Five years ago, actress Elizabeth Taylor left Washington an angry, frustrated and embittered woman prone to binges with food, drugs and alcohol, the caftan-draped target of Joan Rivers' fat jokes.

The other day she was back in town and back in form, a new (or renewed) woman in both style and substance. Where once she made headlines with Hollywood flings, she now makes them more often as the nation's best known crusader for AIDS research. Once remarkable for her indulgent life style -- still not exactly Spartan -- she has found new life and vigor as a jet-set entrepreneur, touting her own top-selling beauty products, and soon, a book. Most obviously, she was 60 pounds lighter, looked 20 years younger and was comfortable enough with herself to talk about why.

"I think Washington is a wonderful city for men," she said. "It is a deadly city for wives."

No longer the political wife with a house in Georgetown and a farm in Middleburg, the former spouse of Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) settled into her suite at the Madison Hotel, her stiletto-heel boots resting on the coffee table. Now only two-thirds of her former self, she was wearing a big gray tweed sweater with "Beverly Hills" worked into the pattern and Size 6 tight black jeans. Her violet-blue eyes were outlined in black but otherwise she wore almost natural makeup. She was in Washington to promote her new perfume (an event almost as big as Christmas at Woodies) and to testify before a House committee on funding for AIDS research. "I love Washington. It's a wonderful place ... to visit," she said, holding back a grin.

Taylor hit town in the mid-'70s, first as the escort of Ardeshir Zahedi, the flamboyant Iranian ambassador and party-thrower of those pre-Khomeini days, and later as Warner's accident-prone wife and campaign partner during and after his controversial run for the Senate.

"It was particularly hard for {John and me} because we didn't have the foundation of an established marriage. We had no structure to spring from. We didn't have the strength and stability of a long relationship to fall back on, which is absolutely mandatory if you are going to live and survive in this city," she said without anger.

Washington at the time saw her develop into a reclusive, overweight, angry woman with a cross-addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. "It was not a happy place for me," she said. She did the expected rolling of bandages, appeared at the necessary cocktail engagements, but says now she didn't enjoy any of it. "I felt so redundant," she said.

"And when I first moved to this city I was accused by the media of things so far removed from my mind ... of wanting to become a hostess. They were things I never have been well known for or want to become well known for. I'm very happy with a small, intimate close circle of friends," she said. "But they accused me of ambitions to become a Perle Mesta type. Just the furthest thing from my mind. So it made me retreat into myself and become more and more reclusive."

At home alone she began to eat and build a serious weight gain. "The hours of the senator are so varied that I became my own eating companion." Her weight peaked at 180.

Even today, at 55, newly fortified with her staggering good looks, her controlled diet, her nondrinking, she couldn't imagine coming back to Washington as a senator's wife. "No, no, no, no, no, no," she said with a rolling laugh. Or as a senator, as some have suggested. "No, I don't think so."

She and Warner are still good friends. "We are probably friendlier now than we ever were," she said. She spent a recent weekend with him at the farm in Middleburg. "John always makes sure that I am up to here with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, gravy, corn on the cob. It is my favorite pig-out. I do allow myself a favorite pig-out," she said.

She reverted a bit to her former role, when pushed, extolling Warner as "a compassionate, a very caring man." "Which is why we have remained great friends," she said of the man she once, in darker days, publicly referred to in proctological terms. "We are there for each other and we always will be. John has proved his friendship over and over."

Last Christmas in New York Warner was produced by her children as a Christmas present. "It was so sweet ... I was sent into the bedroom to get something. I turned around and this white sheet with a ribbon on it came into the bedroom being led and pushed by my various kids." Warner was "this ghost, this thing under a white sheet. I was totally surprised." Taylor sees her family often. Her son Christopher Wilding lives in California, Michael Wilding and Maria Burton live in New York City and Liza Todd is in Upstate New York. "I see my {six} grandchildren as often as possible," she said.

While Warner has remained a chum through Taylor's thick and thin, other fans and critics have come and gone with her weight. It doesn't bother her. "I'm a nicer person to be around {when I'm thin}. My disposition is a lot cheerier. I have a whole different approach toward myself which reflects in my relationship with others. If I am nice and more pleasant to be around, that delights me."

