THE BLOND WOMAN in the patel designer original rarely took her eyes off the towering figure of the Australian prime minister as he stood in the Green Room at the White House. She had stationed herself nearby, effectively controlling access to him. Her smile was bright, her head high, her manner confident.

"I think i'll introduce you to Mrs. Dart," she said, interrupting Malcolm Fraser's discussion with one guest to usher forward her California friend, Jane Dart. Fraser stopped in mid-sentence and extened his hand.

Others in Fraser's party hovered around the crowed room as if waiting for her instructions. "Would you like us to move into another room?" asked the wife of the foreign minister, amusedly adding that Chief of Protocol Lee Annenberg had been looking after all of them "like babies."

"We only have three rooms," the chief of protocol replied.

In Lee Annenberg, one of the world's most practiced hostesses, protocol has a new commander, diplomatic politics has a new achiever and Nancy and Ronald Reagan have the comfort of knowing that one of their most intimate and trusted friends has added the White House to her rarefied realm, where whe moves confidently among the titled, moneyed and mighty.

The only other "meaningful job" Leonore Cohn Katleman Rosenstiel Annenberg says she ever had in her life was when her husband, multimillionaire publisher Walter H. Annenberg, was U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. She was chatelaine of the Georgian-style ambassador's residence in Regent's Park.

She didn't get paid but she adored everything about it -- the British royal family, the entertaining, the ceremonial duties -- even the housekeeping, which included the nine-month-long, Annenberg-financed, $1 million project of refurbishing the mansion heiress Barbara Hutton built and later gave to the U.S. government.

The Annenberg diplomatic style cost them $250,000 a year. "This embassy could be handily run on $75,000 to $100,000 but not the way I like to run it," Annenberg once said. He and his wife were equally generous guests of the British, contributing significanlty to British charities. He became the only American ambassador over to be knighted by the queen.

In 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned as president, Walter Annenberg resigned as ambassabor to the Court of St. James's. He delayed his departure a week so that this his wife, by then sufficiently senior among the wives of other ambassadors to he eligible for a front-row seat in the diplomatic gallery, could attend the opening of Parliament when Queen Elizabeth presided.

"It's a very formal occasion, white and tails," Annenberg explained to reporters at the time, "and it's my wife's decision that we stay."

Back home at Sunnylands, their 250-acre desert estate outside Palm Springs, the Annenbergs took up where they had left off 5 1/2 years earlier. Lee Annenberg went back to doing more or less what she'd been doing before.

"Which meant I really wasn't doing much except playing golf. I found myself going to board meetings, but somehow it didn't mean as much to me as it had in years gone by," she said in a recent interview in her wood-paneled State Department office, a room strikingly masculine for so feminine an occupant.

Living as she did at the pinnacle of money and position, Lee Annenberg realized it still wasn't enough. Raised by an uncle, the legendary Harry Cohn, who as founder of Columbia Pictures was the prototype Hollyood movie mogul, she married two powerful wealthy men before meeting publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg, to whom she has been married for 30 years. She achieved international prominence as a patron of the arts, an accomplished hostess and a woman of fashion, winning a spot on the best-dressed list. She found herself living the Palm Springs life style among movie stars and political leaders.

Others have said that there was at least one exception to the more-relaxed pace of now 63-year-old Leonore Annenberghs life -- helping Walter Annenberg, 73, set up his $150 million gift to the Corp. for Public Broadcasting to support college-level courses on television.

At a Los Angeles dinner party in fall of 1978 they proposed to the chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service, Newton Minow, a former Federal Communications commissioner, that they fund a televised course on art. The following spring, Minow arranged a luncheon in Washington for the Annenbergs to meet CPB president Robert Fleming. But when they showed up, they had changed their minds. Now they wanted to set up something similar to Britain's open university on radio and television.

"They said they were prepared to make a gift of $150 million. I almost passed out," Minow recalls.

