SCENE ONE, 1966: "Who is this child?" actress Joan Crawford is heard to remark bitingly when she catches a glimpse of the very young (23-year-old) Cathy Douglas, new wife of the 67-year old Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, at her table at a formal White House dinner.

Deep in conversation, Mrs. Douglas hardly saw the finger bowl placed in front of her before dessert. But Joan Crawford ceremoniously reached over several guests and moved Cathy Douglas' finger bowl to the proper position. "This is the way you do it, Mrs. Douglas," Crawford announced.

Douglas looked up in surprise. There was more.

"I'm sure now that you're wealthy, you like walking in the woods," said Crawford.

Douglas demurred. But there was still more. Something about Douglas' cocktail-waitressing days back in Portland. Joseph Califano, sitting next to Douglas, tries gallantly to turn the conversation in another direction . . .

Scene Two, 1978: Cathy Douglas walks to the podium at a formal dinner honoring her now retired and ailing husband. Hundreds have gathered -- lawyers, Supreme Court justices, government officials, friends.

"Congress sought on four occasions to impeach Bill -- and one of those times it was because he married me," she says at the podium. "However, it turned out not to be serious -- because it was suggested by Sen. Strom Thurmond."

The audience howls. She continues. She receives a standing ovation.

Thirteen years since her marriage to the much-married, fiery and unorthodox former Justice Douglas, Cathleen Heffernan Douglas has emerged an ambitious lawyer and a fledgling personality. What's left of the waif the short, blond Cathy Douglas was when she married at 23 can be seen now only in the fluffy, wavy haircut and the soft, clipped, almost baby-like voice she has at 36. Now she is a corporate lawyer; she sits on the board of directors of National Public Radio and Best Products in Richmond; she is general counsel to the Women's National Bank. She gives speeches at colleges and law schools in the West where she and her husband both were raised. She gives speeches to civic groups. In July, she will speak as one of a group of "outstanding women lawyers" (to include California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird and former assistant Watergate special prosecutor Jill Wine-Volner) at the convention in Montreal of the American Association of Trial Lawyers.

She has been a guest host on Panorama and has been interviewed frequently on her views on ERA and the first amendment, the latter being one of her favorite legal subjects.

She co-chairs the Americans for Alaska organization, which lobbies Congress for legislation that would set aside vast lands in Alaska to remain wilderness.

Cathy Douglas is instantly likable. She meets people easily and talks glibly, pulling even her more formidable interviewers into conversations about themselves.

"She's extremely outgoing and friendly," said one friend. "She'll ask people about their babies or whatever. She'd make a great politician."

She looks younger than 36. She is slender, well-dressed in high-collared silk shirts and skirts. She has big blue eyes and wears very little makeup.

She has survived the cuts and the stunned reactions of Washington; she has survived walking into her first day at law school and realizing that every person in the room knew who she was and was waiting for her to make a mistake.

And she has dealt with probably the hardest of problems -- a once hardy, vigorous and athletic husband debilitated almost overnight in 1974 by a stroke that paralyzed one side of his body, left him in a wheelchair and forced him to retire from the court in 1975.

The extent to which Douglas struggled, in the 11 months between his stroke and his retirement, to retain his position on the court is recounted in a new book about the Supreme Court, "The Brethren," by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong.

The book, which unveils the politicking and power-playing among the justices -- to which Douglas, the obstinate radical libertarian, contributed his share -- portrays Douglas, the justice of 36 years and champion of liberal causes, desperately trying to fend off pain and illness to stay on the court.

The book describes how during his illness he had trouble concentrating; he fell asleep during conferences; he was in and out of hospitals and he was sometimes disoriented. Even when he could show up for conferences or oral arguments with the other justices, he rarely could stay for the whole time.

At one point the other eight justices, so alarmed at Douglas' physical and mental difficulties, decided that when Douglas sent in his votes on cases they simply wouldn't count them, according to the book.

Even after he retired, Douglas tried to send in opinions until, finally, Justice William Brennan told Douglas he had to realize he was off the court. "Not you too," Douglas responded, the book says.

