“I was living in Hitler’s private apartment in Munich when his death was announced.” These words came not from a high-ranking Nazi officer or a hardened Allied soldier, but from a fashion model-turned-photographer. Lee Miller – who became the muse and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray during the early 1930s after appearing on the cover of Vogue – was one of a small number of female combat photographers embedded with Allied troops in WWII.
Her account of their advance in Western Europe has been put together from manuscripts, negatives and contact sheets for the new book Lee Miller’s War: Beyond D-Day. After her death in 1977, Miller’s son Antony Penrose discovered the records in trunks in her attic. In the book’s afterword, he describes finding “maps still splattered with Alsatian mud, captions and notes scribbled on scraps of paper, orders and passes from the military, looted souvenirs”.
Miller’s photographs and reports appeared as spreads in Vogue between 1944 and 1945. “The gore and violence of her articles feature boldly in the pages,” says Penrose. “The grim skeletal corpses of Buchenwald are separated by a few thicknesses of paper from delightful recipes to be prepared by beautiful women dressed in sumptuous gowns.”
Miller rarely talked about the war in the years that followed – Penrose describes how she spent them “in a misery of depression and alcohol abuse” – but she gave evocative accounts in her reports for Vogue.
“The ward was like a jungle of banyan trees. A maze of hanging rubber tubes swaying in khaki shadow – one to the nostril and one to the wound of each man.” Miller’s description of an evacuation hospital near Omaha beach in Normandy was published in the fashion magazine in August 1944. Her story, Unarmed Warriors, was Miller’s first as a war correspondent accredited by the US Forces.
“The authorities had figured that ‘hospital’ meant lots of nurses so Lee would feel at home and Vogue’s sensibilities would not be offended. They were wrong on both counts,” writes David E Scherman in the foreword to Lee Miller’s War. Instead, she “was happiest with GIs, wounded or otherwise … and Vogue printed, and continued to print until the end of the war, whatever martial violence or gore that Lee turned up.”
A photographer for Life magazine, Scherman became Miller’s mentor, and the pair gained a reputation for being the first on the scene. With soldiers of the 45th division, in April 1945 they discovered Hitler’s Munich apartment – where Scherman captured the iconic bathtub shot. “Lee took a leisurely, overdue bath in Hitler’s tub while an angry lieutenant of the 45th, soap in hand, beat on the locked door outside.” They also accompanied the first Allied troops to see Hitler’s Alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden.
According to Penrose, the bathroom portrait was a loaded image. He told The Telegraph: “I think she was sticking two fingers up at Hitler. On the floor are her boots, covered with the filth of Dachau, which she has trodden all over Hitler’s bathroom floor. She is saying she is the victor.”
Miller spent time on the frontline too: after reports that St Malo had been liberated in August 1944, she was sent on a seemingly safe assignment to report from the French town. But when she arrived, she discovered it was still held by German forces. From a hotel room, Miller documented the gunfire in her own inimitable style: “The rooms had innerspring mattresses which made a rather bouncy perch for picture-taking, especially as the artillery bursts made me jump a bit each time.” She describes two soldiers lying on a bed “in a beautiful honeymoon room facing the sea”, with a telescope trained on their target.
Her frontline reportage has a poetic quality: long-range artillery etched “arcs of sound” over her head, creating “invisible sphere-songs with their trailing rattle”. Scherman called her story on a battle in Alsace “one of the best examples of frontline reporting ever filed”.
Miller regretted leaving the front, and wrote in a letter to her Vogue editor “it is very bitter to me to go to Paris now that I have a taste for gun powder”. Scherman described the scene that met them in the liberated city: “It was an orgy of tanks, flags, newsmen, German snipers, cheering crowds and crazy, over-elaborate Paris fashions. We expected ill-clad grey mice and found cork-shod, balloon-skirted, high-coiffed beauties… Lee immediately looked up old friends, including a delighted Picasso.”
A world away from the battlefront, in Paris Miller photographed Marlene Dietrich in a satin coat by Schiaparelli and Fred Astaire signing autographs for the “bare-bottomed girls of the cast in feathers”. Yet she never settled back into her pre-war life. In a 1945 letter to Scherman, she describes her restlessness: “for some reason I always want to be somewhere else”.
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