At its height, it flourished like no corporation its newly hired executives had ever seen. Upper- and middle-management executives asked for company cars and got BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Independent sales people rising through the ranks were awarded solid gold pens studded with diamonds and sapphires, or heavy pieces of Steuben glass. Before out-of-town conferences, hotels were instructed to lay in a supply of Taittinger Blanc de Blancs champagne at more than $100 a bottle. At the Honolulu sales convention, where the fireworks display made the morning paper, the entertainment included Dionne Warwick, 20 members of the Ice Capades, Dr. Jonas Salk and the entire United States Gold Medal hockey team.

The product--it was always referred to that way, as in, "ship her out more product"--was The Cambridge Diet, a collection of nutritionally balanced packaged powders that mixed with water to produce drinks, soups and puddings the dieter consumed instead of any other food. It was artificially flavored, garnished with fervent names like Super Strawberry Drink and Hearty Chicken Soup, and provided the dieter with about the same daily caloric intake as a bowl of rice and a Pepsi. No advertising broadcast its name; it sold strictly by word of mouth and through the brochures left by Cambridge zealots. And its success--its sudden, heady, extravagant success--stunned even the men and women most ardently promoting it. In a society that rediscovers religion with every new reducing diet, the Cambridge Diet swept 1982: By autumn of last year, after 20 months of door-to-door marketing, an independent Cambridge-sponsored survey showed that "based on the most conservative estimates and assumptions possible" just under 5 million people had tried the Cambridge Diet.

When it crashed last month, it was the biggest story in Monterey. Front-page newspaper photographs showed Cambridge employes weeping and embracing as they picked up their last paychecks. On Sept. 2, Cambridge Plan International filed for financial reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act, and moving trucks began hauling typewriters and conference tables away from the offices on Garden Road. A Mississippi manufacturing facility went up for sale. The corporate jets were put on blocks. The $8 million IBM computer was returned to the leasing company. Out of what had once been a staff of 1,100, all but 90 people were laid off and the remaining employes set up new headquarters to continue operating the business in the facility built to house the enormous computer. Eleven upper-middle management employes who were fired without receiving severance pay have sued Cambridge for fraud, deceit, malice and breach of contract; the company denied any impropriety. The $5 million Pebble Beach estate, a tile-roofed seaside pink palace that was splendidly redecorated as a training center and company retreat, was left empty on a road where the only sound was the splashing of fountains and the occasional rumble of a passing tour bus.

Jack and Eileen Feather said they believed everything would turn out for the best.

And Jack and Eileen Feather said that it had not been the best of times, but that things would probably turn out for the best.

There is a special place in American history for Jack and Eileen Feather, who along with their two sons are the sole owners and proprietors of Cambridge Plan International. Every woman of the 1960s and '70s whose hand ever paused on the back pages of True Story or Mademoiselle or Ladies' Home Journal knows Jack Feather's prose. Every Sunday newspaper reader who wonderingly made his way through the copious fine print below the front view and side view before and after pictures came to know the Feather touch. "SLIM-SKINS--7 TIMES FASTER THAN THE LEADING CRASH 'FAT-BURN' DIET!" "ASTRO-TRIMMER--THE MOST ASTOUNDING WAIST AND TUMMY REDUCER OF ALL TIME!" There were a lot of italics and exclamation marks and photographs of pot-bellied men suddenly rendered svelte and picture after picture of smiling young women gazing lovingly down at breasts the size of basketballs. "The very first time I used Mark II I saw my bust line become rounder and fuller and actually grow three full inches right before my eyes!"

Such was the work of Jack and Eileen Feather: The Mark Eden Bust Developer, The Mark Eden II Bust Developer with IVR (Infinitely Variable Resistance), Slim-Skins, Trim-Jeans, the Sauna Belt, the Astro-Trimmer, the Eileen Feather Figure Salon, and the Cambridge Diet, which is variously described in the literature as "unparalled," "revolutionary," "miraculous," and "a perfect foundation for lifelong nutrition."

They had come from Nebraska, where he dropped out of high school to join the Merchant Marine and she got straight A's, driven by some fierce, not-yet-articulated ambition--she says now that what she wanted most was a little house with gingham curtains--and with the kind of precision generally celebrated in the annals of American business, they spent 20 years selling what people wanted to buy. They sold "the round, full shapely bosoms that all women want when they think of developing their bustlines" and "sensational results from the ultimate inch-reducer," and by the time Cambridge crumpled they were running their business from a great house next to the pink palace in Pebble Beach, where the sea washes up below vast stone balconies, and outsiders pay a $4 entry fee to drive past the homes of the wealthy. It was the house that got one suddenly unemployed Cambridge executive, as she nursed a drink not long after the layoffs and contemplated the Feathers with a kind of admiring bitterness. "They'll never fall," she said. "Eileen's too savvy. We used to call her 'the lady with the corn in her pocket,' you know, because she came from Nebraska. She had that house by the sea long before Cambridge. She'll have that house by the sea long after."

