Lee Miller: A Life

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9780226080673: Lee Miller: A Life

Lee Miller’s life embodied all the contradictions and complications of the twentieth century: a model and photographer, muse and reporter, sexual adventurer and domestic goddess, she was also America's first female war correspondent. Carolyn Burke, a biographer and art critic, here reveals how the muse who inspired Man Ray, Cocteau, and Picasso could be the same person who unflinchingly photographed the horrors of Buchenwald and Dachau. Burke captures all the verve and energy of Miller’s life: from her early childhood trauma to her stint as a Vogue model and art-world ingénue, from her harrowing years as a war correspondent to her unconventional marriages and passion for gourmet cooking. A lavishly illustrated story of art and beauty, sex and power, Modernism and Surrealism, Lee Miller illuminates an astonishing woman’s journey from art object to artist.

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About the Author:

Carolyn Burke has taught at Princeton and the University of California at Santa Cruz, among other universities in France, the U.S., and Australia. She is the author of Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

A Poughkeepsie Girlhood

(1907–15)

On April 23, 1907, Theodore Miller entered the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth, in his diary, noting the time of day (4:15 p.m.), the place (the Miller home, 40 South Clinton Street, Poughkeepsie, New York), her weight (seven pounds), and the names of those in attendance (Dr. Gribbon and Nurse Ferguson). His firstborn, Elizabeth’s brother John, had come into the world two years earlier, but the little girl—Li Li, then Te Te, Bettie, and in her twentieth year, Lee—would always be her father’s favorite. Her blue eyes and blond curls enchanted him. Whatever name she went by, she was his Elizabeth, whose growth he would continue to document, one might almost say obsessively.

By the time Elizabeth was born, Theodore Miller was the superintendent of Poughkeepsie’s largest employer, the DeLaval Separator Company (its machines separated heavier liquids from lighter ones). An ambitious man of thirty-five who was on his way to becoming one of the town’s elite, he had married three years earlier after securing his position at DeLaval’s recently enlarged plant on the bank of the Hudson River. Florence Miller, his wife, is not mentioned in the diary entry, as if her part in the arrival of their daughter could not be reckoned among the facts and figures that gave him his grip on the world. Perhaps it was taken for granted. Like most men of his time, Theodore believed that a woman’s place was at home, a man’s with the new world of science and technology—the forces that enabled entrepreneurs like himself and the country as a whole to move forward.

Theodore always said that he came of a long line of mechanics. A tall, erect man with penetrating blue eyes, he might have stepped out of a Horatio Alger novel. Born in 1872 in the aptly named Mechanicsville, Ohio, he grew up in Richmond, Indiana, at that time the largest Quaker settlement in the country. Although the Millers were not Quakers, he thought well of this sect despite his opposition to formal religion and, in adulthood, his atheism. More important to him than the Society of Friends and the Inner Light were facts. As a youth he had worked in a roller-skate-wheel factory, then a machine shop where he operated lathes. Earning his qualification in mechanical engineering through a correspondence course reinforced the idea that hard work led not only to self-improvement but also to material rewards.

When telling his children about his rise in the world, Theodore emphasized the Miller self-reliance. His ancestors included Hessian mercenaries who had fought for the British in the Revolutionary War; his father was famous as the man who laid seven thousand bricks a day when helping to build Antioch College; his older brother, Fred, was an engineer widely known as the editor of the American Machinist. Theodore’s career illustrated the belief that a self-confident man could try his hand at anything. In his twenties he had worked in New Jersey at a U.S. Navy shipyard, in Brooklyn at a typewriter factory, in Mexico at the Monterrey Steel Works, and in Utica, New York, at the Drop Forge and Tool Company, where he became general manager. So intent upon making his way that he did not think about marriage until he turned thirty, he then proposed to Florence MacDonald, the fair-haired Canadian nurse who had cared for him during his treatment for typhoid at Utica Hospital.

It was typical of their union that the children heard more about the Millers than about the MacDonalds. Florence told them little of her background except that her people were Scots-Irish settlers from Brockville, Ontario, where she was born in 1881, and that her parents had died when she was a girl, after which she went to live with relatives. Only later did they learn that the MacDonalds had been defeated by their hard, rocky land, and that Florence had had little education apart from nurse’s training. Then, nursing was one of the few paths open to women from poor families. There were more opportunities in the United States than at home but the work required dedication. Florence would have earned little more than room and board at the training hospital in Utica—except for the hope that once certified, she could work anywhere. Theodore Miller may have won her heart, but he was also a good catch.

