I had just knocked, she had just opened, and suddenly, before I could get so much as "hello" out, a vision of velvet was swirling in the evening light. I found myself staring at a freckled back -- a little wrinkly maybe, but a very fair and soft back and one that seemed newly perfumed with bath oils. It belonged to Clare Boothe Luce. "Dear boy, will you zip me up?" she said with a kind of trilling little laugh riding through her veins. Simple enough request: Her evening dress, ebony and rich, needed zippering up in back -- a modest 12 inches or so, nothing very shocking or revealing or difficult to comprehend. But somehow I could seem to engage neither my brain nor fingers -- she had discombobulated me in the opening seconds of the meeting. Time went on. She stood there, her back turned, waiting. I do remember she wore three lovely strands of pearls. I also remember shooting a glance past the amazingly blond locks and seeing something of her new apartment: hues of blue, fine rugs and paintings, splashes of sunlight on dark gleaming furniture.

And this old brainy lifelong flirt, who had known every president since Woodrow Wilson, who had been in her time a playwright, a magazine editor, an essayist, a hostess, an ambassador, a member of Congress -- and some more besides -- kept right on standing there, just inside her doorjamb, while I kept right on standing there, just outside her doorjamb, a nitwit with 10 thumbs.

My God, she must have thought, what has The Post sent over this time? She didn't say that, of course.

She said, rather sweetly, "Uh, my dear, I think you forgot the hook. I must fix you a drink."

It all worked out, though. I got the hook fastened. She led me in. We spent about two hours together -- she talking, I scribbling. Her stories -- about Lyndon Johnson, about Bernie Baruch, about "the Kennedy boys," which included Joseph P. -- were wonderful. The intelligence was luminous as crystal. I eventually wrote a piece about her (which, as she later informed me, in a gigantically scrawled thank-you note, had only two or three "throwaway" errors in it). All this was five years ago. She was just turning 79. She had moved back to Washington after a long absence and had taken a fifth-floor apartment adjacent to the Shoreham Hotel. She said she was giving up on Hawaii's pastel breezes, no matter the Pacific's great beauty. She had come back to the grayer Potomac for some good talk and to serve on Ronald Reagan's reinstated Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and to be a consultant to the National Security Council.

That was in the early spring of 1982. Yesterday Clare Boothe Luce, an extraordinary woman of the century, of Henry Luce's American century, died in Washington of cancer. She was 84.

Some didn't think she was so extraordinary, actually. Pushy and calculating, some said, a woman with an unseemly hunger for a man's kind of power, domination. Certainly there was truth in that, and it showed its head long before she was a two-term congresswoman from Connecticut or had become Ike's ambassador to Italy. Not for nothing did she get, early and lastingly, the sobriquet Dragon Lady. "It's a beautiful facade, well-constructed, but without central heating," an ancient enemy once wrote in a poison-pen profile in Esquire. Not a bad line -- Luce probably would have said so herself, though maybe not at the time.

She had plenty of her own good lines, don't worry: "Men -- you can't take them out on a leash." Or: "Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage." In fact, maybe only Dorothy Parker could be quicker and bitchier. Some of her brittlest lines are from "The Women," her play that became an immediate hit of the 1937 Broadway season. Some people claimed George S. Kaufman ghosted part of it. Forty-five years later, on the night I met her, that charge was still getting her goat. "What boils me is that when George Kaufman wrote a play, no one said, 'Well, he got his wittiest lines from his friend Clare Luce," she said.

She also said that night: "I'm a little hurt these days, if you want to know. I seem to be a contraption of some kind, a gimmick, at least according to these endless reviews of this Sheed book about me. {Wilfrid Sheed's memoir, "Clare Boothe Luce," had just appeared.} People seem to think Clare Luce had no other life, nor was interested in anything else for 50 years, but to make herself famous and powerful. Ambition seems such a wicked thing in a woman, doesn't it?" She said this last with what seemed like real regret, the regret of knowing what is true.

But this also is true: With the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, and perhaps Amelia Earhart, there has not been a more accomplished American woman of this century. Certainly none knew so many field shifts. It was her unfailing wittiness, her ruthless political instinct, her unconquerable spirit, not to say a kind of racy charm and grace that verged, yes, on snobbism and elitism, that made her, well, La Luce, that will make us remember her, when other legends are washed and dead.

"I'm one of the earliest feminists from waaay back," she said that night. "I've never been envious of any other woman of my time except one: our new Supreme Court justice. And, oh, yes, another woman I know who swam with the sperm whales. I don't mean envy in any green-eyed, cat-clawing sense, of course." Of course.

Over her desk at Vanity Fair -- she was managing editor there in the mid-'30s, a mere stopover in the legend -- she reportedly used to keep this motto: "Down to Gehenna or up to the throne/ He travels fastest who travels alone." In those early days, when she was ruthlessly climbing ladders, she used to come back from Manhattan lunches and announce to the office, or so goes the story: "I've just been lunching with Somerset Maugham at the Waldorf." This was approximately true, in that Maugham was there and she was there, just at different tables.

She had one golden rule: Always go first cabin. This would have included the marriage to Henry Luce, inventor of magazine journalism, who knew where the next lunch was coming from. (There had been a quick earlier marriage, which was disastrous.) When she was converting to Catholicism in the '40s, and Fulton J. Sheen, himself an ambitious rising monsignor, asked about her choice of confessor, she is said to have told him: "Oh, give me one who has seen the rise and fall of empires."

She was nearly blind as a bat when I met her and I remember that she cracked great jokes about it. "At movies I try to remember to face the screen," she said.

At length she led an expedition to her kitchen. "Ah, let us be happy with wine," she said. "Or do you want a martini?" She got out glasses, dumped ice in a glass bucket, pulled out a silver tray, found a wedge of half-moldy cheese. The tray had an engraving across its shiny face, a salutation from the New York Board of Trade to her late husband, Henry R. Luce. She ransacked drawers for a corkscrew. "Is this a corkscrew?" she said. (It was a meat thermometer.) "How about this?" (It was a dicer.) "If I were a corkscrew, where would I hide? Do you know that old game? Dear me, I may have to call my secretary."

There was something wistful, and why shouldn't there have been, about her musings on the state of the world. "I was wondering today what the religion of the country is -- and all I could come up with was sex." There wasn't humor in her voice. "When I grew up we knew about romance and a little about sex. I guess we knew about sex, but not in this ... genitalized sense. I think I was 35 years old before I knew what a homosexual was. Sex and money, these are the two dominant things in American life today. A liberal begins to define himself by wanting more money and more sex -- for other people, of course."

I remember she talked about religion. Despite her half a century of splash, she insisted her heroine, one of them anyway, was St. The're`se of Lisieux, the Little Flower, that child-mystic hidden from the world in her Carmelite monastery. St. The're`se, the patron of anticelebrity.

"I tried St. The're`se's Little Way once," Clare Boothe Luce said. "I didn't last a day.