"I'm tremendously optimistic," Eileen Feather said. "The diet is an incredible diet and the need for the diet is certainly there, and I feel that some of the problems that there've been are certainly correctable."

She is positioned precisely in a pale leather armchair, her hands folded in her lap on a swirl of white skirt fabric. The skirt nips in at Eileen Feather's waist, which is very small, and the purple blouse drapes loosely over her bosom, which is not small at all. She declines to be photographed; she says the last published picture of her was terribly unflattering. She has red lips, well-shaped ankles, black hair sculpted into a thick shoulder-length wave and a firm soprano voice. When she smiles, she shows most of her teeth. She is entirely cordial. The diamond on her wedding finger is approximately the size of a ripe pea.

"It was an astounding thing," Jack Feather says. "It was hard to comprehend . . . for a brand new company to turn a profit of over $100 million in its first real year of operation--it's almost unheard of."

They defer to each other when they talk. Jack Feather sits behind a broad wood desk, his back to the bound volumes of medical and nutrition journals that line his office. He is blond and bearded, with gray-blue eyes and a gold St. Christopher gleaming on his chest. His shirt strains under his jacket; nearly every morning, next door to his office, Jack Feather spends an hour inside the huge tangle of chrome and Naugahyde that someone once said contains every piece of equipment Nautilus ever made. ("That's probably true," Jack Feather says).

He ordered up the building that encloses the gym, and the octagonal office with French doors looking out to the sea, when he and Eileen Feather moved to Pebble Beach nine years ago from San Leandro, which sits on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay and is not such a glittery mailing address. The last time Eileen Feather emerged from her celebrated public reclusiveness, it was to talk to a magazine that fussed over their Rolls-Royce and her diamond as though the Cambridge Diet had somehow catapulted the Feather family into the land of the nouveau riche. The idea seems to offend Eileen Feather. "We were millionaires before we even left the salon business," she says.

This is the story they tell: They were high school sweethearts in Omaha. She went to Central and he transferred from Benson and she thought he was "darling," except he went to the Merchant Marine because the war was on and he was too young for the Army. After he came home, she said they could not marry until he graduated from high school, so he finished the courses he needed and went to college to study English. He was a man of no particular drive, but he liked to read. He says he sat on the sofa when they were courting and read aloud to the young Eileen. "You used to read--" Eileen Feather looks at her husband, and laughs. "He read 'War and Peace' to me," she says. "It's a book that--you are devastated when it ends."

They came to Berkeley in 1949 with their infant son. Jack Feather thought he might graduate from the University of California and become a college professor in some small town. But his throat began to throb one night as they sat in a movie theater, and Jack Feather spent the next two weeks in a soaring fever that marked the onset of polio. Paralysis moved down the left side of his body--his face swelled and then sagged lopsided; his arm and leg lost feeling. His voice went dead. "Whispering Feathers," Eileen Feather says she called him.

Jack Feather had weighed 215 pounds when he was fit, and once put a hole in their apartment floor (as Eileen Feather tells it) when a barbell slipped off his back. He was determined, he says, to fight his way out of the paralysis. He says he sent his wife to buy dime store balloons; sitting in his bed, he would blow them up and then resist the air blowing back into his mouth. He would lift a weight with his good arm and then try to lower it to the floor with his slowly recovering bad arm. His body came back, but not his voice--he still talks in a hoarse half-whisper, like someone who badly needs to clear his throat--and when he saw that he would never be able to teach in a classroom, Jack Feather borrowed $5,000 from his father-in-law and opened the small Berkeley gymnasium that in seven years turned into the Eileen Feather Reducing Salons.

Figure salons were the sort of business the 1950s might have been invented for; chains were opening nationwide, Jack La Lanne was on television exhorting women into smaller waists and flatter stomachs, and in the newspaper advertisements Eileen Feather displayed her personal attributes in tight sweaters and stretch pants. The Feathers bought an airplane and flew it from salon to salon. And when the ladies began complaining that they were losing weight even where they did not wish to lose weight, Jack Feather designed a small, hand-operated piece of exercise equipment that he named, with no evident sense of irony, after Jack London's fictional character Martin Eden.

