The Woman in the Photograph

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For my mother, Ruth,

And my daughters, Claudia and Lucia.

Headstrong beauties,

All three.


New York

Spring 1929

“Hold it. Good. Now just one more.” Edward Steichen looked through the lens, then back up at the statuesque blonde.

Lee leaned against an antique table in the Park Avenue penthouse; she was nearly holding her breath, affecting aloofness. From the corner of her profiled eye, she watched the photographer purse his lips and squint. He left his tripod to adjust her evening wear.

“The sleeves on this jacket would make a geisha girl jealous,” he said, pulling the fur collar up on one side and letting it tumble down the other shoulder.

“Imagine eating soup in this thing.” She jerked her arm to make the thick satin swing, then quickly resumed her pose. Her smileless profile faced a soft light cast by the crystal chandelier hanging overhead. It was as if she was observing an elegant gathering a few steps away, but not able to take part. Odd for someone so used to being in the center of things.

He snapped the last shot—“At ease, Miller”—then motioned to his assistant to pack up the equipment.

Lee slipped off the unwieldy jacket and reached for her cigarette case. “I'm going to miss you, Colonel.”

“I'll miss you, too.” He lit her cigarette, then his cigar. “When are you leaving?”

“Next week.” She threw her head back, blowing out smoke, and stretched. “I can't wait. I spent almost a year in Paris when I was eighteen, and I've been itching to get back to Europe ever since.”

“Is Paris your first stop?”

“No, I'm starting off in Florence. I've been hired to collect Renaissance patterns for a designer. You know, so he can copy bits and bobs from the sixteenth century and have everyone think it's the dernier cri.” They shared a smile; both had an ample understanding of the fashion world and all its ironies. “I'm traveling over with Tanja Ramm.”

“The dark-haired model with the perky little nose?” He scrunched up his own in demonstration. “Huh. I had her pegged as a real goody-goody.”

“With her, at least I'll have the guise of respectability.” Lee laughed, but there was some truth to what she said. They were so different—Lee often scandalized the shy brunette with her flippant attitude toward partying and casual affairs—that Lee often thought of Tanja as the Good to her Bad. “Really, she's lovely. Funny and bright. We've been close friends for years. We'll spend a month or so together in Italy, then she's off to visit relatives in Germany. That's when I'll head up to Paris.”

the center of the universe, after all.”

“Absolutely! The language and cuisine, the art scene, the fashion—I love all of it. I can't believe four years have gone by since I was there.”

“When you get there, you should look up Man Ray.”

“Is that a person or a robot?” She smiled behind her cigarette.

“He's the best photographer in Paris, though he's actually a New Yorker. He's extremely innovative. He does abstract work, surrealist art, portraits, film . . . but he's been known to lower himself and do fashion shoots from time to time. I'm sure he'd love to use you.”

With his cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth, Steichen began riffling through his briefcase. He pulled out a well-worn copy of
French Vogue
, opened it to a marked page, and handed it to her.

“This is his. It's called
Noire et Blanche

She took the magazine in both hands and sat with the image on her lap. In it, the oval head of a woman lay on a table, an African mask stood next to her chin, held upright by her hand. Lee studied the juxtaposition of the two faces. Their eyes were both closed, their surfaces smooth, the hair shiny and still. Their features—both the ebony mask and the pale woman—were honed down to the bare essentials of beauty.

“It's incredible.” The words came out in an awestruck whisper.

How different this was from her modeling jobs, a variety of poses meant to set off fashionable gowns, striking accessories, the latest hats. This was bold—though she couldn't quite decide if it was sophisticated and sensual, or primitive and slightly
terrifying. The nearly disembodied head, the nude shoulders, the serious stoniness—it was as if the woman was asleep, in a trance, or a mask herself. She wondered what the man who took the shot was like, who the woman was. Were they a pair?

“I could write you a letter of introduction if you'd like,” Steichen suggested.

Lee Miller looked up at him; her slanted blue eyes were shining, her full lips parted with excitement.

“What am I saying?” he said with a laugh. “With that face, you don't need any letters.”

“Don't be so sure, Colonel.” She winked at the older man. “Looks like your Ray Man might prefer a voodoo doll or an Egyptian death mask to a mug like mine.”


1929 – 1932


Lips pressed together in concentration, Lee sat under a gas lamp at a wooden table, tracing over a penciled design in India ink. With deliberate strokes, she colored in the dark spaces around a stylized artichoke, the central detail of a High Renaissance hat. She was finishing off her first batch of fashionworthy patterns—sketches made in the dim light of the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace, then inked over at the
—and was eager to send it to New York and be rid of it.

“Hello there.” Tanja breezed into their room, a knitted shopping bag over her shoulder, a fresh loaf of
sticking out of the top. She peeked down at Lee's drawing. “What are you working on?”

“A hat I found yesterday in Perugino's
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ.
It made me laugh.” She carefully blew on it, then picked it up to show Tanja. “I mean, look at it! More than a hat, it looks like the tattooed skull of a sailor, like the head of Ishmael's buddy in
.” She set it back on the table with a small snort. “I thought it was funny—imagining the chic ladies of Manhattan strutting around in hats like these—until I started tracing it. It's a pain in the neck! I can't believe I agreed to this ridiculous job.”

You need a break. Are you hungry? I bought some of that chicken-liver pâté you like. The one with capers and anchovies.”


Lee stood up to stow away her things, to make room at their only table. Slowly guiding her finished drawings into the cardboard portfolio, she knocked over the ink. Deep black seeped across the oak like an evil spirit, onto her cigarettes and over her sketchbook. “Damn it to hell! Grab a towel, a rag, something—”

Tanja snatched the
off her bed, one week old and twice read, and handed it to Lee, who crumpled it to soak up the ink with newsprint.

“Shit, I think I've got some on my dress.”

“Who wears ecru to work with India ink?” Tanja muttered, a loud aside.

“Who comes to Florence to work at all?” Lee pitched the soggy newspaper into the bin, then rinsed her hands in the basin in the corner. She examined her knee-length dress, staring down at the spattering of tiny black flecks on the hem of pale brown chiffon. She shrugged—“Not a bad look”—then turned back to Tanja.

“Let's get out of here and get a drink. I'm desperate for some air.”

They left their dark
on the via Porta Rossa and strolled over to the sunlit Piazza della Signoria, the city's beating heart. In the two weeks they'd been in Florence, they had become habitués of a few local cafés, where the flirty barmen and waiters remembered their names and preferences. Heads always turned as the two slender, short-haired models—one dark, one fair—walked by.

Lee, Tanja!
Le bellissime ragazze
!” The awkward youth, his hair slicked back with pomade, his waist cinched in by the strings of a white apron, was quickly joined by an older waiter, whose smile was equally large.

“Sit, sit! Chianti, no?” The older one asked, his limited English the better of the two. “Cold?”

Si, grazie
,” Lee answered. She had picked up a handful of phrases since they'd been in Italy, but was looking forward to being back in France, where she could truly speak the language and not just pretend.

Sitting back with closed eyes, her bare arms soaking up the sun, she tried to think of ways to get out of her research assignment. Would the seven completed drawings be enough? Maybe she could claim tuberculosis, malaria, the plague? Or that she was kidnapped by gypsies? Perhaps Tanja could write a letter for her, saying she'd lost all the feeling in her hands?

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