At night, she has a recurrent dream, and in the dream she is driving her car in darkness when suddenly a fog closes in out of nowhere and she can no longer see. And the terror of it is that she is no longer in control.

In the morning, the sunlight spills into the office of one of the most powerful executives in publishing. Joan Manley is on the phone, elegant fingers beating a steady tattoo as she talks in a voice as clear as the sky.

"You'll simply have to accept the fact that you're to be divided up neatly and progammed to a fare-thee-well," she says. "April first, that's in Hong Kong?... That's in Tokyo... You're only in the country one day, so we might as well get it straight... We've probably bought ourselves two weeks of uncertainty with this weather."

Sooner or later there will be no need to totemize the women who have made it, but that time is not this time and for now, Joan Manley is the consummate success story. She is the $54-a-week secretary who got to the top of a publishing business that did more than $350 million in sales last year, that includes 10 separate companies, and has her ensconced in a gleaming book-encased, wood-paneled office with a number of secretaries of her own outside the door.

And has her looking rather wistfully out her window across the way into another window, where two young women are bent to their work. "I've had both their jobs at one time or another," she says, fingering the gray Ultrasuede dress rather absent-mindedly. "It's hard sometimes to keep my hands off those parts of the business I used to do and used to love to do."

As the head of Time Inc.'s book division, as a group vice president of the giant corporation, at a salary of over $203,000, as a onetime prospect for Cabinet office, Joan Manley, 46, knows something about success, and the shades of sacrifice with which it can be tinged as well.

"I know I'm used quite a lot to convince young women not to eschew the role of secretary as a way to the top," she says, but talk of herself as any sort of role model does not come easily. She tends to dismiss her success as "a matter of luck. I didn't have a plan or a plot," she says. "It was just a great accident of timing. How clever of me to be born in 1932.

She was a legatee, she says, of the women's movement and the pressure on corporations to make room for female executives at the time when she was ready to take on executive responsibilities.

Her predecessor at Time-Life Books, Jerome S. Hardy, disagrees with so modest an assessment. "I never dreamed the foreign operation could be as successful as it has been," he says. "That was her doing. It was her decision to buy the Book of the Month Club. She has a natural instinct for knowing what kind of things will be both salable and tasteful, and an uncanny ability for picking the right people for the right jobs. She's a superbly talented, gifted executive."

Consummate Bookseller

Over 20 years ago, Manley was Hardy's secretary at Doubleday Books in New York. When he came to Time to begin its venture into mass market books, she followed as his assistant. Since the division began in 1961, Time-Life Books has become one of the world's 10 largest publishing concerns, putting out more than 250 million books with over 600 different titles, ranging in subject matter from The Great Ages of Man to gardening and home repair.

From the start, Manley loved the selling, the marketing of books. In her office now is a large statue of a straight-backed peddler who seems to confer a silent benediction on her words. "Selling," she says, "is the final step of the creative process -- since I didn't have the ability to be in on the beginning of a book, the writing of it, then I wanted to be in on the end.

"I really got a belt out of it," she says now. "It seemed like more of a game sometimes than a business. It meant spending all your time on tiptoe, being measured every day. It's like the way some people enjoy gambling -- I guess I got the same sort of satisfaction."

She glances again across the atrium of the office building in Alexandria at the two young women. The measurements come less frequently now, the yardsticks constantly shifting. "Now I'm measured on what my companies do," she says, the possessive adjective coming rather naturally. Now she "gets a belt when somebody who works for me does something terrific."

Of course it's different. "I have new, more complicated things to worry about. They don't bother me with the little things -- just the major changes, the major contracts. There are very few moments when I feel all that powerful, but I feel enormous responsibility all the time. There are terrific checks and balances on what I do."

A Tensile Grace

A third of Manley's time is spent in Alexandria, a third of it in New York, meeting with other division heads and her boss, James Shepley, Time-Life's president, and a third, as she puts it, elsewhere -- Los Angeles, Paris Barcelona, Tokyo, Hamburg, China, Mexico City. Six of her 10 companies are foreign investments and at times it seems as if she has been everywhere, though there is little time to see more than the standard glass and chrome interiors that define corporate hegemony everywhere.

She forced herself to make sure she spent a day in Esfahan the last time she was in Iran. In Greece, she took time out for the Acropolis and the two-hour drive from Athens to the temple to Posidon at Sounion. Paris remains her favorite; she has meetings there about three times a year. And wherever she goes, the reactions vary to the still odd spectre of a woman moving with calm assurance through the world of corporate decision-making.

"I'm sure I'm regarded as very odd in Japan," she says. "But they're much too polite to let me know it. The Mexicans are less sensitive."

How she regards herself is difficult to gauge. The smooth self-effacement counterpoints a constant hum of nervous energy. She has long thin hands, finely etched features, a shock of graying hair -- it is as if an electric current runs through her lean body and she is its conductor, charged and driven by it, bringing a tensile grace to her movements and a careful reserve to the honesty with which she comes from a large family, her father discusses the questions she chooses to answer. And she chooses most carefully.