The first advertisements were supposed to appear in Photoplay and True Story, but when Jack Feather looked at the advertising agency's limp copywriting efforts, he walked into his dining room and sat down to write the ad himself. He knew precisely what he wanted: "To create something that was in a sense mythological, that was a little larger than life," he says. "And also, you have a sense, even before you put that in, of the audience you were appealing to . . . you're not writing for women who read the Saturday Review every week."

"Mark Eden, WORLD FIGURE AUTHORITY, SAYS: 'I can give you the secrets of developing a beautiful, Full Bust Line in the privacy of your home . . . Every woman wants a beautiful, full, well-developed bust line. Every man admires and looks twice at the woman who has one. However, not every woman is born with an attractive bust line. A great many women seem to have been short changed by nature in this department . . ."

Thus was born the first draft of the prose that set off what might be called the Mark Eden Trials, a 15-year running battle between the Feathers and the U.S. Postal Service, whose consumer protection attorneys used to wonder what breathlessly presented mail-order product Jack and Eileen Feather would unveil next. There were three mail fraud hearings before postal examiners, and the court records soon bulged with testimony from physiologists and biostatisticians, and medical doctors who argued about the difference between "bosom" and "bust," and whether working the pectoral muscles could be accurately said to render the bust "upright, round, and firm," and whether "rhythmic motions" was an excessively imprecise substitute for "exercise," and whether the actress June Wilkinson, whose cleavage took up a considerable portion of the first Mark Eden advertisement, actually did enlarge her nationally renowned bosom by using "the Mark Eden method."

"She used it for a while and was under the impression, from increased tightness of her costume in a play and a report from her dressmaker, that her bosom was larger," the first Postal Service hearing examiner wrote, addressing himself to the Wilkinson question, in a not atypical document of the time. "She is kind of thin everywhere but her breasts are large and she needed a D cup in her brassiere just before she used the Mark Eden device and the same after but she believes she filled out the D cup better after the exercise program."

The Feathers would win, and lose on appeal, and win at the next level. Their attorneys grew adept at the proceedings: during a 1978 fraud trial in California, they deliberated over how best to measure bust growth (painting quick-hardening rubber across the breasts for a permanent mold was discarded after the experimental effort took too much time), and finally settled on a system of adhesive measuring tapes which were collected on a large board to show the increase in tape length. The board, and numerous women's brassieres were entered as evidence, and when the attorneys appreciated the difficulty a presiding judge might have distinguishing between, say, a C and D cup, they packed clay into the cups and used the resulting molds as visual aids.

The Feathers won that one, too. "The objections may have come from the post office, but the objections never came from the users," Eileen Feather said. They like to point out that no one ever accused Jack and Eileen Feather of failing to honor the money-back guarantee, which they say less than 1 percent of their buyers ever used. When a grand jury indicted the Feathers a year and a half ago on 13 counts of mail fraud, Jack Feather said they were prepared to do battle--"There's no doubt in our minds that we would have won again," he says--but that the lawyers talked them out of it. The Feathers paid the government $1.1 million and agreed to stop marketing bust developers and Astro-Trimmers and Slim-Skins, and in return, the government dismissed the indictment.

Did the Feathers grow accustomed to the sound of suppressed guffaws? "If we did, we didn't care," Jack Feather says. "What we did, we did very well. Everybody who's in business puts out a product. A bust developer is as valid a product, and certainly a lot more valid, then Hostess Twinkies, and a lot of other things you can think of . . . Bust developers never harmed anyone, and a lot of people got a great deal from them."

By that time it no longer mattered very much because Jack and Eileen Feather had discovered Cambridge. The story of the diet is told at length in the voluminous publicity materials that arrive with the newcomer's introduction to The Cambridge Plan; in the brochure is a picture of Eileen Feather standing with Dr. Alan Howard as Cambridge University looms reassuringly in the background. Howard is a nutritionist at the university, and when Jack Feather read published reports of Howard's experimental work with very low calorie diets, Feather visited Cambridge and obtained the United States and Canadian patent rights to Howard's formula.

There were furious debates of the safety of the Cambridge Diet but at 330 calories a day, nobody claimed it did not make people thinner. With their 32-year-old son Vaughn at the helm, the Feathers sent the cans and boxes of Cambridge powders out into America, carried house to house by independent salespeople, usually women who themselves had lost weight on the diet. Eileen Feather did not favor the word "saleswomen"--they were called "counselors." Their mission was to "care and share" and new converts were given a parchment-like document to sign and date: "I will fill myself with positive energy until there is no room for a negative thought . . . I commit myself to reach out to those around me for I know that if I am to touch the stars, it will be on their shoulders that I stand."

