There was a time, many summers ago now, when the enchantress Patricia Duff would lazily float around the pool in the back yard of the rented house in Georgetown, and the young Democratic strategy and polling men in her crowd would gaze on in rapture.

She was a beauty, this young Hill researcher with the Georgetown degree, and she had brains as well. In a city which prizes seriousness of purpose more than anything, Duff was not content to be merely gorgeous.

She wanted to be substantive. She wanted to have an impact on the direction of the nation. Instead, her life has dissolved into a trashy beach novel.

Now the woman who once had the president's ear is on the phone from her $2.5 million house in Connecticut, with its flagstone terraces and bridle paths and 20 rolling green acres, its security cameras and armed guards, and she is talking about her legal troubles. This is the house where, she told the local police, the office door was removed from its hinges and her cell phones were smashed, tapes of conversations with her ex-husband were mysteriously erased, the 15 Ralph Lauren belts valued at $20,000 disappeared and the Baccarat tumblers worth $24,000 vanished.

Duff believed it was a harassment crime and told detectives she suspected it had been ordered by Ex No. 4, Revlon Inc. chief and billionaire corporate raider Ronald O. Perelman--with whom she is locked in a destructive custody battle over the couple's little girl. No charges were filed, and Perelman directed his public relations team to denounce Duff's allegations with one word: nonsensical.

She says he told her: "I will destroy you and I will enjoy it."

He says she is unstable and irresponsible.

At the heart of the court fight, which resumes this week, is Caleigh, a bright and chattering 4-year-old extrovert with honey blond Alice-in-Wonderland hair, who now divides her time between her mother and her father.

The full-time titan wants custody. So does the full-time mom. Both are used to getting their way.

"Mr. Perelman did everything he could to avoid being cross-examined on custody, an examination that would have exposed his lack of parental involvement, his utterly false and hypocritical piety, his womanizing, his wayward way of life, his unrelenting punitive behavior to his ex-wives, his children and to anyone who does not bend to his will, and his systematic harassment of me in a multitude of ways."

--Patricia Duff, in an affidavit filed with the Supreme

Court of the State of New York

This is now her job: professional litigator. She says she's only trying to stand up for herself and her child against the ego and power of a man with an annual income of up to $100 million. "I have been treated completely unfairly," she says, by Perelman and the courts. Since the couple's divorce was final last September, Duff has sought to have her case reassigned, claiming that the judge is prejudiced.

A sympathetic environmental lawyer in Manhattan lets her use a small office in his firm. It holds some ratty velveteen chairs and a Rolodex that looks surprisingly anemic for a woman who once had the A-lists of Hollywood, Washington and New York at her fingertips.

Duff, 45, came to Washington like many women of her generation, determined to have political influence. But she went about it in the most old-fashioned way--through her associations with wealthy and powerful men. That decision, which successfully made her into a Democratic Party force, also landed her here, where she thumbs a four-inch-thick binder neatly labeled "Legal Bills." In her nearly three-year fight with Perelman, Duff has gone through about 20 lawyers, and a few of them are now suing her for late payment. She's spent $3 million on legal bills, she says.

On her office desk is a fax from the office of Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), her latest high-profile romancer, who has used his big voice and a media bullhorn to holler gallantly at Perelman. And taped to an upright file is the office's single piece of art, a child's watercolor of five stick figures, with this neatly printed caption: "On vacation I went to Florida and I went to the movie theater in my house. Caleigh."

For Duff, where once there were glittering Hollywood parties and intimate high-roller Democratic National Committee dinners and private jet service to the national convention, there now are subpoenas and depositions and nasty tabloid headlines. Where there was a doting husband who beamed as his wife worked a roomful of donors within the gilded confines of their art-studded home, there now is a raging ex who gets court approval to station his security guards at Duff's side, ostensibly to protect Caleigh.

