Theodore Miller was an engineer in the De Laval Separator works in New York’s Poughkeepsie, and his manner was intolerant, hard driving and tough. Then he had a moment of epiphany; becoming supportive of his workers’ welfare and rights, and demanding black workers should be treated equally. Although an atheist, some of his close friends were Quakers, and maybe they were his inspiration.
Theodore’s fairness transferred to his daughter – my mother – Lee Miller. At the age of seven, Lee had been raped and infected with venereal disease, so she understood the sense of being a social outcast in disguise. She had an automatic affinity with outsiders, although her fondness for Jewish people went deeper as she valued their intelligence, loyalty and atavism.
Condé Nast, the owner of Vogue magazine, discovered Lee and made her a supermodel but in 1929 she left New York for Paris, looking for Man Ray, the American surrealist and the most exciting avant-garde photographer of the period. For three years she was his lover, his pupil and the inspiration for some of his best work. Man Ray was Jewish, and so were many of her friends in the couture world where she became a photographer in her own right. The photographer Horst P. Horst told me everyone in Paris knew that one would not get close to Lee Miller unless one was a Jew. Half a century on he still carried the prejudice inherent at the time.
In 1934 she ended her career as a studio photographer in New York to marry an Egyptian she had met in Paris, Aziz Eloui Bey. As a Muslim, he was an “outsider” there, and in New York. Five years later she left him and travelled to London to be with Roland Penrose, my father. War broke out almost immediately and she joined the staff of Vogue as a freelance photographer. She was painfully aware that some of her closest friends were in France, soon to be overwhelmed by the Nazis. Her camera became her weapon of choice and soon she was photographing the women at war for Vogue.
America entered the war in 1942, bringing the Life magazine combat photographer David E. Scherman to England, and on his suggestion, Lee became a US Army war correspondent.
Penrose willingly shared Lee with Scherman in a ménage a trois, entrusting her to someone he knew would look out for her in all circumstances. It was a prescient move, as soon after D-Day, Scherman and Lee were both in Normandy, with Lee becoming a combat photographer covering the siege of St. Malo. Together they reported on the US Army’s advance across Europe. They witnessed the bitter fighting in the Vosges and when the Allies punched into Germany, they witnessed the liberation of at least four concentration camps, arriving on April 30th: Ohrdruf, Penig, Buchenwald and Dachau. The camp, freed the evening before, afforded the most devastating vision of barbaric depravity. Many of Lee’s photographs are close-ups of the dead, as though she was searching for the friends she had found were missing when she arrived in Paris.
That night Lee and Scherman, courtesy of the US Press Corp, found a billet in Hitler’s Munich apartment. There was coal so the water was hot. Scherman told me they had not had their clothes off in 3 weeks, and Lee got straight in the bath. Then they realised they had a scoop. On the edge of the tub they carefully positioned the iconic Heinrich Hoffman photograph of Hitler. In Scherman’s photograph Lee sits there as a victor, her combat boots are grinding the filth of Dachau into the bathmat. Scherman got in and Lee tilted the camera to include the showerhead. In the death camps the gas chambers were disguised as shower baths. Now Scherman is positioned under a harmless shower. Scherman was a Jew. The irony was intentional.
Unknown to Lee and Scherman, Hitler and Eva Braun had killed themselves in Berlin at 4.45 pm that afternoon. The war ended soon afterwards, but its history must never be allowed to drift into obscurity. Lee Miller’s photographs will serve to inform for centuries to come. That is, I am sure, what she would want.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is at Imperial War Museum, London, until 24 April 2016. A book of the exhibition is published by Thames & Hudson.
Headline photo: Legs, Buchenwald, Germany, 1945. By Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015