Why did MI5 spy on glamorous Vogue photographer Lee Miller?

Jerome Taylor
Tuesday 03 March 2009 11:06

One the most candid portraits taken of the model turned war photographer Lee Miller shows a beautiful but exhausted woman washing herself in Adolf Hitler's bathtub.

Her muddy combat boots and grime-covered face stand out amongst Hitler's pristine tiled washroom, still decorated with a picture of the recently deceased leader and a tacky classical-style statute of a naked woman.

The famous frame, taken by fellow war photographer David E Scherman, captures the remarkable life of a woman who went from starring on the cover of Vogue to the front line.

Today a new and no less remarkable chapter in Miller's life will be uncovered: the American-born photographer, who lived in Britain during and after the Second World War, was placed under minute surveillance by MI5 even as she went about documenting some of war's worst horrors, according to intelligence reports released by the National Archive.

For much of the 1940s and 1950s, intelligence officers intercepted Miller's post and kept a close eye on her circle of artistic friends, which the security services believed had strong Communist sympathies.

In justifying their spying, a Special Branch report written in 1941 concluded that the beautiful photographer, who once had an affair with the surrealist painter Man Ray, was an "eccentric" who indulged in "queer food and queer clothes" and needed to be watched carefully.

The entry said: "She is regarded as an intellectual communist and theoretical political student and the managing director of Conde Nast Productions Ltd Mr HW Yoxall has chaffed her about it. Mr Yoxall states that [Miller] is eccentric and indulges in queer foods and queer clothes etc.”

Miller first began to attract the interest of the intelligence service's Communist hunters because her second husband, Roland Penrose, was deemed to be sympathetic towards Stalin's Russia. She also had a close friendship with Wilfred McCartney a former Communist International member who was jailed for 10 years in 1925 for spying on the Russians.

Described in the intelligence reports as "violently anti-Nazi", Miller – whose real name was Elizabeth Miller Eloui – was eventually deemed to not constitute any threat. "The general opinion of Eloui is that her Communism is more a mental outlook than anything and I have obtained no information that she is associated with any particular subversive organisation," one officer concluded.

That MI5 kept tabs on Miller reveals how even those who were perceived to have been true patriots during the Second World War were deemed suspicious as fear of Communism gripped the West in the post-war era.

Miller's pictures of a bombed-out London during the Blitz for Vogue Magazine helped increase American support for the war effort.

Among just a handful of female photographers officially accredited by the Allies, Miller made an astonishing journey once the invasion of Europe began, from the beaches of Normandy to the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, documenting several of the most harrowing episodes of the Second World War.

Her immersion in the overwhelmingly male arena was all the more startling given her modelling background.

Miller spent most of the 1920s and 1930s as a muse to artists in New York and Paris before moving behind the lens. Her early work, clearly influenced by her surrealist lover and his friends, included playfully witty images which were to contrast with the grittier and harrowing work she developed as a photojournalist.

Professor Chris Andrew, the official historian of MI5, said yesterday: "What is not sufficiently realised is that her career was absolutely unique in British history. There had never been anybody like her before, there's no reason to think there will be anyone like her again. She was extremely talented, she was extremely beautiful."

Writing for a 1992 collection of Miller's war photographs, her friend and travel companion Scherman wrote: “It is almost impossible today, 50 years later, to conceive how difficult it was for a woman correspondent to get beyond a rear-echelon military position, in other words to the front, where the action was.”

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