Charmian Clift was born in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia, to Sydney Clift, a fitter and turner from England, and his native-born wife Amy Lila Currie. After leaving school in 1938, she worked at odd jobs around Kiama and then won a magazine beauty contest that enabled her to move to Sydney. There she became an usherette at the Minerva Theatre. During World War II, in 1943 she enlisted in the Australian Women's Army Service and served with a heavy anti-aircraft battery before being commissioned as a lieutenant. While editing an army magazine, she began to write and publish short stories. In 1946, she joined the staff of Argus, a Melbourne daily newpaper, and met war correspondent George Henry Johnston, 12 years her senior and married. Their employers disapproved of their relationship and both were fired. The couple married in 1947 and had three children. They collaborated on the novel High Valley (1949), which won them a £2000 prize from the Sydney Morning Herald and national recognition. In 1951, the family moved to London, where they spent five years before relocating to the Greek islands of Kálimnos and then Ídhra (Hydra). In a decade in Greece, between them, they published 14 books and numerous essays and articles, and became part of a community of expatriate artists and writers that included songwriter Leonard Cohen.
In 1964, they returned to Australia, where Charmian wrote a weekly column for The Sydney Morning Herald. She published two successful memoirs, Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959); and a successful novel, Honour's Mimic (1964). In 1969, she committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Many of her articles and essays were collected in the books Images in Aspic (1965) and The World of Charmian Clift (1970), which was illustrated by her son Martin. Her other essays were collected in two volumes, Trouble in Lotus Land (1990) and Being Alone With Oneself (1991). All her early books were republished in a uniform edition in 1989-1990).