halfway between New York and Albany was thought to ensure its influence—provided the town fathers could agree on what was meant by progress and how to go about implementing it.

Prominent Poughkeepsians looked to technology as the way to be “up-to-date.” At a time when civic leaders all over the United States indulged in boosterism to enhance their town’s reputation at the expense of neighboring ones, they proclaimed Poughkeepsie’s superiority over its rivals, Syracuse and Albany. Yet in reality it had grown very little since the 1870s, a number of businesses having failed or gone elsewhere. Industries clustered along the Hudson in former times had included shipbuilders, dye mills, a brewery, and an ironworks, many of which had been replaced by larger, more modern concerns like DeLaval and Queen Undermuslins, a manufacturer of women’s underwear. What was good for these businesses was good for Poughkeepsie, town officials said, as were recent municipal gains like electric lights, telephones, and macadam paving. But there were those who said that they had been right to decline Thomas Edison’s offer to make Poughkeepsie the first fully electrified American city, after which he bestowed the honor upon Newburgh.

In Theodore Miller’s espousal of modern technology, he spoke for the “progressives,” those who favored any and all improvements. His credentials—a professional engineer’s license, membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and his new post—so impressed members of the town’s preeminent social group for men, the Amrita Club, that they made him a member within months of his arrival in 1903. There he met local aristocrats like the Roosevelts and those who were on their way to positions of influence in banking, commerce, and politics. By the time Elizabeth was born, Theodore was known as the forward-looking manager of DeLaval’s large workforce or, alternately, as its benevolent dictator.

DeLaval had opened the plant in 1892 for the manufacture of its centrifugal cream separator (which separated cream from milk), then enlarged it the year before Miller was hired to quell labor unrest. A history of Poughkeepsie published in 1905 hails DeLaval as the town’s most advanced industry, functioning with electricity “driven by a dynamo driven by the only turbine engine so far installed in the city.” Over the years, new applications were developed for DeLaval’s machines. Theodore oversaw the production of machinery designed to clean industrial oils and varnishes, prepare blood plasma, and perform other tasks based on the principle of separating liquids from solids. The company was known as a good place to work. Theodore paid higher wages than were being paid in the rest of the county, instituted a forty-eight-hour workweek, and set up employee benefits including a restaurant, insurance, and profit sharing. To a labor force that had known harsh conditions elsewhere, he seemed a humane employer.

Nonetheless, good labor relations depended upon the employees’ knowing their place. The noblesse oblige attitude that prevailed in social circles—the river families’ distant patronage of their inferiors—operated at DeLaval. Theodore’s position, which would lead to his serving on the boards of civic institutions, planning commissions, and local banks, presupposed absolute control of his workers. The women employees whom he fondled did not complain of harassment, the members of ethnic groups—Italians, Poles, and other minorities, mostly Catholic—did little in the face of the “Wasp” values that kept them from advancing, and the few members of the town’s black community thought themselves lucky to have jobs. Theodore’s strict rule over his five hundred employees was taken for granted.

In this respect his ideas about the workforce were only somewhat more liberal than those of his cronies at the Amrita Club, which barred from membership Jews, Catholics, and blacks. Members invited their wives and daughters to a New Year’s Day tea dance, but the rest of the time women were excluded. Much of Poughkeepsie’s growth was decided at the Amrita Club’s dinner table, which was served by the best cook in town. Like the rest of Dutchess County, the city fathers were Republicans, but in this respect as in others (such as his atheism), Theodore demonstrated his independence of mind by voting Democratic. Despite these eccentricities, his preeminence was not disputed.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, civic leaders had sought to express the town’s standing in monumental public buildings. In 1912, when the Amrita Club’s elegant new premises were completed, members concluded that they too belonged to the country’s elite—since McKim, Mead and White, the architects of New York’s Harvard Club, had designed their Colonial Revival headquarters. The new building, the mayor declaimed, symbolized “the orderly progress of a community” by incorporating modern conveniences into a design recalling the town’s colonial beginnings. Poughkeepsie was “the ‘City Beautiful,’ ” according to the board of trade. Greek Revival banks, Gothic churches, and Renaissance palazzo department stores lent a sense of history; the mansard roofs of Vassar’s Main Building evoked the Tuileries Palace, the Eastman Business College’s turrets recalled Oxbridge. Young men entering the portals of the new YMCA, whose façade evoked a Medicean palace, would emerge “the better for that beauty,” the town fathers told themselves.

