Following President John F. Kennedy's assassination, many real estate agents' second thoughts were of The Elms, Vice President Lyndon Johnson's fabulous Foxhall Road mansion and the former home of the Hostess with the Mostest, Perle Mesta.

A few real estate dealers even called the Johnsons and their lawyer, Abe Fortas, before the Kennedy funeral.

Broker Dorothy Newman remembers it vividly. "I was new in the business and not at all aggressive. I was trying to find a residence for Algeria's ambassador, Cherif Guellal. I didn't want to push the Johnsons into showing the house--Lady Bird Johnson hadn't finished packing to go to the White House. But, with permission, I showed Ambassador Guellal the grounds several times. He signed a contract offer with me, contingent on seeing the inside. Meanwhile, another agent pushed harder, got him in the house and made the sale."

Intrigue, position and power--and some of the country's most expensive houses--make Washington real estate different. Drastic changes in the history of the nation and the private lives of the country's leaders affect each deal. The business really rolls during inaugural years, especially when there's a change of ruling parties.

For real estate agents in Washington, the insider's view is being among the first to know who's quitting a powerful government appointment, who's taking the job, who's marrying, who's divorcing, who's having a baby.

As Antoinette Hatfield, the Oregon senator's wife who is an agent in the million-dollar-deal category, explains: "Real estate is very personal."

"Sherman Adams, President Dwight Eisenhower's chief of staff, had left the White House after a scandal," says Jeanne Begg. One of the most diplomatic agents in town, she tells this story about herself.

"He was accused of accepting a vicun a coat and an expensive rug from a manufacturer. The Adamses asked us to sell their house. Before I took our salespeople to see the house, I warned them not to stare or say anything about rugs."

The agents went through the living room, where a huge oriental covered the floor. And all averted their eyes.

They went through the dining room, with its large oriental rug. And everyone studied the ceiling.

Finally, they came to the study, which had a tiny rug.

"I blurted out," recalls Begg, "Does this rug stay with the house? Mrs. Adams gave me a stony look. That was the rug."

And then there's the story about Eugene McCarthy, who after unsuccessfully running for president and separating from his wife (author Abigail McCarthy), wanted privacy to write a book. Barbara Held, a pioneer in remodeling Capitol Hill, remembers, "He asked for a hideaway, a place where nobody would find him while he wrote his book, where he could even conceal his car. I found him the ideal spot, a remodeled carriage house in an alley we redid as a mews, called Archibald Walk. It worked fine until a gossip columnist found him." He moved.

But Jeffrey Stidham of Previews points out that though you often make friends of the high and mighty through real estate, it doesn't always mean much. Not so long ago, Stidham had the opportunity to take to the White House the settlement contract on the sale of the Reagans' California house. (In the recent slow real estate market, even with the Reagan name, it took a year to sell.) But Stidham got no further than a secretary in the East Wing. POLITICAL DEALERS

For political spouses, working in real estate can ensure they won't have to hitchhike back to their home state if they lose an election, or if the politician in the family decides not to run again. The usual 6 percent commissions are divided by an arcane formula among brokers, buyers' agents and sellers' agents.

"If we decide to go home," says Toni Hatfield, "thanks to real estate, we can go first class."

"I work, in part, because we need the money," says Lee Hart, a real estate agent for six years (Coldwell Banker) and wife of Colorado senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart. "And because I want to have something on my own."

From time to time some disgruntled agents, not so well-connected, charge that congressional wives unfairly use their husbands' positions to get business. Other real estate agents, without congressional relationships, say their own friends give them advantages not enjoyed by congressional wives.

"I don't worry about standing up to anybody's wife as a real estate broker," says Michael Sullivan, a broker in Georgetown and Northwest. "Perhaps she'll get all the business from her husband's home state. For me there's the rest of the world."

Jerry Wilson, a real estate agent with Millicent Chatel, has been separated for four years from Texas Rep. Charles Wilson. But she admitted, "When I was going places with Charles I had many more congressional clients than I have now--and lots from Texas. But I still don't go looking for clients. People call me."

