Heads turn, celebrity whiplash. The maitre d' at The Four Seasons knows her by name. Hands tucked into the pockets of her white wool skirt, she strides right past the six businessmen waiting for tables. Waiters serve her a specially prepared salad at her favorite table. The table is on the balcony, away from the lunchtime commotion.

Mary Cunningham.

She says she hates publicity.

"I have my moments when I get down on my knees and say 'Why me, Lord? What did I do? . . .' " says Cunningham. "But it's part of living to suffer and part of leadership to be controversial. One lady said to me just recently, 'Mary, just realize, this wouldn't be happening to you if you were a lesser person.' "

Mary Cunningham has baffled observers ever since publicity about her relationship with Bendix Corp. chairman William Agee led her to resign a top-level job at that company two years ago. At 29, her corporate comet took a rapid detour off the financial pages and into the gossip columns as gallons of ink were devoted to speculation about just what did go on between them outside the Bendix board room.

Nothing, Agee and Cunningham repeatedly said. Four months later Cunningham landed as a vice president for strategic planning of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. at a salary estimated at more than $100,000. Later she married Agee. Her personal relationship with Agee developed after she left Bendix, she has said.

Several weeks ago, Cunningham stepped into the spotlight once again--this time as both Agee's wife and a pivotal player in one of the oddest and most complex takeover battles in history, a corporate melodrama complete with high stakes, private jets, power and romance between Agee and Cunningham, whose combined annual income is estimated at $1 million.

Although she was involved throughout the six-week Bendix effort to take over Martin Marietta, Cunningham did not emerge publicly until the Bendix corporate jet descended at Dulles during the final round of negotiations. She holed up in a room nearby Marietta's Bethesda headquarters in case her husband wanted her on-the-spot advice. Marietta executives denied reports that Cunningham's presence was a factor in their scrapping the delicate deal.

Agee and Cunningham have said they didn't understand the fuss. But businessmen around the country murmured none too quietly: The Bill and Mary Show is on the road again.

I don't perceive myself that way . . . manipulative and conniving . . . It goes right back to two years ago. That's a manipulative thing--a woman who would sleep her way to the top. She would even use her body to connive a man into giving her something she didn't deserve . . .

Now, if in the process of how I communicate or conduct myself, people find that so persuasive, I can't do a heck of a lot about that . . . It could be just the sheer sincerity of who I am. And I'm not going to hide my light under a bushel basket either.

It is unclear who first had the idea for Bendix to try to acquire Martin Marietta, the proud defense company in Bethesda that would have none of the Bendix plan. Popular wisdom in the business world puts Cunningham behind what was probably the biggest move in her husband's career -- one which many believe humbled Agee professionally. In the end, he lost control of his company, though his stockholders gained handsomely.

"I wouldn't take sole credit for it being my idea," says Cunningham, who agrees that her husband was embarrassed by the whole episode.

She says she was a full-time, although an "informal," adviser to Agee during the furious battle -- from 6 a.m. meetings at the Helmsley Palace Hotel, a few blocks from her Seagram's office, to after-5 strategy sessions in the Bendix suite there. The discussions often lasted all night.

"What was I supposed to do? Retire into the bedroom like the dutiful wife?" she asks when the subject of her involvement comes up.

Ultimately, Marietta retaliated by buying up almost half of Bendix's stock, and both companies owned much of each other. In the end, they could not agree on terms for joint management. Agee resorted to bringing in Allied Corp., which proceeded to buy Bendix in an arrangement with Marietta. Under the terms of the agreement, Agee's consolation prize is the presidency of Allied, the No. 2 slot.

"This is conservative corporate America, and you don't do anything to make or cause an issue in a sensitive deal like this," says one Agee ally involved in the negotiations. "From that perspective she should not have been there . . . She's a senior executive of another company . . . It's not protocol. But she is obviously a great source of strength to him . . . She's a very smart, but puzzling, individual."

More pop-pyschology theories have been voiced on Cunningham's determined personality than there are explanations for the recent stock market surge. Who is this woman -- a complex puzzle of altruism, cunning and Catholicism?

"She is so intense, so driven, so possessed," said one of William Agee's longtime friends. "She thinks she's on a mission from God to reform the corporate world and everyone in it." Later, after hearing this quote, Cunningham said "Please, don't make me come out as a pious nut."

Is she a modern-day Machiavelli with golden flowing hair, or industry's very own Joan of Arc?

Her story is now familiar: Catholic upbringing, Wellesley College, Harvard Business School, Bendix--where she so captivated the young chairman with her creativity and tenacity that theirs became a world of two.

Within 18 months, Agee promoted her to vice president for strategic planning with the now-famous comment to a meeting of employes, "It is true that we are very close friends and she is a close friend of my family, but that has nothing to do with the way I and others evaluate her performance."

The press went wild, and within two weeks, despite a vote of confidence from the Bendix board, Cunningham offered her resignation. It was accepted. Today, she calls that period of time at Bendix a "circus."

