THE SKIN IS taut and tan, thanks to tennis at Palm Beach. The hair is silver and plentiful, thanks to hair transplants.

The dove-gray suit is hand-tailored, the silk breast hankie puffed, the Gucci loafers buffed to a high gloss and the back seat of the chauffeured, telephone-equipped Cadillac limo cozy as any rec room La-Z-Boy.

Meet Dr. Clyde Litton, Washington's most flamboyant plastic surgeon.

"Dr. Litton, Dr. Litton."

A well-dressed young woman spots the surgeon in the Watergate Hotel and runs to his side. He has just lunched on sliced beef with essence of thyme and is headed back to his office in the basement of his gilt-filled home on Wyoming Avenue, which once housed the German Embassy.

"Well, hello there," he says tentatively, not recognizing the woman. She turns from side to side, displaying her profile.

A face is just a face, but a Clyde Litton nose is recognizable anywhere.

"How does it look?"

"It looks fine," he says politely, tipping her chin in his hand.

She smiles. He smiles. Back in the limo, he says she is a Middle Eastern woman who "used to have a big hook on the end of her nose." He pinches the tips of his nostrils together to demonstrate. Now the hook is gone, the nose is straight. She is attractive, he says, "in an ethnic sort of way."

He settles back in the seat. Eddie is driving. Litton has two drivers, one for day and one for night.

"You know I can't go to a cocktail party without somebody coming up to me like that. I went to a dinner party one night and everyone at the entire table had had something done to them by me. Men and women. Eyes, noses, faces, tummy tucks. I've been in Washington long enough now so that almost everybody knows who I am. Not everybody of course, but a lot of people."

The diminutive, disco-dancing Litton, who declines to give his age but is said to be in his late fifties or early sixties, has offices in Washington and New York and an apartment on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. He says he has surgically sculpted politicians, actresses, diplomats and socialites. In the process, he has carved his way up the social ladder; he lists among his friends and tennis partners Ted Kennedy, Charlton Heston, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, George McGovern, David Lloyd Kreeger, Jack Warden, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Erma Bombeck, Phyllis Diller, Jim Nabors, Fritz Hollings, Frank Church and Sol Linowitz.

"You might think I'm just a name-dropper, but I'm not," he says. "It's just my life."

He sits in his spacious living room, one leg flung over the arm of an antique chair. He speaks rapidly, spitting the words rat-a-tat-tat with a slight southern accent. "I have so many friends in every different field. I don't buddy-buddy with doctors much. There's a tremendous amount of jealousy. They have to work three times as hard as I have to work to do as well as I can."

Litton estimates that during the last year he has performed 150 operations to remove bags under eyelids ($2,000 each), 125 face lifts (upwards of $3,000 each), 100 nose jobs ($3,000), 75 to 90 breast augmentations ($1,800), numerous "tummy tucks" ($3,000 to $4,000), several thigh reductions ($2,000 to $4,000) and more than a few "fat suctions," a controversial new operation to remove fatty deposits in upper thighs and buttocks.

Sometimes patients need a complete overhaul, Litton says. He smiles, saying they sometimes balk at undergoing repeated operations. "I tell them, 'Did Michelangelo hammer out Moses in one afternoon?' "

Since most of his patients can afford it, and since they consider cosmetic surgery a necessity, not a luxury, the sagging economy hasn't hurt business one bit.

"I was stopped at a light the other day, and there was this woman in front of me in her car. She didn't know I was watching her. I saw her turn down her rear view mirror and go . . ." He stretches the skin over his cheeks to his ears, holding the skin taut with his fingers. Instant face lift. "I said to myself, 'Thank God, I'll never starve to death as long as people want to look good.' "

Nobody wants to look good more than Clyde Litton.

"The hair transplants I had several years ago. I had it done with plugs. Just filled in the hair to make it fuller. I don't think a man looks as good without hair as he does with hair."

