In this, the fourth of a series, Mary Cunningham faces a test at the top: Should she fight for her new job as one of the top woman business executives in the country, or quit, or wait to see what happens? Or can she come up with a wiser alternative?

On the last Monday in September at 4 o'clock in the afternoon Mary Cunningham sat in her hotel room at the Waldorf. She could not eat. Every so often she stepped into the bathroom to vomit. Her career was on the block because of rumors linking her romantically with her boss. Her fate had to be decided by a "jury" of board members. The one woman on the board had not been notified. They were meeting across town.

While she waited, her former husband paid her a vist. Howard "Bo" Gray is a black man who knows something about malice in the world. He told Mary she was being victimized and how sorry he was. She noticed Bo was much grayer since their five-year, off-and-on marriage had broken up last January. It pained her to see white streaks in his beard.

"Do you see how bad people really are?" he picked up on an old theme. "Do you see what this society is really about?"

Her mind tried to run away from his words. Bo's reality had always been too much for her.

"Please let me continue to have my ideals," she pleaded. Tears were stinging her eyes and she wanted to let them spill, but not now, not yet.

"Somebody's got to change these things. Not just conform. Not just disappear because they're controversail."

The immediate burst of controversy surrounding her promotion five days before, at 29, to one of the highest-ranking women executives in American industry had prompted her boss, Bendix chairman Bill Agee, to defend her rise as based strictly on performance. The next morning, Thursday, Sept. 25, the Detroit Free Press built a story around the I-am-innocent angle, quoting Agree telling an employes' meeting that Mary's close friendship with him and with his family had nothing to do with her stunning success.

Mary was on her way to the Detroit airport when she opened the paper and saw herself, like some sort of fallen statue, in pieces all over the front page. A few hours later she joined Bill Agee in a meeting in San Francisco. Facing a roomful of frightened employes, she tried to concentrate on their problem: what the divestiture of Bendix's forest products division -- a strategy she and Bill had worked out together -- would mean to their own lives. In the middle of the meeting a message was slipped to Mary. The story had gone out over the AP wire and even crossed the Dow-Jones tape. Tomorrow it would get news play all over the country: "Bendix Chairman Denies Rumors."

Mary pulled a sheet of paper out of her notebook. In longhand she wrote out her immediate response:

"I unilaterally and unconditionally offer my resignation."

Corporations take to the limelight of scandal the way moles take to fresh air. Mary sensed she would become an overnight freak. The culture simply wasn't ready for her yet. Too brilliant, too ambitious, too young, too beautiful -- as well as a woman. She wouldn't be able to function at this crucial moment in the $4-billion company's history with anything like the performance level she would expect from herself. Her only choice was to move quickly, she thought; "unilaterally" so the company wouldn't take the brunt of appearing to have panicked and asked for her resignation; "unconditionally" so that Bill Agee wouldn't look as though he had left his protege in the lurch.

"I had to leave them no room to move," Mary Cunningham confided, "and take it all on myself."

Before boarding the corporate jet back to Southfield, Mary told the p.r. people to say she and Agee would have an important announcement to make the next day. Most everyone including news magazine editors took odds on a wedding announcement. Not a single business or gossip column speculated that this suddenly beleaguered young woman might have made a hard-headed decision to resign.

But those who knew came forward in the next 24 hours to urge Mary not to move quite so fast. Among them were some board members, a former mentor and Bill Agee. "It was just a newspaper story," they said. "No truth in it, you will withstand the closest scrutiny."

Bill Agee insisted, "This isn't fair. I need you in the company. We can handle this. It doesn't have to get out of control."

Rationaly, everything they said made sense. But Mary's instincts told her that the way this story had been played, people wouldn't turn it off until they'd seen the whole soap opera.

Even her mother along with her guardian and substitute father, Monsignor William Nolan, flew in from New Hampshire to offer her support in resisting the injustice of it all. She was moved by that.

Alright, she agreed, she would consider her course more thoughtfully over the weekend. But thoughtfullness is impossible in the eye of the storm. All there is time for then is answering the telephone. A couple of board members sounded on the borderline of panic, asking obsessively, "How do we make coverage of this problem go away?"