"I could no longer close the door for a confidential discussion within the totally professional context of my job without it being perceived in some strange light," she says. "I couldn't travel with the person I reported to without it being perceived as a date."

Cunningham is intense and focused during a recent two-hour luncheon interview in New York. She is all business and dressed for success this brilliant fall day: tailored white suit, brown silk blouse and sensible brown leather pumps. She says she buys all her clothes mail-order: mostly Talbot's and L.L. Bean. No time to shop. She never carries a pocketbook, only a briefcase for business. ("I can remember carrying a purse once for a formal because I needed somewhere to put my lipstick," she says.)

Her blond hair is neatly pulled back into a ponytail, and neither her deep blue eyes nor her mind wander during the interview. She hardly eats her Four Seasons salad. And never loses sight of what she wants to say.

When she is asked if she can stand back from her life, laugh, and see how the world might view it as a soap opera -- money, fame, high stakes -- she laughs uncomfortably for a second.

"I see the humor in what you just described," she says. "But I don't spend a lot of time laughing about it."

Cunningham sees herself as a victim, a public example of what she says is anti-female bias in corporate America. Repeatedly, she refers to the "pain" she has experienced, how she has carried the burden of "ugly" rumors and innuendoes because she was rapidly promoted.

"I was mentally raped and that is not an overstatement," she says of her experience at Bendix. She believes it is now her responsibility to speak out for the sake of other women.

There are not a lot of examples of husband-and-wife teams as visible as Bill and I are, and I suspect as prominent as we are in our fields . . . So it means it has the potential for drawing attention . . . I think Bill has been through a bum rap . . . He needs to be above it all. He can't afford to be defensive . . . He's had a very, very unfair experience in the way this thing was portrayed.

Ever since Cunningham arrived at Bendix to be Agee's executive assistant in 1979, their relationship has perplexed observers. She immediately became his confidant and adviser, and he became her mentor. Many said she exerted a surprising influence over him.

Says one executive who worked with Cunningham at Bendix: "You couldn't get to Bill without going through Mary . . . She might have taken her access and power too seriously . . . You have to be careful not to confuse yourself with the chairman in a job like that . . . She used 'we' in a way that was not smart . . ."

Cunningham describes their relationship as one of deep mutual respect and a friendship that grew into something else. They are a team, she says. They have even incorporated together in Delaware. She is the president and he is the chairman of the dummy firm called Semper, which is Latin for "always."

"Our little nest egg," she calls it.

"It's like describing faith . . . when you talk about love," she says. "I hurt when he hurts, he hurts when I hurt . . . What we have is a beautiful relationship . . . It has everything--common faith, common values . . . professionally shared interests."

That is why Cunningham sees nothing unusual about her presence at the Bendix-Marietta negotiations, even though she is an executive of another company.

Wouldn't she think it a little odd if Marietta's executives brought in executives from other companies to assist in the acquisition, she is asked? Or what if everyone brought his wife?

"It would depend upon the circumstances," she says. "It it were just another company's strategic planner, I would have thought that odd. But if Mr. Thomas Pownall's president of Martin Marietta wife were a vice president for another company, and more importantly, was on the record for having written the strategic plan that was now coming into fruition, I wouldn't have found that odd . . .

"As the wife of William Agee, who is making one of the most significant business decisions of his career, that I have unique expertise and knowledge of -- why shouldn't I be available to him as an adviser?"

So, she is told, she is having it both ways -- wife and expert.

"Yeah. That's exactly right."

I have some very dark moments. My faith makes me answer that there's a reason it happened to me. I know when I look in the spiritual mirror, I have nothing to apologize for . . . There has been a huge, huge personal price paid for all this. Would I have asked for that price?

Perhaps the key to understanding Mary Cunningham is to understand an old-fashioned approach to Catholicism and destiny, which puts a premium on suffering to save the world. In an April interview with Parade magazine, she talked about being enlightened at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

"There's a replica of the Pieta, and I looked at the face of Virgin Mary, and I saw the incredible pain as she held her son, who had been through the ultimate embarrassment, the ultimate in being betrayed by everybody . . .," she told the magazine. "All I could think of was a sense of identification with the pain and, knowing how much Christ loved her . . . Who was I to be upset about the pain that had come into my life? And how much He must love me to make me go through that . . ."

She calls her "very deep faith" her most complex side and says "people find that complex in today's world . . . They make fun of it." She worries about the perception.

At one point during the interview, she pauses in the middle of a half-hour defense of why she was right to be at Agee's side during the crucial hours of the Bendix takeover bid.

"Incidentally, I like your mdeal," she says, noticing a reporter's St. Jude medallion. "Patron saint of lost causes. I could use one of those. I wear mine religious medal inside."

Without missing a beat, she returns to discussing the merger, Agee, strategy and all the risks involved in being famous.

