NEW YORK -- Oddly enough, they have always had a good deal in common. The physical and temperamental differences tend to obscure that -- Bess Myerson so dazzling and towering that in her beauty-queen days she was dubbed a "glamazon," Justice Hortense Gabel small and plain and peering at the world through distortingly thick eyeglasses -- but they are two daughters of the Bronx, each in her particular realm a pioneer.

Bess and the Judge had both managed, through brains and connections and chutzpah, to enter spheres of public life few women had penetrated before. Each had become a beloved New York figure: Bess a vibrant symbol of city smarts and glamor, the Judge a judicial trailblazer, drawing an admiring cadre of women behind her.

What they share now is public humiliation.

Both recently were forced to leave the positions they had clambered to reach, then fought to keep. Neither has been indicted for any crime, but both stand accused by a special counsel's report of reaching a "secret understanding": Myerson allegedly manipulated the Judge by arranging a city job for Gabel's long-unemployed daughter; in return, the Judge allegedly issued rulings favorable to Myerson's lover, whose nasty divorce case was then proceeding in her courtroom. Through their attorneys, both women have denied that they made any deal.

It has proved a sad and tawdry tale, irrevocably linking and discrediting two formidable women. If the report is to be believed, Bess and the Judge were engaged in a singular sort of corruption, intending not to line their pockets but to secure favors for two people they loved.

As the investigations continue, reporters can't stop gnawing at "the Bess Mess"; New Yorkers can't stop talking about it. In a city where political corruption has become old news, this scandal has been especially wrenching, and particularly damaging to Myerson's friend and ally, Mayor Ed Koch.

"I picture the people of New York in an amphitheater, watching this {story} inexorably unfold," muses Sukhreet Gabel, the Judge's daughter and Myerson's former prote'ge'. "It has all the characteristics of Aristotelian drama. Even the Queen."

The Queen -- that would be Myerson, who could always be counted upon to sweep radiantly into a gathering, to toss a few good lines to the crowd, to leave everyone murmuring about how marvelous she looked (she's 63) and to make the papers next day.

She was Miss America in 1945, when that title seemed to mean something. What's more, she was New York's first. "We were thrilled," recalls Judith Sanderoff, who grew up with Myerson in a Bronx co-op populated by Jewish immigrants and their striving children. Myerson was "one of our own. The first Jewish girl to win; the first Miss America to have a brain, not only a body. She was ours."

She converted that celebrity and affection into an extended political career. Myerson became former mayor John Lindsay's very visible commissioner of consumer affairs. She helped elect Democratic candidates, most notably her friend Koch, little known outside his own congressional district when he first sought the mayoralty 10 years ago. "Any candidate would have been happy to have her endorsement at that time," recalls her former political consultant Maureen Connelly. "She lent her name and her credibility to his campaign."

Koch repaid the debt, first in 1980 when he supported her unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, then in 1983 when he appointed her to another high-candlepower position, commissioner of cultural affairs. It was a job in which managerial acumen mattered less than sheer public presence.

One of her final appearances as commissioner, for example, came at last winter's reopening gala at Carnegie Hall, which her department had helped finance. Myerson looked smashing, as usual, in gold lame' and mink; she said the usual vague but gracious things ("This is the best: restoration at its best, New York City at its best, music at its best"); and the flashbulbs illuminated her usual glorious smile. Then she ascended the curved marble stair.

Hortense Gabel, known as "Horty" to her friends, is another species of public servant. She truly is sober as a judge, associates say: thoughtful, serious, so nonflamboyant that when the scandal broke, the press had to run photographs that were years out of date. They showed her in prim dresses, sometimes with pearls, usually in the glasses that failed to compensate for the impaired eyesight that has plagued her (despite repeated surgery) since childhood.

At every rung of her long career, Gabel, now 74, was among the First Females: at Columbia Law School, in various state and city offices, on the civil bench, on the New York State Supreme Court. "She's always been one of the women that led the way for all of us," says a younger state judge who considers herself "a beneficiary."

Though Gabel made her reputation in civil rights and housing, advancing the cause of women had become her particular passion. She helped found and lead state and national organizations for women judges. Privately, she was a relentless writer of letters of recommendation and provider of useful introductions long before "networking" became a buzzword. "She had informal meetings of women judges back when we could meet in phone booths, that's how many there were of us," recalls Civil Court Judge Margaret Taylor.

