They were adherents of the faith of Jay Gatsby, come to imbibe the Myth of Elegant Living. Young and affluent, they fled the city most weekends for the most fabled summer house on Rehoboth Beach.

They were also members of the church of Peter Pan, at play in the land of the Forever Young. At Rehoboth, where everyone was single and almost everyone was looking, each weekend held the promise of true love. Or an acceptable substitute.

For 17 years, the baby boomers who rented 35 Virginia Ave. understood that marriage meant summer-house suicide. But 1986 was the year of the apostates. Five of 11 members made plans to marry. Worse yet, they wanted to stay.

Friendships were splintered, leases were redrawn in secret and former best friends lobbied for each other's ouster from the group. As the rest of the beach community looked on in shock and amusement, the house with the haughtiest reputation fought a civil war -- the marrieds versus the singles.

The Delaware Court of the Chancery has awarded the lease to the marrieds.

But all of this is under appeal.

Part 1: In Which the World Is Young and So Are We

Chris Press remembers her first summer at Rehoboth Beach. "You'd come down and you wouldn't be dating anybody seriously and so you'd go to the parties or the Summer House or Franny O'Brien's, wherever the 'in' place was. Everybody was the same age and you knew everybody."

Press, an auditor with the inspector general's office in the Department of Education, was among the mass of refugees of the Washington summer. On Friday afternoons, they pour from offices -- lawyers, accountants, policy analysts -- shedding suit coats, inhaling humidity, bound for the shore.

Some jam the nightclubs. Others cultivate a higher style, entertaining select groups in gracious summer homes.

At Rehoboth, no house cut a more glamorous figure than 35 Virginia Ave.

"It's just a one-story green house with a driveway that doesn't look particularly pretentious or large as you drive past it," says Press. But the inside glows with charm. Five bedrooms, three baths, oriental rugs, large oils of Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte, a splendid view of Lake Gerar, which is right in the back yard. Its tenants pay $12,000 for the summer rental.

"A huge living room," Press says. "Made for having cocktail parties. Or brunches. Or dinners."

The house's reputation for ambitious entertainment (including parties that featured gondola rides) was handed down from earlier generations. The lavishness continued under Press, who joined the house in 1970, and Howard Segermark and Bob Tuttle, the senior members of last summer's crew, who joined shortly thereafter.

"We've always made it a point to entertain people as elegantly as you can," says Press. "We've never been one of those beach houses where you just roll out a keg and people came in their bathing suits."

The group's cachet was its invitation-only, black-tie champagne party, thrown every Memorial Day weekend to open the Rehoboth social season.

"That started as a security measure," says Segermark, an economic policy analyst who once worked with Sen. Jesse Helms. "We'd always had big parties and after a while they started getting out of hand. We decided if we had a black-tie function it would be self-policing."

Or almost self-policing. "It's black tie and if you think you get in without one, you won't," says Jim Dale, a real estate developer and a member since 1983. "We're noted for having a heavy out front for people who get to the beach and don't have an invitation and don't have a tuxedo."

House rules were unwritten, but well established. One of the rules was that married couples need not apply. In his 17 years at the house, Segermark remembers just one married member, although, he adds, there were plenty of "long-term relationships that didn't have the sanctity of clergy."

The house was extremely selective when it came to filling vacancies. "We got people who could really contribute," Press says.

"It was very much of a surrogate family," Segermark says.

In the early '80s, Tuttle, a real estate lawyer, brought a new friend into the family. While on vacation in North Carolina, he met Jim Dale, who lives in Raleigh. Dale came to 35 Virginia for two years as Tuttle's guest before he was asked to join the house.

"What happened is kind of ironic," says Rick Leveridge, an attorney who was a member of the house from 1980 to 1986. "They started out as best friends."

Part 2: In Which Attorneys Are Hired and Two Sets of Invitations Are Mailed For the Same Party

In the summer of 1986, to the surprise of almost everyone, five members of 35 Virginia, including Segermark, became engaged.

"I suppose it is one of those phenomena of Washington that after years of people remaining single there are lots of people -- at least among people I know -- in their late thirties and early- to midforties getting married," Press says. "Some for the first time."

"In the past people got married and automatically left," Leveridge says. "Now we were the majority and we weren't sure it needed to be that way."

Landlady Barbara Clark, a retired interior designer who lives in the house eight months of the year, preferred single tenants. "It had always been a established pact," she says.

"She was afraid if married people were admitted it would become staid and boring, that marital rifts would destroy the house," Dale says. "She never has particularly gotten along with the women in our house. In fact, the joke is that every year when the house picture is taken I'm in the middle and my date is somewhere off to the right."

Last July, in the midst of marriage mania, the group's latest three-year lease expired. Rick Leveridge had signed the last lease, but he was leaving. Clark requested that Bob Tuttle sign the new one. "He was a trusted lessee for 16 years," she says.