Lee Hart, on the other hand, says, "I've worked out a strict set of standards for myself to keep from being accused of using my husband. I don't know of a single sale I have made as a result of his position. I have also worked hard to maintain my rapport with other agents." Hart works mostly in Bethesda and the District, though she has a Virginia license.

Toni Hatfield made the real estate agents' "Million-Dollar Club" for selling a million dollars worth of real estate in one year, shortly after she joined C. Millicent Chatel, Wise & Gilliat in 1972. Since then she has become one of the busiest real estate brokers in town, regarded with awe by some of her observers.

After having her own company for a while, she has now combined offices with Sam Pardoe. "I'm getting my house in order," she says. "My husband hasn't yet made the decision whether to run."

Toni Hatfield, with the senator's blessing, has always kept her own interests through 25 years of marriage. That includes 11 years in real estate.

"He's smarter than I, a real intellectual. But I have the street smarts. We respect each other's strengths and weaknesses. I don't make political speeches. His office is his. He has the vote, the secretary and the salary. But I enjoy entertaining for him."

Hatfield says she does find parties valuable. "People see you at a party and remember what you do. And yes, people do talk about real estate at parties." She also has a helpful talent--she can remember addresses of houses she's seen so she can put people and houses together quickly.

Hatfield was a dean of women at Portland State University before she had four children and wrote five cookbooks. "Success breeds success. It gives you confidence to go on to other things."

But like most political wives, she sticks to residential properties. "Commercial is for the big boys. The pencils get sharp with those deals."

Another congressional wife who is involved in real estate is Ann Simpson, also an agent with Sam Pardoe's office and the wife of Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson. Lilla Tower, wife of Texas Sen. John Tower and former head of the Institute of Museum Services, worked her way through law school as a real estate agent.

"I was one of the youngest brokers ever licensed," Tower said, just before dashing off to finish moving to their new house. "Not only have I sold real estate, but I have speculated in, restored, rebuilt and refurbished real estate. I bought some land across from the Kennedy Center before I had a car or many clothes."

Mimi Hodsoll, a former Chicago art dealer, is a real estate agent with Better Homes Realty. She is the wife of Frank Hodsoll, the former Reagan campaigner who is now head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

"We had remodeled several houses," she says. "I was the general contractor on the last one. So I thought real estate would be a natural for me. Of course, as soon as I had my real estate license, the real estate recession hit."

Even so, she just sold the spectacular Don Hawkins-designed house she and her husband built on the Virginia palisades (disco room, tennis court, swimming pool) for close enough to their $750,000 asking price to be able to say: "We're very happy."

The Hodsolls have bought another house in Arlington, and have already remodeled it.

Harriet Botwinick, wife of Corcoran Gallery of Art director Michael Botwinick, had practiced real estate in Brooklyn, their previous residence. Now she has her real estate license for this area, and is with Shannon & Luchs.

Being identified with a particular administration is a perishable asset. Vicki Bagley came to Washington with Smith Bagley, her husband (they are now divorced), after Jimmy Carter's election. They were billed as fundraisers and great friends of the Carters. She set up as a broker and soon her sign bloomed forth all over town.

"I have lots of scars from being too close to the administration," she says. "It helped me get off to a good start because I was unknown. But now I don't want publicity anymore. You don't know what anonymity is until you give it up. I feel a little bruised.

"Now I want to be apolitical. I get my business from calls in the morning rather than parties at night. After you've made enough contacts, you rest. These days, I go to parties because I want to see my friends. I want my name to be recognized on my work rather than personalities in my office. If I'm going to be known for anything, I want it to be because my signs are all over the city and I do a good job." SPLIT-LEVEL DEALERS

Real estate is the ideal occupation for Navy and Army wives, Foreign Service families--people who have the same split-level lives as political families--here today, gone tomorrow.

Jeanne Begg recalls Doda De Wolf, whose husband, Francis Colt De Wolf, was a State Department official. She worked as a real estate agent between his foreign assignments.

Another former Begg agent, Louisa Kennedy, headed the organization of families of the American hostages taken in Iran.

