MODEL, muse, wartime correspondent and photographer… Lee Miller was an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life.
A Vogue cover model in the 1920s, the muse and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray in Paris in the 1930s, the documenter of the liberation of the concentration camps Dachau and Buchenwald in the 1940s, and a sufferer of depression in the following decades as a result of the horrors she was witnessed, her life in pictures and words has been well documented by her son Anthony Penrose since her death in 1977.
But one key ingredient to her life story has been virtually ignored – until now. This week, her granddaughter Ami Bouhassane, publishes a new book, Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes, which reveals how food and cooking helped her cope after witnessing such horrors.
“The last 20 years of her life had been all about nourishment,” says Ami, the daughter of Anthony. “When she crashed at the end of the war, it was a difficult time. There were peaks and troughs to her depression and cookery was an outlet for her creativity.”
The book was borne out of the family’s frustration that Lee’s achievement as a gourmet chef is usually left as an endnote to accounts of her life and work. “It was made to sound like cooking was a jolly hobby for her,” Ami tells Pique. “In all the exhibitions of her work, there was just a mention of her cooking. But she studied Cordon Bleu in Paris for six months and could cook as a serious chef, adding her own twist to a normal recipe.
“I knew there was so much more and this book is something we have always wanted to do.”
The cookbook explores Lee’s life through the influence of food and how it becomes the creative vehicle that that replaces the camera and is used to build bridges, heal old wounds and to empower other women.
“It is not just a cookery book and not just a book of recipes,” says Ami, 40, who works in the Lee Miller archive at Farleys Farm. “It needed some kind of explantation of her cooking. How did she come to be this chef? It needed the story of food in her life to go in this book.”
Lee Miller was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, and died at Farleys House at Muddles Green, Chiddingly, in East Sussex in 1977. She was the daughter of an engineer and an amateur photographer. She studied art in New York and became a model after Conde Nast, the founder of Vogue, saved her life when she stepped in front of traffic. Realising how beautiful she was, he made her a Vogue cover girl in 1927 and, photographed by the celebrated Edward Steichen, Hoyningen-Huene and Arnold Genthe, loved modelling.
Then, bored by it, she turned to photography, working with Surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray when she went to Paris in 1929. His muse and his lover, Lee lived a Bohemian life in Paris, friends with Picasso and Max Ernst and running her own successful studio.
But when her relationship with Man Ray ended, she came back to New York in 1932, where she again set up her own studio.
Then she met and married wealthy Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey, and in Egypt, she became fascinated by long range desert travel, photographing desert villages and ruins. Visiting Paris in 1937, she met the Surrealist artist Roland Penrose and travelled with him to Greece and Romania, and then to London just before the Second World War broke out.
As a photojournalist, she became a war correspondent, following the US troops to Europe. She was probably the only woman combat photo-journalist to cover the frontline war in Europe, witnessing the siege of St Malo, the Liberation of Paris, fighting in Luxembourg and Alsace, the Russian/American link-up at Torgau, and the liberation of the concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau. The same day that she went into Dachau and took some her most disturbing images of the Nazis’ victims, she photographed Hitler’s house Wachenfeld at Berchtesgaden in flames on the eve of Germany’s surrender, being photographed naked in Hitler’s bath.
She also covered harrowing scenes of children dying in Vienna and the execution by firing squad of Hungarian prime minister Laszio Bardossy.
After the war, she continued to photograph for Vogue, covering fashion and celebrities, and after marrying Roland Penrose, she contributed to biographies of Picasso, Miro, Man Ray and Tapies.
But her wartime experiences left her deeply touched and she experienced what today would have been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
These facts of her life have been well documented thanks to Anthony, her child with Roland Penfold. After his mother died in 1977, he discovered thousands of her prints and negatives in the attic of their home in East Sussex, a part of her life he had known nothing about, and ever since he has devoted a large part of his life in bringing her achievements to wider public attention.
Coincidentally, it was another rummage through the attic that uncovered Lee’s passion for food and cooking. “My mother found the recipes, hundreds of them, when she was looking for baby photos of my dad,” says Ami, who grew up with her parents in a house close to Farleys Farm. “She was so excited because she found these recipes of Lee’s and brought them down.
“Dad just could not believe she had written this stuff.”
The book tells a different history of Lee’s life, one that runs parallel with what was already known. It explains how Lee credits Man Ray for not only teaching her about the art of photography but also how to enjoy and appreciate good food. She also experiments with the idea of food as a protest against the objectification of women.
Lee discovered cultural rituals and the use of spices in food during her Egyptian travels, and as she was travelling in Greece and Romania, she documented harvest festivals and the customs of travelling people such as the Roma. In the south of France, she speared her own octopi and ate it.
As a war correspondent she couldn’t help but notice what little food people survived on, and witnessed hundreds of starved prisoners, writing about how those who survived could only hold a spoonful of food before their stomachs couldn’t take any more.
In the last decades of her life, spent at Farleys Farm with Roland and Anthony, she suffered from depression as a result of the horrors she had witnessed and Ami reveals that It was Lee’s fascination with food that helped her cope with it and begin to recover. Reinventing herself as a gourmet chef, she began to collect cookery books and recipes, so many in fact her husband had to build her a special room to house them.
Ami, who was born three months before Lee died and lives in Brighton with her husband and two sons, sees this part of her life as “her longest battle and most extraordinary personal accomplishment”.
“I think she was an amazing woman,” says Ami. “The more I found out about her, the more I thought that. She was not perfect but so many aspects of her life are inspiring. You think, ‘How can you possibly fit all that in your life?’
“It took strength and intelligence to be able to reinvent herself and she does it to such amazing quality.”
Ami was able to “pick my dad’s brains” when it came to writing the book. “He told me that as a child, he used to be nervous about bringing friends home for tea because they did not get normal food. He always knew there would be a blooming great pudding, though, so if the main course was blooming awful, there was always something fabulous after.”
The book, illustrated by Lee’s photography, features 95 of her recipes, including dishes with delicious-sounding names such as Muddles Green Green Chicken, Upside Down Onion Cake, Cauliflower Breasts, Golden Chicken and Pink Heaven. They have been re-created for the book, which includes material from the cookbook she herself was secretly hoping to publish at the end of her life. It would have been called The Entertaining Freezer. After she died, she left all her cookery books and magazines to Westminster Kingsway College, a college whose former students include Ainsley Harriott and Jamie Oliver, in the hope her books would continue to inspire new chefs.
Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends and Recipes by Ami Bouhassane, is published by Penrose Films Productions Ltd with Grapefrukt Vorlag on November 16, priced £29.95. It is available at leemiller.co.uk.
Ami Bouhassane shares insights into Lee Miller’s passion for food in the kitchen at Farleys where Lee’s culinary journey began at 11am on Friday, Saturday and Sunday December 1, 2 and 3, priced £15 per person. To book, visit leemiller.co.uk.
Main picture, top: Lee Miller in her kitchen at Farleys House, Muddles Green, in 1954. Picture: Roland Penrose
Above: Ami Bouhassane in the kitchen at Farleys. Picture: Tony Tree
Below: The new book, Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends and Recipes by Ami Bouhassane
Above: Homeless: like the women of German-invaded countries, German women now cook in the ruins in Nuremberg, Germany, 1945. Picture: Lee Miller
Below: Chicken Fonduta, an original recipe with Lee’s handwritten notes. Picture: Lee Miller