Model, photographer, muse and victim, Emirates Woman explores the truth behind the secret life of Lee Miller

A sinister image of Adolf Hitler sits on the lip of the bath; mud-stained boots stand at the foot of the tub; Lee Miller sits inside it scrubbing her shoulder “washing off the dirt of Dachau.” It is an image of profound meaning – capturing the beauty of an icon and the horror of a murderous dictator.

Taken at the Fuhrer’s home on April 30, 1945 (the day the German leader committed suicide), it is a complex portrait that encapsulates the daring and enigmatic nature of Lee, whose life was one of adventure, passion and, ultimately, depression.

Lee was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. Much loved by her parents, Theodore and Florence Miller, she lived an almost idyllic childhood with her two brothers; however, all that came to an abrupt end when at eight years old Lee was invited to stay with some family friends in Brooklyn.

“She was a pretty little girl,” says her brother John Miller. “They had a nephew who was a sailor on a Swedish ship and he stayed at the apartment. They left her in his care and he raped her.”

The sexual attack left Lee with an STD with no conventional cure and she was subjected to painful treatments for years.


The attack changed Leeshe was no longer the innocent, playful girl of her youth.

“It changed her life,” continues John. “After that, as she grew up, she was promiscuous.”

“She had quite a reputation,” adds Lee’s friend Priscilla Morgan.

The youngster seldom spoke of her ordeal. Perhaps as a form of therapy to help her overcome it, Lee’s dad began taking nude photos of her, often in provocative positions, sometimes explicit with other women. While their relationship was highly unusual, friends of Lee who also posed for Theodore insist there was nothing untoward.

One friend, Anne Lyon, says: “Their love was genuine. He was like the one person that taught her something and was there to give her support. He stuck by her whatever she did.”

Maybe struggling with releasing her emotions, Lee grew rebellious and longed to be loved. “Just once,” she wrote in her diary, “[with] someone purely and unchastely. To have truth and innocence. Is it too late for me to be anything than an animal with unhealthy desires?”

At 15 she fled home in search of the bright lights and a new life in New York City. She got work as an exotic dancer and began educating herself in the arts and literature.

Initially, she yearned to be an artist but that phase passed. “I wanted to be a painter,” she said in an interview. “I went to Italy one summer and I saw every painting and ruin in the city… and it inspired me to give the whole thing up.  It seemed to me that every picture had been painted in every possible way. And so I said: ‘I’ll be a photographer instead.’”

However, it wasn’t a rapid transformation. Back in New York City, while crossing the road one day, a passing stranger – who just so happened to be  Condé Nast  – rescued Lee from an oncoming car. Condé Nast was so enraptured by her beauty he immediately put her on the cover of Vogue, and Lee ‘the model’ was born.

“She had an incredible amount of luck,” says her son Antony Penrose. “Some of it was good and some of it was bad with not much in between. Lee was someone who knew how to use her chances.”

Soon, Lee’s sultry 1920’s liberated flapper visage and her sleek blonde bob saw her become an idol in the fashion industry. A regular at the famous parties held at Condé Nast’s Fifth Avenue apartment, she mingled with high society and the artistic set. It was through these parties that she learned of the legendary photographer and artist Man Ray.

Determined to get behind the lens she decided, resolutely, that Man Ray, “one of the great masters of the field,” would be her mentor.

Lee left for Paris in pursuit of him and turned up unannounced, and uninvited, to his table at Le Bateau Ivre café, confidently introducing herself as his student and apprentice, which she became, as well as his partner, moving into his Paris home.

At the time Paris was the artistic capital of the world. There, Lee thrived and began to shine, working closely with Man Ray and together developing a fascination for the photographic process. In fact, Lee discovered the solarisation effect, which Man Ray became renowned for.

The couple were part of the Surrealism period, a movement that was about liberating the body and mind yet it was mainly reserved for male artists only – women were seen merely as muses. Yet, that didn’t stop Lee, who, feeling stifled by the possessive Ray, eventually took her own studio around the corner and started to assert her own independence both professionally and personally. She began getting her own clientele and regular commissions from Vogue, and she also started enjoying different relationships.

