Largely forgotten by time and hidden under egos grander than the persons they’re attached to, Lee Miller and her life is probably not familiar to you. With that being said, I would not recommend reading this book to learn anything about her.
This novel, this tale of this great woman’s life, is a great disservice to her. Whitney Scharer should have stuck to short stories and articles, because this reads more like an essay a high school student wrote with great intentions and little effort. To be frank, Scharer didn’t put in the work and it very clearly shows.
Before going further into detail of all the problems I have with this book, I’d like to salvage Miller’s history a little.
Lee Miller was born on April 23, 1907 in Poughkeepsie,
New York. She began modeling around the age of 19, but her career would be short lived due to problems arising as a result of the lack of copyright laws.
Seeking a new start and a new career, Miller went off to Paris. Becoming an apprentice to Man Ray, a somewhat notable artist at the time, she found a passion for photography within the emotionally abusive relationship she had with him. During the course of their relationship, Miller grew as an artist and as a person. Developing the solidification method with film, finding her passion for candid moments, and meeting artists alike that would help grow her career. Three years later, she would return to New York and open a studio with her little brother.
Their studio became decently successful for celebrity portraits and Vogue editorials. However, Miller would fall in love and run away to Cairo two short years later. This relationship would last six years and lead Miller not only back to Paris but all over the world. During her travels, she met surrealist Roland Penrose who she would later marry at the age of 40. In 1939, she left Egypt for Penrose in London where she would photograph Europe after the Blitz. She became a prolific contributor as a wartime correspondent for Vogue during this time. She followed the 83rd Infantry Division
around the front lines of World War II. Some of the most famous photographs from this period of destruction and liberation, the images that adorn textbooks and museums, were taken by Miller. And nobody knows that.
Nobody knows that her life during the war so closely resembled that of a soldier she also suffered from PTSD as a result. Nobody knows that Miller made her way into Hitler’s apartment after his suicide in the bunker, got into his bathtub, and took photos of herself taking over his former space as he had taken over so many others’. Nobody remembers the females on the frontline.
When Miller was finally able to return to the nuisances of home life, of being an artist in simpler times, she reinvented herself once more. She attended the Cordon Bleu in Paris and became a gourmet cook for her friends, husband, and son. She continued to photograph on occasion and work with British Vogue until her death in 1977.
Her son uncovered her many acclaims and accomplishments by sorting through her belongings and talking to family members, she had forgotten to mention her life to her son and the world had forgotten to thank her for it. This book is just another failed attempt in a long line of misrepresentation and lack of gratitude in Miller’s life.
To start, I must acknowledge that all of the history and biographical information I have offered thus far have come from online research. None of which arose by reading Whitney Scharer’s book. I had actually, completely forgotten the beginning of this book was Miller in her kitchen cooking, a sad reference to her later in life passion. That was also the only mention of it, which explains why four-hundred pages later it seems more like something I had dreamt-up rather than red.
This book is meant to bring someone forgotten back to life, it was meant to revive something incredulous and wonderful. And all it did was make me loathe this admirable woman. We shouldn’t be ruining legacies, girls need figures to look up to, to aspire to, and this book ruins one. This book took me a total of four months to read, because 120 days out of that time period, I didn’t want to pick it up. I didn’t want to read it. Not just because of the writing, although that didn’t help, this author could not have been further from capturing this person. There was such an apparent wall between who this person truly was and what the author was able to understand, which I have to say, was not a lot.
Whitney Scharer truly didn’t understand the complexities of Miller’s personality and history. She didn’t understand the emotionally abusive relationship that she had with Man Ray and that was the only story she told in this book. It was such an emotionally shallow depiction of such a complex condition that it gives mental illness a bad rap. She attempted to talk about the uncomfortable relationship Miller had with her father, but the same problem occurred. I would highly recommend that this writer take a psychology course, or just talk to people, to do better than the far away facade she depicts. Otherwise, she’ll ruin every legacy she attempts to write about.
Onto another large problem with this novel is that the writing is overly-patterned and distant. The author having struggled to connect and understand Miller in the first place, only exasperates this issue. It makes Miller further away for the reader, it makes her character more shallow and flimsy, and only added to my dread at working my way through this book.
Thirdly, finally, and potentially most important is that the author spent all her time and pages on the relationship between Miller and Man Ray. It perpetuates the idea that this woman only existed in relation to Man Ray, that she didn’t exist on her own. As a failed attempt to counteract this misgiving by the author, rather than do some edits and actual work, she threw random time jumps in between the chapters of Miller during World War II. Other than they had no context, the stark and shallow contrast in Miller’s character was off-putting. The reader couldn’t get to know Miller so they couldn’t understand the vast difference in character. But then again, it’s not like Scharer did the work to show us.
This book needs so many more revisions before it should’ve ever hit the shelves. Cut out two-hundred and fifty pages of Man Ray, add in Miller as an artist. Go chronologically and attempt to understand her psychology. Honestly, after saying all of that, I think the rewrite needs a new author, not another manuscript.