Where once there were breakfasts with President Clinton, a baby shower hosted by Barbara Walters and dinners with Barbra Streisand, there now are several former friends who have chilled, either because they fear Perelman's power or because, as one said, "it's such an ugly mess."

Where once breathless buzz named Duff the next Pamela Harriman of the Democratic Party, it now brands her a paranoid fruitcake.

Duff sighs. "I feel like I'm getting mugged on Main Street," she says, "and everyone is standing around going, 'Boy, are these people weird.' "

"Mr. Perelman pays all of [Caleigh's] medical care, education, extracurricular activities, camp and a nanny, as well as $12,000 a month in child support for 'unenumerated' expenses, totaling $30,000 a month that he currently pays to support his four-year-old child. Defendant's request for nearly $70,000 a month in interim child support had nothing whatsoever to do with the needs of the child--it was a blatant attempt to supplement the nearly $30 million in assets she receives on account of her 18-month marriage with plaintiff."

--Perelman attorney arguing before Judge Eileen Bransten, New York Supreme Court

This is not about the money, insists Duff.

Raised middle-class, the daughter of an aviation executive and a homemaker, Duff very nimbly married rich, once she got going. Her first marriage to a high school sweetheart lasted briefly. Her second, to an easygoing Washington lawyer named Dan Duff, ended when she floated out to Hollywood to try a little acting and lured top studio head Mike Medavoy away from his wife. She exited her L.A. marriage, which lasted nine years, with about $3 million. By the time her divorce from Perelman was final, she was worth about $30 million, a third of that in art, antiques and jewelry, according to court papers.

So Duff could replace those missing Ralph Lauren belts and Baccarat tumblers many times over and can afford to take up with a mere senator. If money is a tool, she has wielded it expertly over the past 15 years to attain things far more important to her: power, influence and being treated seriously. Duff is shrewd enough to recognize that idealism is lovely, but money is what really counts in building political clout.

"I wanted to be considered substantive," says Duff. "The last thing I wanted to be considered was fluff." Indeed, through years of reading gossip about herself, Duff has demanded and gotten a retraction only once--after the New York Post insinuated she'd slept with the president. "It was absurd!" she says of the item. "I had a very nice relationship with the president. I liked the fact that it was on a substantive level. I don't need to show that I'm sexually attractive. I don't have to do that in politics."

She started down the road toward political prestige in a standard enough fashion. In the late '70s, she took her international relations degree from Georgetown and got a research job on the House Select Committee on Assassinations. She worked for John McLaughlin, who was starting his broadcast career, and then for Pat Caddell, Jimmy Carter's pollster. Bob Squier, now one of Vice President Gore's media strategists, hired Duff to buy advertising for his political clients, and she worked her way up to a vice president's slot in his firm. She married Duff, she drove a beat-up Vega.

"She was Patricia," says Lisa Lehner, a Miami attorney who met her while working for the House committee and has stayed her friend for more than 20 years. "She was fun. She played softball. We played tennis. We worked. It was pretty unremarkable.

"But from the beginning, that was her religion--politics. Her mind and her intellect and her native intelligence are way up there. She can expound on issues that she has been exposed to. Before anybody else had ever heard of it, she went into this whole thing about fiber optics," recalls Lehner. "She's always on the cutting edge. But of course, the first thing anyone is exposed to is her incredible beauty."

Beth Dozoretz, finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, says the first time she met with Duff, "I found myself staring at her, because she was just exquisite-looking, in that most understated way. She has a natural glow and a natural beauty."

She does turn heads. During an interview in her office, several young lawyers, both men and women, dawdled and stared as they walked past the glass conference room. Duff's beauty is luminous and unadorned, classic like Grace Kelly's but without the iciness. She piles up her buttery blonde hair casually so a few strands twine down around her lovely neck and fidgets with the gaping low neckline of her sinuous navy blue dress.

"I don't think of myself as beautiful. I think I have my moments," says Duff, before accurately surmising a moment later: "I don't think I looked like your typical staffer in Washington."

