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The following is an excerpt from the 2014 Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook
Lee Miller: Hometown Girl Does Well
BY LOU LEWIS • WEEKEND@THEHUDSONVALLEYNEWS.COM
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 1/21/15
Elizabeth “Lee” Miller of Poughkeepsie has fallen off the radar for most of us. I recently had occasion to ask a half-dozen prominent local residents, all of them born and bred in Dutchess County, New York, if they knew anything about her and there were blank faces around the table. In fact, Lee Miller (1907-1977) is one of the most internationally famous people ever to come from Poughkeepsie. During the 1920s and 1930s, she was a great beauty, a Vogue model with boyish looks who personified the age of the flapper, and who, at the same time, epitomized the elegance of high fashion. Always fearless, Lee Miller decided to take up a man’s profession, photography, and became a student and colleague of Man Ray, a leading member of the Surrealist Movement between World War I and World War II. In addition to becoming a Surrealist photographer and renowned portraitist, Lee Miller would have another rebirth during World War II as a war correspondent when she followed troops into Normandy and across Europe, taking photographs and writing of her experiences.
Lee Miller was born at home at 40 South Clinton Street in Poughkeepsie in 1907. Her father was superintendent at the DeLaval plant on the Hudson River (now the site awaiting development just west of Hudson Pointe). Her mother Florence was Canadian. Lee attended grade school at Governor Clinton School on Montgomery Street. In 1912, the family moved out of town to a farm known as Clinton Hill just south of Poughkeepsie. Two years or so later, the family moved again, into the home in Kingwood Park which was ceded to Lee’s brother John Miller in 1944 when Lee’s parents moved into an apartment in the city of Poughkeepsie. The farm was sold to IBM for $12,500 in 1944 in the belief it would help the war effort and became first the IBM Country Club and then Casperkill Golf Course. Later they moved to Kingwood Park and lived in what is now the Silver family residence there.
Lee was a difficult, obstreperous child and teenager and attended a number of grade schools, high schools, and finishing schools – even taking some courses at Vassar College but not matriculating there. However, she had an expansive personality and inquiring mind in addition to great physical beauty. Her indulgent father agreed to pay for an apartment for her in New York City when she was nineteen-years-old. One day, she was starting to cross a busy street in Manhattan when a man behind her realized she was about to be run over by a car. He grabbed her back onto the sidewalk and they both fell over. The man was none other than the famous publisher Condé Nast and he immediately took her to his office and hired her as a fashion model for Vogue. She appeared in the pages of Vogue shortly thereafter and was soon in demand at Vogue’s offices in London and Paris.
Not only her beauty helped her achieve her goals, because she was possessed of a drive, sometimes seen as willfulness, that propelled her into the drama of life. In the Roaring Twenties, New York City represented that life and its possibilities far better than her hometown of Poughkeepsie. Yet her background also aided her. Lee’s father, Theodore, had been an avid amateur photographer; Lee had been his favorite and constant subject as she was at ease in front of the camera. Success came quickly to the young Lee Miller, newly minted as a fashion model. Her image was the inspiration for the cover of the spring issue of Vogue, 1927, in her first year of modeling, when she was twenty years old. It was not long, however, before Lee decided to move behind the lens. She would be quoted as saying, “I’d rather take a picture than be one.” She became a Vogue photographer while continuing to model.
She soon sailed for France. In an effort to improve her skills and explore artistic photography as well as fashion photography, she met with the famous Surrealist photographer and artist Man Ray at his studio in Paris. Man Ray peremptorily told her that he was not taking on any apprentices and was leaving for vacation in the south of France the following day. She replied that she was coming with him and they proceeded to live together for the next three years. In the process Lee Miller became a very accomplished photographer, was involved in developing new photographic techniques, and developed her own Surrealistic oeuvre. Her invention with Man Ray of a process to which they would give the name “Solarization” is noteworthy. One day in Paris, Lee was in the darkroom developing photographs in an open pan when she felt a rat run across her foot. She screamed and turned on the white light – a forbidden activity in the darkroom which would ordinarily destroy the maturing prints. When Man Ray entered the room he was upset, but they both realized that the photographs had taken on an unusual quality with the elimination of grey tones and the appearance of a strong black line around the contours. This effect was subsequently much used in both Surrealist and fashion photography.
While living with Man Ray, Lee became a friend of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemmingway, Max Ernst and other prominent figures of the time and she photographed them. Picasso was so taken with her that he painted five or six portraits of her in French peasant costume -- in his uniquely abstract style.
In 1932, after returning to the United States, Lee opened a photography studio in New York City where she was in great demand by the rich and famous who wanted her to take their photographs. Film star Lillian Harvey, impresario John Housman, composer Virgil Thompson, actress Gertrude Lawrence, actor Charlie Chaplin and her discovery, the Surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, all sat for her and she produced excellent, character-revealing portraits of the important personalities of her day.