He crosses his legs. "I'm in a business that features esthetics. How can I preach to somebody else that they should have something done when I don't do it myself? If you can correct it, you do it. That's all. One of these days," he says, "I'm going to have my eyelids done."

His hair is cut by Ted Kennedy's barber; his custom-made clothes come from a Madison Avenue tailor.

"I like clothes," he says. "I think it represents neatness and things of quality. If you see a sloppy-looking surgeon, what's his work going to be like?

"I live well. I would say I spend more money that any other bachelor in Washington eating out." He says he dines out five nights a week, and his favorite haunts are Lion d'Or and Pisces. "If I were sitting here, eating every night, it would be drab," he says.

He adores Palm Beach. A potential client on every corner. "There's an incredible amount of money down there," he says, eyes widening. "BIG money." He says he dates a number of Palm Beach women, among them Mary Hudson, of the oil Hudsons. "Probably the richest woman in America," he says.

Litton says he finds Washington women disappointing in terms of beauty.

"To get the Bo Derek type. A woman that's got everything. There are very few of them . . . Here they have lousy-looking legs or something."

Real estate developer Bill Bryant and his wife, Aliki, socialize frequently with Litton. Aliki Bryant tells a story about his habit of "zeroing in" on skin-deep imperfections. "I have a friend. She's a very pretty woman. Well, she had this tiny bump on her nose. You didn't even notice it because her face was so beautiful. One time at a party, Clyde came up to me, looked over at her and said, 'You know, I could fix that.' "

Aliki Bryant says she herself has often felt uncomfortable under Litton's "scrutinizing gaze." "I think, 'Oh no, what's he looking at?' "

"I think he wants a beautiful young gal on his wing as a testimonial to his artistic ability," Bill Bryant says. "He carries this one gal around as evidence of what's possible." Mike Feldman, a Washington attorney and a friend of Litton's, says, "He takes out some of the women after he's operated on them. They're in their fifties and sixties."

"He likes to be catered to," says Aliki Bryant. "He likes to be told how wonderful he is. I don't think Clyde gets really close to people. He's insulated himself very well. And he does like younger women. You never hear him talk about his family."

Litton has three children from his first marriage. He has been separated for the past three years from his second wife, Lilliane.

Litton was born in Charleston, W. Va., the son of a natural-gas producer. "I've had a very menial, very average background," he says. "I've always had this ambition to enjoy nice things. I had a taste for it in youth."

He graduated from the University of Kentucky and completed his medical training at New York University, the University of Miami and the U.S. Air Force Medical School. He started his career as a dentist, then went to the University of Michigan for surgical training. Along the way, he shed his first wife.

"It was one of those things that we became further and further apart as my education increased. My desires became greater. I was never happy in Charleston. I knew that kind of setup wasn't for me. There weren't the bright lights and the excitement. I had a desire to move someplace else. Washington is the place I selected."

Litton moved here in 1965. Eight months after his divorce, he married his second wife, Lilliane, who represented everything Clyde Litton had ever wanted in life.

"I had met Lilliane's father and mother at The Greenbriar Hotel," he says. "I was there playing tennis. They invited me to come to New York to play tennis at their house. They had a nice estate in Westchester. I went up to meet them and they introduced me to their daughter. We started dating."

His second wife, he says, "did represent a life style that was appealing to me because she was a very well-educated, very international, continental-style woman who spoke four languages, traveled extensively, knew a lot about art, the theater, nice things. She was very appealing to me."

With his second wife's help, Clyde Litton began blazing the social trail, decorating their Wyoming Avenue mansion with silk flowers, Russian icons, antiques and gilt-framed French Impressionist paintings. ("I do think he has a strong esthetic sense," says Farol Seretean, a friend of Litton's. "Just as he understands taut skin, he can count the number of silk threads in an oriental carpet.")

He became a gourmet, dining at the best restaurants, serving exotic foods. Even his hot fudge sauce is imported from Palm Beach. Gradually, through tennis and embassy parties and Lilliane's connections, Clyde Litton began to draw the moneyed clientele.

