Everyone is watching the lawyer with the large dark eyes, drawn by her black skirt, which is pleated and swings, a strange thing in a courtroom of papers and suits.

Even in a murder trial that is part melodrama, part circus, part tragedy and all spectacle, Marcia Clark is an aberration -- so hard to type, so vexingly original. She has encompassed so many images, all conflicting: Topless on a beach in St. Tropez in some tabloid, vestal on the cover of a paperback biography, pushy and dire as the prosecutor in our living rooms. And last week, she played an anguished Fury, threatening to capsize America's Trial if the judge didn't remove himself, only to retreat and agree to a compromise that allowed it to lurch forward.

If Warhol were still here, she'd be silk-screened -- Jackie and Marilyn's odd little sister. Even in the trial's dullest weeks, Clark is in America's fluorescent maw -- clamored for, needed and despised. Outside the courtroom, the faithful call out for autographs, crowding her into the criminal courthouse elevators, looking, pressing, seeking an icon. They want Super Woman. They must see Tough Cookie. Elsewhere, men call her a hopeless flirt, a screeching wife, a bad mom, a shrill litigator. But she eludes them all, vividly contradictory -- so sexy, so uptight, so serene, so snappish, so tired, so busy.

Maybe all that can be safely said is this: Marcia Clark, 41, is a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, the leader of the prosecution team in People v. O.J. Simpson, and the latest in a long line of women we love to misunderstand.

Her father is a sabra -- born and raised in Israel. Some say he is a hard man. He is a scientist, brilliant, with a sharp tongue. He teased Marcia's girlhood friends, making them shy. There was a joke that he could trace his ancestors back to King David. It was funny, but there was something else there, a residue of pride.

"My parents were Russian Jewish immigrants," said friend Roslyn Dauber, who has known Clark since they were both 10. "The fact that she was half Israeli always made her more exotic to me. She wasn't just this Jewish girl. Marcia was this Israeli princess."

The names weren't quite regal: Marcia Rachel Kleks, daughter of Abraham Kleks, a chemist for the Food and Drug Administration. He left Israel and came to California for his education and degree, married a Jewish girl from New York, stayed a federal bureaucrat a lifetime. They lived all over: Staten Island, Maryland, Michigan, but California more than anywhere else.

Mom was a homemaker first. She was devoted to her two children, Marcia, the older by six years, and her brother, more the introvert. He became an engineer.

The family has been frightened and overwhelmed by the media. Her brother, who lives in Northridge, did not respond to a letter requesting an interview. Her aunt, also in Los Angeles, insisted this reporter didn't really work for The Washington Post and declined to be interviewed. Her mother, who answered the door at a gray ranch house in Encino, said, "I have no interest in giving you any information. Thank you very much for offering. I have nothing to say at this time. Please respect my privacy." Clark herself has given press conferences, posed for Esquire, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, but never granted an interview. Even Barbara Walters was rebuffed.

Interviews with old friends tell of a precocious teenager. Even in her junior high years, Marcia Clark had the confidence, the Isadora Duncan brio, that the tender nerdly girls so badly wanted. She was an early smoker, the first with eye makeup. By 14, she seemed 24. She wore dangling earrings, hip-huggers and clogs, her long brown hair straight, parted in the middle.

"I remember shawls and scarves. She had an eccentric, dramatic flair about her. I always admired her from my little corner. I was so far out of her league," recalled Suzanne Devlin, a police captain in Fairfax who attended high school with Clark in Staten Island. "When she deigned to speak to me I was usually flabbergasted." In drama club, Devlin played the ingenues in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "Sabrina Fair." Marcia had other roles.

"At 14, I was not a sophisticated lady," Devlin said. "They had to stuff me, teach me how to walk. That was something Marcia didn't have to do. That's what made her unique. She walked in like that. What struck me about her, being a local girl from Staten Island, was Marcia, at 14, was a sophisticated person. She was mature. She could play women in their mid-twenties with cigarette holders wearing devastating gowns." Clark was talked about, and oddly lonely.

"But she didn't have a chance to adapt to life's changes, moving from one place to another. She didn't have a lot of time to formulate close relationships. You could feel that about her. She was very cautious about getting involved in relationships, male or female. She wasn't one who could be vulnerable easily. I felt that about her." The Men

There have been, basically, three men in her life. There were husbands from two marriages, both over, and a brother. He is very much beloved, the one person, some say, she is closest to of all. The romances were another story.