Jo Holiday, who has often worked with Begg, says, "Jeanne Begg has been so good at assembling the stable of society girls, who are good at dealing with the old moneyed property."

"You know," says Begg, "these are not just social girls. They make lots of money. And they enjoy the work."

Begg says she sometimes feels as though she runs a graduate program for real estate dealers, so many of them have gone on to establish their own firms. Among them Arnold Bradley Sargent Davy & Chew Inc. and MGMB.

"We've never had a congressional wife," Begg says. "We're not in that scene. But somehow we've had several wives of various presidents of the Chevy Chase Country Club. I do rather try to have various interests represented."

Dorothy Newman, who is famous for her Embassy Row sales, says, "When I've earned $100,000 in a year, I quit and head for Europe."

Holiday says she thinks she is too practical to be a good agent. "I tend to talk about copper pipes, while the successful agents talk about the play of light across the room." TRADERS UP

Some real estate people came to town as congressional staffers. Charles Seilheimer, former head of Sotheby's International Real Estate Co., came to Washington on the staff of former senator Kenneth Keating. His wife, Mary Lou, once was social secretary at the Finnish Embassy.

Seilheimer now specializes in selling vast plantations for Sotheby's in this area to people who want to live like pre-Civil War planter aristocrats. "A few hundred thousands will set up anybody," he said.

Sotheby's currently has listed Acton Hall, an 18th-century plantation in Annapolis, at just under $1.5 million. Seilheimer, an ardent preservationist, privately and commercially, is currently worrying about the fate of Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest, the early president's country retreat.

Seilheimer has sold property to people such as Gerhard Guth, a German who started a vineyard in Virginia's Orange County. Seilheimer sold Turo Manor in Northern Virginia to Saudi Arabian Prince Bandar for $1.7 million. The prince has since put considerably more into remodeling it.

Trudie Musson of Georgetown Properties was on the staff of senator, and later ambassador, John Sherman Cooper. She also served as social secretary to Washington's most social retired diplomatic families: Ellsworth Bunker, Evangeline Bruce and Lorraine Cooper, the ambassador's wife.

"Mrs. Cooper is a dear. Every time she hears someone is thinking about selling their house, she tells them to call me," Musson says. "But you know, most of the houses I've sold have been to people who have come off the street." THE CAVE DWELLERS

"Real estate isn't all friendship," says Michael Sullivan, an important Georgetown broker. "One broker in town was upset because a good friend asked me to sell their house. Another broker pointed out to the offended party , 'Michael sold their last house.' When it comes to business, you can't just think about friendship."

Just being around town a long time is a big help. "I've sold five or six houses to the same family," Sullivan says. "And many times I've sold one couple two houses. People in Washington trade up. They buy one house when they're first married, another when the first child comes. And then older people move to a condominium when they don't need as much room anymore."

"Today," says Lynn Magruder, who is with MGMB, "most of my clients are my friends' children. I spend a great deal of time calling up the parents and suggesting they lend the children the money to buy a house. It can be a good investment."

Magruder tells about the real estate agent who made offers in poetry to buy Alice Roosevelt Longworth's house. "He kept calling her as well. And finally she told him she appreciated his interest, but when her house was for sale, 'Lynn Magruder will tell me.' " The historic house, just off Dupont Circle, is now being remodeled as offices, to a design by David Schwarz.

Lynn Magruder is not the agent. "It will be rented by someone who deals in square footage. I deal in where to put Grandmother's sofa."

Jeanne Begg, a former news reporter and photographer in New York who speaks 11 languages, came to Washington during World War II to work with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. She was so successful, she was knighted by the Dutch government.

Her husband, John Murray Begg, who had worked with newsreels and in radio, joined the State Department. Jeanne Begg set up in the real estate business and before long had an international clientele.

When he retired from State after 22 years, he formed an international resort sales company, Islands Investment Corp., which handled the sale of Aga Khan's Costa Smeralda. She is president of Begg International, which handles properties in Spain and Portugal and sells American properties to Europeans. Currently Begg is trying to sell the contemporary McLean house of the former wife of King Hussein, Princess Muna Al Hussein. The $825,000 price includes an extraordinary security system.

