Lee Miller was known as one of the most stunningly beautiful liberated women of the 20th Century. Her name often evokes the word “muse” & is closely associated with Man Ray & Paris of the 1930s’. She lived a truly extraordinary life & were it not for her almost pathological reticence in latter years would surely be a more celebrated & recognised name today.
Lee personified the glamorous look of the period with tightly fitted cloche hats, sculpted hair & flapper dresses. Just before her 20th Birthday she was “discovered” in New York when stepping out from the pavement onto a busy Manhattan Street. She was pulled back to safety by none other than Mr Conde Nast, the editor of Vogue & the top fashion mag of its time. Nast put a sketch of Lee by Lepape on the cover & literally – a star was born. All went swimmingly until she took a commission to appear as the “Kotex Girl”. The picture was used in a national campaign, but other magazines, advertisers, & fashion houses baulked at using Lee now that she was associated in the public mind with an embarrassingly private – this was the 1920s – hygiene product. Lee now found herself out of work in New York.
Now age 22, she took the opportunity of a recommendation letter from Vogue to return to Paris – a city that as a young girl she had visited with her Father – & attempted to meet up with the photographer Man Ray. Upon arrival at the then ultra fashionable cafe Le Bateau Ivre she was told that Ray had departed the city for his summer break. Sipping a cocktail & pondering her options, Ray appeared & introductions were made. As Lee herself described in a later interview as to how she became a photographer, she said “ I was lucky to start out with one of the great masters of the art. He didn’t take pupils at that time, but I said to him I am your new student & apprentice. He was taken aback, but I worked with him for four years”. She could be very persuasive…..
In the late 1920s & early 1930s she became involved through her mentor & then lover Man Ray, in the burgeoning Surrealist movement in Paris. Eventually, though, her restlessness & desire for new experiences – compounded with Man Rays manic fits of jealousy over her careless affairs with such luminaries of the surrealist movement as Breton, Ernst, Eluard, (as well as a professional arrangement with Cocteau,) – meant a return to the U.S. where she soon settled into a routine with her own studio & became the society photographer du jour. New York was, however, too tame compared to the heady mix she had experienced in Paris. Growing tired of the norm, she accepted a marriage proposal from a wealthy Egyptian & spent her next few years on an odyssey into the North African deserts photographing isolated villages & wide open barren spaces. The product of these journeys was to be found more than useful by British & Commonwealth operatives in the mid 1940s.
However, by 1937 her marriage was effectively over – her then husband finding boys a less demanding project than a restless wife – & she took up with an English artist, Roland Penrose. At the start of the war, Lee moved to England with Roland & supplemented her day job of fashion photography with her iconic views of the destruction in London during the Blitz. These pictures were used, initially as freelance contributions, & she was then able to persuade Vogue magazine to accredit her as a war correspondent & later as a combat photographer.
She went on to create one of the most gripping testimonies of WW2 through both her images & her journalism. Officially attached to field hospitals, it’s almost impossible today to conceive how difficult it was for a woman to get beyond a rear-echelon military position, but Lee rode her luck. In SNAFU army fashion, the town of St Malo had been reported as being taken & the battle over. She wangled an apparently harmless assignment to report “How the Civil Affairs Team moved in after hostilities to get things running smoothly again”, but someone had forgotten to inform the German defenders that they had surrendered. Lee ended up at a battalion HQ of the 83rd Infantry, which was itself under fire from the bitterly held citadel, & there, less than 21 days after D-Day photographed live combat & the first use by the US military of napalm.
Now firmly “embedded”with the 83rd as an unofficial mascot, Lee completed her full transition from a former fashion model & clothes horse with a fastidious food hypochondria, to that of an walking & talking unmade, unwashed bed, dressed in olive green fatigues & dirty boots, swilling down whatever food & drink that became available. She thrived, & later said that at this time she never felt more alive. Her dispatches from the front ran in every subsequent edition of Vogue & came to define the war journalism of the time.
From St Malo via Orleans she entered Paris at its liberation, an orgy of tanks, flags, news(men), German snipers & cheering crowds. In the heady days that followed, this is where she encountered a (very) young British signaller. Let’s call him VBM.
VBM had been trained as a High Speed Wireless Operator at The Dell, closely liaising with US Signals Intelligence in England
as part of the Special Projects Branch, handling the deciphered ULTRA product that was cascading out of Bletchley Park.
Landing behind the first waves on D Day at Omaha Beach, their radio telegraph station was set up & functioning within four hours of arrival, to provide the main artery of communication between Army & General HQs.
Always mobile, they operated at Jullouville, before eventually arriving in Versailles at Petites Ecuries. Now an integral part of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, this was a virtually self contained section, wireless operators, drivers, fitter, instrument mechanic, electrician & cook, total 24 personnel. Remarkably, every HSWO had free license to travel to/from the heady delights of Paris – a sure recipe for young men to seek out experience that would never have been available to them back in Blighty……
© DJM 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file