"She always had very, very handsome boyfriends," said Dauber. "That was the single distinguishing characteristic. That was the only common thread that I know. She wasn't looking for a rich man or a powerful professional. Horowitz was very attractive. He was tall and had black hair and piercing blue eyes. He was also Israeli, and had a very commanding presence."

She was only 18 when she met Gabriel Horowitz. They were both students at UCLA. She studied political science. Nothing so ordinary claimed him. He assumed a Rhett Butlerish role as a professional backgammon player, teaching celebrities and gambling. She nursed artsy dreams -- weight lifting, dancing and folk ballet.

It is from this period, the late '70s, that the St-Tropez photographs, published last February in the National Enquirer, came. The tabloid delicately placed a black bar over Clark's bare chest, and her ex-mother-in-law, who sold the pictures, explained that it was, after all, a European beach, and that she was there with her husband.

"When I was in college, I was much more of an overt feminist than Marcia was," Dauber said. "When she told me she was getting married, it wasn't why him, but why at all? But there is this part of her that has always wanted to be settled down that way. She was the only person I knew during that time, at our age, who was getting married. That was an oddity. It seemed like a very conventional thing to do at that time. And yet she'd always seemed very unconventional in other ways."

It lasted five years. There was a quick Tijuana divorce.

Months later, she was married again, this time to another handsome man, Gordon Clark. He was only 22. She was 27. "Gordon is also a very good-looking guy. He was much sweeter and more nurturing than her first husband. He's younger, but he's not a stupid person. I always thought they were pretty compatible," Dauber said. "He was definitely still in college and she was working and I think that made him uncomfortable. He wanted to get out of school and make money. He didn't seem babyish. I think compared to her first husband he was more mature as a person."

It has been reported that both Horowitz and Gordon Clark were devotees of Scientology, the controversial self-improvement movement founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. But Clark's friends say she never was. And Dauber isn't even sure about Horowitz. Gordon Clark, at 22, wasn't really serious about it, friends say, even though the marriage ceremony was performed by Bruce Roman, an orthodontist who was a lay Scientology minister.

"Marcia wasn't into that and after they got married, he had nothing to do with it," Dauber said. "They had a very brief ceremony. It was this guy who was minister of Scientology, it wasn't too religious, just something about these two souls chose to hang out together. Then he dropped out of the church." The Lawyer

Good trial lawyers can be like good tenors. They are temperamental. They are stylists. They are convinced that their performances win cases. Some are folksy, a la Gerry Spence, who invited juries to put their feet up and listen to a story. Clark is more like the Green Bay Packers sweep. The opposition knew the obliterating play was on the way, but Lombardi called it again and again. Clark, too, is obdurate, unrelenting.

That is the courtroom style, but not the woman. Inside, she is churning like an electric blender.

"Marcia, in trial, was somebody I used to avoid," said her former boss, Deputy Los Angeles District Attorney John Lynch. "We used to have a route we could go to duck Marcia. She would get nuts. It was like you had a tractor beam, if you got pulled in her office, you'd be in there for hours. She had the energy of a hummingbird.

"Everything is magnified. The slightest bit of bad news from the courtroom means he's not guilty. With her, the highs are Everest, the lows are Death Valley. . . . And Marcia doesn't hide much. Marcia, if she beat you in Jeopardy, she'd want to beat you at tiddlywinks. She is competitive, openly competitive. In fact, Marcia's one of the most competitive people I've ever met."

She started unassumingly enough, with a law degree from Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles. She had two years in private practice, marked only by her distaste for writing an appellate brief that freed a guilty man. That convinced her she could never be anything but a prosecutor. She joined the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office in 1981.

Her lawyering life yields many anecdotes about her Britannica mind. Fellow prosecutor Susan Gruber, who met her in the mid-'80s, recalled working downtown with her. "The reason I met her was because of her knowledge of case law. I was in trial and nobody has a mind like Marcia. She has a fabulous, phenomenal memory of case law, citations, case names."