The young men of the day, most of whom hoped to make their way as Theodore Miller had, no doubt felt the better for time spent out of doors rather than inside the edifices intended to civilize them. Few could afford the train trip to New York, where increasingly people of Miller’s standing would go for entertainment; many were intimidated by the idea of the big city. Young people took part in a round of local activities that began in autumn with trips to apple orchards for cider, winter carnivals, ice skating and boating on the frozen Hudson, fishing in April when the shad ran downriver, and in warmer months, garden parties and socials beneath the flowering fruit trees or among the azaleas.

The social calendar peaked in June when rowing crews from the Ivy League colleges came to train for the Intercollegiate Regatta. Poughkeepsians spoke proudly of having won out over Saratoga Springs, the home of the regatta until 1898—when the broad four-mile stretch of the Hudson north of town was deemed more appropriate than Lake Saratoga. Thousands of rowing enthusiasts came by train to stroll along the river, watch the rowers, and boost the local economy. The crews and their supporters occupied all the rooms in the area. Young men in boater hats strolled around town in the company of ladies with upswept hairdos; romances flourished. For a month the river was a watery stage crisscrossed by ferryboats full of rowing buffs and lined by viewing stands on specially fitted railroad cars.

This spectacle enchanted the local girls and decided the futures of a number of Vassar students, some of whom settled in Poughkeepsie. Elizabeth Miller had no such fate in mind for herself. She would always refer to her hometown as “P’ok”—as in poke, to prod, pry, or meddle, and pokey, as in cramped, frumpy, or, in slang, a prison—and she would do anything to épater the local bourgeoisie. Once she knew something about the Old World always being evoked in “P’ok,” Europe became her destination. By the end of her life, when she had lived abroad for fifty years, she had assimilated the Surrealists’ antibourgeois stance and accepted her odd status as the wife of Sir Roland Penrose—this after having been born into privilege, American style, and turning her back on what Poughkeepsie had to offer.

From the Hardcover edition.
Carolyn Burke|Author Q&A

About Carolyn Burke

Carolyn Burke - Lee Miller

Photo © Elena Seibert

Carolyn Burke, a biographer, art critic, and translator, has taught at Princeton and the University of California at Santa Cruz and at Davis; at the Universities of Western Sydney and New South Wales in Australia; and at the Sorbonne and the University of Lille in France. She received critical acclaim for her book Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy from The Washington Post (“[a] brilliant biographer”), The New Republic (“superb”), and the San Francisco Chronicle (“impressive . . . does full justice to Loy’s varied accomplishments”). Born in Australia, she now lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Author Q&A

