Pat Nixon suffered Watergate the way she suffered the six other crises in Richard Nixon's political career -- publicly stoic, privately combative.

You could tell by the occasional flashes of defiance in those final days before his resignation. She would not suggest that her husband resign, she told a Washington Post reporter categorically in May 1974.

"Why should I?" she said, bristling at the question. "There's no reason to."

"She kept him from resigning," believed Helen McCain Smith, her White House press secretary. "If things had gone wrong, well, in her mind they were minor" compared with his contributions toward international peace.

As the former president put it in July 1976, when his wife lay partially paralyzed from a stroke, "She's a fighter."

And she was, in her own way. Mostly, though, throughout Richard Nixon's long career in the public eye, his Nevada-born wife, who died yesterday at age 81, remained an enigma to the public, inscrutable behind her familiar tight smile.

But Mrs. Nixon was far from a "plastic Pat," as some tried to portray her. She was a complicated woman, a savvy politician who was fiercely loyal to her husband, proud of his accomplishments but at the same time not unaware of his shortcomings. For her time, she was America's ideal of a First Lady: the uncontroversial gracious hostess with a worthy cause -- volunteerism -- who stepped into the limelight only at her husband's bidding.

She was not one to solicit policy-shaping assignments, but when Richard Nixon needed to show the American presence abroad during the terminal days of his presidency, he assigned her as his personal representative to two presidential inaugurations in South America. She went willingly, and not only showed the flag but attempted to reassure the world that Watergate was of little consequence.

On one trip, in May 1974, she refused to discuss Watergate. "I really don't want to speak of it. It's just a personal thing and why bring that into the trip?" she scolded reporters accompanying her.

"You all who follow me day after day know how positive I feel about everything, and I really have faith in the judgment of the American people and the press people. I'm not going to rehash an innuendo and source story in repetition," she said.

Not that she totally believed it didn't matter. Smith and others on her staff knew that Pat Nixon regarded the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters by White House "plumbers" as "utter stupidity." When the existence of Richard Nixon's Oval Office tapes became public, she confided to a friend that they were like "private love letters" meant for "one person alone." They should have been destroyed, she said.

She blamed the news media for many of Nixon's problems, convinced they were after his "last pound of flesh," as she told one friend. She told another: "We will win because we are right."

That June, her growing bitterness toward Nixon's critics surfaced momentarily when, during a trip to the Middle East, someone inquired whether she could imagine going to a mosque five times a day, as Muslims do.

"Yes, I can," she replied. "I think it's good to have quiet and prayer and love in your heart. I think this hate is just uncalled for."

Steadfast in her belief that Nixon would ultimately triumph, she resumed her plans of White House refurbishment once she was back in Washington.

Despite the fishbowl nature of the White House, she enjoyed living there. Criticized at times for her methods of acquiring both funds and furnishings, she refused to be sidetracked from her goal of restoring the president's mansion to historic authenticity.

She was also responsible for such White House tour innovations as multi-language guidebooks and recorded touch-and-tour pointers for blind visitors.

It was only when she called off plans to acquire a new set of custom-designed china in early August 1974 that her staff believed for the first time that her husband's days in office were nearing an end.

On Aug. 9, Mrs. Nixon emerged into public view from days of self-imposed seclusion to stand with Richard Nixon as he gave his emotion-charged farewell speech. A tragic figure as she fought back tears, she looked straight ahead that day while her husband recounted the virtues of others, including his late mother -- "a saint... . She will have no books written about her, but she was a saint" -- and even Teddy Roosevelt's mother, but never mentioned the support given him by Pat. (Observers recalled other times he'd slighted her, such as one trip to Northern California to dedicate a redwood grove in Lady Bird Johnson's name, when Nixon introduced everyone on the dais including Lady Bird and former president Lyndon Johnson, but neglected to introduce his wife.)

The farewell day hadn't started any better. She had been appalled upon entering the East Room to learn that the occasion would be televised nationally.

"Who authorized television?" she asked.

"I did," Nixon replied curtly.

And those television images -- the tears, the helicopter -- were virtually the last the public saw of Pat Nixon.

In exile, first at Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, Calif., and later in New Jersey, Mrs. Nixon retreated into privacy at last. Over the years, there have only been brief glimpses: that first autumn when her husband lay near death in a Long Beach hospital, after her own several catastrophic illnesses and, most recently, standing frailly with five other former First Ladies at the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Library in November 1991.

"At first, in the beginning, there was more a feeling of shame on Pat's part," said Rabbi Baruch Korff, a longtime Nixon supporter and fund-raiser. Other friends said neither Mrs. Nixon nor her daughters, Julie Eisenhower and Tricia Cox, had known the true extent of Nixon's Watergate involvement until three days before he resigned.