There was little Gabel liked better than righteous battle. "All you had to do was call up and say, 'There's this outrage,' and she'd be there," says Judge Taylor. Several judges remember being summoned to Gabel's chambers a few years ago, when she'd learned that a state judges' group was about to hold its Christmas dinner party at a private club that barred women members. The women threatened to boycott the affair, and the dinner was moved.

Last fall the National Association of Women Judges voted Gabel its Honoree of the Year. "As she has achieved each higher office," read the inscription on the plaque presented her in Miami, "... Judge Gabel has always reached out her hand to help her sisters ..." Many in the audience were near tears as she accepted.

Could such a judge have done what the special counsel's report accuses her of doing? Her attorneys deny it; her associates, themselves attorneys and judges, decline to pass judgment without fuller information. But they grieve for her. "The report is devastating; it's just unbelievable," says one state judge, a friend of Gabel's. "I never thought of Horty as being venal, in any way. But this is not for money, of course."

What They Did for Love In the spring and summer of 1983 -- when the events in question took place -- Myerson's lover and Gabel's daughter were both going through some trying times.

Sukhreet Gabel, then 33, was entering the second year of an unsuccessful job search and was, by her own account, "becoming increasingly depressed ..."

Carl (Andy) Capasso, the wealthy Queens sewer contractor who'd been Myerson's companion for more than two years, was embroiled in his divorce and not faring very well: Gabel, the State Supreme Court justice hearing the pretrial motions, had evicted him from his elegant Fifth Avenue duplex.

For Myerson, disappointing marriages and a series of volatile romances may reveal a darker side of her public success. "That seems to be where all her problems lie," a close associate acknowledges.

Her first husband, a manufacturer with whom she eloped the month after her Miss America reign ended, was an alcoholic who abused her. She married wealthy attorney Arnold Grant, then divorced him -- twice. After her third divorce, and a torturous period of treatment for ovarian cancer, she was seen about town with a succession of rich businessmen.

"She's had a very complicated personal life; a lot of people have been in and out of it," says her longtime friend Esther Margolis, whose Newmarket Press this fall will publish a book about Myerson's Miss America year. "I think she's demonstrated a need for relationships with men in her life."

Myerson may have been particularly needy in 1980, the year she lost the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. For much of her career, she'd been handed opportunities (it was her sister who entered her in the Miss America pageant) and offered positions from quiz-show panelist to consumer czar. "It wasn't really until the Senate campaign that she put herself on the line, by her own choice," Margolis reflects.

The loss was particularly devastating. The Jewish vote she'd thought of as hers went instead to primary winner Elizabeth Holtzman. Unable to raise funds as effectively for herself as for others, Myerson paid most of her own campaign expenses and ended up deep in debt. "She experienced a new kind of failure," Margolis said.

That same year, her relationship with a well-heeled investor ended sourly. Myerson filed a complaint with the police department, saying she was being harassed by her former lover, but the resulting police report said that Myerson herself had made abusive phone calls to the man and his female friends and written dozens of anonymous letters, including some she'd sent to herself but claimed came from him. A few months after the investigation, and the election, Myerson suffered a mild stroke.

With her through these electoral and physical ordeals was Capasso, who called her "Bessie" and whose attentions she greatly appreciated. They were constant companions from that point until the day he left for federal prison last month, convicted of tax evasion. "One part of her is this professional person; the other part is this woman who has emotional needs -- to be loved, to be admired, to be cared for," says Myerson's friend, writer Marilyn Funt. For Capasso, "a woman like Bess Myerson would be a fantasy ... it was a mix that seemed to work."

Capasso was married, the father of two and stepfather of three, but for two years his wife Nancy suspected nothing. "Everybody thought we were the best couple in town," says Nancy Capasso, now 46, who has perfected the ironic laugh.

She has her own notions of what attracted Myerson and Capasso, who is 21 years Myerson's junior. "The power, I guess; the connections. She opened up a whole new world to him." He sued for divorce, unleashing five years of legal maneuvering that's cost roughly a million dollars in lawyers' fees. Nancy Capasso counterclaimed, later naming Myerson as co-respondent.