She started to look after herself when she finally took a good look in a three-way mirror some time around 1981. "I realized finally, thank God, that I was being totally self-destructive. I had been avoiding looking into myself or at myself for a long time. And I finally took a glimpse at what was there ... And I didn't like what I saw. And I realized that I had to do something about it or I wouldn't survive. I've always managed to survive. I've allowed myself to get to the very brink and something has always pulled me out of the way. It was that ability to save myself that allowed me to do something about it."

Her plan was to give herself a difficult task. "First I thought -- what can I do that is the most challenging thing? To go on stage would be the most difficult thing in the realm of my possibilities. I did 'The Little Foxes' on stage first." But the drinking and eating continued until she finally checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs for addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol as well as food. "Prescription drugs was all part of it. I had had 19 major operations so it has been part of my life since my early twenties."

Her children came to the clinic to help get her started. "But I had to make my own decision and asked to be left alone. I knew if it weren't my decision it wouldn't work. Unless you want to do it, no amount of loving care, pressure ... no amount of it can work. You have to make up your mind that you want to be better."

Soon after she arrived at the center in Palm Springs, the press found out she was there. Before the first story broke, Taylor, dressed in a nightgown and holding Betty Ford's hand, called in a local television station so she could announce on camera what she was doing. "The Betty Ford center is so important a part of my life, it is something separate. It all has to do with my self-destructive behavior," she said.

Now on tour with her new perfume, Elizabeth Taylor's Passion, she's behaving like a film personality cum corporate executive. She has reason to boast of her success: The fragrance is No. 1 in sales growth in the country, ranking second only to Giorgio in some cities, even those she hasn't visited. "You can hardly get better than that."

She said that before she started the personal appearances she thought she would be terrified, but instead, "I'm having a ball." She enjoys the questions and flattery from the audience, which she answers with candor, humor and grace. She greets the sales people warmly. And she knows how to woo the retailers. In a photo session with Woodies President Tom Roach she casually puts her arm around his waist; in a photograph with Edwin Hoffman, chairman, she holds his hand, on his knee. Hoffman had other reasons to be happy. The fragrance sold $225,000 worth even before the personal appearance.

She had been playing with the idea of a business venture for a long time. "It was far more appealing than just endorsing a product." One company pitched Elizabeth Taylor fat-lady caftans. She turned those down. "I'd been offered all kinds of things, but none of them appealed to me. I wanted something I could get involved in creatively." She's always had fun with perfume, mixing her own fragrances and also her cosmetics. "So this {perfume project} appealed to the alchemist in me."

In fact, she helped create Elizabeth Taylor's Passion, smelling and mixing seven or eight numbered bottles every two to three weeks. Over a year and a half, she smelled 150 different ones, often layering them on herself. "Someone would send me flowers and then I'd call up and say, 'Add nasturtiums.' " There are more than 200 ingredients in the fragrance, but mainly it is lily of the valley, her favorite flower, gardenia, sandalwood and musk. She also came up with the name. The company, Parfums International, wanted Elizabeth Taylor's Divine Extravagance or Elizabeth Taylor's Fascination; she wanted Elizabeth Taylor's Passion. They did tests on the name and Passion was the clear favorite.

At first the bottle stopper was to be in the shape of her diamond ring. "But I love art deco so it was my idea to go with that." She says she helped with the design of the bottle. "I got out my pencil and sketched the bottle top."

At Woodies she looked very corporate, wearing a lavender Chanel suit with purple blouse. The skirt was the old Chanel length, two inches below the knee. She intends to go with the current shift to shorter hems. "I'm not mad for my kneecaps. They have been banged around too much and they show it. I have real tomboy knees."

The fragrance itself has a purple tinge. The dusting powder has a lavender glow as well. Purple has always been her favorite color, even as a child. "When I was living in Washington years ago, before John {Warner} and I started really campaigning hard, a delegation of Republican ladies came to me and said, 'We are very sorry you can't wear purple any longer.' " She was stunned. "One of my favorite campaign outfits was a Halston purple silk pantsuit you could dress up or down that was wonderful for traveling. They said I could not wear it anymore because it denoted passion and for some people, royalty." She raised her eyebrows. "I sort of drew myself up and said, SOOOOOOOOO ... " She laughed and admitted she gave in. "The ladies gave me a luncheon a month later after John had become senator and I took out my purple pantsuit and wore it in their honor."

