Art, Love and War in THE BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN
Jeanne Mackin’s new novel The Beautiful American chronicles the tumultuous life of Lee Miller, a model, photographer, and war correspondent during World War II. The novel itself is beautiful. Sprawling continents and devoting lyrical odes to old Paris, Mackin has created a fascinating account of a little-known woman who was determined to play by her own rules. Told from the perspective of the fictional character of Nora Tours, she is swept into Lee’s orbit early. They play together as children, though Nora is merely the gardener’s daughter. While Lee never seems to lack courage, it is Nora who forces her to be strong in the wake of a brutal crime. But the two girls move down divergent paths: Nora is a serious student while Lee becomes a model and perfects her scandalous, Party-Girl reputation. When Nora runs away to Paris with Poughkeepsie’s golden boy, the two women are reunited in the city’s heady café culture. They become confidantes, if not friends, but Nora learns firsthand how flippantly cruel Lee can truly be. It takes the terrors of World War II and the disappearance of Nora’s beloved daughter to reconcile the two women.
Elizabeth “Lee” Miller was born in the small town of Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907. Though she was the daughter of a wealthy factory owner, her father encouraged her to think outside the parameters of the closed society in which they lived. His influence would later help her cope when she was raped at the tender age of seven. Infected with gonorrhea, she suffered through noxious medical treatments as a child and was at times in fragile health during her adult life. She quickly became comfortable with her own body as a result of her experiences. She spent her late teens and early twenties modeling for Vogue and doing advertising campaigns. After running away to Paris, she came into contact with the Surrealist photographer, Man Ray. He became her lover and mentor; some of his most famous photographs depict her in scandalous Surrealist-inspired poses. Lee became a celebrated photographer in her own right, her fame at times eclipsing Man’s success. She became the first female war correspondent, risking life and limb to photograph the horrors of World War II before settling down in the English countryside. She died in 1977, and as Nora reflects in the epilogue, “She could so easily have died a violent death any number of times, but instead she died at home after a long slow illness, with her husband at her side.”
Much of Mackin’s life influenced this novel. Growing up in Upstate New York in a small town much like Poughkeepsie, she packed a bag and headed to Europe as soon as she was of age. She had “a great fondness for where I grew up, and for my childhood, but I wanted to see, experience, so much more.” The fact that Lee Miller had done the same thing, and perhaps felt the same way, “struck a chord” in her. She has always been drawn to strong women who broke the rules because “so many of those rules are made by men, and in their interest, not ours.” When it came to detailing World War II, childhood stories of her father’s service in the South Pacific helped. “His war had nothing to do with the musical version of it,” Mackin says. Her descriptions of post-war France bring to life the crushing consequences to all who were involved. Indeed it was not the giddy celebration depicted by photographs of the period, but a time of harsh retribution and deprivation. Mackin decided early on that her story should be about the women on the homefront, in the tiny villages of France. “It just felt right to me,” she says. “The war itself was such an overwhelming narrative, full of twists and secrets. It was hard for me, as a writer, to work it into fiction. I’ve never before written about events that so many people still remember.”
Mackin definitely does the period justice. Paris still retains its magical panache, with descriptions of storied landmarks, foggy back alleys, cheap sidewalk cafés, and, of course, raucous booze- and drug-fueled parties. But she does not shy away from the economic tremors felt by Parisians following the collapse of America’s stock market in 1929. Displaced workers roam the streets, businesses close, and dangerous discontent begins. What emerges is a fully informed portrait of artists scraping by, devoted to ushering in the Surrealist movement of the period. While this hard-scrabble life is simple and vaguely romantic, it is also devastating to the players in this novel as their dreams are scotched and betrayals are brought to light. But the novel never gets bogged down in disillusionment; the narrative is about learning through experience, and ultimately, redemption.
The Beautiful American is available from Penguin’s New American Library this month.
About the contributor: Caroline Wilson was born and raised in the beautiful upcountry of South Carolina. She studied historic preservation at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, and works as a grants manager. She is a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and has a self-published romantic historical entitled “Rebel Heart.” When she’s not reading or writing, she loves to travel, hunt for antiques, and hang out in dark jazz bars. She still lives in South Carolina, along with her husband and three very literary cats: Amelia, Watson, and Huckleberry (Huck).
Posted by Claire Morris