Lee Miller: The Beautiful American

The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin 

Beautiful American 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.

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In fact, this image is so iconic, I spotted it just yesterday at a Brocantes Fair on rue Cler just the other day:

An image of Lee Miller at a brocantes fair on rue Cler in Paris.

A copy of  Lee Miller’s famous Vogue cover at a brocantes fair on rue Cler in Paris.

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:

rue Boissonade, the short little street where Nora and Jamie lived in Montparnasse, just two blocks away from Lee Miller and May Ray.

Rue Boissonade, the short little street where Nora and Jamie lived in Montparnasse, just two blocks away from Lee Miller and May Ray.

 

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A look down Rue Boissonade and possibly, the convent that Nora and Jamie live near in The Beautiful American.

 

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Hotel Istria, 29 rue Campagne Premiere, a famous haunt of the Surrealists. Man Ray’s studio was next door, but he was known to rent a room in the hotel so he could have more privacy with his mistress Kiki of Montparnasse. Kiki would leave Man Ray and Lee Miller took up with him a year later.

 

The plaque at Hotel Istria, noting such visitors as DuChamp, Man Ray and Kiki of Montparnasse.

The plaque at Hotel Istria, noting such visitors as Marcel DuChamp, Man Ray,  Kiki of Montparnasse and Rainer Maria Rilke.

 

30 rue Campagne Premier, Man Ray's home and studio. He first moved here in 1926. He lived here with Lee Miller for three years. The architecture of the building is still beautiful after all these years.

31 bis rue Campagne Premier, Man Ray’s home and studio. He first moved here in 1926. He lived here with Lee Miller for three years. The architecture of this distinctive looking building is still beautiful after all these years. It was designed by André Arfvidson in 1911 and featured ceramic tiles by Alexandre Bigot.

 

The view of 31 bis rue Campagne Premiere from the Raspail Metro stop.

The view of 31 bis rue Campagne Premiere from the Raspail Metro stop.

 

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The Passage d'Enfer (Hell's Passage), just around the corner and behind Rue Campagne Premiere. Here you can see the back side of Man Ray's home and studio.

The Passage d’Enfer (Hell’s Passage), just around the corner and behind Rue Campagne Premiere. From here you can see the back side of Man Ray’s home and studio.

 

Man Ray's gravesite in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Maps are available at the entrance of the cemetery to help you find it. I might never have found it if I hadn't seen a photo online so I knew what to look for. It's right in the middle of Section 7.

Man Ray’s gravesite in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Maps are available at the entrance of the cemetery to help you find it. I might never have found it if I hadn’t seen a photo online so I knew what to look for. It’s right in the middle of Section 7.

"Unconcerned but not indifferent."

“Unconcerned but not indifferent.”

 

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.

9780984633470

 

2 thoughts on “Lee Miller: The Beautiful American

  1. I read the biography of Lee Miller in 2007, by Carolyn Burke. It was a great read. I had never heard of this beautiful muse and instantly fell in love with her. Now I must read Mackin’s story. It’s amazing to me that Lee Miller is not more widely known. Thanks for a great reading tip.

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  2. Unfortunately the Mackin book is only available in the USA, not the UK. I too read the Carolyn Burke biography. I’ve loved the surrealists since I was a teenager (a 100 years ago) as well the 1920s/30s period, so I knew – vaguely – of Lee Miller, but only now I realised she was just the most amazing woman! What a life! Get a copy of “Lee Miller’s War”, which is just amazing, both her photos and writing. She was such a character, talented, funny and sexy, and a real feminist icon. Her life would make the most amazing movie, or series of movies (oh, but NOT with Nicole Kidman! Cybill Shepherd (another “Vogue” model) is too old now, who else has Miller’s extraordinary face? Now I can’t get enough about her! Yes, she is still underrated, alas, like so many talented women artists and photographers, some (like Tanning and Dora Maar and Eileen Agar) she photographed and was good friends with!

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