By last winter, there was nothing more to do on the project, just as there was nothing more to do to get Ronald Reagan elected president. Over New Year's Eve, as they had for years, the Annenbergs entertained the Reagans and other close friends at Sunnylands. The president-elect said they would look forward to doing it again next year, according to Lee Annenberg, "and everybody else said goody-goody."

Then the Reagans and many of "The Group," including future Reagan appointees Attorney General William French Smith, International Communications Agency director Charles Wick and envoy to the Vacation William Wilson, went off to Washington. The Annenbergs remained behind at their fabled estate, which included a multimillion-dollar, 25,000-square-foot house; their two four-bedroom guest houses; their 4,000-square-foot patio; their artifical lake; their swimming pool; their 18-hole golf course and their full-time staff of 30.

"I love it," says Lee Annenberg of the estate that, 18 years ago, she and her husband started to carve out of raw sand at the corner of what became known as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra drives.

"If you were to close your eyes and build your dream house, it would be your dream house," she says.

Then one day in January, the phone rang and it was what Lee Annenberg describes as "a friend" (Walter Annenberg says the "friend" was Ronald Reagan) calling her husband to try out an idea. How, asked the fried, would Walter feel about Lee's being named U.S. chief of protocol?

"Walter said he thought it was a great idea and he's talk to me about it," remembers Lee Annenberg, "but, as I told all my friends, I said that's the most absurd idea I ever heard of. I told Walter I would never think of asking him to change his whole life to come to Washington. But he said, 'I know you'd be wonderful at it and I'd love for you to do it.' I think he was more excited about it than I was."

They talked about it for a day or so and by the time the president called back, she had decided to accept. She has said that her husband is head of the house, "so you can see I'm hardly a women's-lib type." And she didn't need the job that pays $50,112 a year.

"It's even a mystery to me," she says of why she took the job. "But I loved what I was doing in England -- that was the first time I ever had a meaningful job in my life. This was a chance for me to serve my country again. And I loved the idea of doing something on my own."

"Lee was brought up in a frame-work of great power," says her second cousin, Washington radio personality Tommy Curtis. "She's regal, too -- she was born to it."

Still, her origins were humble enough. Her paternal grandparents were German and Russian immigrants who shared a four-room apartment on New York's 88th Street with their four sons and daughter, as well as both their own mothers. Years later, after Leonore's uncles Harry and Jack founded Columbia Pictures, Harry said he worked hard in the movie business "so my sons won't have to sleep with their grandmother."

Leonore Cohn was born Feb. 20, 1918 in New York City, daughter of Maxwell Cohn, the less successful of the four Cohn brothers. According to her cousin Robert Cohn, Max has gained posthumous prominence today "simply from being identified as Leonore's father."

Leonore was 7 years old when her mother died; her sister Judy was 2. They were not orphans, she said, contrary to all those "silly things" people write. They spent a year in a Pasadena boarding school after their mother's death. Then one day Aunt Rose (Harry's wife) and Aunt Jeanette (Jack's wife) came to visit. Rose, who was childless, went home that night and told Harry she wanted to bring Max's forlorn little girls home to live with them.

According to Bob Thomas in his biography, "King Cohn, The Life and Times of Harry Cohn," Harry was reluctant. "All right, goddammit," he told his wife. "But it's your decision, not mine. I'll pay the bills for them, but I won't be involved in any of their problems. Keep them away from me. Is that understood?"

Rose brought them up as Christian Scientists and became their surrogate mother, but it was Uncle Harry who took control. As Bob Thomas writes, he reared them as his own daughters and, although he never adopted them, refused to let their father have much to do with them. Eventually he transferred Max to Columbia Pictures' New York office.

By all accounts, Leonore Cohn was a pretty child when growing up in her uncle's Los Angeles home. They lived in the exclusive residential park area called Fremont Place; prominent members of Los Angeles society were Harry and Rose Cohn's neighbors, although not necessarily their friends.

"We had interesting people around from the performing world, but I had no interest in films at all," Lee Annenberg says."Acting is something you have to love, and I was very bashful in those days."