The Arc to Success

As she describes it, the road from her California childhood to the office in Alexandria was a long graceful arc belying the usual image of blind ambition hacking its way to the top. A 1954 graduate of Berkeley, she comes from a large family, her father a Polish immigrant who made good as a building contractor.

"We have always been a very closeknit family," says her father, Carl Daniels, "one that always believed there is a great deal of satisfaction in hard work. Doing something better -- that has kept me going. We knew she would accomplish whatever her goal might be. But no one ever considered that the ladder would be so high and so long."

"I didn't start out with big ambiions," she says. "The way I saw it, what I was doing was earning a living. I didn't think of it in terms of a career. I assumed there would be marriage and children."

There was one marriage that ended in divorce. There is another that she once spent two years in analysis to preserve. "Mr. Manley," as she regularly refers to him, lives in Vermont, a graphic arts consultant. She lives in an apartment building in Alexandria, near her office, and commutes on the weekends.

There are no children. "It was a conscious decision," she says. "I would have made a terrible mother. For one thing, I hate to repeat myself."

Sometimes, her father says, "we can't help but regret it. But we reflect that in this lefe, you can't have everything." There are, in fact, eight other grandchildren.

She speaks sparingly of her husband. "I only wish," she says in tones that are not inflected with invitations to sympathy, "that I could have been one half as good a wife as I have been at my job." It is the kind of epitaph that many executives have had to place on personal relationships, the ones bartered in part, consciously or unconsciously, for success.

She ticks off the bench marks of her rise through the corporate ranks -- circulation director in 1966, director of sales in 1968, publisher of Time-Life books in 1970; a Time, Inc., vice-president in 1971, group vice president in 1975; a member of the board of director in 1978.

The most telling milestone was the promotion to publisher. "It was a complete surprise," she maintains. "My boss just called me in one day and said, 'I'm leaving. You're in charge.'" She makes it sound so easy. "I never really planned the next step."

The stark outline stands in curious contrast to the intensity of the pace she maintains. In between the constant traveling, she is "trying very hard to learn French." There is at least one tennis game a week. There is skiing every weekend it can be managed in the winter. When there is time after work, she likes to cook -- "complicated things." She is on the board of Babson College, a trustee of Bennington. This spring she is a visiting fellow at Davidson College in South Carolina.

The obligations loom up to meet her at every turn. "Like bookends," she says. "I wish I felt more comfortable taking longer amounts of time off," she says. "I'm so tired much of the time." It is not said as a complaint -- merely an occupational hazard Even when she turns on the television late at night for a video tranquilizer ("The Odd Couple," "Perry Mason") she knits. It keeps her hands busy.

"I'm driven by something clearly," she says, in answer to a question. "But I don't know what it is. I thought the analysis would help identify it, but..." She shrugs. No answers.

It's not the money. "Of course, I've bought some real long-term security with it and that's important," but there have been few outward signs of affluence. "This," she says, "is my first real Ultrasuede dress."

It is not necessarily the power. She dips into the Washington round of politics and dinner parties from time to time -- doing a little informal lobbying, testifying at hearings before the Federal Trade Commission, and she was considered, at one point, for a more influential role.

Then President-elect Carter was chossing his cabinet and she was not really surprised to find she was under consideration for Secretary of Commerce. Carter needed women in high places and while Joan Manley is by no means arrogant about the height to which she has risen, neither is she blind. Still, Hamilton Jordan's phone call caught her off guard.

"He said, 'Mrs. Manley, this is Hamilton Jordan. Could you come down to Plains this weekend?' I had been planning to get the house ready in Vermont for guests and suddenly I heard myself saying to him, 'I really can't. I have to vacuum.' He was very good about it though. He just waited a minute and then, as if I hadn't said a word, he said, 'Mrs. Manley, could you come down to Plains this weekend?'"

She went, of course, and was grateful for the antidote to anxiety that Walter Mondale's sense of humor provided on the trip to Plains, and she was relieved when she was told that she didn't get the job. "It would be an impossible job," she said. "Not to be able to cut out discernible waste where you see it would be very frustrating."

On the Mountain

Now there is the future to consider. Since she was named publisher, there has been public speculation over whether she might eventually become the first female head of the vast corporation.

Hardy, her former boss, believes "she would have to begin to associate herself with corporate activities other than book publishing to put herself in the running."

Manley herself turns the question of the future modestly, if not convincingly, aside. "My father still puts in a full day at the office, and he's 77," she says. "I don't think I'll be like that. I think I can retire someday. Before I'm 65. Maybe even before I'm 60."

The morning is ending, the decisions are piling up like snowdrifts outside her door. "Sometimes you wonder how you got on this mountain," Joan Manley says. "But sometimes you wonder, 'How will I get off?'"