Her fragrance tour ends Oct. 16. Oct. 17 she will be on the set of her next film, "Young Toscanini," directed by Franco Zeffirelli, in Rome. She's been taking singing lessons because she plays a diva and in the film must appear to be singing. "I've been working off and on for a month, learning to sing 'Aida,' " she said. "It is pretty hysterical." While the actual singing voice in the film will be that of Aprilo Milo, a hot new soprano discovery, Taylor will be singing during filming. Or, at least, trying to. "I have to lip-sync perfectly and make with the voice so you see the muscles working in my throat. You can see when someone is singing or they are faking. God help the people on the set. It is going to be terrifying -- they will send for an ambulance."

After the film there are more projects. She's completed one book, called "Elizabeth Takes Off," a frank, almost brutal revelation about her obsession with food, photographs at her least attractive and most becoming weights, and a diet and exercise plan. An autobiography is "years down the road," she said. "So much of that is so very personal, hidden and deep. It would take a lot out of me. I'm not sure I'm ready to delve that deep into the past. It would mean reliving hell. I'm just too happy with the present. I'm enjoying the present. I don't have time for the past. Maybe one day I'll curl up in front of a fireplace with a lap robe and begin. Maybe I'll do that." But not right away. "I'm too active, too busy enjoying today."

She wants to start a cosmetics line. "I've always loved mixing my own colors." Though there is a hairdresser with her on the current tour, she usually does her own hair and makeup. Makeup takes about an hour. "I use soap and water and a very simple lotion," she said. Her new products will have to be all natural ingredients.

"I want to do things that are fun for me." Including making money. "Money to me is fun. But it is only fun when it is not a burden. I love to give money away. To me that is the whole point of having money. Buying gifts. I love to give gifts more than I love to receive them and I LOVE to receive them."

She's received some pretty splendid ones. Like the Krupp diamond ring she got from Richard Burton that seems to weigh down her left hand. Some say the one she wears is a phony and the real one stays in a vault, but she laughed at the thought. "I don't like fake things."

And there's the purple motorcycle, a gift from millionaire publisher, collector and balloonist Malcolm Forbes. The appeal of motorcycles? "Speed and power. As a kid I was always into riding, which is the same thing. One is a living power which is even greater. And a horse is a little trickier to ride. They make up their own minds. And it is a longer way to the ground." She once broke her back riding in Middleburg.

She will give a share of her profits from the perfume to AIDS research. Taylor has become a crusader on the subject of AIDS, leading fund-raising campaigns, enlisting her colleagues for public service announcements. In Washington she won great respect at an AIDS fundraiser when she asked a benefit dinner crowd, some of whom had booed the president, to respect the fact that Reagan had come to the event.

She doesn't remember what prompted her concern for AIDS. "It wasn't because of a friend. I became involved a year before I knew Rock {Hudson} was sick. I had been asked to be a general chairman with Mayor Tom Bradley and Wallis Annenberg of the APLA {AIDS Project Los Angeles} dinner, which was the first fundraiser in the world to raise funds for AIDS patients, not research." Shortly thereafter, over lunch in Santa Monica, she, Dr. Michael Gottlieb of UCLA, the immunologist to announce that AIDS was a virus, and William Misenhimer, executive director of APLA, founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR). Taylor is national chairman.

When she started, no one wanted to give money. "People didn't even want to discuss it. It was so thoroughly in the closet."

It's not much better now. "There is still such stigma attached, it is strange. It brings out the worst in people. I don't know what happens to people. It is like they had a lobotomy of compassion. People give money -- they have more respectable things to give it to. They don't want to part company with their money for something which is so nonlegitimate in some of their eyes ... so stigmatized. And because there has been no progress made it seems to be rather hopeless, futile. The attitude is, 'Oh, it's not going to happen to us.' So we look the other way."

We can only look the other way so long, however, she said, because ultimately life styles will have to change. "Your life, your morals ... The latter part of the '80s are going to have to be different than the first part of the '80s. It just can't go on being the swinging '80s. It is too dangerous."

For herself, she said, when she becomes seriously interested in a man again, she will have the AIDS test, and ask him to be tested. "I'll probably get married again. That's not entirely out of the range of possibility," she said later.

She said she'll never really get over the deaths of two of her seven husbands, Mike Todd and Richard Burton. "Time makes things easier. But things like that change you ... You have to try to learn from it ... turn it into a positive."

At the AIDS hearing Taylor was implored to ask President Reagan to release funds already committed for AIDS. Asked later if she would soon be doing that, "That's a personal thing," she said, walking away. She stopped, looked back, and added, "I usually do what I'm told."