The secret diary is locked away in a bank safety deposit box. So is the little pink piggy bank Caroline gave her. The flags are there, too, the ones that hung in the Oval Office.

Evelyn Lincoln, President John F. Kennedy's White House secretary, goes to the security box every so often to refresh her memory. To turn back the clock to Camelot. The Camelot of memory, where controversy erupted most recently over JFK's secretly recorded conversations, recordings Evelyn Lincoln supervised.

She is a slight, soft-spoken septuagenarian who wears a filigree-encrusted Kennedy half-dollar around her neck like a medal of honor. Her bouffant hair is dyed black, the ends curled up in a jaunty flip with thin bangs. She wears plain stockings, black leather high-heeled pumps, black velvet miniskirt. There is something eerily familiar about the look--a touch of Jackie Kennedy, circa 1963.

"That's my image," she says. "Mamie Eisenhower had her bangs all her life. You get known for certain things. That's how people recognize you."

For the last two decades, Evelyn Lincoln has stayed in Washington and embraced the legacy of the slain president as her personal vocation. She answers hundreds of letters each year from admirers, curiosity seekers, history buffs and pen pals, enclosing an 8-by-10 black-and-white glossy of herself. Every year on Nov. 22, she makes the pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery, where she places three long-stemmed red roses on Kennedy's grave. She is sent endless samples of JFK-abilia from collectors who want her to translate her former boss' illegible handwriting or to verify the signature. She sits for hours on end, granting interviews to researchers, authors, reporters and anyone else who will listen to the affectionate snatches of history stored away in her memory bank.

Evelyn Lincoln refuses to let go.

"Why should I try to be something else?" she says, mindful that being a member of the elite corps of presidential personal secretaries is the highest achievement of her life.

So when the logs of President Kennedy's White House taping system became public recently, she was ready. Ready to say that it had been done to keep an accurate account of the daily schedule. Ready to say there was nothing wrong with it. Ready to face the barrage of reporters who tracked their muddy shoes on the scarlet wall-to-wall carpet of her apartment, setting up the hot lights for the cameras that beamed her face into the living rooms of America once more. The talk shows, the news shows, the celebrity.

Evelyn Lincoln loves it.

"I suppose anybody does," she says. "It's just like an actor or actress coming back to the stage, perhaps."

She sits in a velvet-covered armchair. The apartment is furnished with pastels, brocades, plastic potted palms and red plastic geraniums in the window boxes lining the glassed-in porch. She shares the apartment with her husband, Harold, also known as Abe, who used to be an administrative assistant to a U.S. representative and later worked for the Veterans Administration.

"I got a little excited on 'Nightline,' " she says. "I was much better on the 'Today Show' the next morning. I knew there was nothing to hide. There wasn't any sinister motive on the part of the president to get any information on anyone in order to blackmail them, or whatever. It was just a recording of the events."

On the taping of Jacqueline Kennedy: "That is nothing, absolutely nothing. It was during the Mississippi thing, with James Meredith and they did turn on the dictabelt to get the conversation with the various people and it was still running when, unconsciously, the president picked it up and called Jackie just to chat. They picked that one thing, like 'Boy, he was bugging her.' "

The tapes, she insists, were purely for history. Kennedy, she says, never listened to them. "I stored them away and that's where they were."

Evelyn Lincoln is good at storing things away. Kennedy used to kid her about it, saying if he was in his office and murdered somebody, all he'd have to do is buzz Mrs. Lincoln and she'd gather up the body, file it away and go on like nothing happened.

Loyalty.

Raised on a Nebraska farm, Evelyn Lincoln moved to Washington in the 1930s when her father, John N. Norton, was elected to Congress. She graduated from George Washington University and met her future husband there while attending two years of law school. Later, Evelyn Lincoln went to the Hill to work for Rep. E. L. Forrester (D-Ga.). In 1952 she says she remembers telling her husband that her next job would be working for the next president of the United States.

"Eisenhower?" he said.

"No," she said. "John F. Kennedy."