And she admits to reading with keen interest about research into the perils of pulchritude, among them intense jealousy from other women and unwanted sexual interest from men. The piece theorized that drop-dead women rush into relationships to escape being bombarded by male attention; Duff says, "I wonder if that is not true."

"I suspect she has had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously," says a well-connected Washington lawyer who knows her. "She is far more substantive than people give her credit for."

There it is: That word again.

In California in the '80s, Duff quickly moved to establish a power base. Using Medavoy's pull and purse strings, she raised money for Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis and later ignited Hollywood celebrities for Clinton, helping to establish a bedrock of support that the president has leaned on again and again.

"I am a big fan of hers," says longtime Democratic activist David Mixner. "She never lost her commitment. She has had a real deep passionate feeling about issues."

Others in the trenches say her reputation in Hollywood was overblown. "She never really did much. She wanted to be seen as the priestess of the Washington-Hollywood connection, but it was smoke and mirrors," says another West Coast Democratic Party strategist. "Politicians thought they were talking to high-end Hollywood people, but they weren't."

This Democratic activist also says Duff alienated the existing liberal elite in Hollywood. "You know, she's too shrewd for her own good. People who are really smart are not always self-aware about how they are perceived, or how their conduct is perceived."

If Duff had cracks in that self-awareness, they widened to life-swallowing chasms when she left Medavoy and moved on to Perelman. Nearly 40 and childless, she told friends she was desperate to have a baby. Medavoy, who had adult children from a previous marriage, wasn't interested. Perelman had five children, four of them grown, too, but he accepted Duff's terms for a merger.

Their personal life was tumultuous from the start, but for several months, Duff managed to build her political power base in New York. She chaired a state task force on teen pregnancy. She became president of the Revlon Foundation, the philanthropic arm of her husband's cosmetic company. She joined the executive board of the Women's Leadership Forum of the DNC and co-chaired fund-raising in New York for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. She got her husband to commit his fat wallet to several Democratic candidates and causes.

"With Pamela Harriman gone, in '96 there was a desire [in the top tiers of the party] for somebody to emerge with that sort of panache, and I think she was well on her way to fulfilling that," says Dozoretz. "She was attractive and had a lot of style and had sincere motives and was willing to work very hard."

Perelman was supportive of her work, says Dozoretz. "I think the world of them both. His generosity provided the platform for her. We would go to fund-raisers, and he would be very happy to be in the background. There are not that many men of his magnitude who would be willing to share the limelight."

In private, the volatile Perelman grew incensed at Duff's unpredictability, observers of their relationship say. "He is a maniacal control freak, and with Patricia it was always chaos, chaos, chaos. She is perpetually late. She has total disregard for other people's schedules and time," says a Duff intimate.

Just as her ambitions seemed within her grasp, Duff's political trajectory stalled--at the '96 Democratic National Convention. A New York delegate, she headed for Chicago with her toddler in tow, trailed by an entourage that included a nanny, an assistant, a bodyguard and a Perelman lobbyist. Her husband was due later in the week.

He couldn't trust her, Perelman told Duff, didn't want her to go out at night. She obeyed, until, mid-convention, she left her daughter with the nanny and went out for a few hours one evening. With publicist Alma Viator and lobbyist Liz Robbins, who tell the same version of the evening's events, Duff stopped at a reception for onetime swain Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and then at a party for the vice president and first lady.

The next day, Perelman came to Chicago, and the couple set off for the convention floor. He asked her if she had gone out. She told him where she'd been.

At that, Perelman halted the car, climbed into another one in their convoy and headed toward the airport, where he flew back to New York in his private jet. The temper tantrum hit the tabloids the next day, and within weeks, Perelman had filed for divorce.

For the moment, Duff has Torricelli as her protector. He loves publicity and stunning wonks; Bianca Jagger was the first to land his name in the gossip columns.