Thomas says that Harry was possessive of Leonore as she was growing up. "She was the stronger of the two sisters and she intrigued him more because he respected strength. He'd ignore anyone who weak."

Cohn wanted her to achieve, but not necessarily in the motion picture industry. In those days nobody much thought of women as executive material. "He wanted her to marry well," Thomas says.

According to Lee Annenberg, Harry Cohn "really was too busy to have a direct influence on me, but I think he always felt that I had ability and that I could do what I wanted to do. I think he wanted me to be something or somebody."

Aunt Rose Cohn probably was young Leonore's first role model. As a member of the Hollywood Bowl's hospitality committee, she gave post-performance buffet suppers to which she invited the artists. "I learned a lot from the experience," says Lee Annenberg. "I learned how to entertain."

And the Cohn family's connection with the British royal family can be traced to those years. On one trip to London Harry Cohn met the duke of Kent. When the duke asked Cohn about the gambling connections of a Hollywood pal of the prince of Wales' (later the duke of Windsor), Cohn brushed his concerns aside.

"He's a square guy," Cohn said, in Bob Thomas' account. "Tell your momma and dad (the king and queen) they've got nothing to worry about."

Certainly Cohn appeared to have no political influence on this niece other than that he was a Republican. "But not out of any conviction," Thomas writes, "because he was completely apolitical. All right men were Republicans; hence, Harry Cohn was Republican."

At Stanford University, Leonore Cohn majored in history and minored in political science, choices that even now perplex her. "I don't know why. I had always wanted to go to Stanford, which was the Vasar, the Harvard of the West Coast. I wasn't a good student and I didn't think I could ever get in."

Dropping out for a year to go to secretarial school -- "I thought it would be a good thing in case I wanted to get a job; I had no skills" -- she returned to Stanford to graduate in 1940. It was around then that she married Beldon Katleman, scion of a southern California family with interests in parking lots and real estate. Around the same time her aunt and uncle's marriage fell apart, and he married a former showgirl.

"She never talks much about those early years, but I know that growing up wasn't easy for her," said Lee Annenberg's daughter from that early marriage, Diane Katleman Deshong, who is married to Howard Deshong of Beverly Hills. "I think [of] how mother grew up without parents and how trying to circumstances must have been. There wasn't that loving relationship with a mother, and I think she's tried to make up for it with her own daughters."

It's been difficult for Lee Annenberg to have much understanding for some of the things she has read or heard about herself. Or about her husbands. She gets angry at talk that her first husband, Beldon Katleman, was involved with gambling interests. He was in real estate when she was married to him, she says.

"If you knew me you'd know I could never be associated with anybody in the gambling business. I just couldn't."

It was not "a right marriage" and after they had lived together for 2 1/2 years Lee Cohn Katleman decided to get out. By that time her husband was in the military and it wasn't easy to get a divorce from somebody in the service, she said, so it took her another two years to get a divorce.

Hollywood gossip had Harry Cohn so upset with Katlemen's treatment of his niece that at one point he reportedly considered the possibility of issuing a contract on him. Cohn got over it, though, because a few years later when Katleman owned the El Rancho Vegas in Las Vegas, Cohn often stayed at the hotel-casino on his weekend jaunts.

By 1946, Leonore Cohn Katleman, then 28, had divorced Katleman and was married to Lewis Rosenstiel, 65, the multimillionaire founder of the liquor distillery, Schenley Industries Inc. Harry Cohn had introduced them after buying Rosenstiel's Los Angeles mansion. Rosenstiel fathered her second child, Elizabeth (now Mrs. James Kabler of New York City).

A self-made man, Rosenstiel was 17 when he began learning the liquor business by sweeping floors in his uncle's Kentucky distillery. He bought his own distillery during Prohibition and managed to keep it going by making medicinal whiskies. But he also looked to the day when he was sure the Noble Experiment would end; he bought up stocks of aged whiskey that other distillers didn't want to hold. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, his liquor inventory outdistanced those of most of his rivals. And he was off to a fast and highly lucrative start that eventually put Schenley in the billion-dollar-a-year sales league.

