Like well-trained children at the dinner table, muses are generally meant to be seen, not heard. And looking at Lee Miller was enough to captivate legendary men — her cool blond beauty painted by Picasso, molded into a living statue by Jean Cocteau, and immortalized, most famously, in hundreds of photographs by her lover and collaborator Man Ray.
Except she was also — as this rich historical fiction reveals — entirely, inconveniently human; a born creator driven to become the agent of her own destiny and the artist she wanted to see. In part, that meant turning her own lens on the brutal truths of WWII as one of the rare female correspondents in the field, though those indelible images are just one aspect of a remarkable life that author Whitney Scharer aims to rescue from the margins of history in her artful debut.
Born to a wealthy but emotionally remote family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., at the turn of the 20th century, Miller found an escape through modeling for the pages of Vogue and by 1929 made her way to Paris, where Ray — 17 years older and already famous — became her employer, and then much more. What they created together in and out of the studio felt like the first true partnership of Lee’s life, until a gross betrayal showed her otherwise.
Whatever reams of research Scharer put into excavating Miller’s story she distills here into clean, consistently evocative prose. The glittering bohemia of 1930s Paris, the pastoral boredom of mid-’60s Sussex, the hollowed-out carnage of postwar Europe; all come equally alive on the page, as do iconic figures like Ray and Cocteau and Kiki de Montparnasse. But none breathe more vividly than Miller herself: Fiercely independent but racked by self-doubt, desperate for affection and approval even as she chafed at sentiment, she spent decades fighting to find her voice. It was worth the wait. A-