AT ONE POINT Eleanor Dulles tells us in this book, she was driven to consult a psychiatrist. She had developed a strange arthritic condition, could scarcely walk and cried all the time.

"The psychiatrist listened a lot and I talked a lot," she writes, "and after thinking over how much he charged and how little he did, I told him, 'I don't need you. I can make up my own mind.'"

The episode could serve as a metaphor for her life. She tackled the world the hard way. Whatever she won, she earned. She was born into one of our native dynasties. Her grandfather, John W. Foster, was secretary of state under Benjamin Harrison. Her uncle, Robert Lansing ("Uncle Bert"), was secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Her brother Foster, as she calls him, was secretary of state under Dwight Eisenhower; her brother Allen was director of the CIA. She was intelligent and ambitious, and her family connections could have eased her path through the world. But only rarely through the years did she even consult with her two famous brothers. She often lived close to poverty, but never asked for help.

She writes without flair or fanfare, so the dimensions of what she achieved in her life, and the inner turmoil she surmounted to achieve it are only fully appreciated if you reflect on the normal expectations for a woman of her time. There were no career "role models" as she was growing up. The men steered the boat; the women trimmed the sails, and a wall of reticence kept their passions in check. Her grandmother wore a stiff corset called "Gospel armor," and called her husband "Mr. Foster" when visitors were around. Her father waited six years for her mother to make up her mind to marry him. Eleanor's own love life was to proceed at a similar pace. At Henderson, on Lake Ontario, where she spent her childhood summers, even the wind "was an often stern master, and its unbridled force was a reality that taught us our place in a vast universe." Eleanor never quite settled for her assigned place.

At Bryn Mawr, her writing aspirations were humbled by scathing criticism of her work, so much of her restless energy went into eccentric behavior, like sleeping for months at a time on the floor.

A few days after she graduated, she sailed for France to work as a volunteer with French refugees. The danger gave her a taste for "the real world," which she thought she would find in a career in heavy industry through a fellowship at Bryn Mawr. "I wanted to make my way in a world where hammer struck anvil and sparks flew." She flung herself into field work with the boldness of an army tank. The railroads only employed women as window washers -- too far from the action in her view -- so she settled on a steel mill in Bridgeport, where she edited the company house organ, then moved to a punch press, where the light dawned: "I began to see that brute strength in the mills and male dominance in the office were to rule. Where they left off money and ownership would prevail."

She shifted her attention to economics. The few women in economics at the time were involved in labor problems, consumer standards or other suitable fields. Eleanor chose to do her PhD thesis on the French franc, from 1914 to 1928. The brotherly comment from Foster, who by then was an expert in currency problem was: "You might as well cross the Atlantic in a rowboat."

In the course of her research in Paris, she met David Blondheim, the brilliant philologist she ultimately married -- after a complicated courtship that lasted seven years. Her descriptions of their gradually evolving relationship are some of the most lyrical and moving passages of the book. As she says, "The various difficulties that made our relationship turbulent and yet that gave it an extraordinary vitality probably seem strange to modern young people." In fact, a lot of the complications they faced hardly exist any more. Her fear that marriage would put an end to her work had sent her to the psychiatrist for help. A year and a half after their marriage, soon after Eleanor became pregnant, David Blondheim, without explanation, killed himself.

Left alone to bring up her son and an adopted daughter, she took a job as economist at the Social Security Board, studying ways to finance old age insurance. In World War II, she got involved in postwar financial planning, which landed her in a 48-room unheated palace in Vienna, where at parties warmed by army liquor rations, she became adept at wheedling supplies to get the factories started. But all this was just skull practice for what she considers the most productive months of her life as the head of the State Department's Berlin desk. Raising shuttle diplomacy to an art form, she rehabilitated the iron, steel, electrical and garment industries and reduced unemployment from 33 percent to zero. She wrote the proposals in Berlin; then flew back to Washington to "engineer" the replies. She was fired from the department after President Kennedy took office -- in part, she thinks, because of her brother Allen's role in the Bay of Pigs.

Since then, despite major surgery, four eye operations and limited funds, she has been battling the problems of the world on her own, traveling, lecturing, writing, and once even judging a dance contest on the high seas during hurricane Anna. Calm seas wouldn't be enough of a challenge.