But life with Rosenstiel probably wasn't easy either. In a 1966 Wall Street Journal article, business subordinates pictured him as domineering, suspicious and inconsistent.

"He screams at you one minute and then loves you the next. It became too much of an emotional thing working for him," a former aide said.

In 1950 Lee Rosenstiel, then a resident of Greenwich, Conn., realized the marriage wasn't working. She was in the process of getting a divorce when she met Philadelphia publishing tycoon Walter Hubert Annenberg at a party in Boca Raton, Fla.

"He was Mr. Right," she says, smiling brightly.

It was a discreet courtship that lasted more than a year. Veronica Dunkelman Annenberg was in the process of divorcing Walter and Lee Cohn Katleman Rosenstiel was in the process of divorcing Lewis.

Gradually, Lee Annenberg said she and Walter realized they were "right" for each other because "we thought alike, had the same goals, aspirations and feelings, and we loved to do the same things." Yet another bond between them was their unhappy earlier marriages.

By 1951, she had added Annenberg to her name.

"A fabulous husband," she says, "and the thing I love most about him is he's a wonderful companion. We do everything together, and I think that fulfulls something I wanted in life and he wanted in life. You know how some men go off and play golf with their men friends? Well, Walter prefers to play golf with me."

Diane Katleman Deshong remembers being won over completely by "Uncle Walter" the first time she met him. "It was at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he bought me a banana split. I'd never had a banana split before."

Annenberg moved his new family to Philadelphia, near the corporate headquarters of his multimillion-dollar Triangle Publications, which today includes TV Guide, Seventeen magazine, the Daily Racing Form and a number of radio and television stations.

He and Lee did everything together. They went to parents' meetings, joined an astonishing number of clubs and boards, began amassing their world-famous art collection, gave generously to the arts, education and science and eventually, through their Palm Springs connections, helped bring Hollywood chic east.

"I consider myself a very lucky girl," says Lee Annenberg, explaining what Walter Annenberg has meant in her life.

No one ever just drops in on the California oasis called Sunnylands. Not presidents, not future kings, not movie stars, not even the Annenbergs' own children.

"Even we absolutely must wait for an invitation," said Diane Deshong.

And only once in the 15 years since the Quincy Jones-designe house was completed, reported at a price of $3 million, has anybody been invited to stay without the Annenbergs' being in residence. That was when Richard Nixon was president and the Annenbergs were in England. The Nixons would occasionally weekend at the elaborate estate. Even when they prepared to receive the deposed shah of Iran as he looked for refuge, the Annenbergs had no intention of leaving Sunnylands. "A misinterpretation," she says.

Sunnylands missed out on the shah but there have been other milestones: Frank Sinatra was married there, and after his resignation Richard Nixon reentered society there, leaving everybody in grateful tears, the way Bob Hope later described it.

"We told him [Nixon], after his surgery [for phlebitis in his leg], that it was time for him to get out and back into the real world," Lee Annenberg says. "So we invited mutual friends and I must say, it worked out very nicely."

Once an invitation is extended to Sunnylands, the experience is unparalleled and there is very little about it that seems real, say guests who have been there.

"There are nice touches," one of them recounted. "They leave a list of people staying there at the same time you are, and a schedule of what's going on."

In addition, guest cottages have stocked kitchens with attending maids willing to cook breakfast for anyone craving a little pampering. And throughout the day there is golf, swimming, tennis and endless opportunities to lounge.

"I don't have a set routine. I just say lunch at 1 o'clock. Or we're going to play golf at 10:30 and if you'd like to join us, well, fine. It's just relaxed," says Lee Annenberg. "I don't keep them programmed every minute."

There are alfresco lunches when nobody changes clothes. At dinner the women wear hostess pajamas and caftans, the men slacks and shirts. "We're very informal," she says.