In September 1974 -- the month after he resigned -- Nixon was hospitalized for phlebitis and almost died from complications that developed following surgery on his left leg. Pat Nixon's vigil at his bedside was a "devotion {that} kept me alive -- I doubt that I would have made it without her," Nixon later was quoted as saying. "Her faith in me as a human being and as her husband led me out of the depths."

The despair of his disgrace took its toll on both Nixons, but by December 1974, according to son-in-law David Eisenhower, they "turned the corner." Life began to be more bearable as time started to heal the Watergate wounds.

"I don't think she ever let my father know that she ever wanted to give up on life, which is really extraordinary," said Julie Eisenhower, voicing doubt that she would be that strong. "I think I would tell my husband I was really despairing. But she's not that kind of person."

Several years after the resignation, Eisenhower told another interviewer that her parents were "closer now than they've ever been. I think they sometimes get on each other's nerves ... but they enjoy watching movies, swimming, walking on the beach."

At other times in their exile, Pat Nixon busied herself with her mail (which continued to inundate her), worked arduously in her rose garden, swam in the family pool, walked the nearby beach and occasionally entertained.

By April 1976, Mrs. Nixon was once again the focus of public interest when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book "The Final Days" scrutinized her own final White House days as well as her husband's, as well as their marital relationship. What Mrs. Nixon thought of it was not known. But the view of her mother as a secret drinker so rankled Julie Eisenhower that she wrote a rebuttal for Newsweek.

One "distortion" she could not live with, Eisenhower wrote, was the portrait of her mother as a "non-person: a woman who passively lived through the last months of the Nixon administration ... withdrawn, self-centered and drinking heavily."

Pat Nixon found it "ironic," her daughter continued, that she was thought to be "the perfect old-time political wife: tactful, self-effacing, in the shadow of her husband. In reality, she is the most independent and self-sufficient woman I know."

Former aides agreed. "She understood the name of the game," one said of Mrs. Nixon's political acumen, "but she was never used against her will. She was politically astute in the broadest sense of how it related to power and people, and she had good, strong gut reactions about what she thought was right."

Mrs. Nixon's early life had given her plenty of preparation for hardship. Born Thelma Catherine Ryan on March 16, 1912, in Ely, Nev., she was the daughter of a miner named William Ryan and a German immigrant mother, Kate Halberstadt Ryan. Her father was "so Irish" that he always insisted she was a St. Patrick's Day baby and instead of Thelma, called her "Pat," Mrs. Nixon once recounted.

"I may have been born in a tent," she said of her birthplace years later. Her mother died when she was 13 and Pat began keeping house; when her father died six years later she took a variety of jobs -- X-ray technician, department store clerk, movie extra, researcher -- to earn enough money for college. Eventually she graduated cum laude from the University of Southern California and began teaching at Whittier High School.

There, in 1938, she met a young attorney named Richard Nixon, who played opposite her in a little-theater production of "The Dark Tower." He proposed on their first date.

Nixon began his political career after serving in the Navy. "I could see it was the life Dick wanted," Mrs. Nixon said. "The only thing I could do was to help him, but it would not have been a life that I would have chosen."

That choice began for Mrs. Nixon a tumultuous 29 years by the side of one of the most controversial politicians in the nation's history. Even as his star soared, largely because of his attacks on communism at the height of the Cold War, he was dogged by scandal. As the vice presidential running mate of Dwight Eisenhower, he was pressured to quit when it became public that a secret $18,000 fund had been raised for him by California businessmen. In the now-famous "Checkers" speech, he denied using the money for personal purposes, portraying his modest circumstances by noting that Pat owned no furs, only "a respectable ,Republican cloth coat."

It was not the last time his wife would be used as a political prop, and not the last time she would shore up his self-esteem. She had "reacted with fire in her eyes," he wrote later of efforts to get him to resign from the 1952 race.

" 'You can't think of resigning,' " he quoted her as telling him. " 'If you do, Eisenhower will lose. He can put you off the ticket if he wants to but if you, in the face of attack, do not fight back but simply crawl away, you will destroy yourself. Your life will be marred forever, and the same will be true of your family and particularly your daughters.' "

Pat Nixon's self-control -- "she was her very best when the going was toughest," Nixon once said -- helped her face yet another crisis in 1958. Then, when angry mobs in Caracas, Venezuela, stoned the Nixons' vice presidential motorcade, she stayed "cool and calm," Nixon said.

In 1960, she watched tearfully as her husband went down in defeat at the hands of John F. Kennedy in their race for the presidency. In 1962, she watched again as Nixon lost his bid to be governor of California.

Early in her career as Richard Nixon's helpmate, she had learned to steel herself against criticism and adversity. "You live one day at a time," she said. "You can't live by criticism."

And certainly Richard Nixon reciprocated in his appreciation. If he had not been the "best picker of men," as Julie Eisenhower conceded in 1973, he made no secret that "the best decision I ever made was choosing Pat to be my wife, my partner in life."