Clark was among a group of female prosecutors who became friends during the 1980s, including Lynn Reed Baragona, Susan Gruber and Pam Bozanich. Gruber and Baragona are still close to Clark, but Bozanich, who was on the team that tried Lyle and Erik Menendez for the murder of their parents, had a falling-out with her. Bozanich, according to Deputy District Attorney Sterling Norris, felt Clark had been too critical of her handling of the case. Baragona, who now works part time, still stands in awe of Clark. "I would have been in the corner with a drool cup," said Baragona of the Simpson courtroom. "Not Marcia."

Clark and Bozanich were the only two women to make it to Special Trials, a unit of fewer than a dozen lawyers. Now called Major Crimes, the unit is reserved for the highest profile, most complicated cases, usually homicides.

"You really have to want to be in that unit," Gruber said. "It's a completely all-encompassing unit, the cases that you do are just overwhelming in terms of workload. As a female prosecutor and mother, a lot of people, maybe they don't want that burden. But Marcia loved the obstacles, loved the obstacles."

One woman who faced her, defense attorney Madelynn Kopple, found her "thorough, very thorough." But she found herself under the Clark steamroller once during a trial when Kopple couldn't keep back tears during emotional testimony about her client. Clark demanded that the judge bar her from crying. "That was kind of a low blow," Kopple said.

The men who have observed Clark -- bosses, colleagues and opponents -- have widely varied views. Sterling Norris, a generation older, mostly her boss and briefly her employee, found her "enthusiastic" but inexperienced. John Lynch, who was her boss for years, saw, better than most, her complications.

Then there were the defense attorneys on the opposite side of the aisle, who found her a "whining" minx with an uplifted nostril and a rehearsed hurt look.

John Martel, a trial attorney, author and prosecution consultant on Simpson, says his new novel is about a male version of Clark. "Trial lawyers are a neurotic bunch," he says. "We are driven. We wouldn't do this insane enterprise for a living if we weren't missing something. The character in my book has this distorted point of view. He feels like if he can only win enough cases, and achieve enough, he will fill all the holes in his heart."

Former prosecutor Harvey Giss may be the originator and best salesman of the tough-cookie image. They met on Clark's first big case, in which she was his second chair. The defendant was James Hawkins, a man Giss describes as "a counterfeit folk hero." The pair won a murder conviction after six months of jury selection and 13 months of trial. They ate lunch together every day, but Giss says he never knew a thing about Clark's personal life. The rumors about them as a couple, nonetheless, flew. "I'd say, I don't think there's a way medical science has found for a barracuda and a shark to mate,' " Giss said.

Giss made it clear that he found stories about a softer Clark, and talk about her empathy for victims, to be horse manure. He talked about her gutter mouth and salty sense of humor, about her drinking and smoking with detectives. He left out that she drank Glenlivet, not Rolling Rock, and that her cigarettes were Dunhills. Clark was never profiled before the Simpson case, and in the early going she clung to the image Giss gave her. It was better than flirt.

But Clark has come to bemoan the prevalence of the Giss portrait, which led to such profiles as "True Grit" in the New Yorker and Jimmy Breslin's gruff paean in Esquire. She told Baragona a few weeks ago: "If they only talk to Harvey they'll think I eat nails for breakfast."

Some saw beyond the smoke and liquor, among them John Lynch, who supervised her for four years. "Marcia was in a business coming up that was dominated clearly by men," he said. "She was one of those who she was going to do what she needed to do without anybody changing the rules or lowering the basket. I think she may have over-compensated to show she could be as tough as anybody else. Part of that you see when Marcia gets caught between the little girl giggle, finger in the cheek, gee folks, and Marcia the shark. I don't find the middle range with her. She is either coquettish or full attack." The Children

Clark had her first baby well into her thirties, and her second almost at 40. She waited, says friend Dauber, for more financial security. But she always wanted children.

In 1993, Clark gave up trial work for a supervisory job. Her sons were 1 and 3. She loved being a mother, friends say. It was all connected, they conjecture, to the part of her that had been protective and loving toward her younger brother. But other things in her life were wrong.

Around the same time Dauber's house burned down. Dauber, a documentary filmmaker, had not been in close touch with Clark. She learned who her real friends were, and Clark, it turned out, was one of them. "I can't tell you what I owe her," Dauber says now. Clark brought her boxes of towels and clothes. Dauber spent many a weekend at her old friend's house, both of them sleepless, talking into the night.

