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SUNDAY 21 JULY  2024

*

Extraordinary life of Lee Miller, model and photographer, coming soon to a cinema screen near you

Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub hours after the Fuhrer’s suicide


The lustrous Kate Winslet stars in a new film due to reach our screens in September. Take a bow, that casting director.

 

Winslet plays Lee Miller, a Vogue model who became a war photographer for the fashion bible and covered the fighting in northern France after Allied troops landed on D-Day.

 

To judge by photographs, the pair could have been sisters – both undoubtedly beautiful in a mannish way, both strong, uncompromising women, spirited and stubborn.

 

Miller had a remarkable life. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she was raped at seven by a family friend. After that, she was expelled from nearly every school she attended until in 1925, aged 18, she was sent to a finishing school in Paris.

 

Her father dispatched two elderly spinsters with her to act as chaperones. What they didn’t know was that the hotel they were staying in was also a brothel. “I thought it was divine,” she recalled.

 

“I was either hanging out the window, watching the clients come and go, or watching the shoes being changed in the corridor with amazing frequency. Although I looked like an angel, I really was a fiend.”

 

Her chaperones were ordered back to America but Miller stayed, working at a theatre in Montmartre and studying lighting, costume and design at a school of stagecraft.

 

Her father, an amateur photographer, finally arrived in Paris to take her home where she studied art and drama and trained as a dancer.

 

Her big break came when she almost stepped into the road in front of a car in New York. She was saved by a stranger, who turned out to be Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue. Shocked, she collapsed into his arms and “ridiculously babbled on in French”.

 

He offered her a job on the magazine. The editor, Edna Woolman Chase saw in Miller the epitome of a modern woman – powerfully beautiful and slightly androgynous – and commissioned French artist Georges Lepape to draw her. She appeared on the Vogue cover on March 15, 1927, wearing a cloche and a string of pearls against a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.

 

“I did lots of modelling for Vogue,” she said, “but I wanted to be a photographer myself.”

 

The following year Miller, who died in 1977 aged 70, returned to the City of Lights and hooked up with Man Ray, the surrealist artist and photographer, and became his lover and his muse.

 

She accidentally invented the technique for which Ray became famous: solarisation. The photograph’s tones are reversed so that light areas become dark and vice versa.

 

Miller was startled as she developed some negatives in the dark room. She instinctively switched on the light, instantly realised what she had done and flicked it off again. When she looked at the film, the tones had reversed.

 

Miller went on modelling for Man Ray, often nude, and it was claimed that her breasts were the inspiration for the shape of a champagne coupe. She was also said to possess the “most beautiful navel in Paris”.

 

She was briefly married to an Egyptian and lived in Cairo but in 1937 she met Roland Penrose, an artist and poet and collector of modern paintings. They married 10 years later.

 

She got a job as a Vogue photographer in 1940. Two years later she was an accredited US Army war correspondent for Condé Nast publications. It remains a mystery why they needed one but Miller said: “I wanted to do something so I invented the job.

 

“They asked me what the rules should be and I said, ‘Just treat me like one of the boys’, which they did. That was long before Women’s Lib and I felt like a one-woman brigade.”

 

She went to St Malo on the Brittany coast. It was meant to be captured by the Allies but when she arrived there was fierce fighting going on.

 

Miller recalled: “I got some terrifying photographs of the first jelly bombs [napalm]. I was awfully scared, but I said to myself, ‘Nobody made you come here’.”

 

She also covered the liberation of Paris. “The first thing I did was to go to see my old friend Picasso,” she said. “Picasso always said I was the first American soldier he saw.”

 

Miller documented the horrors of both Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. She teamed up with Life correspondent David E Scherman and he photographed Miller sitting in Hitler’s bath at his apartment in Munich, hours after the Fuhrer had killed himself in his Berlin bunker.

 

After the war she had a son with Penrose and they lived at Farley Farm, near Lewes in East Sussex. She became a skilled cook but suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and drank heavily.

