HAMILTON, Bermuda — Fashion model, World War II photographer, proto-feminist, celebrated cook and, at times, recluse, Lee Miller starred in a storied life that has been largely left untold. But a few chapters are revealed through a joint exhibition of her photos at the Bermuda National Gallery and Ace Gallery here on display until Sept. 5.

There she is modeling a “revolutionary” plastic headband, bathing solemnly in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub and marching through Dachau after its liberation. The 100-photo show also houses images of her friends and lovers, including Man Ray, Colette, Pablo Picasso, Paul Eluard, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington and her late husband, Roland Penrose. Clearly a woman of contradictions, Miller, who died in 1977 of pancreatic cancer, is exactly the kind of complex cat whose life played out like a movie. It should be no surprise, then, that Nicole Kidman has signed up to portray Miller in a Sir David Hare moviedue for release in 2006.

“You won’t see brass hats, politicians or many victors in her work,” Miller’s son, Antony Penrose, said during a tour of the National Gallery’s show. “She believed everyone was a hero in their own right.”

Penrose, 55, manages Miller’s archives from East Sussex, England, where he resides. Bermuda had appeal because he wanted to work with the BNG’s curator, Julie Sylvester, and his mother would have liked the island, he said.

Miller’s career began on the other side of the camera. She literally fell into modeling at the age of 20, when legendary lensman Edward Steichen saved her life: When Miller stepped in front of an oncoming car at a busy Manhattan intersection, Steichen grabbed her and she fainted in his arms. When she came to, she hadn’t gathered her wits and started speaking French. Steichen, who was known to always have his eyes peeled for new talent, was enchanted by the 20-year-old beauty and promptly launched her modeling career with a Vogue cover.

As a model, Miller turned photo shoots into tutorials, drilling such photographers as Steichen, Hoyningen-Huene and Arnold Genthe about lighting, setting up, film development and shooting. In 1928, her modeling career in America ended abruptly after she posed in an evening gown for a Kotex ad. At that time, the idea of a woman endorsing such a product was considered scandalous and magazine editors swiftly disassociated themselves from Miller, Penrose said.So she moved to Paris and established herself as a fashion photographer. There she modeled for Man Ray and became his assistant and lover. A shot of Man Ray shaving hints at Miller’s playfulness. “It’s a teasing picture. She wanted him to see he wasn’t as puffed up and important as he would have liked people to believe at that time,” Penrose said.

Even though their affair ended after four years, Man Ray left a lifelong impression on Miller’s work by introducing her to Surrealism, allowing her to marvel at the mundane, draw images from dreams and celebrate freedom in life, from the streets of Paris to Egypt, where she lived after marrying Aziz Eloui Bey, a wealthy businessman, in 1934. But Miller tired of the desert, returning to Paris on her own and finessing her talent.

Penrose said his mother was a very secretive person due to a traumatic childhood. It was only after her death that he learned she was raped by a relative at the age of seven and contracted venereal disease at a time when penicillin was not a remedy. He suspects his mother may have had an inappropriate relationship with her father, who took nude photographs of her from childhood until early adulthood.

“She was a person who knew a lot about suffering. When she saw it in others, she wanted to stop it, or alleviate it at least,” Penrose said. “This colorful, beautiful and wonderful character had had a life of such extreme suffering as a child.”

When World War II broke out, Miller moved to London and began working for British Vogue, initially handling fashion assignments and then covering war-torn England. Miller was a feminist years before the modern concept of feminism was invented, due partially to her editors’ willingness to have her cover women involved with the war, Penrose said. From 1942 to 1945, she teamed up with Time-Life photojournalist David Scherman, chronicling some dangerous spots, from the bombing of St. Malo, France, to the liberations of Dachau and Buchenwald. In 1945, after they got word from the Royal Corps of Signals that Hitler had vacated his Munich apartment, they trooped over there and couldn’t resist the temptation to bathe for the first time in three weeks, Penrose said, pointing to the famous picture of Miller in Hitler’s bathtub.Miller obviously was not fussy about her appearance, but her fashion background surfaced from time to time. Penrose recalled her account of “GIs leaving the bunker with hand grenades stuck in their lapels like Cartier clips.”

But combat took its toll on Miller, spiraling her into drinking binges and post-traumatic stress disorder. She only once spoke of the war with her son, when he informed her a schoolmate said the Holocaust never happened. “It did happen. I was there. I saw some of it,” she said in a tone he recalls vividly.

“After the war, the boozing really knocked her figure and looks about. She wore very casual clothes all the time, but sometimes rather cleverly,” Penrose said. When doilies were popular toilet-seat covers, Miller opted to wear them on her head. “That was an embarrassing point, when she wanted to wear them out shopping,” Penrose laughed.

Known for her joie de vivre, Miller rallied back her more lighthearted spirit in the late Sixties and Seventies. Even her cooking was tainted by her interest in Surrealism. Blue spaghetti, green chicken, gold-colored meatloaf and pink cauliflower decorated with tiny flowers to look like breasts were a few of her signature dishes.

“She had a tremendous unstoppable wit and desire to have fun, make jokes and fool around. She had a sense of unpredictability where you never knew what could come next,” he said.

To that degree, she seemed to live up to her favorite saying: “OK, have it your own way. But don’t go to hell a-grumbling.”

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