The photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977) drove her lovers to despair. Man Ray threatened suicide. In 1929, the flier called Argylle, losing her to Paris, swooped his Jenny biplane low over her liner, dropped red roses on the sundeck and, later the same day, crashed his plane and died. Lives broke up around her. Her life, too, was shattered. The moment you see her face -- it haunts her retrospective opening today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art -- you'll begin to see why. To say that she was beautiful, fabulously beautiful, is to understate her power. Nothing in Lee Miller's pure angelic loveliness prepares you for the twists of her unaffected vision -- or for the foul and writhing furies -- she called them "the winged serpents" -- that gnawed upon her soul. Most of us will never know what it is like to live within such golden beauty, or how it stabs at others, or the doors that it throws open, or those that it slams closed. Lee Miller of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., later Lady Penrose, rode her glorious looks the way one might a dragon -- from the Broadway stage to Buchenwald, from Paris to the Pyramids, from triumph down to grief. She said, "I was terribly, terribly pretty. I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside." It is Miller's pale eye that ticks upon the metronome in the Man Ray retrospective at the National Museum of American Art. It is Miller's perfect lips that float in Man Ray's paintings. Picasso did her portrait. And Jean Cocteau, the poet, cast her as a goddess, a Greek statue come to life, in his most outrageous film. But most of those who know her know nothing of her art. The Corcoran exhibition, organized by Jane Livingston, is the first to do it justice. The artist, had you asked her, would have told you her work was worthless. Antony Penrose, her son, remembers how she turned away all those who asked to see it. "To the most persistent of questioners," he writes, "she would say that everything had been destroyed in the war, always adding that it was of no interest anyway and best forgotten." She was a writer, a fashion photographer, a model, an adventurer, an inveterate traveler, a free lover, a surrealist, a superb photo-journalist, and -- as a sort of last act in her long, amazing life -- an internationally known specialist in inventive haute cuisine. In Paris in the '20s, while working with Man Ray, Miller began taking odd suggestive photographs, of rats' tails and stairways, that still send shivers through the mind. One of the best and strangest, called "Exploding Hand," shows a woman's hand opening a hotel door and bursting into light: That burst was made by scratches left by ladies' diamond rings on the glass door of the Ritz. At Buchenwald in 1945, she photographed guards beaten by the prisoners. From the abject terror in their eyes, you can tell she looked at them with naked hate. While other news photographers focused on the victims, on the ovens and the bones, and by implication, blamed the slaughter on the higher-ups, Miller searched the guilty out, and coldly, unforgivingly, peered into their eyes. Her beauty was a sort of curse. She was raped when she was 7 by a friend of family friends. While she was still a teen-ager, her father, an engineer and an amateur photographer, began to make nude studies of her blooming body (you cannot see his pictures without some sense of the creeps). Before she had turned 20, she was dancing in the "Scandals." In France, in the late 1920s and early 1930s -- as a model and a joker and an object of desire -- she lit the Paris art world like a kind of white-blond flame. A manufacturer of glassware sold crystal champagne goblets modeled on her breasts. It was her utter lack of fear, and her willingness to push her luck, and then to push it further, that made her seek the surrealist expatriate Man Ray. "He looked like a bull," she wrote, "with an extraordinary torso and very dark eyebrows and dark hair. I told him boldly that I was his new student. He said he didn't take students, and anyway he was leaving Paris for his holiday. I said, I know, I'm going with you -- and I did. We lived together for three years." Miller took new lovers easily and often. One, a rich Egyptian friend of Charlie Chaplin's named Aziz Eloui Bey, immediately divorced his wife, who killed herself soon after. She knew all of the French surrealists, she took her clothes off at their parties, she gladly played their games. Fashion was a game that Miller could play, too. In Manhattan a few years before, she'd been saved from an onrushing car when a stranger pulled her from the street. The stranger, it turned out, was Conde' Nast, the publisher. Miller's face would soon appear on the cover of Vogue. Before she met Man Ray, she'd already been portrayed by Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe and other masters of the genre. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, with the suddenness that often marked her life's most crucial moves, she suddenly left Paris and returned to New York. Upon arriving, she opened her own photography studio. She was a fashionable New York success almost from the start. And then, in 1934, just as her career appeared thoroughly established, she remet Aziz Bey. Her son Tony Penrose reports what happened next: "One afternoon, Lee telephoned her mother and inquired, 'Did you like Aziz?' {She} replied, 'I hardly know him but he seems all right -- yes -- I do like him.' 'That's good,' said Lee. 'I married him this morning.' " That same onrushing whim that had taken her to Paris, and to Man Ray's bed, now carried her to Cairo. It was there she made a number of the gentlest, and oddest, pictures on display. The shadow of the Great Pyramid falls across the sand; the bleached shells of dead snails, marooned by the falling waters of the Nile, shine whitely in a tree -- these wholly unforced images have the clarity of dreams. The desert could not hold her. In 1937 she took herself to Paris, where one night at a surrealist party she met a lean young Englishman whose right hand and left foot had been dyed a vibrant blue. They spent the night together. The man was Roland, later Sir Roland Penrose, the surrealist, writer and promoter of new art who would in time become Lee Miller's second husband. Now she moved to England -- which held her interest briefly until something more exciting appeared on the horizon. That something was World War II. First she shot, for Vogue, the devastation of the Blitz. The strongest of her photographs -- they tend to look, in retrospect, like surreal classics -- were published, with a text by Edward R. Murrow, in a volume called "Grim Glory." Then, as soon as D-Day made such madness possible, she went overseas. She traveled with the troops. Her perfect skin grew puffy. There, in what she called "the stink of death and sour misery," her golden hair grew lank, her gums began to bleed. Miller did not care. The front was moving eastward now, and Lee Miller went east, too. The pictures that she made, most of them for Vogue, are the strongest in her show. Then suddenly Miller stopped making works of art, at least photographic works of art. The Penroses had purchased Farley Farm, near Muddles Green in Sussex, and instead of making pictures, Miller began nesting, though not easily or well. She battled with her husband, she battled with the bottle, she battled with her son. It was food that brought her happiness. She entered competitions. The beauty and the oddity and the love of risking all -- which once had marked her voyaging, her love life and her art -- was now reflected in her food. "She'd serve blue spaghetti," remembers her son Tony, whose admirable volume on his mother, "The Lives of Lee Miller," casts a sort of raking light on the pictures in this show. "She'd serve pink cauliflower breasts -- with blue borage-blossom nipples." She would entertain Picasso and Man Ray and other friends from Paris. But she never showed her art. "If you had to write her paradigm," said Penrose, "it would be: 'This is okay, but it's not it.' " This show, circulated by Lynn Kienholz's California/International Arts Foundation, will travel to New York, New Orleans, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif., after closing here April 17.