"It's amazing how many prominent people come through my office," he says. " Peter Pulitzer was in my office for two weeks last year. It was before all this divorce business. I was working on one of his friends." It was a woman, Litton says. "I did nose and eyes, things like that."

Litton says his surgical fees are higher for the rich and famous. Not only because they can afford it, but also because in a sense the risk is higher. "If you're working on a well-known person, your responsibility is much greater. Who's going to give you the most publicity if something doesn't turn out right--I mean bad publicity? Some well-known person."

Litton tells the story of a friend of his, a plastic surgeon in France. "This woman came into his office and said, 'How much will it be for a face lift?' He underestimated her wealth and importance and he said, 'That will be $2,000, madam.' She said, 'Oh, I thought it would be much more than that.' He said, '$2,000 for each side.' "

Litton giggles. "We've had a lot of laughs on these things."

Lilliane Litton is on her way to New York. She isn't sure she wants to comment on Clyde Litton. She agrees to a short telephone interview.

"I may have done a lot of things for him. I wanted a sharp-looking husband. It was very obvious: With my contacts it was perfect. We worked as a team. I think I was very helpful by the kind of entertaining I did."

The impending divorce is not amicable.

Clyde Litton, back in his living room after a long day, sighs. "There's a certain amount of . . ."

Bitterness?

"Well, that, and a certain amount of greed. She thinks that she helped make me. But there's no woman who can make a man a plastic surgeon. I had to do it myself. I've got to meet people. I've got to operate. I've got to produce.

"I've always been lucky. I've always had the knack for being in on procedures early. I was the founder of the chemical face peel, a process that peels off the upper layers of the skin . . . giving you a younger appearance."

He pulls at his sleeve, revealing heavy gold cuff links.

"The Christmas before last I was walking up Worth Avenue at 5 o'clock on Christmas Eve. The only two people on the street were Clyde Litton and Aldo Gucci. I said, 'Aldo, I really have to congratulate you. You are probably the world's greatest merchandiser. You've worked hard; you have intelligence, industry and a little luck.' 'Oh, no luck,' he said. 'You may not think so,' I said, 'but everybody has to have a little luck.' "

Litton says he was lucky to pick up on "this hair-grafting technique that no one else does. There are only three or four of us in the whole country that do it."

He says he has a knack for popularizing the latest techniques that others invent.

"I can recognize when somebody has an idea, to take it on and either enlarge it myself or really learn to do that technique," Litton says. The fat suction technique was invented by a team of French doctors. "We make an incision no longer than half an inch, put in a tubular instrument . . . and a powerful suction machine just sucks the fat out."

Litton says he is internationally known and lectures frequently overseas. Indeed, his friends say Litton--certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery--has been interrupted at dinner parties by calls from other plastic surgeons, wanting to come to Washington to see him work.

"Number one, he's competent," says Mike Feldman. "He's a superb craftsman. Also, he's innovative."

One Washington woman carries a card in her wallet. After the name, address and religion, the card asks for the name of a doctor in case of emergencies. The woman penciled in: "PLASTIC SURGEON--ONLY CLYDE LITTON."

There is a tiny security peephole in the front door of Clyde Litton's house. A life-size portrait of the plastic surgeon is hung inside the hallway, against the back wall. When you peer through the peephole, the portrait is all you see.

"I had it done three years ago," Litton says, flicking on the small light that bathes the oil painting in a soft glow. The face in the portrait looks older than the face standing before it. "I know," he says. "People have told me that."

He is getting ready to leave for Palm Beach.

"This is a world of superiority," he says. "If there's anything that makes us feel inferior, we don't like to talk about it. We like to cover it up. We're insecure."

But why do we want eyelids that don't bag and bosoms that don't sag?

It's simple, Clyde Litton says. "An attractive person is more acceptable than an unattractive one. We all want to be loved, and we love to be liked. The better we look, the easier we're going to be accepted by other people. And that's what we really want. That's the name of the game."