Agee converted to Catholicism and had his 23-year marriage annulled, rather than get a divorce, so that the two could be married in the Catholic church earlier this year. Cunningham also had her previous marriage annulled.

"It's a normal process . . . It's a very serious process," she says. "If either of us had not been given annulments, we would not have gotten married."

It was me hating publicity . . . On the other hand, having been made a public figure two years ago, I had to come to grips with a very simple awareness and that is I had no choice. I was now a generic name. The name Mary Cunningham meant something to people . . . And the very thing that been used on me to create wrong images happens to be the only medium we have available to correct those images . . . Did I have the option to suddenly become a private citizen again? I don't think so.

Agee would not comment for this story. His office, however, offered the names of about 20 well-known "friends" to call about Agee and his wife. "Bill drew up this list because we knew people were going to be doing profiles," explained Robert Myers, vice president for public affairs at Bendix.

The list included Barbara Walters, Vernon Jordan, Alan Greenspan, Robert Strauss and the chairmen of the boards of AT&T, Dow Jones, Equitable Life, International Harvester and General Foods.

Several of those called said they were good friends of the couple and spoke highly of them. Others said they didn't want to comment.

Following the rash of critical stories which appeared in national publications, Agee and Cunningham retained lawyer John J. Walsh of Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft to "examine things written about them," says Walsh. Walsh said he has written letters to The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, The Oakland Press, columnist Richard Reeves and Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes Reeves' column.

The letter to The Oakland Press, a small daily in Michigan, resulted in that newspaper printing a page-one retraction and apology for one of its stories. Walsh said he has also asked Reeves and the syndicate to print a retraction of one his columns. "We are interested in better and more balanced coverage," says Walsh. Walsh said they refused to retract the column.

Cunningham was first approached for an interview four weeks ago. She agreed and was then unavailable for 10 days. When she called back, she expressed concern that a reporter was calling her acquaintances, asking negative questions.

"I thought we had a meeting of minds," she said. "Could you explain? I would have given you names of people to call. I'll even give you names of people who will say some negative things. Clearly, after everything that has been written, nothing worse can come out . . . I'd be glad to give you 60 minutes of an exclusive interview."

When asked if she might be able to make more time, Cunningham said, "I'm sure you'll find by the quality of our conversation you'll have what you need for a thoughtful piece."

Mary Cunningham on Mary Cunningham:

* "I am 31 years old. I'm a corporate vice president of strategic planning. I've been promoted to executive vice president for strategic planning for the Seagram Wine Companies, a group that was created as a direct result of the strategy that I formed while I've been here at Seagram's. I'm 31 years old and yes, I'm female. But that's a heck of an interesting story."

* "When I took the job at Seagram's, in some instances, people were right away saying I think so much of you . . . on the other hand, there were expressions in the eyes, where you could just tell that they had read some article somewhere that either had portrayed me as the pushy Harvard business school student or is she this blond bombshell that slept her way to the top. And after about five minutes or six minutes, almost every time, people in that category would say something along the line 'You're not what I expected.' "

* "I do watercolors. And ever since I was a little girl, in fact, I played piano or did watercolors or something artistic. I always like giving away artistic presents that I made myself."

"If she is missing anything, it is the experience of years . . . She does not pretend she knows something when she doesn't . . . And what she doesn't know she has the leadership sense to bring in the right people to find it out," says Peter Engel, president of American Consulting Corp., a Seagram's consultant who works with Cunningham.

"She demonstrates the truth of her convictions -- how individual efforts, time and attention can create a climate of freedom," says Philip Beekman, president of Seagram's.

Cunningham was hired by Seagram's to consolidate and formulate a strategy for its diversifed wine business. She was later promoted to executive vice president, planning, for The Seagram Wine Companies.

It has been suggested by other Seagram's executives that one of the reasons she was brought into the company may have been to raise its profile. "After all, every time there's a story on Mary, Seagram's get mentioned," says one female executive of the company.

Agee and Cunningham have a life style not unlike many other dual-city career couples. They own a town house in Detroit, where Bendix is based, and rent a suite at the Helmsley Palace in New York. She travels "home" to Detroit every weekend, and he arranges his schedule so they often meet in New York during the week. She says she mostly takes commercial flights, unless she is returning to Bendix for an official event as "Mrs. William Agee."

"I travel back and forth between Michigan quite a bit more than I like to. I've gone back in some instances twice during the week even just for an evening," she says. "It's not as bad as people think it must be . . . I have it easy . . . Economically, I can afford to travel and I think of that a lot of times as I put out my money. What about the couples who can't afford to do that?"

She says she would like to have children someday and she would like to settle in one place sometime soon.

"I don't know know where that will be though," she says. "We have to wait and see. After all, we could be moving to Morristown, N.J."

Allied Corp. has its headquarters in Morristown. CAPTION: Picture, Mary Cunningham; by David Frazier -- Black Star Copyright (c) 1982