Upon ending her relationship with Man Ray, Lee became good friends with a man whom she would eventually marry – Roland Penrose. Penrose was a member of the landed gentry in England; he was an artist, art collector and England’s most prominent Surrealist painter. When Roland met Lee Miller, it was at a Surrealist fancy dress ball in Paris. He was living in London at the time. However, there was much more adventure to be had before that marriage would come to pass and, in 1935, Lee found herself whisked away to Egypt on the arm of Aziz Eloui Bey, an international socialite who had fallen in love with her and convinced her to marry him. Lee was entertained for about one year with parties, picnics in the desert, and archeology. She described her life there as being relegated to the “black satin and pearls” set, which was not to her taste, and spent much of her time tooting off into the desert with her camera.
She then returned to Britain just in time for The Blitz and the onset of WW II. She and her compatriots at British Vogue, or “Brogue” as they called it, frequently found themselves in air raid shelters while buildings around them were demolished. Lee was unflappable however and continued to take photographs, many now iconic, of the Brits under the stress of the bombardment.
After D-Day on June 6, 1944, Lee learned that some photographers she knew were becoming war correspondents for their magazines and newspapers. Lee accredited herself as a war correspondent, completely independent of the management at British Vogue; she had a suitable uniform tailored, and without permission of anyone, went off with the United States Eighth Army to Europe just days after D-Day. She had first tried through the British Army but was refused as a female. David E. Scherman was the one who recommended she try the U.S. Army and there she succeeded. Although freelance the vast majority of the time, she published her articles in Vogue US, Vogue UK, and Vogue France. At the time, women were forbidden to travel with the troops much less be at a front, but Lee soon accompanied U.S. army troops to the siege of St. Malo in Brittany. Her photographs of the explosions and bombing of that German-held fortress are amazing. She then traveled to Paris for the liberation of that city and photographed the joy of the residents there at being rescued by American troops. She took the time to seek out her friend Picasso who remarked, “This is the first Allied soldier that I have seen, and it is you!”
Ignoring telegrams from British Vogue asking her to return to England, Lee proceeded to follow the fighting across Europe and into Germany. She was one of the first to enter Hitler’s redoubt at Berchtesgaden and sadly, the first woman photographer to enter the camps at Dachau. Her photographs of the dead and dying are both chilling and fearless. She was with American forces when they met the Russians and, of course, took many photographs and shared many bottles of vodka.
As the war ended, British Vogue again pressed Lee to return to England, but instead she went on to Vienna to photograph the devastation there and in parts of Eastern Europe as well. It might be said that, because of her experience with Surrealism, Lee was ideally prepared to photograph the surrealist aftermath of war. Throughout the war Lee filed dispatches with Vogue – most of which were printed in the magazine along with her photographs and later published as the book, “Lee Miller’s War.” She proved to have a gift for writing as well as photography and art. The period from D-Day through the next two years as Lee courageously managed to join Allied troops invading Normandy, participate in the siege of St Malo, follow the armies into Paris, then across Europe into Germany, and beyond into Eastern Europe, photographing, interviewing, writing, and publishing her work was the most vivid and trying period of her life. It was also the most brave and productive. Lee’s special relationship with the ironies of life, because of her immersion in Surrealism, gave her a different perspective than other photographers and writers. She seemed to have had a finely tuned appreciation of the fragility of the logic of life and, thus, could convey the madness of war.
Eventually, Lee returned to England, divorced her Egyptian husband and married Roland Penrose. Both Vogue UK and Roland pleaded with Lee to return, but it seems that David E. Scherman’s telegram did the trick as he mentioned that she might lose Roland who had been waiting for her while she had been photographing across war-torn Europe. In time Roland was recognized by the Crown for his many contributions to the arts and became Sir Roland Penrose. Lee was now Lady Penrose. They visited Poughkeepsie in the summer of 1946. Roland had shipped much of his valuable art collection to Poughkeepsie for safe-keeping during the war.
Roland Penrose and Lee bought a home together in 1949; they lived there at Farley Farm House, Muddles Green, Chiddingly, in East Sussex for the remainder of their lives. At age 40, Lee had her first and only child, Antony Penrose, who has written an excellent book about his mother –“The Lives of Lee Miller” – and wrote and produced a short film about her. He is now serving as director of the Lee Miller Archives in England. Lee clearly suffered from all that she had seen and done in the war, what is known today as PTSD or post traumatic stress syndrome. In her later years, she stopped her photography altogether, became a gourmet cook and planned to publish a cook book. She wrote several articles on food and entertaining that were published. Some of the passion she had once devoted to photography she now poured into the art of cooking and homemaking. Also during these later years, Lee made some trips home to Poughkeepsie to visit her aging parents and other members of her family.
Lee Miller died of cancer in 1977. Instead of burial in the family plot in Rural Cemetery here in Dutchess County, she elected to be cremated and have her ashes spread on the lands of the Penrose estate in England. Today Farley Farm House is the location of the Lee Miller Archives administered by her son, Antony Penrose, and the archives staff.
Requests for the Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org or 845-471-1630.
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