In her bewilderment and anger, one thing Nancy Capasso took comfort in was that Justice Hortense Gabel was presiding over the pretrial portion of the divorce. Gabel was reputed to be "very good to women," Nancy Capasso says, "like a Jewish grandmother."

The Judge was having her own family crisis at the time. Her only child, who was born Julie but as a teen-ager had renamed herself Sukhreet, had left her graduate studies at the University of Chicago to return to New York. She was divorced, well educated but lacking marketable credentials, and having a painfully difficult time finding an appropriate job. Justice Gabel was worried. "It was known that she had a daughter who had some problems adapting to the world she lived in," says Milton Gould, who's known the Judge for 20 years and is now one of her attorneys.

The name Sukhreet is Punjabi. It means " 'one with a tradition of happiness,' " says Sukhreet Gabel. "I still find it a very nice ideal."

She has not had an easy life and she has learned to be candid about it -- her weight problem, her episodes of depression, her failed marriage to a Dutch diplomat, the tensions with her aging parents. She left school at 16, stockpiled $6,500 by working as a nurse and a U.N. tour guide, traveled around the world on it for several years, got her BA from NYU, was posted with her husband overseas. When her marriage ended after five years, she juggled half a dozen part-time jobs to support herself as she worked toward her doctorate in sociology.

Intelligent and articulate, she is angry at her parents and their lawyers for "implying that I'm such a sick creature that they had to go to extraordinary lengths to get me a job." She resents being portrayed as a flake. "I've always been a nonconformist and I make no bones about it," she says. "But that isn't crazy."

Sukhreet had run into roadblocks when she returned to New York, "tempted by the bright lights." Her well-connected mother, she says, sent her re'sume' to dozens of friends and acquaintances. Sukhreet had appointments every day; she showed her re'sume' to scores of people -- but a year passed and she could not get hired. "People found me likable, intelligent, but they didn't know what to do with me," she says, "any more than I know what to do with me." The depression she had grappled with before returned, deepened.

Her parents, on whom she was now financially dependent, feared for her. "She tends to be a rather overbearing mother," Sukhreet says of the Judge. "There are times I have to say, 'Mother, please remember I'm 37 years old ... allow me to have my own life.' " Her father, retired dentist Milton Gabel, called "every single, stinking day" for progress reports. "It was totally in character for my mother to bite her fingernails and for my father to harangue and harrumph," Sukhreet says. But, she recognizes, "they were aching for me."

It was then, in mid-1983, that Bess Myerson and Justice Gabel (acquaintances through political organizations) began to figure more prominently in one another's lives than they apparently ever had before; that Sukhreet at last found work -- as Myerson's special assistant at the Department of Cultural Affairs; and that Nancy Capasso found court rulings running against her. Was it all coincidence?

Sukhreet Gabel is convinced that her mother never agreed to collude with Myerson. But she thinks Myerson was anxious to demonstrate her clout, her ability to turn political connections into tangible benefits as her wounded beau struggled in court against his angry wife.

"If it's purely money, you don't go to these crazy lengths," says Raoul Felder, the divorce attorney who then represented Nancy Capasso. "I think it had to do with power. Power over him, power to destroy her {Nancy Capasso}, power over people's lives."

"She met me," Sukhreet says of Bess, "and thought, 'Aha. Here's the way in.' "

'Not the Usual Kind Of Payoff' The New York Post broke the story of Sukhreet Gabel's hiring in October 1983, on its gossip page ("Small world," remarked the headline). Later the Daily News reported that the U.S. attorney's office had a grand jury looking into the Capasso divorce and Sukhreet's hiring. WNBC-TV disclosed that Myerson had invoked the Fifth Amendment before a grand jury at a time when the Koch administration already was reeling from a series of corruption scandals. And The Village Voice finally blew the lid off last month by obtaining and publishing parts of special counsel Harold R. Tyler's report, which had led to Myerson's resignation in April but had never been made public.