Q: You once met Lee Miller in Paris. Can you tell us a little about that meeting and what was it about her that made you want to tell her story?A: By chance, I found myself next to Lee Miller during a slide talk on Man Ray given in Paris by Sir Roland Penrose, her husband. Though the unfashionably garbed woman seated beside me no longer looked like the blonde beauty of Man Ray’s photographs of her from the 1920’s and ‘30’s, I recognized her profile—the one being shown on the screen as “solarized” by Man Ray. We got into conversation, which continued after the talk at the Café de Flore and the next day at her apartment. She told me about her childhood in Poughkeepsie, her flapper days as a model in Manhattan, working with Jean Cocteau on his provocative film Blood of a Poet, and life in Egypt during her first marriage but said little about her years as a World War II photojournalist. At the time, I felt an affinity with this brave, quirky woman, whose death of cancer three months after we met came as a shock. My feelings intensified when I later saw her photographs, especially those from the death camps. It was astounding to learn that the beauty who had inspired Man Ray and Cocteau was the same person who unflinchingly photographed at Buchenwald and Dachau.Q: Although she could have remained a 1920s flapper out of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Miller became, first the muse for great artists like Man Ray, Cocteau, and Picasso, and then an artist/photographer in her own right. Was it merely fate, such as her first meeting with Condé Nast who literally pulled her out of the way of an oncoming car, or was there something in her nature that drove her?A: Lee Miller responded to accidents of fate by embracing them, especially when they allowed her to move in new directions. In childhood she learned the rudiments of photography from her father; during adolescence she took dance lessons, studied stage design in Paris and painting at the Art Students League in New York. Miller believed that she was meant to be an artist but it was not until she began modeling for the great photographers of the ‘20s—Steichen, Genthe, Hoyningen-Huene—that she turned to photography as her art form. Working with these men, she absorbed techniques that served her well when she became Man Ray’s assistant in Paris in 1929—a job she talked her way into despite his initial lack of interest. They soon became lovers. Within a short time, she was taking commissions as his partner, “Madame Man Ray.” Yet within a few years, Miller’s need to control her fate drove her to leave him and set up her own photographic studio in Manhattan.Q: How did her childhood trauma of being raped by a family friend, and then the subsequent nude photography she posed for as a teenager for her father, effect her as an adult?A: Miller dealt with these experiences by pretending that they hadn’t happened. Not even her closest family members knew that for years she underwent excruciatingly painful treatments for the gonorrhea resulting from the rape—treatments at first administered in secret by her mother, a trained nurse who abhorred both germs and scandal. Her father’s peculiar attempts to help his daughter get over her sense of being damaged goods included telling her that sex and love were different things and taking nude photographs of her in the name of Art, as if to reinforce the idea that she should forget or detach from what happened to her.During her adolescence the ethos of “Flaming Youth” seemed to confirm the desirability of what we might call a split between body and psyche. As an adult, Miller made it a point to embrace masculine freedoms. She took it for granted that she should choose her sexual partners; her many lovers remained close to her after the end of their affairs. At age 40 she wrote, “I keep saying to everyone, ‘I didn’t waste a minute, all my life—I had a wonderful time,’ 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 affections.”Yet the damage done in her early years caught up with her after the war and her marriage to Penrose—in her bouts with alcoholism, depression, and her disinclination to go on with her photographic career despite the wide acclaim it won her. “I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside,” Miller told an interviewer toward the end of her life, as if she had internalized the puritanical mind set she always claimed to despise.Q: Although she was considered by some to be a beauty on par with Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, what were her own feelings about her beauty?A: Lee Miller made use of her spectacular looks to get where she wanted to go, often charming admirers from whom she had something to learn. She was quick to see that her beauty allowed her to move freely in a number of worlds—the Social Register as depicted in the pages of Vogue, where she posed as a “young thing,” the smart set of New York’s artistic bohemia, later, French high society, whose adventurous members sponsored the avant-garde projects that mobilized her artistic spirit. Yet during the war she was happy to abandon fashionable life, and fashion itself, to don her army uniform. Throughout the years of her travels with the G.I.s, the woman who had been known as a snappy dresser wore olive-drab fatigues—as if delighted to shed the obligation to be a beautiful object and become a full participant in history as it was happening. Toward the end of her life, she clearly didn’t give a damn about her looks. Perhaps she was glad to be free of them!Q: While she had been a photographer in her own right, what catapulted her into becoming a war correspondent/photographer? And what were the circumstances of the famous photo of her taking a bath in Hitler's bathtub?A: Miller was living with Penrose in London during the blitz: some of her most stunning photos of war damage there were included in Grim Glory, a 1940 picture book intended to gain American support for Britain. As a foreigner Miller couldn’t enlist in the service branches open to women, but she documented their war work for U.K. Vogue. Writing the stories that accompanied her photos during the build-up to the 1944 invasion, she learned from her friend David Scherman, a Time-Life photographer, that she too could get accreditation from the U.S. Army—her passport to the war zone.From then on, she covered battle fronts from St. Malo to liberated Paris to the downfall of Germany—where, after a harrowing day documenting the liberation of Dachau, she and Scherman were billeted at Hitler’s house in Munich, then U.S. army headquarters. Neither of them had bathed in weeks. After arranging the room like a set (with a classical statue and a photo of Hitler), they took turns photographing each other. Miller sent back her images minus the sequence in Hitler’s tub, a macabre souvenir that would not be published for decades. Though she once joked about washing off the dirt of Dachau in Hitler’s own tub, she told her intimates that the stench still remained in her nostrils.Q: What would you consider to be her best or most haunting photograph from the time she was a war correspondent during World War II?A: The moving German Guard, Dachau, an image that meets reality on its own ground. We see the dead guard floating in his water-logged uniform, a diagonal mass in the water that will be his grave. This elegant composition documents the war while using light and shadow to hint that the guard's death, though justified, is somehow redemptive. Its mysterious beauty implies the issues—grief, responsibility, memory—that would haunt Miller long after the end of the war. Q: How do you balance images of Lee Miller as war correspondent and fashion icon? Which aspect of her life do you feel she is remembered more for today, and do you think she would want to be remembered that way?A: It still amazes me that someone who began life in upstate New York in the early years of the twentieth century should have accomplished so much, in so many arenas. So I’d have to say that these seemingly diverse images of Lee Miller, as fashion icon and as photojournalist, demonstrate her remarkable range, and that furthermore, they suggest that we are all capable of more than we imagine or accept given the limits of background and/or training. John Houseman’s recollection of a battle-weary Lee in Montparnasse at the liberation of Paris in 1945 brings together these disparate aspects of the whole-hearted person she was: at that moment, “she became the symbol of freedom, the statue of Liberty walking into La Coupole.”Q: You also wrote the biography of Miller’s contemporary Mina Loy, the poet/painter. Was it these particular individuals or the time period in which they lived that drew you to their stories?A: Again I’d have to say both. I first heard of Mina Loy when living in Paris and immersing myself in the lives of the expatriates—Joyce, Pound, Stein, Brancusi, Man Ray, Natalie Barney, and Djuna Barnes, all Mina’s friends. (In another fortunate accident, I was living on the rue Campagne-Première, the one-block street where Mina, Man Ray, and later Lee Miller resided.) I learned about Lee while researching Mina’s friendship with Man, so you could say that one remarkable woman led me to another. Certainly the time period played a large part in my choice of subjects, but also the accomplishments of both women and their ways of taking or making freedom, to borrow a phrase from Lee Miller—who, by the way, was a friend of Mina Loy’s though almost entirely unlike her.Q: Your upcoming book is on fin-de-siècle France, is it also a biography?A: I suppose you could call it a historical fiction, or to be more precise, a biographical mystery. It has characters who existed and some I’ve made up; they all become involved in the search to solve a crime that actually took place, but somewhat differently from the way I tell it. To my delight, when things are going well, my characters speak to me. I take down what they say, as I did in my role as biographer. One kind of writing seems to have inspired the other. And in my imagination, I’m still immersed in those expatriate circles, hanging out in the Montparnasse cafés or walking down the Boulevard Raspail to the one-block street I shared, at different times, with my characters.