"My biggest fear, frankly," Mary told me later, "was that someone would overreact and ask me to resign -- or fire me. That would have been the worst thing in terms of ill will it would have brought down on the company."

On second thought, the other possibility was only slightly less appealing. Had she unilaterally resigned at that moment -- before the company had fully vetted her performance -- it would imply guilt. "And there was none."

And so she had to come up with an alternate play. By offering to take a temporary leave of absence she hoped to minimize her "downside risk" that the board might behave foolishly and dismiss her, while at the same time firing a forcing shot back into their court. She figured, correctly, the board would give her a public show of support. After all, they had recommended her promotion in the first place.

The vigil dragged deep into the evening. Bo Gray sat for a good while with his former wife, whose stubborn spiritual zeal for seeing the good side of human nature was at long last being shaken. But then, she had gone into the business world expressly to see "the murky side of human nature." She excelled at showing grace under pressure. But her tolerance for disillusionment was dangerously low.

Alone in the hotel room with her fears once Bo left, Mary shut her eyes and saw a parade of corporate figures cross the back of her mind and turn, one by one, into imaginary vultures. Who was it who had written the anonymous letters to the board urging an investigation of the relationship between her and Agee? Was it William Panny? Jerry Jacobson? Both men were in their 50s and had lost ground to Agee or Cunningham on positions they would have attained as capstones of their careers -- under the old corporate mythology.

In the last frantic hours before the director's committee started to meet, Gloria Steinem had swung into action. Calling her acquaintence Bill Agee with an offer to help, she pointed out that if Mary had become ineffective as a result of the publicity, so had Bill: They would both have to take leaves of absence. It was agreed that Gloria should lobby members of the board whom she knew from addressing them the year before on women in the workplace. Steinem took the position that anything beyond performance on the job was none of the company's business. t

To friends she quipped, "I certainly hope they are sleeping together."

I made dozens of phone calls that Monday. One concrete reality was never challenged by anyone I talked to inside or outside the company: Mary Cunningham's ability, integrity, and profund professional contributions. m

Yet there she was, alone with her stomach, seething in a room at the Waldorf, unplugged from her usual dynamic workday, waiting to find out whether her enemies had done her in, agonizing about her and Agree's furture.

Agee had been told to his face that his predecessor as Bendix chairman, Mike Blumenthal, was no friend of his. When Blumenthal had resigned from Carter's cabinet and returned to Detroit and the business world, Bill Agee had not shown the customary courtesy of inviting him to sit on the Bendix board. How resentful was Blumenthal? Did he join the gossip? How much of the battle here was between two industrial titans locked in the eternal struggle over succession of kings?

"He has his corporation to run, I have mine," a defensive Mike Blumenthal said in an interview. He had just consolidated his own position at Burroughs, a somewhat larger Detroit corporation than Bendix, by assuming the duties of chairman and CEO. "I do no think it useful for me to comment on what's going on over at Bendix," he said. Asked why Agee didn't ask him to sit on the board, Blumenthal replied, "I don't know why it didn't come about."

What about the women at Bendix whose fragile ascendency had been overshadowed by Mary Cunningham? The company has enjoyed a good reputation for advancing women; Blumenthal himself had plucked one from middle management to be his executive assistant at Bendix. As Karen Walker remembered, "He was a terrific mentor. He always asked you your opinion and what kind of decision you would make."

Mike Blumenthal remembers it differently. "I wasn't a mentor -- not for any of them -- in the sense of sponsor. Sure, because they had ready access to my office I'd chat with them . . . but they weren't there to be my student nor I their teacher; their relationship to me was entirely different than the relationship I hear exists between Mary and Bill. Nothing propinques like propinquity. It makes you a target. Unamimous Support

The visiting conventioners were already wrapped around the barstools downstairs by the time the phone rang in Mary's hotel room. The agony was coming to an end.

"Congratulations." The happy voice was Bill Agee's. "The board has given you a unanimous vote of confidence."

