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Book 33 of 52: Lee Miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke

Quick reminder before I get into the review: on Wednesday, I'm moderating a National Book Critics Circle panel on books and all the wonderful things involved with the publishing world. It's at 7pm at Friends Select in Philadelphia. And it's FREE. How could you pass that up?

Now onto the review of book 33 of 52: Wow. Just wow.

That was my initial reaction to finally finishing Carolyn Burke's Lee Miller: A Lifethis evening. The book is an epic, and an exceptionally well researched and written one at that (it was a National Book Critics Circle finalist for 2005). It recounts the life Lee Miller, who has the kind of life that would seem completely unfathomable if presented as fiction.

I'd read about Lee Miller briefly in Francine Prose's The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired. Miller, having been a muse for Man Ray, was one of the nine women featured (and pictured on the cover). I thought she was interesting, yes, but the profile was relatively brief and packed in with eight other people. I came across Burke's book because I read about the Lee Miller exhibit currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and figured I might as well read about her before seeing the show. I'm glad I did.

Miller was an extremely complex and, at, at times, tragic figure. She was raped at the age of seven, an event that not only divorced love from sex, but also gave her gonorrhea. She was a restless girl and young woman and, after being 'discovered' in Paris by Conde Nast (the man behind Vogue) in 1927, left that provincial American life behind to became the face of an era. She also became the muse to Man Ray. With him, she learned and studied photography, which would bring her out of being just a pretty face and into a World War II correspondent for Vogue where she photographed some harrowing experiences, including the first use of napalm, the liberation of Paris, and the liberation of concentration camps (she was also photographed bathing in Hilter's tub). The war experience produced thousands of images, most of which were found after her death, but also left with a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder. Some of the pictures are featured in the book -- if you'd like to see them, click over to the Lee Miller archive, but I warn you: some of them are graphic, so proceed with caution.

She bottled up the experience and sought release and relief mostly through alcohol. I only marked one quote in this book, which came near the end of the book: "Because Lee rarely spoke of the war, her entourage thought that this chapter of her life was closed. Few knew that it had gone underground, to resurface late at night when she could not sleep, or when drinking with a female guest or relation -- a younger version of herself. You must be careful, she warned them, you could get in over your head."

It's the last part that brought up an issue I've been struggling with myself -- the issue of sacrifice for art. Granted, my experience is not nearly on par with Miller's, but it's an issue that floated up while I read through the final chapters of the book. So if you'll allow me a to take a tangent:

As I've mentioned, I've been working on what had become a very personal essay about a rather difficult period of my life. The writing and editing of that piece was brutal because it brought back an experience I've been trying to bury. With the writing came a wash of loss, regret, anger heartbreak and renewed grief.

In the mist of all this -- the sobbing binges, the restless nights, the evenings working on the essay in the dark -- I wondered why I was putting myself through the ringer. I could have just left the memories buried and moved on with my life. No one would miss the essay if it was never published, while forcing it into print would bring a new heap of problems. But publishing it would also exorcise an internal demon, and, to fall back on an old cliche, if one person reads it and sees herself in it and makes a change, well, then it will be all worth it. And reading through Miller’s life, and about her issues with drinking (my essay is not about that, but involves someone else’s drinking problem), I decided to finish the piece and submit it to a big name publication yesterday.

I hope I fare a bit better in the end than Miller did -- I think my inclination to turn to the treadmill and weights instead of alcohol to burn through the hurt, is a good start. Plus, that I can write about it while Miller didn’t talk about the war and left most of the photos in an attic only to be discovered after a her death, is promising.

Back to the book: I hope that Miller found some peace in the end. From Burke's account, she got her drinking under control, and she devoted herself to cooking (much like Julia Child, she turned to the kitchen late in life). She also reconciled with her son before her death, and died in the arms of her husband.

I spent a long time with this book -- it's the only book in this 52 books in 52 weeks series that’s taken me longer than a week to read. Instead of saying "I've had enough Lee Miller," I want to know more. I'll have to wait to see the exhibit since the certain someone who’s taking me is leaving for vacation tomorrow (lucky duck). Until then, you can read about her, and see more pictures here and here.


LeAnn said…
What strikes me about this woman's story (from what I gathered in your review anyway) is how silent she was about her anguish and how resilient in her maimed psychic state. With Britney Spears and other celebrity and political figures so publicly living their tormented lives today, Lee Miller's life is a stark contrast. I'm especially interested in reading how victims of rape and other sexual abuse rise above their hurt and live nothing short of heroic lives. I've never heard of Lee Miller before now but I'd like to read her story. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

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