Lee Miller — Surrealist muse, WWII photojournalist, Vogue staffer, gourmet cook — is pretty much the archetypal model-slash. But it was Miller's rumored communism that led the MI5 to spy on her for 20 years.
It's a tragic irony that those few people who are genuinely ahead of their own time generally experience as a personal misfortune what future generations will recall as the locus of their genius. Miller, who worked as a top model for Vogue and other magazines after being discovered by Condé Nast himself in the 1920s, had enough creative energy and pure balls-out chutzpah to forge about 29 subsequent careers, often in women-unfriendly careers, none of which gave her any lasting recognition within her own lifetime.
There were the three years she spent living and working in Paris as Man Ray's assistant, muse, and co-collaborator — which generated many of the images that would prove definitional of Ray's career, and also featured their co-discovery of solarization. There was her marriage to an Egyptian businessman named Aziz Eloui Bey and the years in his homeland, which she spent quietly taking some of the most iconic Surrealist photographs, like "Portrait of Space."
Then, there was the separation from Eloui and the job with British Vogue, which brought her to England in the late 1930s, to do fashion and celebrity photography for the princely sum of £8 a week. Towards the end of World War II, Miller became the only known woman photographer to cover the combat. She landed in France just 20 days after D-Day, and recorded everything from the first wartime use of napalm — at the siege of St. Malo — to the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau to the dire postwar situation of the Hungarian peasantry.
Even her wartime photography, like "Non-Conformist Chapel" and "Remington Silent" above, which were taken during the London blitz, retain a sense of her surrealist aesthetic.
And then, after the war, suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, Miller went back to England, went back to fashion photography at Vogue, before remarrying, bearing a son, and retreating to a farm in the country where she tolerated her painter husband Roland Penrose's various infidelities and threw her energies into entertaining. (Obsessed with gourmet cooking, she would host her old artist friends, like Picasso and Henry Moore, for dinners where she would serve things like blue pasta and cauliflower in pink sauce and drink sufficient quantities of alcohol to forget either what she saw in Europe during the war, or the fact that Penrose was sleeping with a trapeze artist, or both.)
According to just-released files from Britain's National Archives, it was in 1941 that an unnamed Vogue coworker denounced her as a communist to the MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence service. Investigations into Miller's "queer foods and queer clothes," wide and varied circle of friends, sexual activity, and working life ensued. Miller was at the time living at the Hampstead home of a convicted Soviet spy, Wilfred MacCartney, which also drew the authorities' attention.
It was MI5's conclusion that Miller, though politically left-wing and with apparent socialist sympathies, was — unlike her friend Picasso — not an ardent Communist, and certainly not a Soviet operative. Nonetheless, the agency kept reading Miller's personal mail and updating her file through the 1950s, by which time she'd long lived an uneasy but thoroughly domestic life with Penrose.
I've always enjoyed Miller's work, and the story of her life — a woman who, faced with the possibility of only finding recognition as a function of her connection to the powerful men around her, rallied through the system and forged her own way forward, wherever possible — is inspiring. Is it at all surprising she rattled authorities in her adopted country to such an extent that they thought she might have been a spy? In a way, it's almost flattering that she was considered a potentially subversive element merely for being a steely and talented woman. Like a lot of women, Miller gained notoriety through the media available to her — first as a subject for photographers like Edward Steichen (who, in addition to taking her picture numerous times for Vogue, made Miller into the first woman to be pictured in a menstrual pad advertisement in the late 1920s), and then later as a content provider herself. But unlike a lot of women, Miller managed to take the avenues open to her, at a women's magazine like Vogue, and use the opportunity to create some of the most compelling and enduring records of WWII. It's tremendously sad that the rising tide of postwar domesticity, the invented ideal of the woman's place being at home and hearth, combined with the lasting horror of her wartime experiences acted together to so circumscribe her world in the end. But it's also kind of cool to think about Miller marshaling all her emotional intensity and her exacting intellect to tackling three-stage reductions, braising, complicated pastries, and the invention of Surrealist cookery. I suppose you can't keep a good woman down.
All photos from the Lee Miller Archive