"I have tried to be a comfort," he says of their year-long relationship. "It's not been the best of circumstances." He has persisted, he says, because "she is one of those rare individuals who combine it all--smart, engaging, fun, intellectual . . . and beautiful."

Duff's attorney: "Your Honor, if Mr. Perelman can stop smirking and laughing, I would appreciate it."

Perelman's attorney: "My client is not smirking and laughing."

--Court transcript

The bully billionaire, short and balding, witty and intense, takes over women the way he takes over companies. Bears down, offers all the sweeteners--the Harry Winston diamonds, the entire Armani collection, the extravagant vacations, the flattery so florid it falls just short of unctuous. For every tale of a Perelman tirade, of a valet parker expletived into a cowering heap, of a longtime top employee fired by fax while taking vacation to care for an ailing wife, there is a tale of a woman under the influence.

After his 19-year marriage to Philadelphia heiress Faith Golding collapsed, Perelman wound up a few years later in the arms of New York gossip columnist Claudia Cohen. That marriage ended nearly nine years later, in 1994. Cohen managed to emerge after acrimonious negotiations with $80 million, a Park Avenue mini-palace, a summer spread in the Hamptons and a daughter, Samantha, who was the takeover king's fifth child.

After Perelman, 56, barred Duff from his house, he turned to thirtysomethings, including a delicious interlude in which the towering Eleanor Mondale had the 5-foot-7 Perelman pressed up against a tree outside Le Cirque. Now, another huge diamond from Harry Winston is gracing the engagement finger of actress Ellen Barkin, the thinking man's sexpot. Perelman "has the capacity to be extremely charming," says one of Duff's longtime friends. And he can be extraordinarily generous, spreading around millions on Jewish causes and to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, in his hometown of Philadelphia.

But the charm can vanish in an instant, swept away by the hot lava of Perelman's temper and what Duff's friends describe as a pathological need for control.

Ron Perelman met Patricia Duff in 1993, at a Revlon charity event, and they began an electric affair. Duff was still married to Medavoy, who was crushed when he found out, friends said. "I'm sorry I ever met her," he told Los Angeles magazine in 1996.

Even as Perelman courted Duff, cooing on the phone with her for hours, giving her $200,000, paying for fertility treatments so she could have the baby she craved, he was hotheaded and abusive, scaring her, Duff told friends at the time.

He screamed profanities at her, raging that her divorce from Medavoy was taking too long, say Duff's friends, or lambasting her when she didn't respond quickly enough to his telephone pages. She fretted to her girlfriends that he ordered spies to follow her around. Medavoy also believed he was being monitored, according to media accounts. The studio head told of being pursued at high speeds through the streets of Hollywood. He saw a strange car sitting in his driveway. After he called Perelman's lawyer, the local mayor and a "couple of senators," Medavoy claimed, the "harassment" stopped. Perelman, said his attorney Adria Hillman, denies that he had anything to do with it. Perelman himself declined to be interviewed for this story.

While this behavior worried Duff and would have scared off a less optimistic woman, she plunged forward with her relationship, moving into Perelman's double town house.

She was skilled at tending to the eccentricities of rich men; she was confident she could make him behave. With Medavoy, she had conquered the elite Democratic circles of Hollywood. She was ready to take Manhattan.

Asked why she committed to such a tempestuous affair, Duff says she is bound by an agreement that precludes her from discussing their life together. However, she can say, "I was in love with him. And I desperately wanted a brood."

A fuller description exists deep within the report of Sandra Kaplan, the psychiatrist appointed by the court to evaluate the emotional well-being of the principals. Duff "described their relationship as intensely passionate. She said that they had a strong affinity for each other in every way. While she indicated that he could be gruff and controlling, she was attracted to his boyish vulnerable nature."

"The allegation that during Passover last year I 'baked cookies' with our daughter and therefore allowed three-year-old Caleigh to violate Jewish dietary laws is false."