Throughout those days, Cathy Douglas was one of several who talked to her husband about retiring, coaxing him to do it, friends say.

Asked about the book this week, Cathy Douglas said she hadn't read it. "I really do want to read it, but I haven't yet." She said she had no direct knowledge of some of the specifics she was told were in the book. The retired justice, however, has had people read to him the excerpts from the book that have been appearing this week in the Washington Post. "He's taking it with a grain of salt," said his secretary Marty Yopp. "He has one statement about the book -- he feels the Chief Justice has grown significantly during the last 10 years on the Court."

The former justice still goes to the court every day for a few hours. He writes letters, talks to people on the phone, talks with his secretaries and others he sees about current events such as the crisis in Iran. He has difficulty talking and he tires easily, sometimes leaving conversations with long indefinite pauses, according to friends. "He doesn't do much at his office," said one friend, "but it's a good change of pace for him."

Yet he is so out of the mainstream that people often think he is already dead. Sometimes he is even referred to in print as "the late Justice Douglas."

But he does see friends. One said the last time he saw Douglas -- two years ago -- "he seemed more or less feeble -- just a very sick old man. No longer those flashes of power."

And he seems to live for his wife. When he was hospitalized right after the stroke, the days she came to the hospital were the best for him. He talks to her on the telephone at least once a day. Once when Cathy left to run an errand, a friend visiting Douglas at the house remembers Douglas asking to be wheeled to the front door simply so he could watch and wait for her.

"I would say she's the only force in his life right now," said Washington attorney David Ginsburg, a former law clerk to Douglas. "He's dependent on her and she handles it with dignity."

And her force is seen. Every invitation he gets, every request for a visit, is decided on by Cathy and her husband.

She explains: "We have a respect for each other's judgment and never a presumption to speak for the other. Whether we go places or accept speeches is a decision we always make in conjunction. I'm more concerned about Bill and what will tire him. Those things that drain him we ignore. Those things that give him pleasure we accept."

Some say that goes a bit too far. At the dinner last year in his honor, Douglas arrived at the end of the meal, according to several people there, just before the speeches were to begin. "We thought it was enormously unfair to bring him in late," said one friend. "He had indicated to some of his staff that he wanted to go to the whole affair. I think she thought he would get tired -- also that she would have been embarrassed to have him there the whole time."

Cathy Douglas said she expected her husband to appear earlier than he did. "We only worried about him coming to the cocktail party," she said. "In a wheelchair it's terribly, terribly difficult to be at that kind of party. When you're permanently low, it's like being a child in crowds."

Despite the problems, her own life has blossomed in Washington. "In retrospect I think I've gained greater acceptance than one would have thought in the beginning," she said, leaning back in a leather chair at her desk, fingering a letter opener. "Here I am in the active practice of law." She threw up her hands and looked around. "I certainly don't live the life of an outcast."

Not at all. Many of her friends are the friends of her husband: former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and his wife, tax lawyer Carolyn Agger, and former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford.

She and the justice gave a party once in the court for Henry Fonda, Jane Alexander, and the rest of the cast of "First Monday in October" when it played in Washington. Justice Brennan and his wife visit them.

With her husband's life in decline and her career on the upswing, friends say he lives for her and she exerts a firm influence on his life. It may be the strongest influence she has ever had on the life of a man known for his irascibility and his stubborness, his singlemindedness even when it came to his friends, and the four wives he has had in the past 81 years of his life.

She helped organize the dinner honoring him last year; she was one of a committee in charge of deciding what papers should be written for a publication honoring him.She, along with Harvard Law Professor Vern Countryman and the justice himself, control the Douglas papers now in the Library of Congress. Mrs. Douglas says they are expected to be made public in the next decade or so.

"I feel somewhat responsible on Bill's behalf," said Douglas. "We've both felt that way about each other. We always did. He's felt protective toward me, and I feel protective toward him."

"I think she definitely sees herself as the keeper of the flame," said one friend. "And she identifies her own standing with his. I think she sees herself going down in history as the wife he loved the most."