In 1932 she moved back to New York in the height of the Depression and successfully set up a studio, thanks to well-connected and moneyed backers. She worked hard and partied even harder, but still felt unfulfilled. Eventually, Aziz Eloui Bey, a distinguished Egyptian nobleman offered her a passport out – she married him and moved to Cairo. There she took a hiatus from photography – due to a lack of stimulus – and mingled with the other women within the elite community, but she didn’t fit in.


She said at the time: “I sit around and read rotten detective stories. Until Christmas this year I haven’t even taken out a roll.” Determined to please his wife, Aziz took Lee on a desert excursion and it was there, in the sandy wilderness, that she regained her inspiration. Soon she was venturing into the vast arid land with her various male companions in tow, capturing some of the most incredible surrealist images.

Alas, her relationship with Aziz came to an end and Lee returned to Europe where she befriended Pablo Picasso (who also painted her) and artist Roland Penrose with whom she struck up an affair.

Lee was a muse for some of the most illustrious artists of the 20th century and received rapturous applause for her own work as a fashion photographer, yet still she didn’t feel like she was living.

Her ‘finest hour’ eventually came during WWII when she joined wartime buddy and lover, LIFE magazine photographer David E. Scherman, documenting the war from D-Day in 1944 to the German surrender of 1945, although Lee’s work extended beyond this as she continued documenting the human suffering despite the arrival of peace.

David and Lee were two of the first photographers to arrive at the Dachau concentration camp after the German surrender. It was here that Lee excelled, documenting the horrors of the war and the atrocities in the camp.

A friend said: “Her nerves of steel that made day life mundane, made her the ideal unflinching war photographer. She powerfully collected image evidence of some of humanity’s most heinous crimes.”

Her photos included images of starved and abused bodies piled high, the suicide scene of Hitler supporter Leipzig with his wife and daughter, these along with David’s iconic image of her washing in Hitler’s bath provided the greatest scoops of the 20th century.

When sending her images and war correspondence copy back to US Vogue for whom she was reporting, she wrote: “I implore you to believe this is true.” So devastatingly inhumane were the images she captured that she feared no one would believe her.

During the war Lee was surrounded by men with whom she was a comrade and an equal. For the first time she was completely happy – exhausted and filthy she no longer relied on her famous beauty to win her love.

Perhaps this is why Lee refused to return home when the war ended – she stayed behind for nearly a year after. She knew the best part of her life was over. The end of the war put her into a great depression.

Her friend Patsy Murray says: “The war was the happiest time of her life. We used to tease and say: ‘We can’t have wars all the time to keep you happy.’”

She returned to Roland Penrose and was left with a choice – to settle down and start a family or to continue trailblazing across the globe taking pictures of the latest disasters. She chose the former, moved to the English countryside and gave birth to her son, Antony.

Although the home became a hub for artists with regular visits from surrealist greats included Man Ray and Picasso, she struggled with ‘normal’ life and failed as a mum with Anthony being raised more by the housekeeper Pasty Murray and the people on the family farm.

“Despite her seemingly idyllic life, she became savagely depressed and stopped working,” says Anthony.

Patsy adds: “She’d given up in a funny way, everything had passed her by. Her looks had gone and she wasn’t working hard. She couldn’t make the effort anymore; it was almost like she had been defeated by life in general.”

As her life declined Roland was becoming more successful. In 1966 he was knighted and Lee became a lady, a role that she relished.

Once again Lee had a purpose. She began entertaining and loved it. She brought surrealism to the kitchen and started creating dishes to shock her guests – blue spaghetti, pink meatloaf and green chicken. She amassed a library of over 2,000 books and won international acclaim for her role as a chef.

Life may not have been as glamorous but it seemed to be working out for her, finally. She even made amends with her son. “We broke into a close relationship,” he admits. “She was very demanding but at the same time I began to like her, which was an enormous breakthrough.”

As Miller was dying from cancer in 1977,  she had a bar put in her room so she could still enjoy life with her friends.

By the time Miller died, she had certainly buried some hatchets. However, while she may have discovered contentment it’s ironic that she only truly found inner peace while surrounded by the horrors of war. The day she sat in Hitler’s bath, scrubbing off the dirt of the concentration camps, she was also washing off the freedom and the life she had  found and relished.

To find out more about Lee Miller, you can pre-orer Lee Miller in Fashion by Becky E Conekin here  

Images: getty and © man ray trust/adagp, paris and dacs, london 2012, courtesy the penrose collection, lee miller archive