BELLE MOSKOWITZ; Feminine Politics And the Exercise of Power in the Age Of Alfred E. Smith.

By Elisabeth Israels Perry.

Oxford, 280 pp. $24.95

BELLE MOSKOWITZ belonged to a remarkable generation of skillful, energetic women whose reforming labors helped create modern urban liberalism in this century. Born in Harlem when it was still home to middle-class German Jews, she briefly flirted with an acting career before devoting her life to "public service."

That mission propelled Moskowitz into a series of campaigns designed to create a moral and efficient city. She volunteered in a settlement house, crusaded to close down dance halls she considered portals to prostitution, joined Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party, and created grievance procedures in New York's contentious garment industry.

Labor mediation brought Moskowitz into contact with a rising young politician from Tammany Hall named Alfred E. Smith. Smith knew the age of omnipotent urban bosses was ending and that, to realize his state and national ambitions, he would need the ideas and contacts only middle- and upper-class reformers could provide.

In Belle Moskowitz, he found a publicity-savvy expert whose knowledge of and zest for political combat matched his own. By the early 1920s, she had become Al Smith's top political adviser, his "tent pole" in four victorious gubernatorial campaigns and an administration marked by legislative battles for public housing, parks and water projects that presaged the better-known initiatives of the New Deal. Only the presidency -- which Smith sought in 1924 and 1928 -- was beyond Moskowitz's talents to win for her Irish-Catholic boss and friend.

Perry, although she is Moskowitz's granddaughter, has written a biography that is long on political deeds but short on the person who performed them. We learn that Belle dominated her two husbands but not how the marriages worked. And Perry's description of her grandmother's "maternal" relationship with Smith which depended on Belle showing "no interest in outshining the man she served" could in fact apply to scores of other helpmates of the powerful. It does not convincingly explain a public bond that was unique at the time. But this is a fine introduction to a figure who, like her compatriot Eleanor Roosevelt, defined the politics of her era as much as did the men who held high office.

AGNES SMEDLEY: The Life and Times Of an American Radical.

By Janice R. MacKinnon & Stephen R. MacKinnon.

University of California Press, 425 pp. $25. SOMEONE should make an epic film about Agnes Smedley. The daughter of a poor Missouri tenant farmer, who deserted the family when she was a child, she became in the 1930s a world-renowned journalist of Asian revolutions.

Smedley filed exclusive stories from the bombed-out neighborhoods of Shanghai and the headquarters of Mao Zedong in the mountains of North China; worked closely with figures like Zhou Enlai, Madame Sun Yat-sen, and Gen. Joseph Stilwell; and made love to rebels and nationalists of a variety of lands and ages. At the same time, she was a charismatic speaker, a good horsewoman and an excellent pistol shooter. Too bad Hemingway can't write the screenplay.

However, Smedley's politics might give Hollywood producers pause. She was an unabashed feminist and communist (though never a party-liner) who seems to have spent as much time haggling with comrades over doctrinal differences as she did promoting the causes of independence and socialism for which millions of Asians were fighting.

The MacKinnons reveal the considerable drama that lay within the details of their subject's crowded life. At one point, Smedley fought with He Zizhen, Mao's first wife, over square dancing parties that the Americans had arranged for veterans of the Long March. A glimpse of the chairman telling his flashlight-wielding wife, "You're acting like a rich woman in a bad American movie," after Smedley had decked her "with a single punch" neatly counters those stereotypes of faceless Chinese communists grimly lockstepping their way into history.

But the authors are less successful at illuminating the psychological motives behind Smedley's flamboyant behavior. Here was a peripatetic woman who proclaimed her abhorrence of both monogamy and western imperialism, took scores of lovers, and was both admired and despised for her rough, candid ways. But the MacKinnons insist that she was afraid of sex and never really explain the genesis of her political passions. Readers will thus have to supply their own interpretation of this complex and utterly engaging woman.

DON'T CALL ME BOSS; David L. Lawrence, Pittsburgh's Renaissance Mayor.

By Michael P. Weber.

University of Pittsburgh Press, 454 pp., $32.95; paper $16.95.

UNFORTUNATELY, this book, available next month, is one that only an academic historian or a devotee of Pittsburgh history will love. Not that its subject was obscure or uninteresting. From the mid-1930s to his death in 1966, David Lawrence was Mr. Democrat in an area pivotal to the party's national fortunes. As Democratic chairman for Pennsylvania during the New Deal, he knit together white ethnics, urban blacks and liberal intellectuals into a coalition strong enough to break the GOP's long hold on the governorship and the state's electoral vote.

After World War II, without relinquishing his larger influence, Lawrence took power in the Steel City and began to transform it from a sooty, corrupt, one-industry town into a physically attractive (though not consistently prosperous) center of arts and corporate headquarters. Throughout his career, Lawrence was an exemplar of the type of public man who has run states and cities since at least the days of Andrew Jackson: the hard-working pragmatist rooted in one place and hopelessly in love with the game of politics.

But Weber drowns his man in an ocean of narrative minutiae. He plods through nearly every annual election in western Pennsylvania in which Lawrence was involved and makes urban redevelopment sound like a boring obstacle course that only those with a financial interest cared to finish. Such chapter titles as "Social Concerns and Other Matters," "Politics as Usual" and "In Service to the Nation" don't exactly send one racing into the text.

It's a pity because an author who knows his subject this well should be able to communicate its significance to the reader. With so much fluff and cynicism abroad about party politics, we need to understand how men like David Lawrence patiently built the local organizations that continue to govern much of America.

LIBERAL; Adolf A. Berle and The Vilsion of an American Era.

By Jordan A. Schwarz.

Free Press, 452 pp. $24.95

ADOLF AUGUSTUS Berle Jr. was a man for whom the term "braintruster" should have been coined. Arrogantly certain of his brilliance as a corporate attorney, professor of law, economist, writer and diplomat, Berle became an important adviser to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. He was equally at home in academic debates about the social role of giant firms as in making Latin American policy for a series of Democratic administrations. Although he never served in an official post grander than assistant secretary of state, Berle help to set what he unabashedly called the American "empire" on its postwar course as merchant to and policeman of the Third World. That partly real, partly mythical beast, the "Eastern Liberal Establishment," had no more representative figure.

Berle's long public career -- which stretched from the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 to the forging of an anti-Castro alliance in Central America almost a half-century later -- gives his biographer the opportunity to write some marvelous political history. There are well-crafted sections about the men who made U.S. diplomacy during World War II, battles between leftists and liberals for control of the New York Democratic party and the tempestuous fortunes of Latin nations during the early cold war.

Schwarz, author of a fine biography of Bernard Baruch, clearly has an affinity for the world of insiders who moved easily from Ivy League to Wall Street to Foggy Bottom. He narrates Berle's life in a graceful, somewhat detached prose that both mirrors and defends the way his subject presented himself. Commenting on critics of Berle's studied hauteur, Schwarz wrotes, "Instead of making him grotesque they could have noted that he was unusually prescient, articulate, and concerned about the attainments of the mind. In an age when reputations are made on the basis of journalistic superficiality and a complex personality defies explanation limited to a thousand words, parts of Berle were better left unseen and unknown lest they confuse." The impression is of an elegant courtier who felt true pain only at the end of his life when elected monarchs no longer desired his services.

Michael Kazin teaches history at American University. He is the author of "Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era."