She met him when he walked into a cocktail lounge and restaurant in Portland. The owner called over his summer waitress, Cathleen Heffernan, to introduce her to the justice. She was working her way through Marylhurst College, the owner explained proudly.

A few months later when he was in town, Douglas called her up and asked her out to dinner. "I said 'yes' and thought I'd think about it later," she said with a smile of nonchalance.

Months later, he asked her to marry him and she wrote him a letter saying no. But he pursued her relentlessly, dashing off short letters to her from Washington, sometimes one day after another.

"She just got kind of swept up in it," said her best friend, Marty Yopp, who is also the justice's secretary. "She was enjoying him and he was pursuing her. Being a bit adventurous and impulsive was not unlike her."

It caused quite a stir. Her mother, Mary Heffernan, came home to find television cameras and photographers camped on her doorstep. Later there were obscene phone calls and letters, which she threw away. Heffernan insists that they took it well. "Her father said about Douglas, 'well, at least he's got a job.'"

Her marriage, unusual in its wide age difference, is not something Cathy Douglas talks much about. "Believe me, it was not one of my childhood thoughts," she said ruefully, sitting in her office, which has only one picture of Douglas -- on horseback in Washington state.

She takes the knocks calmly. "There was never the presumption that I would be accepted," she said. "And, with Bill, who was always being attacked by someone, there was the atmosphere of nontotal acceptability."

Shortly after their marriage there appeared a newspaper cartoon of a little girl on Justice Douglas' lap. Douglas is looking up at the Chief Justice and saying, "Sorry, Chief, I can't make it -- I have to find a babysitter for Cathy." Someone sent a copy of it to the Douglases.

"It amused us," Cathy Douglas said, grinning. "We had it signed by the cartoonist."

"I was very attracted to him," she said. "A sense of adventure is simply not enough to build a marriage on. I would say what impressed me most about him was his humanity. I've rarely met a man with such intellectual capacity. The whole thrust of his life was to use what he knew -- use his law -- to make human life better."

But just why she did marry a man 44 years older than she was she will not say. "I haven't confided that to anyone," she said.

"It's not been an easy life," she said. "I think in many ways my life will always be difficult."

Her family had little money. Growing up, she worked constantly -- she worked in seventh grade (after school, picking berries), worked evenings in high school to save money to go to Europe. She's worked in a cafeteria, worked in a potato chip factory, worked in a home for disturbed girls. "I always worked," she said. "And I always worked very hard.

"I guess the overwhelming thing I worried about, growing up, was that I wouldn't be anything," she said.

After earning her bachelor's degree in sociology at American University, she went to law school there, graduating in 1972. She received a master's in law from Georgetown University in 1974.

She has been a practicing attorney for technically five years at the Connecticut Avenue firm of Leva, Hawes, Symington, Martin and Oppenheimer. But the first two years were spent practicing half-time at most, while she spent time with her husband in various hospitals after his stroke.

"I feel like I'm finally a lawyer," she said. Her work runs from securities to banking to representing franchise organizations.

"She's a star at meeting people," said Marx Leva, the senior partner at the firm. "She can sit in a meeting and pick up an issue more quickly than others." And, said Leva, "I think she can charm a bird out of a tree."

From another associate at the firm: "Her best legal quality is dealing with people. You don't deal with people as well as she does without being very smart. I would imagine people underestimate her. Probably my main admiration for her is that she's overcome all my preconceptions in spades."

About her job she says, "I have no question that who I am helped get me my job. But that's who I am. I would be an expensive dalliance. There are a lot of relatives of famous people in Washington -- they're a dime a dozen."

So she works hard at her job, staying into the evening and going in on Sundays.

She also brings clients to the firm -- more of them than other associates bring in, according to her colleagues at the firm -- and that business is reflected in the size of her salary.

Her life is one of work circumscribed by the illness of her husband. "I think," said Carolyn Agger, "when Bill is feeling better, or when her work goes well, she's happy."

