Candles threw gold over the drawing room, over the lifetime of books, and most splendidly over Mrs. Truxtun Beale, a Washington grande dame posed by her winding staircase as the snow fell light-years ago. She was having yet another party at her home called Decatur House, built with money awarded Stephen Decatur for fighting the Barbary pirates off Tangiers.

It was the 1940s. Truman. The Decatur House mirrors danced with society's cream, skimmed from the village that was Washington.

"I remember one night that I went," recalls Lorraine Cooper, the wife of the former senator, "and oh, all the diplomats dressed up then. They were walking through the snow on Lafayette Square to go to Mrs. Beale's, and there was a great big moon, and stars, and then they went into her house, with that soft light. It was absolutely breathtaking."

After dinner, the men would bite at cigars and Truman's Fair Deal; upstairs, the women consumed rich coffee and gossip. Their faces were silk.

"There was that milky look in the glass," sighs Lorraine Cooper, wistfully. "It was so beautiful . . ."

Almost Proustian, these remembrances of parties past. They were America's salons full of warm brandy snifters and White House intimates, mainstays of a social Washington far different from the complex pecking order it is today. Then Washington was a town where gentility reigned, a town defined in private drawing rooms by grand hostesses like Mrs. Beale, Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Mrs. Robert Low Bacon (one never referred to them by first names) or in public soirees, by Perle Mesta and Gwen Cafritz.

No one -- unless you count former Iranian ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi -- has emerged since. The "Hostess with the Mostes'," Perle Mesta's title and style, is buried. "I remember going to a party, oh, 40 years ago here, where you had a footman beind each chair," recalls lawyer Clark Clifford, still the ultimate Washington insider. "Now, people would double up with laughter."

Says Alejandro Orfila, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who once gave an enormous party where then-vice president Ford did a televised tango: "The only thing it would do now is to get you criticized."

Still, from some quarters of Washington's social establishment comes a disgruntled yearning for that Golden Age, for another grande dame, for more of the parties that still remain as a peculiar method of conducting -- or at least smoothing -- bits of the nation's business after dark.

Jimmy Carter's administration, largely uninterested in the Washington party game, hasn't produced a host or hostess. But maybe, muse members of this social establishment, Ronald Reagan might.

"If Reagan wins," says Jayne Ikard, wife of a former Texas congressman and a regular party-goer and giver, "there will be all sorts of speculation about who will be the host and hostess of his administration. If he doesn't, we'll just lurch along for four more years. So right now, everyone's waiting to see what happens. You're going to entertain this cabinet? Are you kidding? We're all on hold." A Lost Ambition

The speculation may in fact be futile. Observers reflect that because Washington social life has become so diffuse and sprawling in the last decade, the emergence of a new host or hostess may be impossible as well as undesirable. Several factors seem to be at work here:

Women. To be called a hostess in an age of feminism is the kiss of antiquity.

"I remember someone once said, 'If my epitaph is as a hostess, I'd rather shoot myself now,'" says Lorraine Cooper. "I think it was Barbara Howar."

Says Howar, who is writing a book on Long Island but is still referred to as a "former Washington hostess": "Vapid women who do nothing but give parties, well, people aren't going to flock to them. Special women don't bother with that kind of entertaining anymore. They're got other things to do."

And the women often referred to as current Washington hostesses -- Washington Post Co. chairman Katharine Graham, Polly Fritchey, Lorraine Cooper, Pamela Harriman, Ina Ginsburg, author Susan Mary Alsop -- clearly have lives apart from full-time party-giving.

The younger crowd on the outskirts doesn't seem to aspire. "When I came, I was following someone," says Ginsburg."This just isn't an ambition for younger women."

Men are the same way. "I don't want to be known as a host," says lawyer Steve Martindale, even though he often is. "I want to be known as an effective lawyer, as an insider. My ideal is Clark Clifford -- not Perle Mesta."

Money. Inflation makes grandscale entertaining absurdly expensive, and recession makes it unfashionably frivolous.

