THE RARE AND THE BEAUTIFUL

The Art, Loves, and Lives of the Garman Sisters

By Cressida Connolly. Ecco. 320 pp. $25.95

Some of the most fascinating people are those who live just outside the spotlight or at its rim -- the ones whose unfamiliar faces crop up, over and over, in the group photographs of the famous. As lovers, muses, patrons, instigators, they are as vital to the making of art or science or politics as those they inspire, and their stories are often more interesting. Consider the case of the beautiful Garman sisters, whose lives described a glittering arc through London's High Bohemia between the two world wars: One had an affair with Vita Sackville-West; another was the longtime lover and, later, the wife of the sculptor Jacob Epstein; still another was the lover of the poet Laurie Lee and the painter Lucian Freud. As Cressida Connolly puts it in this elegant and alluring family biography, "People fell in love with them. They were lovely to be in love with, passionate, generous, beautiful. They sent secret notes at midnight and left their pillows smelling of scent. They gave presents: books of poetry, music, wildflowers. They made dramatic entrances and exits, their arms full of lilies, haunting railway stations throughout Europe, intoxicating their lovers with sudden meetings and long goodbyes." Who wouldn't want to read about them?

In fact there were nine Garman siblings, two brothers and seven sisters. Children of a prosperous churchgoing Midlands doctor, they had an idyllic childhood full of picnics and make-believe interspersed with lessons and piano practice; but very early their rebellious streak revealed itself. Mary and Kathleen, the eldest sisters, pilfered knickknacks from the drawing room and made their younger siblings take them to town to sell; with the proceeds they bought cigarettes and French novels and modish accessories, and took their young accomplices to the movies. When they were old enough to set tongues wagging by ordering drinks in the local miners' pub, they ran away to London where such behavior would be more tolerated, and set to work in earnest on bewitching the glitterati.

Soon Kathleen had embarked on a decades-long affair with Epstein that was only briefly marred by Mrs. Epstein's shooting her with a pearl-handled revolver. And Mary had met -- and almost immediately married -- the poet Roy Campbell, who by his own account "hung her out of the fourth-floor window of our room so that she should get some respect for me." Despite, or because of, this Petruchio-like behavior, the couple seemed blissfully happy, if dreadfully impoverished, until Mary attracted the eye of Vita Sackville-West, maker of gardens and lover of Virginia Woolf. The two began a passionate and indiscreet affair ("It is a lovely moment when the mother's voice and hands turn into the lover's," wrote Mary to Vita) that precipitated a scathing verse satire on the Bloomsbury Group by the enraged Campbell and provoked the equally jealous Virginia Woolf to write Orlando, her fictionalized biographical portrait of Vita. There were threats and tears and slammed doors; in the end Mary went off with Campbell to the south of France to live -- Augustus John, Aldous Huxley, Sybille Bedford and Nancy Cunard were neighbors and frequent visitors -- and Vita commemorated her erstwhile lover in a series of sonnets.

The younger Garmans were, if anything, just as dashing. Douglas, the elder brother, was a left-leaning little-magazine editor in London when he met Peggy Guggenheim, the American heiress, who had yet to discover her calling as an art collector and dealer. Lightning struck -- as usual with the Garmans -- and soon the pair were living together in an Elizabethan farmhouse where, "while Douglas was studying Marx in the shed he had constructed at the end of the garden, Peggy stayed in bed, reading Proust and shivering, turning the pages of her book with fur gloves on." Douglas's interest in Marx wasn't a flirtation but a lifelong commitment, and before long what Connolly calls "the paradoxical situation of being a practicing Marxist living with an heiress" began to grate. Soon, Peggy confided to her diary, the couple were "fighting all day, [expletive] all night," and eventually they separated. Peggy rebounded by starting an art gallery and an affair with Samuel Beckett. Douglas went on to a lifetime of commitment to radical causes, although he broke with his party's leadership in the 1950s: "I cannot sing, for my voice is hoarse with slogans," he wrote.

His younger sister Lorna, the baby of the family, was perhaps the most flamboyant of the fabulous Garmans. She wore beautiful and unusual clothes and smelled of Chanel No. 5, went riding on her horse at night, drove a chocolate-brown Bentley, and would strip naked to swim in inviting lakes or rivers or 30-foot waves. At 14 she seduced the man who would become her husband when she was 16, the publisher Ernest Wishart. Throughout their long and seemingly happy marriage, she continued to have affairs: with the writer and free-love advocate Llewellyn Powys; with Laurie Lee, who fathered her third child and wrote of her in his books; with Lucian Freud, to whom she brought objects to paint -- a dead heron she'd discovered in a marsh, a zebra's head from a taxidermist's in London. When Freud betrayed her with a younger actress, she told him, "I thought I was giving you up for Lent but I'm giving you up for good."

There is a tragic side to the Garmans' story, represented most affectingly in the fates of Kathleen's two children by Epstein, one a suicide and the other the victim of a botched attempt to treat his apparent schizophrenia. Connolly doesn't shrink from portraying it, but one wishes she had explored a little more fully the connection between the hard, gemlike flame with which the Garmans burned and the human ash that flame cast off. Perhaps such analysis runs counter to the spirit of these exotic creatures, however. As Kathleen Garman Epstein told a friend, explaining why she would never write her memoirs, "The mind boggles . . . . What muddy pitfalls one inadvertently steps into in search of the rare and the beautiful." *

Amanda Vaill is the author of "Everybody Was So Young," a biography of the Lost Generation icons Sara and Gerald Murphy, and co-author of "Seaman Schepps: A Century of New York Jewelry Design." Her biography of Jerome Robbins, "Somewhere," will be published in 2005.

The Garmans in 1913. From left: Kathleen, Lorna, Mavin, Mary, Rosalind, Douglas, Ruth, Sylvia and Helen