From the Hardcover edition.



“A biographer couldn’t ask for a more compelling subject, and Lee Miller couldn’t have asked for a more insightful and eloquent biographer. Carolyn Burke writes with lucidity and energy. As adept a storyteller as she is an ardent scholar, she is generous with details yet never gets bogged down. Fluent in the nuances of ambiguity and cued to the obdurateness of paradox, she provides thoughtful and measured analysis that is genuinely enlightening and never intrusive . . . Miller’s story of personal reinvention and artistic evolution blazes right along, and Burke feeds the flames with just the right mix of straight-ahead chronicling and shrewd commentary, steering the reader to the apex of Miller’s life, her courageous and artistic response to World War II . . . No one who reads Burke’s involving biography will ever forget Miller. So visually rich and electrifying is her story, a movie version seems inevitable. But whatever interpretations the future may bring, Burke’s vital and incisive portrait will be the wellspring. Demonstrating the same clarity of observation and sensitivity to subtleties that distinguish Miller’s photographs, Burke indelibly portrays a radiant woman forced to look into the heart of darkness, and an artist who cast light on a brutalized world, illuminating its abiding beauty and grace, and enhancing our empathy and awe.”
Chicago Tribune

“Delightful, meticulously researched, fascinating . . . [Miller] was a woman who needed no exhortation from anyone to “Live! Live!” Her life was filled with adventures . . . Miller’s life had many phases, all of them interesting, and Burke captures them in [this] fine biography.”
Washington Post Book World

“Compelling, riveting . . . It seems fitting that Carolyn Burke, whose first biography corrected history’s error of undervaluing the avant-garde poet and artist Mina Loy, has written Lee Miller: A Life. [Miller is] a forgotten visionary photographer who was muse and lover to some of the most influential artists of the early 20th century, as well as one of the few women able to transcend this role and become an artistic force in her own right . . . The photograph that may give the truest glimpse into Miller’s nature is a portrait shot in Hitler’s bathtub . . . A woman caught between horror and beauty, between being seen and being the seer.”
New York Times Book Review

“At last, a life and an album about Lee Miller, one of the most beautiful women who ever lived . . . A remarkable book . . . [Burke] lets the facts speak for themselves. And the facts are vivid . . . For the first time the ravaged arc of Lee Miller’s life is clear, beautiful but lined in pain.”
New York Observer

“Fascinating, remarkable, memorable . . . [A] singular life . . . It’s one of the great joys of reading: a story about someone you’ve never heard of, giving you insight into something you didn’t know you cared about. That’s the gift from author Carolyn Burke . . . A captivating read, one that raises questions in the reader’s mind about how things have changed–and how they’ve stayed the same–in women’s lives over the past century . . . Burke’s book is what biography ought to be . . . Lee Miller: A Life belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in how people of [Miller’s] generation dealt with their times.”
Santa Cruz Sentinel