Last winter, after Myerson's grand jury appearance, Mayor Koch had called on Tyler, a former federal judge, to look into the situation. Tyler and his colleagues reviewed stacks of documents and interviewed 35 witnesses, including the three Gabels but not Myerson, who declined to give testimony without immunity. Though initially skeptical about the allegations -- which outlined a transaction that was "not the usual kind of payoff" -- the investigators concluded that Myerson "misused her City office to give employment to Sukhreet Gabel for the purpose of influencing her mother and then affirmatively misled the Mayor about it ..."

The report describes growing social contacts between Myerson and Gabel just after the commissioner's appointment in April 1983: Myerson had the Judge driven to a Gracie Mansion reception honoring her new position in May; the Gabels dined in a restaurant with Myerson; they invited her to their home for dinner in June; they exchanged phone calls. The Judge asked Myerson (as she had asked so many others) if she might help Sukhreet find a job.

Myerson and Sukhreet Gabel, having met at the June dinner party, began to spend considerable time together, developing "an intense, almost surrogate mother, relationship," the report found. Myerson, friends say, can be warm, funny, enormously engaging. "When she smiles, the world smiles with her," says the younger Gabel, even now. "On those occasions, I truly love her."

Myerson invited Sukhreet Gabel to dinner and to movies; they enjoyed long walks and chats; and Sukhreet twice spent weekends at Capasso's Westhampton estate. In July, Justice Gabel agreed to temporarily but sharply reduce the maintenance payments she had ordered Andy Capasso to pay Nancy Capasso, from $1,500 to $750 a week, and also cut his child support payments from $350 a week to $250.

In August, as Sukhreet was about to turn 34, Myerson announced "a birthday present" -- a $19,000-a-year job as her special assistant. The Gabels, Sukhreet's then-boyfriend and Myerson celebrated with dinner at a Chinese restaurant, according to the Tyler report.

Two weeks later, the Judge reduced Capasso's temporary payments again -- slashing maintenance to $500 and child support to $180. The Tyler report credits Sukhreet's testimony that at the time she knew nothing of her mother's involvement in matters of such interest to her boss. But it rejects as "incredible" the Judge's testimony that she was unaware of Myerson's relationship with Capasso. Gabel's attorneys have since argued that a small stroke she suffered last year may have affected her memory.

In the days and months that followed the New York Post's item, according to the Tyler report, the commissioner's friendship with Sukhreet Gabel evaporated with chilling quickness while Myerson and members of her staff sent a "false and misleading" letter about the hiring to the mayor. Sukhreet, criticized by her colleagues and cold-shouldered by her boss, began job-hunting anew. According to the report, her mother persuaded another city commissioner to hire her as deputy executive director of human rights, this time at $40,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the Judge continued to hear motions and issue rulings in the Capasso divorce. (Her order reducing maintenance and child support was eventually reversed on appeal.) Knowing her reputation and long involvement in the complex case -- but not her connection with Myerson -- attorneys in the case did not ask her to remove herself from the proceedings. Says attorney Felder, "I believe if somebody offered {Judge Gabel} $100,000, she'd throw them out of the courtroom."

Gabel and Myerson at first seemed likely to weather the controversy. Nancy Capasso and Sukhreet Gabel, however, were in despair.

Sukhreet Gabel floundered in her new position and was told to resign after three months. " 'Am I crazy or is the rest of the world crazy?' " Sukhreet remembers thinking. "I went into a tailspin of a depression." She's gained 40 pounds from the medication she's still taking, she says, and has undergone outpatient shock treatments. The last time she saw her one-time mentor, according to the Tyler report, was a year ago, when Myerson suddenly showed up at Sukhreet's apartment, demanded to know what her "story" would be and warned her to "keep {your} big mouth shut."

Nancy Capasso was distraught as well. She believed the Judge was continuing to favor her millionaire ex as he spent money on Bess Myerson while she, Nancy, was selling off crystal and art to meet the family's monthly expenses. Against the advice of friends and attorneys, she hand-wrote a letter to Justice Gabel, asking that Gabel excuse herself from the case, suggesting "the possibility that something might have interfered with your sense of justice and fair play."

Reading the Tyler report last month, Nancy Capasso felt relief and vindication. "Nothing was new to me," she says. "It was everything I was living with."

