The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin
Jeanne Mackin‘s new historical novel (NAL 2014) offers us a captivating story of love, friendship and betrayal during the heady days of 1920s Paris, based in part on the true story of the famous American model and photographer Lee Miller and her lover, the celebrated French photographer Man Ray.
The story is told by a fictional character, Nora Tours, who grew up with Lee Miller in Poughkeepsie, New York. They meet again in Paris, and Nora tells us the whole madly tragic story. And much of it is true.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Lee Miller, but chances are you don’t know her whole story. All I really knew about her before I read the book was that somehow, she was not only the iconic 1920s face on the cover of Vogue Magazine, but also, the famous female combat photographer who was photographed in Hitler’s bathtub.
Who wouldn’t want to read more about a woman like that?
Her story begins, of all places, in the town of Poughkeepsie, New York. Lee and Nora are acquaintances but only because Nora’s father is the Miller family gardener. Lee endures a devastating childhood event and Nora knows her secret.
Lee moves to New York where she is discovered by Condé Nast (he actually saved her from stepping into the path of a truck on a busy city street). Miller becomes a famous model and her face becomes the iconic image of 1920s beauty.
In fact, this image is so iconic, I spotted it just yesterday at a Brocantes Fair on rue Cler just the other day:
Lee Miller flees to Paris, as so many Americans did in the 20s, and brazenly introduces herself to the famous photographer Man Ray. The embark on an intense love affair and creative partnership. In the meantime, Nora and her boyfriend, an amateur photographer, are also lured to Paris, which by that time had become “the center of gravity” in the art world.
The two couples – Lee and Man, Nora and Jamie – meet at the Jockey Club on rue Rabelais, and Mackin captures the moment nicely:
A moment, frozen in my memory like a photograph: a winter night on rue Rabelais outside the Jockey Club, where two girls from Poughkeepsie bumped into each other, each clinging to her beau’s arm; the four of us in the falling snow, music from the club wafting out with the smell of tobacco, perfume, whiskey; each of us looking in a different direction . . . .
From there, the story goes on, advancing through the magical years of Lee Miller’s partnership with Man Ray, their glamorous life in Paris alongside such legends as Pablo and Olga Picasso, to Lee and Man’s tortured break-up, and finally, into Lee Miller’s own career as a professional photographer.
Nora suffers a devastating betrayal and escapes on her own, without Jamie, to southern France. Nora comes into her own as she pursues an interesting career in the perfume industry and she waits out World War II . Lee Miller becomes famous as a female World War II photographer.
The Beautiful American is a well-crafted novel, a pleasure to read and hard to put down. Nora Tours might be make-believe, but she feels just as real and interesting as the real-life characters, in fact, maybe even more so. Lee Miller is a difficult subject. She was brave and daring but also heartless and damaged. But good Nora? She suffers and she endures an unbearable loss. In the end – with the surprising help from her old friend Lee Miller, whose horrible secret Nora never reveals, Nora prevails.
And who wouldn’t want to read about a woman like that?
The Beautiful American Literary Tour of Montparnasse:
The Beautiful American by Jeane Mackin: Highly recommended
For Further Reading:
You should really go to the Lee Miller Archives, a site maintained by her son Antony Penrose. That’s where you can see many of Lee Miller’s original photographs, which are all subject to strict copyright. That’s where you can find the photo of Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, photos of Pablo Picasso, as well as her wartime photographs.
Also recommended: The Golden Moments of Paris by John Baxter, which contains an excellent Montparnasse Walk and Map at the end of the book.