The Story of Lee Miller: From the Cover of Vogue to Hitler’s Bathtub

In late-twen­ties Man­hat­tan, a nine­teen-year-old woman named Eliz­a­beth “Lee” Miller stepped off the curb and into the path of a car. She was pulled back to safe­ty by none oth­er than the mag­nate Condé Nast, founder of the epony­mous pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny. Not long there­after, Miller, who’d been study­ing at the Art Stu­dents League of New York, appeared on the cov­er of Vogue. It’s tempt­ing to call this the first major episode of a charmed life, though that descrip­tor fits uneasi­ly with the arc of her sev­en­ty years, dur­ing the last few decades of which she could nev­er quite recov­er from hav­ing wit­nessed first-hand the lib­er­a­tion of the con­cen­tra­tion camps at Buchen­wald and Dachau — sights she shared with the Amer­i­can pub­lic as a war pho­tog­ra­ph­er.

Miller took pic­tures of not just the con­cen­tra­tion camps, but also events like the Lon­don Blitz and the lib­er­a­tion of Paris. At the end of the war, she posed for an even more famous pic­ture, bathing in Hitler’s tub on the very same day that the Führer lat­er shot him­self in his bunker.

Behind the cam­era in that instance was Life cor­re­spon­dent David E. Scher­man, one of the notable men in Miller’s life. Oth­ers includ­ed the artist-writer Roland Pen­rose, the busi­ness­man Aziz Eloui Bey, and, before all of them, the sur­re­al­ist pho­tog­ra­ph­er Man Ray, each of whom cor­re­spond­ed to a phase of the pro­fes­sion­al jour­ney that took her from fash­ion mod­el to fear­less pho­to­jour­nal­ist.

You can see and hear that jour­ney recount­ed by gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne in the new Great Art Explained video at the top of the post. Just above is a British Pathé news­reel that shows Miller at home with Pen­rose in 1946, the year between the end of the war and the birth of their son Antony Pen­rose, who re-dis­cov­ered and re-pub­li­cized his moth­er’s pho­tog­ra­phy after her death in 1977. How­ev­er belat­ed her pub­lic recog­ni­tion, it’s still sur­pris­ing that a life like Miller’s, the events of which stretch even Hol­ly­wood plau­si­bil­i­ty, only became a movie last year. Lee still awaits wide release, but much has been writ­ten about the pas­sion of star Kate Winslet that got it made. She’ll undoubt­ed­ly impress as Miller — but nei­ther, rumor has it, is Sat­ur­day Night Live alum­nus Andy Sam­berg’s David E. Scher­man a per­for­mance to be missed.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The For­got­ten Women of Sur­re­al­ism: A Mag­i­cal, Short Ani­mat­ed Film

Man Ray’s Por­traits of Ernest Hem­ing­way, Ezra Pound, Mar­cel Duchamp & Many Oth­er 1920s Icons

Why the U.S. Pho­tographed Its Own World War II Con­cen­tra­tion Camps (and Com­mis­sioned Pho­tographs by Dorothea Lange)

Meet Tsuneko Sasamo­to, Japan’s First Female Pho­to­jour­nal­ist and Now, at 107, Japan’s Old­est Liv­ing Pho­to­jour­nal­ist

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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