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Lee Miller

Lee Miller by Man Ray

Jean Cocteau & Lee Miller

Lee Miller, born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1907, lived many lives before her death from cancer in a Sussex farmhouse in 1976. She had been involved with many of the period's major artists, including Jean Cocteau, thanks in considerable part to her personal beauty, her amazing professional accomplishments, and her free-wheeling style. In a sense, Lee Miller summed up the brilliant and troubled times in which she lived, even as she foreshadowed the liberated woman of a later generation.

At the age of seven, Lee had been raped and infected by a young friend of the family. The psychiatrist called in by her desperate parents persuaded Lee that sex and love were unrelated. How much this official trivialization of sex coloured her later behaviour is impossible to say, but Lee Miller would enter into numerous liaisons - most of then brief - with men she met on her incessant travels. Even after she had left them, her former lovers seemed unable to forget her beauty, her vitality, humour, and tireless curiousity.

By 1928 Lee had migrated to Paris and become a favourite model for Patou, Schiaparelli, and Lucien Lelong. After meeting Man Ray, the expatriate American photographer and Surrealist artist, she became his assistant and then his mistress, forming friendships with Picasso, Paul Eluard, the Surrealist poet, and his wife Nusch, Christian Bérard, Cocteau's favourite costume and set designer, Boris Kochno, secretary and assistant to Serge de Diaghilev, and other celebrated members of the cultural elite.


The Statue in "Le Sang D'un Poete"

It was in 1930 that Lee Miller met Jean Cocteau at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the bar-nightclub the poet had sponsored in the Rue Boissy d'Anglas. Le Tout-Paris went there to see and be seen. At the Boeuf one night Cocteau asked his friends to suggest someone for the role of the female statue in his film Le Sang d'un Poéte. A beautiful young woman nearby breathlessly volunteered for the part: Lee Miller, who was there that night with Man Ray. Cocteau saw at once that her pale blonde hair and dreamy eyes, her rounded throat and figure made her perfect for the role.

To Francis Steegmuller, Lee later recalled some of the amusing production problems in shooting Cocteau's first film. Feral Benga, the black jazz dancer who played the angel, sprained his ankle and became an angel with a limp. Cocteau put a star on Enrique Riviero's back to cover an old bullet wound from the pistol of some cuckolded husband. The mattresses used to soundproof the studio walls were, unfortunately for the cast, infested with ravenous fleas and bedbugs. When the "bull" (really an ox) rented from an abattoir arrived at the studio with only one horn, Cocteau made a second one himself.

With The Blood of a Poet - the only film in which Lee Miller performed - she and Cocteau made film history. The beautiful model could not know that fifteen years later she would have Cocteau in front of her own camera on the summer day when Paris was liberated from the German Occupation.


Lee Miller Returns

Lee Miller returned to Paris with the American troops during World War 11 and quickly renewd contact with many old friends. On August 25, 1944, the day the capital was officially liberated, she made the rounds of the Palais-Royal to see Cocteau and Colette, and then went on to Picasso's studio. There the Cubist master exclaimed: "You're the first allied uniform I've seen!"

One of her companions in Liberation Paris was young Roland Penrose, the English art historian who would write a distinguished biography of Picasso. Lee and Roland married three years later At forty she gave birth to a son and lived to see her first granddaughter. Meanwhile, this cosmopolitan woman spent her last years happily surrounded by family in the heart of the English countryside. Until then, Lee Miller had roared full-throttle through a chaotic life, fueled increasingly by alcohol and Benzedrine, working hard and playing hard with tremendously talented friends and lovers, driven always by the search for Something New. She is justly to be remembered as one of those American free spirits who helped invent the twenties in Paris.

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