But he was in the middle of a brewing feud within the house. Tuttle was the most vocal of members who wanted to keep the house single.

"That's what Barbara Clark wanted," he says, "and I wanted to stay on Barbara Clark's good side."

The trouble intensified after the new lease was signed. According to other members, Tuttle said his new status as lessee gave him the power to decided whether married couples would be admitted. The court papers portray him as ready to "clean house."

"That was never said," he says now.

Maybe not, but the group rebelled. Segermark and others insisted on a new lease with an additional name on the contract to dilute Tuttle's authority. The landlady and Tuttle assented. Jim Dale was the second name on the new lease.

Bob Tuttle points to that as proof that he never intended to "do something unilaterally about the marrieds."

"If that's what I intended to do I never would have let them sign the lease," he says.

But tension at the house persisted, particularly between Tuttle and Dale. "It kind of grew," says Dale, who still professes not to know why. "It festered. It never was a breath-taking-away 'I'm surprised that you're mad at me!' "

The summer ended on a sour note. Then, in February, the remaining seven members of the house met to implore Dale and Tuttle to work out their personality conflict. "There was quite a bit of discussion," Segermark says.

But diplomacy did not carry the day. So, moving ahead with parliamentary efficiency, the members voted to solve the problem on their own. First they took a vote to expel Dale. The motion failed. They voted on whether to expel Tuttle. By a count of 3-2, with one abstention, the motion passed.

The group was split in two, Tuttle and his girlfriend Lydia Chopivsky in one group, Dale and the remaining members in the other. Dale's group now had control of the house, but Tuttle had two aces to play.

First, he had the better relationship with the landlady. In court papers she is quoted as telling Tuttle, "That does it. If you're not on the lease, they have no lease."

Second, Chopivsky, the house captain (identified in the court papers as the "Grande Fromage"), received all correspondence. On Feb. 13, she received a letter from Clark stating that the current lease was invalid and a new one would have to be negotiated.

A week later, Clark and Tuttle signed another lease and Tuttle recruited 12 new members for the upcoming season.

Both groups planned parties. Both groups mailed invitations, though the guest lists were largely the same. The Rehoboth social set was in a tizzy over which invitation to hand to the Rent-a-Heavies at the door of 35 Virginia.

On May 13, Dale's group filed suit against Tuttle, claiming that its was the valid lease. Two days later the court issued a temporary restraining order, which, for the time being, awarded the house to Jim Dale's group.

Their invitation to the party read as follows:

To honor the 200th anniversary of the sovereign state of Delaware's ratification of the Constitution and, Article 3 thereof (setting forth the establishment of the judicial branch of government), and the due process of equal protection clauses, and most especially the law firm of Young, Conaway, Stargatt and Taylor of Georgetown, Delaware, the members of 35 Virginia cordially request the pleasure of your company for cocktails and champagne from 9 p.m. until midnight, Saturday, May 23.

Jim Dale says about 100 people attended.

For that weekend, Bob Tuttle rented the house next door.

Part 3: In Which a Decision Is Rendered and the Sun Sets Slowly on Rehoboth

On June 26 Vice Chancellor Jack B. Jacobs decided that Jim Dale's group had a valid three-year lease. Clark and Tuttle have changed lawyers and are appealing the case. Just reprinting the transcript cost $1,500.

"I'm not happy about it and I don't recognize it," Clark says.

The summer has been a difficult one for the people of 35 Virginia. They have seven members rather than the usual 12 or so. "It is very difficult when you are tied up in a lawsuit to get involved in finding new members for the house," Chris Press says.

Bob Tuttle still gets up to the beach quite a bit. "I get invitations from many, many other houses," he says. He is hoping to be back in the house by next summer. "It's not that big a deal. It's an interesting conversation piece for everyone at the beach."

But the incident has tarnished some members' memories of summers gone by.

"We thought it was something special to be a member of 35 Virginia," says Rick Leveridge. "It seems kind of childish now."

Neither side professes ill will. "Even though all this has come to pass, none of us hate Bob," Press says.

"We're not talking enemies here," Tuttle says. "We're talking about a legal issue."

We are also talking about how time sneaks up on everybody, even at Rehoboth.

"I'm sure everybody wishes they would never get any older, I guess, and always just have fun," Press says. "But that's not the reality. The reality is that we've all aged and the more critical reality is we're all much busier than we used to be. We can't just pick up every Friday. There are other things to do in life besides just go to Rehoboth."

None of which changes the social calendar for this weekend. This weekend is the annual Plantation Party at a nearby house. Jim Dale is flying his plane up from Raleigh.

"Everyone goes in antebellum dress," he says. "I come dressed as Rhett Butler. We have Union officers and Confederate officers and riverboat gamblers and riverboat captains. All the ladies come with their bonnets on."

For a moment it sounds as though the rest of the beach is catching up with 35 Virginia. Jim Dale says it isn't so.

"Our house normally comes on horseback."