Their life together as members of Poughkeepsie’s bourgeoisie began when they married in 1904, after he had settled into his position at DeLaval. It would have required an adjustment on Florence’s part to manage a household staffed with servants, including some from the town’s black community. In the few family photographs taken before 1904 Florence is a shy, slender young woman. She was happy to trade her white cap and nurse’s uniform for the large-brimmed hats and flowing gowns of the 1900s, to collect bric-a-brac for her new house, and in time, once her children were at school, to educate herself.

Although Florence took her turn giving the tea parties expected of the Poughkeepsie ladies with whom she mingled, some insecurity prevented her from enjoying these occasions. She fussed about details. Unsure which of Poughkeepsie’s many Protestant churches to attend, she tried them all. Traces of her time as a nurse were still discernible in her bathroom, where white tiles and a doctor’s scale implied that cleanliness was next to godliness. Florence retained a horror of germs and a reverence for doctors. She was also in awe of her husband, who was nearly ten years older and the mainstay of their comfortable life.

The Millers often told their children a story from their early days in Poughkeepsie. Because of Theodore’s position, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution invited his bride to join this ultraconservative organization. Florence filled in the genealogical forms required of new members. Her husband’s Hessian forebears, who had fought against the revolution that gave the group its name, raised a few eyebrows, but as soon as the membership committee saw that she was Canadian, the invitation was withdrawn. Having been treated as less than loyal Americans, the Millers turned the incident into a joke. And since it was impossible to infiltrate the old families whose cupolaed mansions overlooked the Hudson, they made the best of the matter by establishing themselves as citizens of the new century.



Depending upon whom you were talking to, Poughkeepsie in the 1900s was either a declining regional capital or an industrial center ready to take advantage of its strategic location. Both accounts were accurate. To the town’s more progressive citizens, its values seemed Victorian. Yet at the same time, institutions like Vassar College—located two miles east of town—were trying out new ideas about women’s social and intellectual potential, and forward-looking businesses like DeLaval, a Swedish firm, were rethinking the relations between civic and professional life. Many Poughkeepsians believed they lived at the center of things. The New York Central’s trains sped north along the Hudson to Albany and south to New York City, the bridge across the river encouraged trips west to New Paltz and the Catskills, the Dutchess Turnpike ran east past rich farmlands to Connecticut.

Since the eighteenth century, the “river families,” the old guard of Dutchess County, had looked down from their hilltop estates on the villages along the Hudson’s shores as if they were the fiefs in some American version of feudalism. Poughkeepsie, a town of twenty-four thousand when Elizabeth was born, had always been something of an exception. Its inhabitants prided themselves on their town’s history as a seventeenth-century Dutch settlement and an early state capital, the site of New York’s ratification convention for the U.S. Constitution, and from the 1860s on, the hub of swift railroad connections to the north and west. Although the symbol of the new century, the Twentieth Century Limited, flew past Poughkeepsie on its way from New York to Chicago, the city’s position halfway between New York and Albany was thought to ensure its influence—provided the town fathers could agree on what was meant by progress and how to go about implementing it.

Prominent Poughkeepsians looked to technology as the way to be “up-to-date.” At a time when civic leaders all over the United States indulged in boosterism to enhance their town’s reputation at the expense of neighboring ones, they proclaimed Poughkeepsie’s superiority over its rivals, Syracuse and Albany. Yet in reality it had grown very little since the 1870s, a number of businesses having failed or gone elsewhere. Industries clustered along the Hudson in former times had included shipbuilders, dye mills, a brewery, and an ironworks, many of which had been replaced by larger, more modern concerns like DeLaval and Queen Undermuslins, a manufacturer of women’s underwear. What was good for these businesses was good for Poughkeepsie, town officials said, as were recent municipal gains like electric lights, telephones, and macadam paving. But there were those who said that they had been right to decline Thomas Edison’s offer to make Poughkeepsie the first fully electrified American city, after which he bestowed the honor upon Newburgh.

In Theodore Miller’s espousal of modern technology, he spoke for the “progressives,” those who favored any and all improvements. His credentials—a professional engineer’s license, membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and his new post—so impressed members of the town’s preeminent social group for men, the Amrita Clu...

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