--Affidavit of Patricia Duff, March 1999

Yes, that's about the level at which Perelman and Duff are litigating over their little girl. Whether Duff, a convert to Judaism, put flour in the Passover cookies, whether she defied his known wishes that Caleigh never climb onto a horse, whether the bodyguards can stand guard in the Waldorf-Astoria Towers lobby or must be stationed right outside the apartment's door.

Perelman, so fixated on protection that he hired a former FBI director to head his security army, insists on 24-hour armed officers around his daughter. When Caleigh's court-appointed attorney, Jo Ann Davis, weighs in on security issues, she offers the odd proclamation, for the record, that the girl is "the youngest child of the richest Jew in America."

Duff fights Judge Bransten's order granting Perelman's demands because, she says, it is excessive and intrusive and allowed Perelman spies in her daily midst. (Late last week an appellate panel overruled Bransten's order).

Hillman countered that "there is no one who controls [Duff] and she goes on and does whatever she wants to do with her life."

At this point, Perelman is seeking sole power to make decisions about Caleigh's life, says Hillman, as well as joint physical custody. He has based his bid on Kaplan's report, which concludes that Duff has a "borderline personality disorder, with passive-aggressive, narcissistic and paranoid features."

"Basically, she was unable to separate her own needs from those of the child," says Hillman. In her on-record retort to this unflattering portrayal, Duff calls Kaplan "an utterly co-opted witness who lunched with Mr. Perelman and Bon Jovi at Mr. Perelman's palatial East Hampton estate and frolicked on the beach with him and his family while preparing her report."

To which Kaplan responded, through a spokeswoman, that she was "ordered to spend time at both homes to observe and evaluate the child."

To some observers of the case, it seemed that Duff's attorney at the time, William Beslow, demolished Kaplan's recommendations for Perelman's sole custody during cross-examination. He pointed to Kaplan's own words: "I have observed Caleigh to be a bright, personable child who is very healthy and handling the stress of her parents' divorce with great resilience." From there, it should have been a simple case to settle, these observers say, because Duff had been the primary nurturing parent from birth.

Instead, settlement talks fell apart again in January. Each time over the last two years that the case appeared headed for a resolution, Duff filed a motion, or fired attorneys, or asked for a stay, contends Hillman. Many of these actions, contends Duff, are because Bransten has not conducted a fair trial. But one of Duff's previous attorneys says, "There is something that prevents her from resolving it."

In an interview, Hillman is blunt about the reason. "Because she's crazy!" she says, prompting Howard Rubenstein, Perelman's public relations heavyweight, to interrupt, "Now wait a minute, let's use more temperate language."

"Okay, she's paranoid," says Hillman.

Says Duff: "There is a presumption that I'm just fomenting litigation, because I have lost sight of what is important here. I have not. The fact of that matter is, I have spent more than any human being should in time and money to defend my parental rights. At the end of the day, I don't want to lose that."

"I don't think she's being paranoid," says Susan Estrich, law professor and ex-campaign manager and Duff acquaintance. She has reviewed some of Duff's case.

"If she is, she has reason to be. I believe she is a woman who is being pushed, and pushed very intentionally.

"Normal litigation does not involve counting who goes to services the most. What makes this case different are the bottomless resources of the father and his determination to keep pushing, pushing, pushing.

"So she knew what she was getting into with him at the start. You can say that about the divorce, but this is way beyond what she deserved."

CAPTION: The Democratic Party girl on the June 1983 Washingtonian cover.

CAPTION: NOW AND THEN

CAPTION: Patricia Duff earlier this month in an unguarded moment at Tavern on Main in Westport, Conn., above; and in 1996 in California, flanked by then-husband Ronald Perelman, left, Jim Carrey and Lilly Tartikoff.

CAPTION: Patricia Duff has found comfort of late with New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, above; her battle with ex-husband Ron Perelman, below, has cost her many old friends.