Antony Penrose, Lee Miller's only child, knew his mother as a "useless drunk."

After her death in 1977 at age 70, he came to learn that she was so much more.

A woman of astounding beauty, curiosity and mettle, Miller, the subject of an arresting Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition, had an astonishing number of lives - as photographer, fashion and artist model, surrealist muse, World War II reporter, lover of many remarkable men, and, in her final chapter, celebrated Cordon Bleu chef with an absurdist flair.

"It seems safe to say that her life was her greatest work of art," said Katherine Ware, the museum's curator of photographs.

Indeed, it shames fiction. Carolyn Burke's definitive Lee Miller: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) recounts in vivid detail how upper-class Elizabeth Miller of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., became an art-world goddess in Paris and the rare individual to model, photograph and war-report for Vogue.

Miller modeled for Edward Steichen, Man Ray (her first important lover and teacher), Picasso, and top Vogue photographer George Hoyningen-Huene. Her myriad paramours included Charles Chaplin and war photographer David Scherman. She belonged to an elite corps of women, among them Margaret Bourke-White and Martha Gellhorn, that reported from the war's front lines.

"The Art of Lee Miller" was first exhibited last year at London's Victoria and Albert Museum to commemorate the centenary of her birth. The more than 140 photographs it contains assume greater resonance when informed by Miller's complex story.

The nude portraits taken of her as both child (not on display here but in books) and woman by her amateur-photographer father become "all the more disturbing and ghastly," Penrose said during a recent visit to Philadelphia, in light of her rape at age 7 by a family friend, which resulted in a case of gonorrhea that required extensive and painful treatment.

In an attempt to help her deal with the trauma, her parents, who nursed bohemian tendencies, taught young Elizabeth to separate sex from love, a view that guided the rest of her life. For all Miller's indelible beauty and ardent heterosexuality, she frequently dressed and behaved like a man.

Two lovers were the norm for Miller and her circle, whose erotic peregrinations were so complex, so challenging to diagram, it's a wonder any art was made at all.

The Miller collection, which opened Jan. 26, and the Frida Kahlo portrait exhibit opening in two weeks temporarily transform the Philadelphia Museum of Art into a showcase for wild, wanton artistic women.

"I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside," Miller declared.

She was fearless, and loved to shock, as in the time the photographer obtained a severed breast from a Paris hospital and transported it through the city streets on a plate, covered by a cloth. She then immortalized it as a dinner still life. The raw 1930 image, included in the show, was a rebuke to the surrealists who had a penchant for commodifying women and reducing them to detached body parts.

"She had a clear and angry eye," said her son, now 60.

Man Ray's famed 1930 solarized profile portrait of Miller, Burke's biography reveals, was done with darkroom techniques that she had as much a hand in developing as her lover. The image was created at a time when she was separating from him and preparing to star in Jean Cocteau's celebrated surrealist movie The Blood of a Poet, a move that infuriated Man Ray. The surrealists may have been sensational in their art, but they were unrepentant sexists in their personal affairs.

Miller photographed married Manhattan art dealer Julien Levy - whose vast collection the Art Museum now owns; its Perelman Building has a gallery named in his honor - as she slept with him. A pair of languid portraits of the indolent beauty Nimet Eloui Bey were taken while Miller was cavorting with Nimet's husband, Egyptian aristocrat Aziz Eloui Bey. (Nimet was to be the last romantic obsession of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.)

Eloui Bey would later become Miller's husband and whisk her away to Egypt, where she made some of her best photographs, including the stunning 1937 "Portrait of Space," a bleak desert landscape glimpsed through a torn screen.

In Egypt, behaving like a character out of a Paul Bowles novel, Miller mastered snake charming and camel riding. She also fell in love with the English surrealist and curator Roland Penrose, who was to become her second husband after she and Eloui Bey parted in 1939.

As a war correspondent, Miller arrived at Dachau in April 1945 the morning after it was liberated, becoming one of the first photographers to record the atrocities. "This absolutely changed her for life," her son said. "She never recovered."

Her reports in Vogue, on display at the museum, are filled with indignation. That same April day, her boots still muddied from traipsing through the death camp, she posed nude for Scherman in the bathtub of Hitler's residence in Munich.

"Lee came into her own during the war," British Vogue editor Audrey Withers once remarked. "It had an extraordinary effect on her. Afterwards, nothing came up to it. She was not meant to be married, have children, or live in the country."

But Miller did all three after the war, decamping to Farley Farm in East Sussex, 50 miles south of London. She was a miserable mother, made even more unhappy by Penrose's continued affairs (she lost interest in sex after giving birth at age 40), and took avidly to drink.

Penrose's success continued. He was knighted as a champion of modern art, Picasso biographer, and director and cofounder of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. Utterly without vanity, Miller dubbed herself "Lady Penrose of Poughkeepsie" while her exquisite looks went to seed. She proved "unembarrassable," a friend noted, in attire and comportment.

By the mid-'50s Miller had abandoned photography for good, except to snap casual portraits. "She'd moved on. I hardly knew her," her son said. "All I knew was that she knew how to take pictures." He recalled that there were precisely two photographs in the house, the Man Ray solarized portrait and a desert study.

Miserable as Miller was, she and Penrose became famed as hosts of the celebrated - "a perpetual arts congress," her son called them - whose visits were made all the more memorable by her growing accomplishments as a cook.

After studying cooking in Paris in 1957, a 50th-birthday present from her husband, Miller took to concocting extravagant dishes. A dish she created called "Goldfish" involved codfish baked in 41/2 pounds of carrots. Proud of her American roots, she served a cynical Englishman marshmallow-cola ice cream (exactly as it sounds, with a soupçon of rum). A surrealist in the kitchen, she cleaned spinach in the washing machine and rinsed berries in sherry.

Miller died from the effects of alcohol, 80 to 100 cigarettes a day, and general neglect. Afterward, Antony Penrose discovered 60,000 negatives stashed in the attic, a thousand alone of Picasso (whom, as a young boy, he once bit). It was a revelation.

Since then, he has made restoring Miller's legacy his mission. Penrose has worked hard to restore his father's as well, since Sir Roland's death in 1984. He published the photo biography The Lives of Lee Miller, in 1985, and worked for four years on the preparations for this exhibit.

"I had to relearn her," he said during his visit, while becoming the ultimate champion of her legacy and art.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.