Sunday, 5 September 2010

Lee Miller

Lee Miller was born in 1907 and in her 70 years she was many things: a model, a debutant, a muse, a writer, a photographer, an actress, a mother and a gourmet cook.

To do justice to her life would take a dozen blogs. This is about her time as the world's first female war correspondent.  Lee Miller spent the days after D Day following the US Army as a war correspondent and photographer. Her work, which first appeared in the magazine Vogue, contain many memorable images. Arguably, they have shaped our view of the Second World War and have been the guide track for a dozen war movies.

Lee’s first piece as the Vogue war correspondent was about the 44th Evac, a canvas field hospital where emergency patch up surgery was carried out on wounded troops prior to their dispatch, away from the front, to England. Lee’s images of surgery in progress, captured in her photographs and text, with masked, gowned medics engaged over the bodies of soldiers set the style for the M*A*S*H film and TV show.

Next Lee moved on to St Malo and recorded what was, in the grand scheme of things, a rather minor military action. A German strong hold is being dug out the hard way by the 83rd Division. By accident Lee  finds herself in the thick of it.  Our long-range artillery was etching arcs of sound over my head. It was a temptation to look up each time at these invisible sphere-songs with their trailing rattle. Finally they went crash into the citadel and there would be a salvo from there answering back. I hung around waiting to latch onto someone who would be going somewhere or doing something and would take me. A tank destroyer on caterpillar tracks moved down the street next to us and set up for business. It shed wiremen as it went. Telephonists squatted in the street and the gun belched at the forts. In a very few minutes the enemy counter-battery zeroed in on it with 88s. They went whistle bang whistle bang whistle bang, and broke in the trees, the roofs, the street. The boys on the gun didn’t pay any attention but since I had no business being there anyway I went back to the villa which was only a bit better than the street.

In Lee’s pictures we discover that the war was not exclusively populated by men. There are nurses, naturally, and Russian women soldiers. And there are women who had made the wrong choice and become lovers of the Germans and who were now punished by their neighbours.

There are pictures of Parisian girls flirting with the GIs, and one can only hope that some of them made good on the promise of their pretty smiles. In Lee's writing there is a sense of reality that is missing from contemporary coy British accounts of soldiers and their preoccupations. As Lee puts it, ‘Anyone who has found a pair of girl’s pants for his helmet is envied’. And she has an eye for technical detail, she knows that the artillery needs Observation Points and telephone communications. So the communications boys, as well as the spotters and gunners, get a credit.

Next up is Paris, which Lee knew well from her earlier life and she got to meet some old friends.

Lee and Picasso

Keeping in mind that all this was for Vogue, a magazine about fashion and lifestyle, Lee writes about how Paris style has changed to accommodate the wartime condition.  It’s amazing, after reading about relentless total war, blitz and counter-blitz, and the horrors of the eastern front that 12 weeks after the liberation of Paris Lee had a an actual fashion show to report on.  More remarkable still was a Bitch-a-gram from Vogue head office criticising the quality of the ‘snapshots’ that Lee was sending back, Vogue expected studio posed shots featuring models of refinement!

Lee Miller was as patriotic as Patton but she still found room for some left wing sensibility. Her rationalisation of the roots of Naziism is terse and cuts to the heart of the matter, she speaks of the supporters of Hitler. The type of person who clips his share coupons or reads the ticker tape for marketing profits without asking if the mine is a swindle or the dividends drawn from capital lived there. They bought Hitler on the same terms and they are very shocked to find themselves the ‘widows and orphans’ of a bucket shop scheme. They expect sympathy from us for their having been accomplices of crooks and receivers of stolen goods. 

At Ecternach, on the Luxemburg border with Germany. Lunch is brought abruptly to a halt a few times by Buzzbombs, (V1 Flying Bombs) passing over the building, grinding and changing their lousy gears. They sounded like the death rattles here already. I tried to calculate the ‘something’ divided or multiplied by ‘time’ equals ‘something else’- when you’d be getting it in London, and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention while I auralized the thud and crump of that unbrained monster in Pimlico or Hampstead. In fact, by now the allied advance was such that those early cruise missiles no longer had the range for London, the war was coming to an end.

Lee followed the Army on into Germany. She was a stunning Aryan beauty, usually smoking a cigarette, and wearing a hodge podge of military and civilian clothes. She had a jeep, a camera, a typewriter and a four gallon can into which all the whisky, gin vodka she'd managed to ‘liberate’ was poured.  She was having a whale of a time, but then came Buchenwald and Dachau.

In this case (Dachau) the camp is so close to the town that there is no question about the inhabitants knowing what went on. The railway siding into the camp runs past quite a few swell villas and the last train of dead and semi dead deportees was long enough to extend past them. The cars are still full of skeletal dead, and the path beside the trains are littered with the fleshless bodies of those who tried to get out and walk to their execution.

One of Lee’s pictures shows a couple of grim faced, middle aged German ladies.  One might have worked in a local beer garden while the other could be anyones mother. They’ve been brought, by orders of General Patton, to bear witness to the horrors of the concentration camp at Buchenwald. In Lee's photograph there is a black American GI in the foreground. It's something of a set-up, Lee's vision of how the society of plurality became the victors while the society that aspired to racial purity was defeated.

Lee made it to Hitler’s house in Munich. By now her hatred of all things ‘Kraut’ was relentless and she mocks  Hitler’s taste.  The bookcase that jutted out into the room had as savage an angle as the swastika itself. The art work – sculpture, still wearing prize medals from exhibitions on a string – was mediocre as were the paintings on the walls. I hoped to find one of the masters (Hitler's) own works. There was a plaster cast of Hitler’s hands, and on the desk in the next section of the room a globe of the world. The piano, a Bechstein, was out of tune but the radio was a masterpiece. In the main entrance were cupboards holding crystal and china, linen and silver, all swastika’d and initialled A.H. There was a rubber plant and a black plaster eagle with folded wings.

This is where Lee’s most famous picture was taken, soaping the back of her neck in Hitler’s bath tub. Perched on the side of the bath is a photograph of the Fuehrer, and discharging what seems to be most of the mud they’ve collected since her time at 44th Evac, Lee’s army boots on Hitler’s bathmat.

Finally, Lee finds the Germans baffling.
The tiny towns are pastel plaster like a modern watercolour of a medieval memory. Little girls in white dresses and garlands promenade for their first communion. The children have stilts and marbles, and tops and hoops, and they play with dolls. Mothers sew and sweep and bake, and farmers plow and harrow. ... I’m just like the soldiers here, who look at the beautiful countryside, use the super modern comforts of their buildings and wonder why the Germans wanted anything more.

After the war Lee, at the age of 40, became a mother. As a result of her war experiences she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet she would never again find as great a subject as the war. What peacetime assignment could compare? Lee was damaged by what she’d seen. However, there could have been only one thing worse than taking a job such as this, and that would have been not taking it.


  1. Terry, this woman was seriously fierce. I would never have known about her if you hadn't written this post. I like when you do these posts. They are fascinating.

  2. Lee was fabulous and I've only touched on a little of what she did with her life.

    If you are ever looking to create a fictional character and worry to create a person too beautiful, too smart or too audactious, keep her in mind.

    No writer ever dared to come up with a character like Lee Miller.