THE AUTHOR, an old hand at this line of work, spent three years, he says, assembling this massive biography of Eleanor ("Cissy") Patterson, the flamboyant, red-haired publishing heiress who ruled Washington society from her Dupont Circle palace and rocked the town as editor of the Washington Herald and its successor, the Times-Herald, until she died-- sitting bolt upright in bed-- in 1948. He marshaled armies of researchers and reporters to help him-- librarians, translators, old friends, a nephew, two daughters, his son and the author of a previous book about Cissy Patterson. He read books, old letters and court transcripts by the crate; he ploughed through back issues of her newspapers.

The strengths and weaknesses of the book are in the epic sweep of this research. It is full of good stuff-- too full. It bursts at the seams. Great masses of material flow out of it like an oil spill, without pause, or change of pace or surcease.

He also talked to her analyst, and dedicates his book to a psychologist he has known since the third grade, who analyzed the "cast of characters" for him. There are recurring passages like: "When he relaxed completely with the woman he loved, perhaps he felt the simplicity of a childhood without responsibility."

In a sense, his subject was enough to overwhelm anyone. There were about a dozen crisscrossing phases in Cissy Patterson's life, any one of which would exhaust a normal person. And Martin explores them all.

Her childhood was a headshrinker's dream. Her mother was one of two bad-tempered daughters of Joseph Medill, the bad-tempered editor of the Chicago Tribune. ("Is it my fault," he once complained, "that I'm the father of the worst she-devils in all Chicago?") Her mother and father called each other "Mr. Patterson" and "Mrs. Patterson" all their lives, and her closest encounters with her mother were to have her ears boxed for climbing a church steeple and for selling lemonade on a Chicago street corner. Things were hardly better over on her cousin Bertie McCormick's branch of the family tree. His mother, grieving for a daughter who had died, call him "Roberta," and dressed him in girl's clothes until he was seven.

Another relative ("remotely related by marriage") had a wrap made of 275 ermine skins and rode around Chicago in a plum-colored Rolls-Royce driven by a chauffeur in plum-colored uniform, and "had the intense conviction that she was the reincarnation of the child wife of Tutankhamen." But that's the trouble with this book. It keeps wandering off to the side, when we've got all we can handle with the main show.

Martin takes the predictable view that Cissy's whole life was a search for the love she lacked at home. But you could argue that she's another timely example of the trouble that high-spirited, intelligent girls could get into around here before they were allowed to hold good jobs. While her brother Joe, who later ran the New York Daily News, took a year off from Yale to cover the Boxer Rebellion for Hearst, and her cousin Bertie, who inherited the Chicago Tribune, went off to explore Hudson Bay, she was taught posture, diction and decorum by a series of governesses and two Eastern finishing schools-- and spent much of her adult life catching up on her back reading.

Her mother moved to Washington and built a white marble palace on Dupont Circle to advance her own social ambitions, which Cissy was supposed to fulfill by making a brilliant marriage. But she slipped away to Vienna, where her uncle was U.S. ambassador, and at one of the many elegant parties that were her main preoccupation, she met Count Josef Gizycki ("Gizy"), the tall, dark and handsome Polish nobleman, an accomplished seducer of women, who instantly swept her off her feet. ("As they danced, she felt his silver shoulder strap against her chin, and she was caught in a storm of emotions.")

Her parents violently disapproved. "If you don't marry him, I'll give you my pearls," her mother shouted. There were sordid arguments about his dowry. (He had inherited the whole village of Nowosielica in the Ukraine, but was short of ready cash.) He disappeared after their wedding, making her follow him to Union Station on her own-- the first of many bad trips.

At Nowosielica she "noticed how many of the children in the village looked like her husband." His "castle" was a barely furnished white house. Instead of 70 servants, "there was a fat, bald very old butler, covered with warts . . . and four bowing houseboys." The women's photographs and the plaster cast of a woman's foot on Gizy's bedside table had affectionate messages inscribed on them. She found a woman's hairpin in her bureau drawer. Things never rose far above this initial marital slump and eventually, after he beat her, she gathered up her baby daughter, Felicia, and her maid, and escaped in the dead of night in a sleigh. Gizy chased her to England and kidnapped Felicia, and only after President Taft wrote a strong letter to the Czar of Russia did Cissy get her back and take her to America-- to treat her as coldly as her own mother had treated her.

But all this, dear reader, is only the start. Cissy is only 28 at this point, and not until she was 49 did she land her job at the Washington Herald and begin the most dazzling, combative and creative years of her life. Before this bright passage come 20 years of stopgap consolations-- the idyl in Wyoming with a former cattle rustler who thought it unmanly to bathe and who spat tobacco juice on the rugs when she invited him East; the passionate liaisons-- even with her own son-in-law; long friendships with the likes of Arthur Brisbane, the editor who taught her the trade, and the "wildly charming" Herbert Bayard Swope ("Swopey"), who "always remembered the way she looked wearing a sable coat over a turtle neck sweater and slacks." She even married again-- a man who commuted to Wall Street on his yacht. But they had drifted apart by the time he died. She wrote one successful novel and was writing another in Paris until her hot-blooded French collaborator tore up her tea gown. She went to see Hearst in San Simeon in her private railroad car with gold plumbing fixtures and a private chef, and he asked her to edit the Herald. Only then did she find steady, challenging work and a real sense of purpose for herself. Martin's description of her intuitive skill as an editor is the most interesting part of the book. But by the time we get to it we're almost too tired to enjoy it.