By Linnea Lannon
Updated March 22, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Mary McCarthy, the subject of this lively biography by Frances Kiernan, a former fiction editor at the New Yorker, was famous for being clever and sharp-tongued, the lover of several New York intellectuals, the wife of critic Edmund Wilson, and the author of ”The Group,” which earned her the enmity of the fellow Vassar grads she thinly disguised in her best-selling 1963 novel.

In Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy, a combination of narrative, excerpts from letters and reviews, and oral histories from such friends and acquaintances as Elizabeth Hardwick, Saul Bellow, and publisher William Jovanovich, Kiernan traces McCarthy from the death of her parents when she was 6 (1918) and the miserable years with odious relatives through her hand-to-mouth days trying to establish herself as a writer in New York City in the ’30s, her four marriages, her battle against Stalinism, and her years of travel and entertaining lavishly.

By the time she died of cancer in 1989, McCarthy was almost as famous for being famous as she was for her writing, of which the early ”Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” may have been her best. Despite the repetition inherent in a biography of this length (845 pages), this is a fascinating look at one of our most