Cocktails are served in the main house, where the living room ceiling soars 38 feet and the Annenbergs' priceless French Impressionist paintings, rare jades, enamels, sculptures and porcelains lend a museum-quality to the surroundings.

"They're very well put-together," a guest once said of her host and hostess.

"It takes an awful lot of money to do things in the right way."

Says Newton Minow, remembering a weekend at Sunnylands when final details were worked out on the Annenbergs $150 million college-of-the-air gift: "I cried when I left."

Lee Annenberg says she and Walter Annenberg are just plain folks when they are alone at Sunnylands in their old clothes, she in slacks, a shirt and flat shoes, without makeup and wearing an old hat to keep the sun off her hair. Just like everybody else.

"Except that I will admit that I have a charmed life," she says. She smooths her silk pleated skirt, then remembering her manners, interrupts herself to offer a visitor jelly beans from the crystal box on her State Department office coffee table.

"It is true, and I am grateful for it. I try not to be haughty or feel that I am any different from anybody else. I'm just lucky -- I don't know how else to put it."

There probably isn't any other way to put it for someone having her own desert fiefdon, her own million-dollar Sun Valley chalet called "The Views", her own mansion on Philadelphia's exclusive Main Line and all the wealth, friends and privileges to go with them.

"I can see where people read about you and say 'Oh, you're living up there in the ivory tower,'" she says. "But I'm really not. At least I hope I'm not. Because having means doesn't make you a better person. That all has to come from within."

Walter Annenberg has a bronze plaque on all of his desks that reads: "Cause my works on earth to reflect honor on my father's memory."

It's a statement that holds a very special meaning for him. His father, Moses Annenberg, went to jail on charges of income-tax evasion that had been leveled against him, his wife, their son Walter and others.

In true Horatio Alger fashion, Moses Annenberg, an immigrant from East Prussia, had started out in Chicago as a junk dealer, peddler and corner newspaper vendor. By the early 1930s he had already made a fortune in the publishing business, eventually developing a monopoly over publishing racing results. By 1936, the Federal Communications Commission had begun trying to break up those holdings.

"I have saved my only son from prison," said the elder Annenberg as he went off to jail in 1939, paying $9 million in taxes, penalties and interest. "I'm innocent of intentional wrongdoing."

At the recent White House dinner for Malcolm Fraser, Walter Annenberg had been talking about the work his wife was doing and how proud he was of her, even though her work had thrust them both back into the sometimes harsh glare of publicity. Both he and his wife were known to have been distressed by the publicity that surrounded his confirmation hearings in 1969 as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.

"Listen," he replied, laughing, "I'm still black and blue."

Behind him, in the Grand Foyer, President and Mrs. Regan were dancing, as were several of their elegantly clad guests. The Marine dance band was playing and it was sometimes difficult to hear, so Anneberg moved down the crosshall to a quieter area near the East Room.

He explained what his father had meant by that remark about saving his son.

"Every arm of the government was after him. They indicted my mother, my father and they indicted me in order to put pressure on him to please guilty to one count."

Annenberg talked softly as he related the ordeal his family had been through.

"My father -- at that time he was beginning to have excruciating headaches and ultimately he died as a result of an inoperable brain tumor -- it was too much for him to keep battling. But in order to extricate my mother and myself, he agreed to plead guilty to one count. It was a statement, that was all."

Lee Annenberg feels discussion of her father-in-law, whom she never knew, is unfair and irrelevant to her life story and bitterly resents any difference of opinion.

What Leonore Annenberg calls her first "challenge" as U.S. chief of protocol came in late March, scarcely two weeks after she had been sworn in.

She was escorting Prime Minister Andries A.M. van Agt and Foreign Minister Christoph van der Klaauw of the Netherlands from Boston to Washington for an official working visit. About 15 minutes outside Andrews Air Force Base somebody handed her a message that the president had been shot. Since details were nonexistent, she decided not to say anything until just before they landed.

