From the cover of a magazine to Hitler’s bathroom: the incredible story of Lee Miller, who traded her career as a top model for trenches and concentration camps

She built a dizzying modeling career in Paris and became the muse of Man Ray and Pablo Picasso. And then she exchanged bohemian evenings with the cream of society for trenches and filming in concentration camps as a war correspondent. We tell the incredible story of Lee Miller, worthy of becoming the plot of an adventure film.

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Lee Miller, 1932

In her youth, Lee Miller clearly could not imagine how fate would lead her to the cover of Vogue magazine, to the company of famous photographers and surrealist artists, to luxury yachts, and later to war zones, concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald (and even to Adolf Hitler’s apartment a few hours before his death). Her inspiring story will serve as the plot for a new film starring Kate Winslet, but many details of the fascinating biography of the American, unfortunately, will remain under the veil of secrecy. We tell you how a successful fashion model became the only female reporter on the front line of the Second World War.

Childhood trauma

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Lee Miller as a child

Elizabeth Miller was born in New York in 1907 in the family of an engineer and an amateur photographer. When the girl turned seven, her mother became seriously ill and could not look after the child, so it was decided to send her to friends in Brooklyn. There was a tragedy that left a huge imprint on her life — a seven-year-old girl was raped by a friend of her family. To make matters worse, he infected her with a venereal disease, which required many years of painful treatment for the child. For a long time she talked to a psychiatrist who helped her cope with stress and ease the guilt that she might have. Miller herself has kept her childhood trauma a secret all her life.

However, the trials for the girl did not end there: her father, a photographer, often took pictures of his daughter naked, which lasted from a young age until the girl was twenty years old. Although working with her father may have instilled in her a love of photography, such shooting clearly could not benefit her psyche. 

From rescue to magazine cover

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Lee Miller in the lens of George Fdorovich Goiningen-Gune, 1932

A long thin neck, deep blue eyes and a masterful ability to pose — it is not surprising that the girl was destined to become a fashion model. The path to fashion turned out to be quite unexpected and fast. Late one evening, 19-year-old Elizabeth left her apartment in Manhattan, crossed the road and was almost hit by an oncoming car. She was saved from the tragedy by an unknown man who grabbed her and pulled her to safety. The guardian angel of the girl was Conde Nast, a well-known publisher and owner of Vogue magazine.

A few months later, Miller’s photographs adorned the covers of British and American Vogue, and soon the girl was already dating the cream of New York society – Josephine Baker, Cecil Beaton, Fred Astaire, as well as Charlie Chaplin, who became one of her many suitors. For the next two years, she pursued a career in fashion and was the favorite model of photographer Edward Steichen, spent time in a luxurious penthouse, dressed in furs and jewelry, sailed yachts and flew on private planes.

In the shadow of a man

Miller’s life was luxurious, but she absolutely did not satisfy the famous model — the girl was not at all attracted by the passive role of a model. Her life changed again when in 1929 Steichen showed her the works of Man Ray. The famous photographer and surrealist artist was extremely popular in the USA and Europe at that time.

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Lee Miller and Man Ray

Inspired by his work, Miller decided to leave her modeling career and home in New York and went to Paris with the hope of becoming Ray’s student. After several weeks of searching, Miller finally found him in one of the Parisian bars. They say that that evening the girl approached the photographer with a pile of letters of recommendation and said: “My name is Lee Miller, and I am your new student.” Ray replied that he was not taking any students, and in any case he was going to Biarritz for a vacation the next day. “Me too,” she replied. Ray was amazed by her beauty and audacity. Needless to say, the next day they went to Biarritz together and did not part for another three years.

All this time she was his muse, a talented student and a part-time lover. As often happened in the art world, where men dominated at that time (and even now), Ray was often credited with works that Miller actually created. When Man had commercial clients with whom he was not very eager to work, Miller shot under his name so that he could focus on other, more important artistic works. In addition, Ray took countless photos with his muse Lee, which brought him income.

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

An article in the magazine “Picture Post”, dedicated to the shooting for the magazine “Vogue” by Lee Miller, October 26, 1940

Of course, Miller was far from the kind of person who likes to live in the shadows. Soon the girl opened her own studio in Montparnasse, and her clients were cult fashion designers Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel. At the same time, she played the main role in the avant-garde film “The Poet’s Blood” by Jean Cocteau. Man Ray, who was possessive by nature, was jealous of Miller and considered Cocteau his rival. The independent girl, of course, did not want to put up with this, left her house with Ray and decided to return to New York.