'It's All Slime Mold, The Whole Business' Neither Myerson nor Justice Gabel wanted to relinquish her job. Myerson initially took a leave of absence. "She didn't feel she deserved any of this," says her friend Funt. "She felt she was not going to leave until she was forced to." That occurred when the mayor received the Tyler report in April, and Myerson resigned.

But she insisted on her innocence. "Ms. Myerson's position is, as it has always been, that she has committed no wrongdoing," her attorney says.

Koch defended his friend (calling her a "superb commissioner") until columnists, reporters and editorialists started to wonder in print why a mayor quick to condemn corruption by others (and there have been a lot of others in New York recently) was being so charitable. "Bess Myerson has fallen from grace, and what she did is deplorable," he finally said at a news conference. "I'm aghast at what she did."

Justice Gabel also clung to her $82,000 position. She had planned to remain in it for 18 more months, until she'd be forced to retire at 76. "Maybe you ought to get off the bench," a friend had suggested gently, as the storm was about to break. Gabel "thought she couldn't resign under fire." A couple of days later, however, the Office of Court Administration relieved Gabel of her judicial duties; she retired two weeks afterward, citing "physical and mental pressures." Her retirement did not affect her $40,000 state pension. But it prevented the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which had just concluded hearings on the matter, from issuing any finding, since the commission has no jurisdiction over retired judges.

But the Mess is not over. A federal grand jury continues to investigate, according to published reports, and could bring criminal charges against Bess or the Judge or both. Sukhreet Gabel is mulling the possibility of a civil rights suit against the city.

There are other accusations, other questions. Myerson, the Tyler report found, misused city drivers and vehicles for personal errands. She accepted gifts from Andy Capasso -- jewelry, the use of company credit cards and expensive cars -- but did not disclose the gifts as the city's administrative code requires. There is also the still-unexplained matter of the envelopes of cash Myerson had delivered by chauffeur to a Third Avenue brokerage firm. Was it Andy's money, being hidden from Nancy? Andy's money being hidden from the IRS? Someone else's? And speaking of Andy's money -- the Appellate Division just estimated the Capassos' marital property at more than $15 million -- did his relationship with Myerson or with other officials affect the many city sewer contracts his companies were granted?

What is striking, as the questions continued to be posed, is how many lives and reputations the Bess Mess has befouled, derailed and ruined. "It's all slime mold, the whole business," says attorney Felder. Nobody won.

Nancy Capasso probably comes closest: She's still employed (selling realty for Sotheby's) and at liberty, and the Appellate Division has ruled that her share of the Capassos' marital property amounts to more than $6 million. She says she doesn't cry as much as she used to, "but I still have my days."

Andy Capasso now earns 11 cents an hour as a "dormitory orderly" at the Allenwood Federal Prison Camp in Pennsylvania, where last month he began serving four years for evading $774,600 in income tax. He has been fined half a million dollars and his business activities are still under investigation. Just before climbing into his Lincoln to be driven to Allenwood, Capasso made a phone call. "I love you, sweetheart," a photographer heard him say.

Hortense Gabel, never physically strong, is being treated for cardiac problems, according to her lawyer. "She loved being a judge," says State Supreme Court Justice Rose Rubin, whose chambers were next door. "I think she wanted to go out with glory, and this is so negative, so ego-destroying." Gabel's daughter simply says her mother is "brokenhearted."

Bess Myerson had planned to spend several weeks this fall promoting "Miss America, 1945 -- Bess Myerson's Own Story," written by Susan Dworkin. Now the publisher is reconsidering publicity plans, worrying that Myerson will be harassed by reporters. Plans for a CBS television movie have been indefinitely shelved. Capasso's Westhampton beach house, where Myerson has been secluded for much of the summer, has recently been awarded to Nancy Capasso.

Sukhreet Gabel, her self-doubt relieved by the Tyler report, says the accusations have been "a nightmare and a tragedy for my mother, but for me it's a vindication. Maybe it'll lead to a job, who knows?" She says she still wants to work, to have "the feeling of progress, of moving through life ... I just can't spend my life being depressed."

Meanwhile, she busies herself with studying, therapy, walking and browsing. "I play a little game with myself," she says. "I allow myself a million dollars a day and I spend it window-shopping." She's designing and crafting a purse for her mother; it features a fuzzy applique'd cloud, "and when you lift the cloud you see it has a silver lining."