Begg's most recent coup was selling The Lindens, Mary (Mrs. George Maurice) Morris' masterpiece of a historic house with its rare antique collection. Begg also sold Hickory Hill to John and Jacqueline Kennedy, before it became the home of Ethel and Robert Kennedy. She has also sold houses to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; Alexander Haig, when he was secretary of state; and columnist Henry Brandon and his wife, Muffie, the former White House social secretary.

Randall Hagner Jr. is real estate broker to Washington's cave dwellers, the select society of people who remember when 16th Street was where the mansions were. His wife, Ademia, has been instrumental in preserving the area's choicest property--she's Washington area vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

When Woodrow Wilson and his second wife, Washington socialite Edith Bolling Galt, were about to move out of the White House, they looked at almost every house in Kalorama. Her brother, Wilmer Bolling, a builder with real estate interests, introduced them to Randall Hagner Sr., whose firm was opened in 1904.

Mrs. Wilson wanted to build a house on the heights near the Bureau of Standards, but her husband talked her out of that one. He pointed out that the agency would need the land and Congress would be in the embarrassing position of having to condemn an ex-president's property. He may not have added that he didn't have that kind of money.

Hagner showed Mrs. Wilson several houses on S Street and then said, "What you'd really like is the Henry Parker Fairbanks house, but it's not for sale."

Even so, they called on Fairbanks, a carpet manufacturer. Mrs. Wilson liked the house and went back to tell the president about it. Shortly after, the president took her for a drive, and handed over a handful of the lot's sod, the key and the deed. He'd bought it as a surprise.

Hagner received an unusual commission when he sold Henry Wadsworth's monumental mansion on Dupont Circle to the women-only Sulgrave Club. He was the only man given the right to use the club.

John Sargent, of Randall Hagner Real Estate, points out that you only need one customer to sell a house. "Our agent, Martha Fleming, held a house open on a Tuesday, an unheard-of day for an open house. Only one person came to see it. He signed the contract in an hour and settled in a month, paying $850,000 cash." WASHINGTON CIRCLES

George Washington was one of the first American presidents to invest in real estate, but he was by no means the last. He was instrumental in having the capital located not far from his Virginia home and he built speculative housing in the District.

Washington, in the manner of rings on trees, has neighborhoods that developed under various administrations.

During Thomas Jefferson's administration and several after, Lafayette Park and its environs were the places to live, but he kept his money for Virginia.

Old-timers say Georgetown was revived almost totally by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt New Dealer Brain Trusters, who during the 12 years of his administration, had the longest time of any to put their stamp on a neighborhood. It was also a time of small families, so row houses were feasible.

Kennedy staffers are credited with making the more spacious Cleveland Park popular during the baby boom years. The Nixon people were said to prefer McLean. Neither the Ford nor the Carter administration staff people settled in enough to make their own enclave. Many Ford people were left over from the Nixon administration or from Ford's years in Congress. The Carter people in particular were horrified at Washington real estate prices, compared with what they could get for the same money in Atlanta.

"The Reagan people, coming from California as they do, tend to like the suburbs and the country, where they can have lots of land," said Michael Sullivan.

"That Republicans rent and Democrats buy is an old saying, but it isn't true anymore," he said. DIPLOMATIC DEALERS

Foreign entanglements in Washington are a major business. Dorothy Newman, as a young wife, met diplomats over the bridge table. She became social secretary to the Jordanian Embassy. She helped another ambassador find a house and her career was launched. Her biggest coup was probably selling the big Winter Park Hotel at Connecticut and Kalorama to the People's Republic of China for about $5.5 million. She also sold a Kalorama mansion to the Organization of American States for Secretary General Alejandro Orfila, and the Woodward & Lothrop mansion at the summit of Connecticut Avenue to the Soviet Union. In all, Newman figures she's dealt with about 40 embassies.

Recently she sold the great Stellita and George Renchard house at the top of the Spanish Steps, which run between S and Decatur streets, to lawyer Stuart Bloch, who had already restored the historic mansion on 16th Street that once belonged to Vice President James S. Sherman. Hagner recently sold to Dino Fabrio of Milan the other house owned by the Renchards (Stellita Renchard collected historic houses, or if they were torn down, their architectural remnants), the fabulous Louise home, designed by Ogden Codman in 1901 and situated at the foot of the Spanish steps.