"If I could afford it, which I can't, I wouldn't do it," says Susan Mary Alsop, who gives small dinner parties. "It doesn't suit the times. It would be considered very bad taste if somebody gave a dinner for 500 and had caviar for the first course."

The Carters. In the past, the grand hostesses acquired White House star attractions, who then lured other star attractions. Perle Mesta made friends with Harry Truman while he still a senator, and by the time he was president, had him in her palm. He came to lots of her parties. Gwen Cafritz, her competitor, had the vice president.

Jimmy Carter campaigned and won on anti-Washington sentiment, so now he and his staff generally don't play the Washington dinner party game.

State dinners at the White House, although elegant as ever, are used to woo crucial voting blocs rather than natives and insiders. And often, Carter doesn't seem to enjoy them. At a South Lawn party and dinner for Congress last spring, Carter made only a perfunctory appearance before having a quiet meal with his wife.

As for his administration, campaign chairman Bob Strauss does go out frequently, but Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, Stu Eizenstat and the others tend to stay home.

"Who will be your stars at dinner?" says Jayne Ikard. "They don't mingle. And if they did, nobody would know who they were."

Washington itself. Restaurants, theaters and nightclubs have blossomed here in the last 10 years, providing an easy source of entertainment for an affluent population. Growing numbers of corporations and trade associations throw business-related parties, functions much more lavish than any individual would have the means or inclination to attempt.

Substitutes, you could call both these developments, for the role once played by a host or hostess.

Bad times. "What is appropriate at one time may not be in another," says Allison LaLand, a Perle Mesta protege who was energetically giving press-covered parties five years ago. Now she lectures about Washington social history across the country.

"Mrs. Lincoln gave a ball during the Civil War for 1,000," LaLand says, "which was totally inappropriate. I think the headline was something like 'The Queen Must Dance.' But later, Mrs. Grant gave a 29-ounce dinner with six wines, and people just loved it. There's a pendulum that swings. Now, there are the hostages, and the Russians in Afghanistan, and inflation. In serious times, parties have to change." The New School

Susan Brinkley, the wife of NBChs David: "People really prefer small, cozy dinners. It's just rare that we go to anything that's more than one or two tables. I think there has been a cutback, because it's gotten to the point now where it's so outrageously expensive.

"And it's not as pretentious as it once was," she adds. "I don't think a woman feels like she has to have wonderful silver and china around for a dinner."

Susan Brinkley has dinner parties at her home in Wesley Heights about once every four to six weeks. Usually she has from eight to 12 people, at one round table. She does the cooking herself, but hires two people to serve and one for the kitchen. With flowers, and for a dinner she's proud of, she estimates the total cost comes to $75 to $100 per person.

She's 37, and started entertaining 16 years ago while she was dating a Washington newspaper reporter who liked to cook. "Obviously, in those days, nobody had any money," she says. So they'd throw together a big pot of something with salad, French bread, cheese and wine. Then about 10 friends would come over to the old house on I Street for a buffet.

Now her regular guests include the Kissingers, Bob Strauss, the AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland and assorted journalists. Press coverage is absolutely out, and she tells her guests that any information exchanged is not to leave the house. Much of the information comes from Strauss.

"He loves to wheel and deal," she says, "and in order to wheel and deal, you've got to be out keeping tabs on all these bodies. I do think he finds it useful." The Party With a Purpose

The real degree of political usefulness in the Washington party game has always been hard to gauge. Many will say parties are stuff and nonsense, just fine excuses for politicians -- under the guise of necessary gladhanding -- to eat, drink and be socially stroked.

Others, like historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., have written that "as every close student of Washington knows, half the essential business of government is still transacted in the evening . . . where the sternest purpose lurks under the highest frivolity."

Says Bob Strauss: "I get a lot of business done when 'm out."

And you can't ignore these recent events:

On July 24, during a dinner at the Austrian Embassy, presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler took Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti aside and told him the president had just remembered a June 17 conversation he'd had with Civiletti about Billy Carter's dealings with the Libyans -- a conversation the president earlier claimed he had forgotten.