Evelyn Lincoln had not known the young politician from Massachusetts, but after reading a few of his press releases she decided to work on his senatorial campaign as a volunteer. The next year, 1953, Kennedy formally asked her to join his staff.

She began keeping a diary and continued writing it until the assassination. Originally written in shorthand, the diary took a year to transcribe.

"I have things in my diary which are very interesting," she says coyly. "I grant you it would make interesting reading."

But Evelyn Lincoln says she doesn't plan to make her diary public until after her death. No one has read it, not even her husband.

Any bombshells in the diary?

"Oooh, I think maybe there would be some," she hints. "Some of the things that were said about other people."

Would anything make her change her mind?

"There might. Something might come up."

Like a book contract?

"Something like that."

A publisher with a million dollars?

"I'd have to think about it."

She giggles nervously, squirming in her chair. She enjoys the attention. Isn't there anything that would make her unlock the diary?

"There's more locked in my head than in that bank," she exclaims.

Evelyn Lincoln learned the hard way how to keep a secret. In 1968, she published her second book, "Kennedy and Johnson" (the first was an affectionate memoir, "My Twelve Years With John F. Kennedy," written in 1965), revealing that Kennedy was planning to dump Johnson as his vice presidential running mate. The Kennedy family denied Lincoln's claim. The controversy deepened when a gossip columnist reported unnamed Kennedy sources as saying it was Evelyn Lincoln whom the president wanted to dump, not Lyndon Johnson.

That hurt her deeply. She says the information about Johnson was true, but that Robert Kennedy was running for president at the time and did not want to anger Lyndon Johnson. "I assumed he knew, just like I knew."

People accused her of disloyalty. She went on a talk show and heard Polly Bergen say, "I'd never hire her for my secretary." She feels now that people in the White House were jealous of her because Kennedy "relied on me as much as he did. All the time I was with Kennedy there were 50 to 100 people behind me, breathing down my neck, trying to say I wasn't efficient, I wasn't this, I wasn't that."

It's not easy being close to the Kennedys. Evelyn Lincoln found out the hard way. "I told something that was in the diary," she says, flipping the heavy Kennedy half-dollar up and down her chest. "And look what happened. You have to be careful with a diary.

"I'd like to give it to you, but it's not the time or place."

It's a funny thing about leaders, she says. "There is a sinister motive for people to try and pry and find some fault with them, like they didn't go to bed every night at 10 or they had wooden teeth, like they said about George Washington, and they think that's terrible. But as a man, I respected him very much."

She thought about leaving him only once. That was back in the Senate when she spent half her time screening the urgent calls from beautiful young women who wanted to meet the handsome politician. "He was charming," Lincoln allows. But he could also be difficult. "He had an Irish temper and when things didn't go right, he'd tell you about it. At first I got hurt, but after a few minutes it was as if he had never said anything to you. He wanted perfection." The time she thought about quitting was when he had his back problems. "He was going to Hyannis and was he cranky. It didn't seem like I could do anything to please him."

But she stayed. Until that rainy morning in Dallas when the skies cleared and the decision was made to remove the bubble top from Kennedy's limo. Evelyn Lincoln was a few cars back in the motorcade.

"The last thing I saw was him waving to the crowds and that was it. And then we were in the hospital and the doctor came out and said, 'I'm afraid he's gone.' I had to go into a room by myself and ferret out my thoughts. I felt so sorry for Jackie. And then Rose Kennedy said to me after the funeral, 'We have to live for the living.' "

Her lip quivers as she fights back the tears. "I've never really talked about that."

She worked on the presidential papers for a few years after that, then went to Capitol Hill as a secretary, but it wasn't the White House. So she retired about 10 years ago. She and her husband live comfortably on their government pensions, and travel occasionally. She says no matter what happens, she'll keep on going. Keeping the flame alive. Writing letters. Sending things to Kennedy fans. Christmas cards. Baby gifts. Wedding gifts. People she has never met.

They frame her letters, she has heard.