Lee Miller and Martha Gellhorn: Parallel Lives

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Author: Jeffrey Meyers
Date: Winter 2015
From: The Antioch Review(Vol. 73, Issue 1)
Publisher: Antioch Review, Inc.
Document Type: Essay
Length: 3,466 words

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Lee Miller (1907-77)--model, photographer, and photojournalist--and Martha Gellhorn (1908-98)--novelist, war correspondent, and adventurous traveler--were exact contemporaries, yet no one has ever compared the remarkably similar lives of these two extraordinary women. Gellhorn's biographers, Carl Rollyson and Caroline Moorehead, don't even mention Miller; Miller's biographer, Carolyn Burke, mentions only her photograph of Gellhorn. Gellhorn's father, a doctor, was born in Germany; Miller's father, an engineer, was of German descent; both women had an older and a younger brother. They came from privileged, upper-class backgrounds and attended private schools: Miller in Poughkeepsie, Gellhorn in St. Louis. Miller, the more socially unconventional, and Gellhorn, shrewder and more opportunistic, had a puritanical background that disapproved of sex. Charming and high-spirited, restless and rebellious, glamorous and romantic, artistically successful and much admired, they rejected the conventional roles of women. Like fairy-tale princesses, they were given almost everything a woman could desire--beauty, brains, and talent. Their radiant appearance gave aesthetic pleasure and attracted powerful men who helped their careers. Yet both learned early on to separate sex from deep feelings. The emotional and physical demands of husbands and lovers made their lives difficult and disappointing, and despite their achievements, both ended unhappily.

In London in 1943 Miller met Gellhorn, and took a well-lit and carefully posed photograph, reproduced on the dust jacket of Gellhorn's Letters. It shows her--curious and attentive, with an alert and intense expression--as an author at work. With her back to the camera, Gellhorn looks into a mirror as her reflected image stares back at Miller, who in real life actually seemed to be her mirror image. Dressed in a sweater and belted trousers, with straight back, narrow waist, and curly blond hair, Gellhorn is seated on a padded stool next to her dressing table. It serves as her desk and combines vanity with vocation. She holds a cigarette near her wedding ring in her left hand, a pen in her right hand, and writes on a pad of paper. Another pen, open ink bottle, cigarettes, matches, ashtray, and potted plant with flowering stems, as well as four books--two with partly visible titles: Fighter Pilot and Lessons--are on the table. The dressing table and mirror are illuminated by two curved bright lamps with cylindrical glass shades. The window curtains, on the left and above her head, frame the photo and are drawn open to show the dark night outside. Though Gellhorn's marriage was breaking up, Miller has--for iconic and ironic effect--placed three photos of her first husband, Ernest Hemingway (one of him drinking, two others partly obscured but recognizable), onto the triptych mirror. It seems as if Gellhorn, in front of a religious altar, is worshipping the dashing and handsome man she'd grown to hate.

The helpless seven-year-old Miller, left with "family friends" in Brooklyn, was raped by their son. The rapist gave her gonorrhea, which recurred throughout her childhood, and required a long series of painful and shameful treatments. She later explained how this agonizing violation had damaged her: "I was overwhelmed...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A398502545