Bill Douglas relies upon his wife a great deal. When he gets upset with his nurses, as he has been known to do, she must find new ones. He lives through her in a way -- listening to her stories about what she has done throughout the day. "He relies on her very, very heavily for his connection with the outside world," said one friend. v

According to friends, she is physically strong, able to move the paralyzed Douglas in and out of his wheelchair when necessary.

"He's a frustrating man to live with," said one close friend. "He was a great outdoorsman, and now he can't get up and walk around. His idea of a fine morning was to walk a few miles up the canal."

Cathy would walk with him. But now, sometimes early in the morning, before work, she walks alone on the canal, which she can see from their bedroom window in her house off MacArthur Boulevard. Sometimes she walks around her neighborhood early in the morning, just for exercise and to think. In her high school days, she was a fine athlete. Now, she snatches bits of time for racquetball with a lawyer friend or swimming with Carolyn Agger.

"I've never heard her complain," said Carolyn Agger. "Once she told me 'I knew I would be widowed young because of the differences in our ages, but I never expected this.' But she never complains."

Some criticize her for working such long hours instead of staying home with her husband. "I tell her that's ridiculous," said Agger. "You've got to have your own life."

"Bill never said, 'you must stay home -- don't work,'" said Cathy Douglas.

"I suppose in one sense he would like me home, but he understands why I have to do what I'm doing."

One of those reasons is, as she says, "I've always wanted something to hang my hat on, something to direct my intelligence toward."

Another reason is her income, which helps pay for Douglas' medical and nursing care. "It's absolutely crucial that I work," she said, "because of the insurance I get and my salary. We find the combination of his pension and my salary is important."

Some say she -- among others -- pushed for his retirement off the court. "They thought he was going to damage his own image," said one friend. "It would be an overstatement to say she led the effort to get him off the court. But she got in touch with a lot of people to get them to convince him to retire."

"I certainly consulted with my husband and his friends regarding his retirement," she said. "I was trying to be supportive of whatever decision he made. Bill increasingly realized that he couldn't continue to contribute to the court in time or quality. I was concerned about him, and I was concerned about whether he could work so rigorously on the court. I was concerned about him in many ways. . . ."

But mostly she is his protector. She tells a story about him entering the Rusk Institute in New York shortly after his stroke. "They give everyone a battery of I.Q. tests when they enter," she said of the center, which treats stroke and paralysis victims. "Bill scored 100. The point is that mental acuity is not related to physical damage. Don't you see? He was and still is a person able to make his own decisions."

She continues. "I realize that about him. His mind is still fine despite his physical deterioration. People begin to treat old people like children. You can hear that in the way they talk to them. But Bill's mind is fine. I'm just responding to that. He can make his own decisions."

There is little doubt in any of Bill Douglas' friends' minds that he has loved his fourth wife immensely. "As much as he could love anyone, he loved her the most," said one friend.

Repeated efforts were made to interview Douglas, but both his wife and his secretary said he did not want to talk. However, Douglas finally relented and agreed to relay a message, according to Yopp. "He said he loves Cathy as he's never loved another woman. He is extremely proud of her and always felt she had a great potential."

And no one doubts her love for him. "She loves him as a good friend, as a person who's made a great contribution to her life, possibly as a daughter. And I think she has gratitude for him. She was waiting on tables when she met him. Look where she is now," said one friend.

"People have been scrutinizing her since the moment she walked in," said former Douglas law clerk Bob Deitz. "They're looking for a faux pas -- Cathy above herself, Cathy doing something wrong."

"I proved not to be a total dolt," she said with aplomb. "That's why they're waiting. Had I been an idiot, which is the presumption, I would have been written off."

She will not talk about things to come -- what she sees herself doing in later years, after douglas' death, except to say only that those things are in the future. When she is asked if it will bother her never to have children, she says simply that she doesn't know.

"It's a strain to see someone you love so sick and so uncomfortable," she said. "I feel sorry for him and I feel sorry for myself. But I don't believe in splitting. I made up my mind when this happened that I wasn't going to get mean. Bill has a great capacity to enjoy life. I'm going to handle these problems. This is what needs to be done. This is my task."