In February, during a dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel for former German chancellor Willy Brandt and the Brandt Commission, Mideast Ambassador Sol Linowitz was sitting at the same table as Thomas Ehrlich, director of the International Development Cooperation Agency. The talk was of Egypt and Israel.

"Tell you what," Linowitz said to Ehrlich, "the next time I go over there, come aboard on the plane."

"You've got a deal," responded Ehrlich.

In the spring and early summer of 1979, Moroccan Ambassador Ali Bengelloun gave three separate blacktie dinners honoring Sen. Richard Stone (D-Fla.), chairman of Foreign Relations' Mideast subcommittee: Rep. Clement Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee; and James Bishop, the State Department's director of North African Affairs.

A few weeks after the dinner in Stone's honor, the Florida senator proposed that Congress amend the international security assistance act to boost military sales credits for Morocco. After Bishop's dinner, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders testified at a closed-door meeting of a Foreign Affairs subcommittee that the administration was reconsidering a 19-year-old policy on the sale of weapons to Morocco.

And by early this year, Morocco had a $232.5 million arms package.

The Carter administration, says Joseph Califano, the former Health, Education and Welfare secretary who was fired from it, has "missed something. eThe opportunity for informal relationships with senators, congressmen, key media people and opinion-makers is a critical part of making an administration run. It's one of the best ways to get assessments of what people feel." The Old School

One ambassador who saw what party-giving could do, and how, was Alejandro Orfila. Before he was OAS secretary general, he was ambassador from Argentina. So he gave huge, lavish parties during the mid-'70s that got him pages and pages of press coverage.

"This is a very peculiar town," he says. "You can do the most important thing politically, and nobody will know about it. But then, when I was a bachelor, I would escort a beautiful lady, or give a grand party, and then it was in all the papers. Pictures, articles.

"I knew, I just knew, that the only way to be known in this town was through the social pages. The social way is a big risk -- but I took it. I was considered frivolous, a playboy. But I don't have that anymore. I hope."

What he does have is reelection for another five years as OAS secretary general and Helga, the former fashion model who married him. Orfila was first elected secretary general in 1974, not long after Ford's tango was televised to an estimated 6 million Argentinians. Here was live proof for the people back home that Orfila, their ambassador, had enough clout to lure the U.S. vice president to the embassy.

And did that help his diplomatic career? "I imagine so," laughs Orfila.

Also active during Orfila's party-giving days was an interesting crowd of male hosts: Peter Malatesta, Steve Martindale and zahedi.Like Orfila, Malastesta and Martindale now keep low profiles. Zahedi, probably the best-known host in recent memory, left the scene after the shah fell in January 1979. But his memory lingers. The Entertainer

"He was amazing," says Bruce Ellis, vice president of Ridgewell's catering. "If he felt good, he'd have a big party. If he felt bad, he'd have a big party to make himself feel good. Usually we'd only get three or four days' notice."

Adds brother Jeff Ellis, the Ridgewell's president who made a good deal of money from Zahedi's parties: "I loved him. Ardeshir Zahedi had to have been the premier of party entertaining, the best Washington has seen since Marjorie Merriweather Post and Perle Mesta."

"For Ardeshir's small parties," adds Joan Braden, a consultant at the American Petroleum Institute who went to nearly all of them, "he did one long table, always with caviar lavishly before. I loved those parties. One time he had Gregory Peck . . . " Future Fantasies

So they wait for November, and with curious anticipation. It's true, some of them say, that Ronald Reagan isn't their choice for president. But Nancy Reagan looks promising, and maybe even social. The good of the country? Well . . .

"I've been here 18 years," says Susan Brinkley, "and I think these have been the dullest four years I've ever lived through. I think it was much more interesting when Nixon was president. Really."

"I'm a Democrat," says Joan Braden, "and I'm not for Ronald Reagan. But I think a lot of people around him are very good."

"The Hollywood influence would be very exciting," says Peter Malatesta, who really is a Republican.

"We'll have champagne and caviar," he adds with delight, "instead of beer and pretzels."