Nobody, not even Eileen Feather, was prepared for what happened. "It was like somebody decided to build a car by taking it to the top of a hill, pointing it down, and saying, 'Now we're going to attach the steering wheel and brakes to it,' " says one Cambridge executive. In February 1981, 25 "counselors" were selling the Cambridge Diet at the rate of one can per customer per week (the counselor bought each can for $11.67 and sold it for about $18). By mid-1982, there were 150,000 counselors, and the company's yearly gross was approaching half a billion dollars.

From all over the country, Cambridge Plan International lured young executives into the excitement. They liked each other and they liked the product--many of them used the Cambridge Diet themselves. "I'd never quite seen a company that did everything first class," says a now-unemployed Cambridge vice president. "If someone wanted new office furniture, they just picked up the phone and got it. If someone wanted new paintings and prints, they just got them."

Once a week, someone replaced all the fresh flowers on the office desks. The company flew its employes to Disneyland, chartering the first DC-10s ever to land at Monterey Airport. Counselor training seminars were held in elegant hotels all over the country, but the hotel's own chairs would not do; for each seminar, Cambridge shipped in a special collection of 220 beige, high-back executive swivel chairs.

To many of the young executives who had dropped careers elsewhere for the promise of a future at Cambridge, it was plain before long that the company was out of control. Some vice presidents were aghast at the sheer amount of money being spent. Sales managers sometimes learned about new company plans by calling their counselors and checking the latest rumors. Vaughn Feather appeared at the office every morning, charming and mustached and quietly well-dressed, but the feeling spread that he was not precisely in charge of things; that as one now-fired executive puts it, "No matter what you did"--meaning trying to change and affect company policy--"you couldn't get it through the house."

"The house," of course, was Jack and Eileen Feather's place at Pebble Beach. "It certainly did get out of hand," Eileen Feather says. "You knew things were needed, and yet the business was expanding so rapidly that responsibilities were handed down." There were occasional impolite rumors about her, which she dismisses: asked about one unsubstantiated story that she insisted on silver-colored roses in every hotel room she stayed in (the gossip goes that the roses were once unavailable so the company had them flown up from South America), Eileen Feather leans forward in her chair and says slowly, as though weighing each word: "That's--just--ridiculous."

By the start of this year, the company was faltering badly. Vaughn Feather says competition and a collapsing counselor system were crippling them: "We had over 100 imitators and many of them had almost a predatory type of M.O. in terms of our counselors," he says. Counselors defected, or worked so hard at sponsoring new counselors that they neglected sales, or lost interest as their own incomes leveled off. The first company employe layoffs came in winter, and there were more after that. By August, Cambridge Plan International was down to 400 employes, and when at least one vice president found a note on his desk advising him of a special company meeting, he knew what was coming. As Vaughn Feather broke the news of the final layoffs and financial reorganization, he used the words "severe cash flow problems"; from the back of the room, the vice president says, there were audible snickers.

The counselors are still out in America, caring and sharing, but Cambridge officials say there are only 30,000 of them now and that they no longer make money for finding other counselors. Nobody gets diamond and sapphire pins anymore. The people who are still on the Cambridge payroll have made the transition to the computer building; when they arrived, one Cambridge executive says, the office calendars on deserted desks lay opened to Aug. 25, the day Vaughn Feather announced the last layoffs.

And even as they carried office furniture into the computer building, the executive says, he found traces of the old days in odd places. "I don't know why this bothered me, but you would open a file drawer, and one whole file cabinet is full of staplers," he says. "You'd go to the next one, and it was full of Rolodexes." He shakes his head. "Somebody here, without taking two steps from his desk, would order up a gross of staplers. For what, I don't know."

Jack and Eileen Feather say they believe the Cambridge Diet will persevere. "Since we've gone into Chapter 11, I think this will be the first profitable month the company's had in six months," Jack Feather says.

"The product is far more than a reducing diet," Eileen Feather says. "Never before have people really known that they were getting all of the known nutrients for every single day that their body really needs. As a foundation for nutrition, it's really a first."

The pink palace by the sea, which stands next to Jack and Eileen Feather's house, might have been a kind of monument to the Cambridge Plan, with its gardens and Italian marble halls and its many bathrooms. (The number of bathrooms is the subject of fascinated speculation; there are 15, or 19, or perhaps 20.) Eileen Feather says she does not know what will happen to the place; the Feathers bought it with private funds and intended to lease it to the company.

"It was a marvelous bargain," Jack Feather says.

"It isn't a decision that one has to make right now," Eileen Feathers.