A great pearlish smile spread across Mary Cunningham's face. She felt the surge of motivation come back stronger than ever. "I was ready to dig my heels in that minute and do my damnedest to become the best strategist they've ever had."

Sadly, her ordeal was far from over. One member of the board took Mary aside. "Don't let this thing continue because ultimately Bill Agee's position is on the line," she remembers the ominous warning, "and you're being used as the lightning rod to strike at him."

The next day Bill and Mary had the corporate JetStar pick them up early for the return flight to Michigan where they were met by the corporate helicopter and floated down to the roof of Bendix. Mary immediately convened a meeting with her strategic planning people.

The next day, when I met with Bill Agee in Southfield, he asked if I wanted to see him with Mary or alone. Private matters were verboten. I asked to talk to him alone.

Putting down a letter from his traveling 21-year-old daughter pleading for him to write to her, Agee jumped right in with, "I've always believed it's performance that counts. You have to be careful about maturity. But if they've got more talent than anyone else, even though they don't have the years of experience, they should get the job." He qualified that philosphy by saying it would work only for headquarters staff positions where functions are not clearly defined; the culture isn't ready for purely merit promotions among those with direct-line responsibility for production.

As for women, Agee said, "I firmly believe there'll be a lot more qualified, talented women in the hierarchy of organizations. It's beginning in the boardrooms." He can also foresee management teams in the future, probably even male and female teams.

But suppose he and Mary Cunningham had married a year ago, I asked, could he have given her two senior promotions since then? There was a long pause.

"I don't think so." Agee saw two isues there. Nepotism was one, together with resentment toward any sort of palace guard which people fear might close off lines of communication.

When the phone rang, Agee's voice suddenly changed from that of a sovereign to that of a warm man.

"Hi, Mary! Sure, c'mon and join us; we're having a great chat."

Mary came in and told him she really wanted to get geared up to see all her troops. She wasn't sure whether they would look upon her as "sort of a deformity." Bill Agee laughed, and Mary Cunningham laughed back. A bad moment passed.

Will closeness at the top between a male and female executive be more acceptable in the future? I asked.

"If enough people come around to the understanding that the pleasure people get out of working together in off-hour situations makes them more productive," Bill Agee said. Withdrawal and Comfort

Earlier that day, I had joined Mary for breakfast in her small, unadorned apartment. She couldn't eat. She could still taste the vomit in the back of her throat. She'd had to take a pill to sleep. Company security was checking for a tap on her phone.

"But if I crack, they'll get Bill Agee."

She was wrestling with herself about the wisdom of accompanying him outside the office anymore. "But he's my best friend," she sighed. "I don't have anyone else I talk to. The hardest part is going through that withdrawal at just the time when he -- and I -- need each other's support the most."

Her greatest comfort is her Roman Catholicism. She may even bring Bill Agee into Catholicism. He has been taking instruction from Father Bill Nolan, her guardian.

Gently, I ventured into depths forbidden by a company ban on further comment. "Did you and Bill have an intimate relationship?"

"We're good friends. If you mean romantic of course not. It would have to be the stupidest thing I could do -- at this point or any point. You know how driven I am as a woman to accomplish things and not to set bad precedents.

"I told Bill Agee the day I came that if anything romantic came into this, he'd have my resignation the next day," she continued. Her lower lip trembled. Tears came at last.

"But the fact that we have not done that, not permitted that to come in, is something that's twice as hurtful."

I believed her. She is a woman raised between a mother and a catholic priest, whose relationship was the very model of platonic love. Truth lies in such paradoxes. But whatever the truth, it belonged to the heart, not the board room.

Twenty minutes later I stood watching Mary Cunningham walk alone across the huge atrium of Bendix headquarters and gradually disappear behind the planted corporate jungle. She was uniformed in a sober blue suit, white shirt, and sensible blue pumps. Her petite figure listed to one side. Carrying the weight of a mammoth briefcase in one hand and the discovered malice in human nature on her shoulders, she look for all the world like a good little catholic schoolgirl.

Ten days later she resigned.