“[Lee Miller’s] peregrinations reminded me of innumerable others’–Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, and Jill Craigie . . . [But] of all the women I have in mind, Miller strikes me as the most heroic. [Miller’s photographs] dramatize art and history, making both more accessible . . . Burke brilliantly draws on Miller’s own history to understand the photograph [of Miller in Hitler’s bathtub]. Gellhorn, Hellman, West, and Sontag never acknowledged just how self-conscious they were about writing themselves into the world’s consciousness. Miller is their superior in understanding what it meant to model yourself after others in order to make yourself the next model . . . Miller was an exceptionally honest artist-observer, one who knew just how deeply implicated she was in her scenes . . . This handsomely produced and impeccably written and researched book is surely a state-of-the-art biography.”
New York Sun

“Illuminating . . . As a disciple of Alfred Steichen and devotee and lover of Man Ray in Paris, [Miller] played the ingénue a little but was more knowing than all that; indeed, she recalled, she was a bit of a fiend. Ray came eventually to regard her as a threat, though it was likely for the ever-deepening quality of her work as a photographer. [She] had the kind of life that the present-day bohemian can only aspire to; yet Miller fully came into her own as a combat correspondent (for Vogue) in Europe during WWII . . . Burke’s graceful biography restores Miller to attention; students of art photography, in particular, will want a look.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Those who knew [Miller] say that she always provided an intriguing study in contrasts. A model-turned-photographer-turned-war correspondent, she later added gourmet chef to that list of hyphenates. In her world, a closetful of Vionnet gowns and combat boots made sense . . . Unlike other books on Miller, which consist mostly of photographs, [this] is a thoroughly researched account of her life [and] remarkably diverse accomplishments . . . Miller’s life unwound like a mad Surrealist film–the cast of characters and roles she would play were wildly colorful and made for quite outré stories . . . She had lived, by the end, many extraordinary lives . . . Captivating.”
W magazine

“[Miller’s] surrealist background led her to taking stunning photos of the London Blitz, but she shot her most memorable–and disturbing–images accompanying American troops from Paris to Dachau as a war correspondent for Vogue. Burke’s meticulously detailed biography reveals how keenly Miller’s wartime experiences haunted her during her final troubled decades, but it also probes sympathetically into the artist’s other significant trauma . . . Burke writes with a careful sense of how Miller might have approached her work and of how it is perceived by modern viewers. Her descriptions of Miller’s imagery are so vivid that, despite the dozens of photographs reproduced here, readers will find themselves wanting to see more. As the first major biographer outside the Miller family, she traces a dynamic life that embodies the spirit of the 20th century’s first half.”
Publishers Weekly

Praise from the UK:

“Superb . . . Just as Miller lived what seemed like 10 lives, so Burke has done enough work for 10 books. The effect is never stifling, however. [Burke] never let[s] a good tale slip by. She is the ultimate photographer’s assistant: setting up the background against which her subject can shine, clever, capable, sympathetic, and never in the way.”
The Herald

“[Miller’s photographs] are hard to forget. Until relatively recently, however, Miller’s fame, as a flawless beauty, photographic collaborator and model, overshadowed her artistic legacy. This first full-length biography . . . shows how Miller’s complex nature contributed to this neglect . . . The biography truly comes to life when [Miller] became a war correspondent . . . Carolyn Burke’s sympathetic tribute sheds further light on the lives of this highly original, often misunderstood woman.”
The Economist

“Meticulous . . . Lee Miller was an astounding woman, brought memorably to life in this astounding book.”
The Telegraph

“Illuminating, revelatory, perceptive . . . A welcome and long overdue biography sure to become essential reading for any student of the history of art and photography in the 20th century. [Burke] strips away the myth to uncover not only Miller’s artistic achievement, but her true character . . . Such is the subtlety of Burke’s approach to her subject that almost by stealth the reader becomes aware, in a similar way perhaps in which it dawned on the young Lee Miller herself, that she was destined to be something special. [Burke writes] with poignant acuity [and] bring[s] her subject to life . . . [Lee Miller: A Life] reads not only as serious biography but often like a picaresque novel . . . More than a biography, this book provides a rare and valuable sideways look at the mid-20th century avant-garde and high-society . . . It takes the reader deeply and unforgettably into the psyche of the strange little girl from Poughkeepsie who grew to become one of the most extraordinary women of her time.”
The Scotsman

“There are the rare artists who lead not just one, but a whole fistful of remarkable lives, any one of which might make a juicy feature film, crammed with sex, danger, celebrity and fun. At which point, cue Lee Miller . . . [Lee Miller: A Life] does its complicated subject more than justice, adding welcome depths and nuances to the familiar legend . . . Burke relates all this with sympathy and fluency.”
Sunday Times

From the Hardcover edition.

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