Selling diplomatic real estate can pose problems.

Toni Hatfield was once criticized because she showed the Saudi Arabians (to whom she had already sold a residence on Massachusetts Avenue) the American Pharmaceutical Association, next door to the State Department. The price was $5 million.

Permission for the Saudis to occupy the property as a chancery would have had to come from the Senate Interior Committee, on which Mark Hatfield served. Even though his spokesman said he would abstain, a conflict of interest was charged by another real estate dealer who had lost the Massachusetts Avenue sale to Toni Hatfield. The pharmaceutical organization decided not to sell to the Saudis.

The experience is not Toni Hatfield's favorite subject. In fact, she won't talk about it. But she says, "I know I can always count on my husband backing me if I'm in the right. I don't know what it would like to be married to someone who wouldn't.

Jeanne Begg is conscious of other problems diplomats have: "I sold a large property to an embassy. They later found there was a big culvert underneath the property to serve the city's water system. It was so tall you could wade through it. The embassy was nervous about wire tapping, so they paid to have the culvert removed." CONFESSOR-COUNSELORS

Real estate dealers also become not only confessors to their clients, but counselors on everything from plumbing to zoning to love affairs.

Barbara Held Reich (whose late husband Robert was a well-known restorer) keeps long lists of plumbers, electricians and even baby sitters. For a number of years, her company, Barbara Held Inc., put out a gossipy newssheet about clients, former clients and building regulations.

Numerous agents, none of whom wish to be named, tell about divorcing couples who don't want to let their houses be shown, because they can't bear to lose them. Another frequent request to the agent is not to show the house to the owner's enemies. "Don't let You-Know-Who look at my house." For this reason, some agents won't say to whom they're showing the house.

Lynn Magruder sold a gray house to Joan Braden "who left for Europe the day the workmen came to paint her house a vibrant yellow. Thirteen people called me to ask, 'Does Mrs. Braden know what color they're painting her house?'

"Joanie likes vibrant yellow." OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

Reich was famous, when she first started in the business, for using some of her profits to paint and repair free of charge some of the houses nearby ones she hoped to sell. "I remember one time, we painted the wrong house and another time, we fixed the wrong roof."

As for occupational hazards, Reich remembers the time she jumped up and down on the floor of a Georgetown house, to demonstrate its good condition. And fell through to the basement.

Jeanne Begg had no trouble when she hired a helicopter to drop a large can of Danish pa te' on the front porch of a man whose Caribbean estate she wanted to develop. (She got the listing.) But another time, when she was trying to get to Grand Turk island, the plane's gas tank leaked. Then the radar went out in the replacement plane and the pilot got lost.

Former ambassador William Trueheart, now a real estate agent with MGMB, has a real horror story. He had listed a great Victorian house on Vermont Avenue, just off Logan Circle. "I lent the key to another agent, telling her I had to have it back by 6 p.m., so I could show it. At 6 p.m., she called me back and said, in a shaken voice, 'I can't give the key back, the police have it.'

"Her client had preceded her up the steps to the third floor. When he opened the door, he yelled down, 'Don't come up.' He had found a man, hanging from a rafter, stabbed many times, a pool of blood at his feet."

Trueheart had to scrub up the blood before he could show the house. MORAL

Not every house in Washington is sold with the blessing of a licensed agent. Recently one of Washington's grandest dames called up three of her friends and said, "Do you want to buy my house?" They reacted so enthusiastically that she decided to keep it for herself. graphics/1 photo: Barbara Held By Fred Sweets graphics/2 photo: Jerry Wilson By Fred Sweets graphics/3 photo: Dorothy Newman By Bill Snead graphics/4 photo: Michael Sullivan By James K.W. Atherton graphics/5 photo: Charles Seilheimer By Harry Naltchayan--TWP graphics/6 photo: Jeanne Begg By Bill Snead--TWP