To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin, a writer I had never before encountered until 2015.
The first thing that struck me was the New York Times style cover. The second was that I really dislike Bluefire Reader compared to iBook, but that’s a technicality. Eventually, I bought the paperback, anyway.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book though I didn’t really expect to. Beautiful Americans, surrealism, pre-war Paris, are not my usual reading material. I was not expecting anything too earthy, nor too relevant to me. How wrong was I. Jeanne Mackin’s book is superbly crafted, and multi-layered; we have all heard the phrase about not wanting to put a book down, but I truly didn’t want it to end. I would close my iPad at the end of a chapter, warm in the knowledge that it would be awaiting me later.
Basically, the book is about Lee Miller, seen through the narrative of her childhood friend, Nora, as they encounter each other at various life intervals. Lee is a woman who courted controversy, who acted ahead of her time, who was an incredible presence. Classically beautiful, she was discovered by Condé Nast, and became the protégé of photographer Man Ray; she entered the dark world of surrealism, later becoming an incredible liberation photographer. Her photos of the Dachau concentration camp shocked the world. Her biography was later written by her son, Anthony Penrose, with whom she allegedly had a strained relationship. Basically, it seemed that Miller allowed nothing, including love, a child, or friendship, to get in her unconventional way, something which one suspects her son found difficult to understand/deal with.
There is a surprise at almost every turn in Mackin’s novel, which I guess a book largely situated in pre and post-war France must have. It is about friendship, betrayal, survival, in a woman who, despite everything, somehow remains likeable.
As Jeanne Mackin wrote:
The Beautiful American is about love and violence and war and what comes after all. It is a story of Lee’s bravery: she photographed battles in progress and was there with her camera during the liberation of the camps. Mostly, though, I envisioned my novel as a story of women and the ability of friendship to bridge trauma and violence. There is, as a friend said, darkness in the novel; the darkness begins with surrealism and progresses through to the war years. But there is also an accompanying lightness that comes from our own desire to survive, to continue to feel and express joy and connection.
Additionally, however, I feel Mackin’s examination of morals and mores, of men vis-à-vis women, and the power struggles inherent in the male-female relationship, is fascinating. Basically, the more powerful the women become, the less the men like it, the more emasculated they become, as I guess any feminist could predict. It struck me what a remarkable balancing act is needed for male-female relationships to survive; usually, they seem to work best when the woman subsumes her needs, allowing the man apparent control (as with the early days of Miller/Man Ray) yet women, especially strong ones like Miller, are not able to sustain that position for any serious length of time, regardless of what society – or their man – dictates.
Some of the most powerful highlights for me were when (spoiler alert) the young Elizabeth Miller is raped, aged seven, and is treated for gonorrhoea. Oh, the shame (all piled on the girl, of course). Closely linked are Nora’s mother’s views. She tells her daughter: “They (men) don’t buy the cow if they get the milk for free”. There are many similar suggestions about female purity before marriage, in small town America (well, actually a city in the state of New York, but provincial) a theme which recurs, alongside issues of social class, directed at keeping women, especially working-class women, in their “place”. For example, Nora’s partner, Jamie, is sent a return ticket by his father, just the one, nothing for Nora. “I was still just the gardener’s daughter”. Nora’s mother herself demonstrates that marriage is meant to be endured, not enjoyed. Her misery in marriage and maternity is obvious, though even she later finds a way forward.
Following Elizabeth Miller’s rape, we begin to learn how, to her, love and sex become two different things, separate. Love is about helping, protecting a person; sex is merely an itch to scratch. While this explains some of Lee’s affairs, this totally flew in the face of the (feminine) norms of the day. However, we learn that it was a survival skill taught to the child by her self-made father, following her rape, which seems to help sustain her through her chosen path. Later, Lee also models for an advertisement for Kotex, creating a very public scandal about the great unmentionable, menstruation, so challenging female norms/mores throughout her life/the story.
One can then see the attraction of surrealism with its disassociation of bodies, and where the ability to photograph the distressing war images from Dachau is born. We learn from the book that the post-War period was just as violent and uncertain as the conflict, as collaborators were tried and executed, and women continued to be raped.
Meanwhile, on the lighter side, the book guides us through wonderful descriptions of great people we can only imagine: the genius of Picasso and Chaplin, the screen stars Gary Cooper and Gloria Swanson. Through them, we see the decline of the relationship between Man Ray and Miller, as artist Man Ray gives way to the artist, Lee Miller. She is the one courting these famous dramatic creatives, who is feted by them, who photographs them, denoting a power switch.
War was maybe Miller’s forte, for surrealism became realism, so Mackin writes, as the two worlds combined in a horrific, disembodied chaos.
Heartily recommend reading this book.