"She was doing the administrative job. She was really unhappy. She didn't know if it was her job or her marriage or both, and she was in a lot of turmoil. She was really down.

"She had these young children and a lot of responsibility and it was really, really hard. I think she had all the normal fears of could she make it alone or not, and what that would be like, and how Gordon would take it -- they're both very attached to the kids."

The decision to separate was agonizing. The decision to go back to trial work was easier.

"She felt she had to work full time anyway, she wasn't getting up in the morning to do something interesting, she was getting really depressed, she felt it would be better for everybody if she were doing what she liked," Dauber recalled. "She felt like if she was happy in her work, she'd be happier for the kids."

The details of that divorce, filed days before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, created a media frenzy within a media frenzy during the trial. At one point, Clark filed a motion asking the court to force Gordon to reinstate the support payments she said he had unilaterally halved to $500. With her $96,000 salary, she made roughly double that of her husband, a computer programmer. But she also had the children much more than half the time. Gordon Clark took some cheap shots in the filings. He made it sound as if his wife wanted more money for high heels and hair spray for her new-found celebrity. He whined about all the bad publicity he was getting.

In his filings, Gordon Clark complained: "Leslie Abramson and Gloria Allred appeared on Which Way LA a radio program and speculated that I was possibly some kind of child molester and that my motivation might be just to hit' petitioner with the custody motion in order to get out of my support obligation. Cokie Roberts appeared on This Week with David Brinkley and implied, strongly, that my case was being run by O.J. Simpson's defense team."

The filings also said his ex-wife spent at most one hour a day with her children. Worse, she wouldn't let him spend more than Tuesday and Thursday evenings and every other weekend with them. They were left with the nanny, he said, "starved for affection." The filings, if they are to be believed, show a savage Marcia Clark. He described how one night last December he told her he wanted the children more, and "she told me she would have my ass if I tried to do this' and would throw me in Court so fast it would make my head spin.' "

Another night, during the trial, in violation of their agreement, he kept the kids overnight. "At 12:25 a.m., the phone rang. It was the petitioner who had just arrived home. She started yelling at me and asked me what I thought I was doing. She told me I had no right' to have the kids overnight. . . . She threatened me that she would get an injunction' against me to limit me from seeing our kids. She told me she wished I would die and drop off the face of the earth.' "

Clark does have a nanny, whom she has had to supplement with a babysitter during the Simpson trial. But she has not, her friends insist, given up on the time-consuming monotony of mothering, even during Simpson. There are the joys of changing diapers during the 18th replay of "The Lion King," the zoo trips, the amusement parks, the sandbox.

"The 3-year-old is a handful," Baragona said. "She reads to them every night, she was reading The Rescuers' to them last night when I called and she said one more page, then she calls back and starts talking to me about EDTA {a blood preservative at issue in the trial}. The weekends she has the kids, she has the kids, she has to take care of them."

Baragona, perhaps more than most people, sees the Clark who is hanging on by a thread. It's the Marcia Clark with credit card debts, who had to borrow $26,000 from her 401(k) for "a medical-dental catastrophe." It's the Marcia Clark who shops Price Club, who sometimes only makes it to court in borrowed suits. There were exclamations when, in the divorce filings, she said she had to spend $1,500 on new shoes and suits for the trial. But she bought five suits and a stack of shoes for that money. That wouldn't even pay for one of defense attorney Robert Shapiro's Armanis. The Consensus

At dinner parties, at Beverly Hills lunches, in legal circles, all around Los Angeles, the consensus is that Marcia Clark is bombing in the Simpson trial.

Even Giss, who thinks so highly of her, will only say she has been "steady." Martel, who has served as consultant to the prosecution, contends her shining moments are ahead of her. Sterling Norris is toughest of all.

"She has the inexperience of feeling she has to attack everything that moves," he says.

Watched in court, Clark seems made of adrenaline. Her hands are frantic. She hits the lectern more than anyone else. Her voice can be sober and hard to hear sometimes, but it all too often ranges into sarcasm. She objects at times when sitting back might look more generous. Her face betrays every vibration of anger or frustration. About her only restrained cross-examinations were her treatment a month ago of Simpson's daughter and mother. Sometimes it seems that her only concession to the thespian arts is her sugary camaraderie with Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. or the fulsome jocularity she uses with co-counsel Christopher Darden. She is often whispering in Darden's ear, one eye watching the audience watching her. It leaves her looking peacockish. For all his preening, it is a mistake Cochran never makes. And the jury, lawyers say, sees all of this.