 

It is hard to describe how rare and brave her life was. But it might help if you imagine that Kate Moss had put her tin hat on and followed British troops into battle in Afghanistan…

 

*Lee will be shown in cinemas from Friday, September 13 and on Sky soon afterwards.

 

*****

 

Our new Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, is what Napoleon would have called a lucky general.

 

In politics, as in life, you make your own luck, and there’s no doubt that Starmer worked hard to make Labour electable again.

 

He surrounded himself with politicians who wouldn’t frighten the horses – such as his bright and convincing Chancellor Rachel Reeves. And he kept his enemies on the Left close by making Angela Rayner his deputy.

 

But the stars aligned for Starmer. Almost from the moment he took over as Labour leader, he was pushing at an open door. People were already heartily sick of the Tories.

 

Though I reluctantly voted for them again, I was neither surprised nor disappointed that the Tories took a spanking last Thursday. They had it coming.

 

The curious thing is, though, that Labour achieved a landslide victory with only 35 per cent of the vote, which suggests that while voters hated the Conservatives, they couldn’t find that much to commend Starmer either.

 

They wanted someone to blame for the cost of living crisis, the incessant arrival of illegal immigrants and scandals such as the Post Office and the sullying of our rivers by avaricious water companies.

 

Step forward R. Sunak. It wasn’t all his fault and the voters probably recognise that. But when the music stopped, he was the one who couldn’t find a chair.

 

Now the Tories must choose his successor. So many top names have been culled that it is hard to see a potential Prime Minister among those left.

 

I hope they don’t choose Robert Jenrick. He was the Housing Minister who overruled a government planning inspector to approve Richard Desmond’s £1 billion housing development at the old Westferry print site.

 

The timing of his intervention saved Desmond perhaps as much as
£50 million, which he would have had to pay as a levy to Tower Hamlets Council. Soon afterwards, Desmond donated a substantial wedge to Conservative coffers.

 

But whoever is the new leader – Kemi Badenoch, perhaps, or James Cleverly – I have a request to make. Can you please make the first order of business a bonfire of the toffs? Eton and Oxford, and especially the Bullingdon Club, are no longer a good look. So, thank Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton for his service and consign him to history.

 

Same for Boris. He may be charismatic but he is also a shameless liar and a lazy, blustering, entitled cheat. He has been found out once; don’t let him bluff his way back.

 

And above all, disown that walking affectation Jacob Rees-Mogg. My heart soared when I heard that he had lost his North East Somerset seat.

 

So, having chosen a new leader and cleared out the dead wood (sorry, paid tribute to their departing elder statesmen) all that will remain for the Tories to do is to decide who they are. They should see their pulverising at the hands of the electorate not as a disaster but as an opportunity.

 

They should have what a certain newspaper executive used to call The Conversation: an honest, if painful debate about what they believe in. It need not mean a lurch to the Right, though they need to accommodate those views. Nor do they have to become the provisional wing of the Liberal Party.

 

They just have to ask themselves: Why did they hate us? And how can we make it up to them?

 

*****

 

Pity poor France (go on, you can do it). At least we know now who’s in charge here. They haven’t a clue the other side of the Channel.

 

A squabbling coalition of the Left came out top in the election for the National Assembly that President Macron stupidly called. His party came second and not far behind was the far Right of Marine Le Pen.

 

No one has a majority. Whether they can even appoint a government is in doubt. The chaos came about because of cynical deals done between Left and centrist parties to keep the hard Right from seizing power.

 

In other words, the election was rigged.

 

I don’t like Le Pen’s lot. It is notionally led by Jordan Bardella, a charismatic, moderate-sounding 28-year-old. But behind him is a nasty, brutish party. Bardella called the ganging up against his National Rally “an alliance of dishonour”.

 

He’s right. When voters are stitched up in this way, when the will of the people is flagrantly ignored, the country has no right to call itself a democracy. It’s going to haunt the arrogant Macron for the rest of his political life.


RICHARD DISMORE


9 July 2024