When she did, she says, the visitors' main concern was the health of the president; their second was what was going to happen to their visit.

"That was where I thought I had a good chance to play a role," she says. "I calmed them."

Eventually, she says, she also was able to reassure them that the visit would go forward as planned because Vice President Bush was going to take over some of the president's duties while Reagan was in the hospital. When the visit was over and she saw them to their helicopter, both men gave her a goodbye kiss.

"I felt that was one thing I had done that was helpful for our country, I didn't get excited or emotional," she says. "I was calm."

"We're so proud of her. It's the first job she's ever had," sayd Diane Katleman Deshong. "She's always been Mrs. Walter Annenberg."

In the brief six months since she's been chief of protocol, Lee Annenberg has already put her personal stamp on the job.

Besides personally checking guest lists for official White House dinners at Nancy Reagan's request, her individual flair for entertaining is coming through in small, intimate dinners she and Walter Annenberg are giving at the Blair House for chiefs of diplomatic missions here, members of Congress and others among Washington's social elite.

"I wanted to get to know as many ambassadora as soon as possible," she says of two earlier occasions over which she presided, receptions for the entire diplomatic corps preceding President Reagan's appearances, before joint sessions of Congress. And this fall, at the suggestion of the Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin, she expects to arrange an out-of-town trip, possibly to Philadelphia, for foreign diplomats interested in seeing America.

Operating on the theory that "every day is a challenge," she has become a ubiquitous presence at every important social event in town, a highly motivated, gregarious woman who would be sought after even if she weren't the U.S. chief of protocol.

Highly organized and efficient with her time, she has set up her routine and it seldom varies. A typical weekday evening starts around 5:30 when she leaves her State Department office and staff of 43. Back in her three-bedroom, 10th-floor Watergate Hotel apartment, which usually rents for $750 a day, she changes clothes, rests a little, talks on the phone a little, then goes out to cocktails, to dinner or both.

Sometimes her husband is with her, sometimes he is in his Radnor, Pa., headquarters of Triangle Publications. She joins him on weekends at their Wynnewood estate on Philadelphia's Main Line, and they rest by going out "every Saturday night to dinner parties." Until recently she returned to Washington on Sunday evenings. Now it's Monday mornings so she and her husband can be together longer. "He misses me and I miss him," she says.

Certainly the Annenberg life style differs significantly from those of her immediate predecessors in the Carter administration. The job's social obligations probably accounted for less than one-third of his time as protocol chief, said attorney Abelardo Valdez, a migrant laborer as a child.

Lee Annenberg's appointment last February signalled the return to a long tradition of naming the wealthy and socially prominent to the prestigious State Department post. Until Jimmy Carter changed it, the job had gone to such moneyed and established names in recent years as Shirley Temple Black, Emil (Bus) Mosbacher, Angier Biddle Duke, Henry Catto, Marion Smoak, Lloyd Hand and James Symington.

Non, however, had the close personal ties to their president or first lady that Leonore Annenberg brought with her, ties going back to the days when Ronald Reagan was in the television business and they went around with the same group of friends. Lee Annenberg's appointment didn't surprise her friends, since she had more diplomatic experience than any of them.

"The one thing I do have is experience in the diplomatic world," she says. "With almost six years in London, I learned an awful lot."

Some of it will come in handy later this month, when she and Walter Annenberg join Nancy Reagan in London for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. The Annenbergs have known the prince since he turned 21, the year they arrived in London.

"We became very good friends," she says.

Which is part of the reason she did that curtsy when she met him at Andrews Air Force Base this spring, a gesture that landed her on front pages, and in hot water around the country.

"Much ado about nothing," she says.

"I love what I do. It's exciting.I enjoy meeting all the heads of government, and the chance to talk to them," says Annenberg. "I try to give them a happy impression of our country, and to smooth things over."

Says he son-in-law James Kabler, a former protocol officer: "I think history will rank her with Angier Biddle Duke."