"I think she would have been a good prosecutor in this case if she'd had five more years' experience. She has never had a high-profile case, not only in terms of publicity, but in terms of intricacy," Norris says. "She is a prosecutor who has great expectations, but I think she was thrust into this before she was ready, and whether the decisions being made are hers or partly hers, the total thing is a disaster."

Clark's previous cases were far easier. The defendants were outcasts -- poor, disadvantaged and vicious. There was the man who sodomized and killed elderly Asian women. There were the two men who shotgunned two people to death in a black church in south-central Los Angeles. In all these cases, the hallmarks of a Clark prosecution -- five hours of sleep, hands-on knowledge (she has taken Baragona on searches for murder weapons in shrubbery) and preparation bordering on the maniacal -- brought her convictions.

The high points of many of her previous trials, those who worked on the opposite side of the aisle say, depended on her ability to re-create the victims' plight and to keep whatever niggling nuances there were neatly ironed away. Her fidelity to detail in those cases seemed more conscientious than implacable.

Few have more regard for her than Danna Schaeffer, Rebecca Schaeffer's mother. Rebecca was a beautiful young television actress who was stalked and killed in 1989 by Robert John Bardo, whom Clark put in prison for life. To Mrs. Schaeffer, Clark was a gentle, protective advocate who was capable in crisis. After the trial was over, Clark sent a letter to the Schaeffers, which Danna Schaeffer still keeps. One of the paragraphs says: "I just want you to know how deeply I sense, empathize and personally experience your heartbreak at the loss of Rebecca. I never knew her, yet I mourn her and feel a shattering pain as though she'd been my sister."

Focus groups conducted by the prosecution before the trial showed just what Clark, to this day, is up against. For those people -- mostly whites -- who were predisposed to believing Simpson guilty, Clark was seen as a capable, tough woman who would stand up to the defense. For those people -- mostly blacks -- who were predisposed to believe Simpson innocent , Clark was seen as attacking him, without cause.

"Marcia is a very bright, determined, headstrong kind of a person," said Donald Vinson, the consultant who conducted the focus groups. "But to a lot of blacks in this country who feel that O.J. is being victimized by the white establishment and the court system, Marcia in that sense could not have been a better candidate for prosecuting him, to complete their perspective. She was absolutely cast perfectly if that's what you want to believe." Through the Looking Glass

Clark calls herself Alice in Wonderland now. The tabloids have dug up neighbors who say she was battered. They have interviewed people who have never met her but give glowing interviews of her childhood. She's supposed to be friends with Roseanne but has never met her.

Los Angeles is always abuzz with talk of her social life, but friends say the truth is she has gone to only two Hollywood parties since the trial began. One, at producer Ray Stark's house, was at the invitation of the district attorney's public information officer, Suzanne Childs. The other was a benefit this month at Carrie Fisher's house for battered women. It was hardly glamorous; Clark brought her kids.

The other day the tabloids reported Clark was supposed to have had a date, but that was a dinner with her brother. In reality, Baragona said, she hasn't had a date in months. That Hollywood producer she was rumored to be seeing amounted to one date, and then nothing. "She would love to meet somebody," Baragona acknowledged.

In their nightly phone conversations, Baragona tells Clark to stop reading the newspapers, to trust her instincts. It is a message harder and harder for Clark to hear. "She's really tired," says Baragona.

A few weeks ago, Clark finished an exhausting week in court and launched into organizing a Sunday birthday party for one of the children. It was a frenetic affair, reported Baragona, who spent the day at Clark's and was left "with a wet washcloth" on her head and "a severe migraine" in a state of near-collapse.

Not the prosecutor. Clark, the next day, was in court, back in the moving camera's lens. CAPTION: Marcia Clark with prosecutor William Hodgman in court in January. Says another prosecutor: "Nobody has a mind like Marcia. She has a fabulous, phenomenal memory of case law, citations, case names." CAPTION: Marcia Clark on Wednesday addressing the court about the Fuhrman tapes. According to a former boss, "I don't find the middle range with her. She is either coquettish or full attack."