In 1934, Vanity Fair proclaimed her one of the most outstanding photographers of the time. However, her career was put on pause when she met Egyptian businessman Aziz Bey, whom she married almost immediately. Lee decided to close her studio in Paris and moved to Cairo. However, life in Egypt (and her new husband) quickly bored the girl. Li often traveled to France, spending time in the company of Pablo Picasso, her former lover, and his friends. All this time she has not stopped actively and fruitfully shooting for British Vogue.

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Model posing for Lee Miller

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Model in tennis clothes posing Lee Miller

The horrors of war on the pages of gloss

With the outbreak of World War II, Miller found it increasingly difficult to focus on fashion. Driven by vanity, boredom, politics, altruism, or a combination of all these factors, Miller applied for accreditation as a war correspondent.

Miller became the only female war photographer in Europe, and her contribution to military journalism was unparalleled. She joined the U.S. Infantry division and was on the front line of the Allied offensive from Normandy to Paris. Years later, Miller’s son Anthony told about his mother: “The soldiers liked her — they saw her as a good friend. She could swear just like them, and quickly came to terms with life under fire.” 

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Lee Miller, 1944

Lee covered the life of the Women’s Royal Navy and the Women’s Land Army, showing what girls go through during the war. Shortly after the opening of the Second Front, she went to Normandy to cover the war in Europe. She was supposed to be working in a safe zone away from the front, but British intelligence received incorrect information, and the Battle of Saint-Malo was still in full swing. All male war correspondents were sent to cover other battles, and Miller was the only reporter. Later, she told in an interview: “What should a girl do when a battle takes place right at her knees?” She violated the terms of her accreditation and covered up the fight. After that, she was placed under house arrest, which did not prevent her from catching up with the US 83rd Division again and covering further battles.

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Lee Miller and American Soldiers, 1944

The iconic picture in Hitler’s apartment

Despite the fact that she did a lot of shocking and terrifying military filming, one of the most famous shots was a photo of Lee herself in 1945. After Miller and her friend David Sherman visited the concentration camps, they entered Adolf Hitler’s empty apartment and took some photos. Lee, completely undressed, is sitting in the Fuhrer’s bathroom, and next to her are her boots, stained with the dirt of the Dachau concentration camp. Of course, Miller could not have imagined that just a few hours after this photo was taken, Hitler and Eva Braun would commit suicide in a bunker in Berlin.

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

Lee Miller in Hitler’s apartment, Munich 1945

The Surrealist Cook

After the war, when Miller was already 40 years old, she became pregnant by the collector and surrealist artist Roland Penrose, married him and moved to New York. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Miller was never able to recover from her experience on the front line and became addicted to alcohol. “It’s not easy to have a relationship with an alcoholic parent… she was usually a very generous, sensitive and kind person, but when she was drunk, she insulted and offended,” her son Anthony later recalled. “She never hit me—she didn’t need to. She could hurt with words.” When Anthony grew up, he distanced himself from his mother, who never told him about her childhood, high-profile modeling career and work in the war.

After a while, Miller was still able to get rid of depression and alcohol addiction and rediscover herself. The woman very successfully took up cooking, however, in an unexpected way. Her surreal masterpieces included blue spaghetti, pink cauliflower and Coca-Cola ice cream with marshmallows, and recipes were often published in Vogue magazine. 

С обложки журнала в ванную Гитлера: невероятная история Ли Миллер, которая променяла карьеру топ-модели на окопы и концлагеря

English art critic and radio critic Frederick Lawes and Lee Miller at the performance of Pablo Picasso’s “Desire Caught By The Tail”, London 1950

Lee Miller died of cancer at the age of 70. It was only after her death that her son discovered in the attic an archive of her photographs, negatives and shoots for Vogue, realizing the path his mother had taken. “Until then, I saw her as a hysterical woman drinking. I overestimated my whole attitude towards her.” Miller even kept the story of her childhood rape a secret. “When I told my father,” Anthony admitted, “it was incredibly touching. He said, ‘I wish we all knew that — it would allow us to understand her.'” Since then, Anthony has devoted his entire life to the work of restoring her story, revealing the identity of his own mother as he never knew her. He made an archive of her works and wrote biographies of both his parents. In addition, filming of a military biopic starring Kate Winslet began in 2021. And although now the story of the model and the war correspondent has become public, many of the adventures of this incredible woman will remain a secret.

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