What do the younger sons of the celebrated Washington hostess hope to gain by waging legal war over their mother's will? Money -- to be sure. Influence over the city's future -- no doubt. But maybe they just don't want Gwen Cafritz to have the last word.

ON JUNE 10, 1986, GWENDOLYN D. CAFRITZ GAVE HER LAST PARTY. She had not given a party for eight years, and even then, she had been memorializing the past; the real tradition, the old wine being decanted on this lambent June evening, had been decades in storage. But it was a heady enough wine to call out 300 guests, and the ghosts of many more who had preceded them.

To slip out of the speedy traffic on Foxhall Road into the half-circle driveway was to slip back in time. Here, still, was the art moderne house, nearly as startling in 1986 as it had been when Morris Cafritz built it for his young family almost 50 years earlier. Here, beyond the threshold, was the stunning circular entrance hall, dramatic enough to live up to the woman who once swept down the stairs to greet her guests.

The house was not so much well-tended as beautifully preserved, arrested in time; and the party duplicated the past in every anachronistic detail. As the hostess had asked, Ridgewell's Caterers heaped the silver platters and chafing dishes with the same filling, fusty food -- the whole poached salmon, the ham and turkey and carved tenderloin; none of the pastas or blackened seafood or grilled vegetables then in fashion. Waiters passed shrimp with cocktail sauce, while full bars offered prehistoric spirits such as bourbon and gin, defiant holdouts in the age of chardonnay and bottled water. The same plain white damask draped the table, with plain white damask napkins tied around settings of her heavy Georg Jensen flatware.

It was an invitation to stroll around the house and remember: When Gwen Cafritz, with her 19-inch waist and Balmain gowns, her raven hair and regal air, had won constant publicity for her parties -- 22 to dinner, with toasts over champagne, and enormous receptions like this one each spring and fall. When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came and danced downstairs in "the Club," with the dance floor lighted from below. When the Cafritzes' back terrace offered the most celebrated view of the city, southeast, past the swimming pool and rolling lawn, all the way to the Capitol.

She could no longer make an entrance, of course. This time, the receiving line snaked across the long, low living room to the far wall, where the hostess was displayed in a yellow silk armchair. Ridgewell's had produced, out of retirement, the same waiter who had announced the guests eight years before. As he stood by her chair, he could name at a glance quite a few of the guests -- Chief Justice and Mrs. Warren Burger . . . Senator Barry Goldwater . . . Baron and Baroness Constantine Stackelberg . . . From the others he solicited their names, bending to murmur prompts into the ear of the star.

Her hair was still a lacquered black, heavily dressed as always at the back of her head. Her gown, as in the past, was spectacularly formal: folds of purple satin sweeping to her ankles beneath a fitted bodice. But it was hard to remember, here, the titanic social ambition that had made her what she was. Her skin had an unhealthy, pouchy pallor; extending an uncertain hand, she had the air of a dreamer deploying remembered charms.

No one needed to be told that this was Gwendolyn Cafritz's last hurrah. So if some of these nostalgic callers had once doubted or mocked her, with her grand house and her grand airs and her husband's enormous fortune, it was surely too late, in 1986, for any of these social acquaintances to want to shatter this fading legend.

That task was left to her closest relatives.

Among the guests that June evening were her three sons, Calvin, Carter and Conrad. Recognizably brothers, the youngest of them nearing his fifties, they were a striking presence at the party. All three had become local real estate developers, successful, if less spectacular, emulators of their father. Yet in Morris's absence, the family was anything but the tight-knit dynasty he had paved the way for. All three sons were rumored to have difficult relationships with their mother, and it was rare to find them together, bearing in unison the family standard.

Two and a half years later Gwendolyn Cafritz was dead of cancer, at 78, and the following summer -- three years after that final party -- her two younger sons filed suit in D.C. Superior Court to have her will overturned and her estate, worth at least $140 million, divided among her children.

Their complaint challenges her wish to leave all she owned, except for minor bequests, to the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, a charitable trust her husband had established 40 years before. Implicitly, Carter and Conrad Cafritz are also challenging her designation of Calvin, the eldest, as the only son who will have a future role in running the foundation, which already controls assets of more than $220 million.

Named in the lawsuit, besides Calvin, is everyone to whom Gwendolyn Cafritz made a bequest, including her former servants and grandchildren, two nephews and an old escort. But its true targets are two longtime advisers who are executors of her estate: Martin Atlas, for decades the closest business associate of both Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz, and William P. Rogers, the former attorney general and secretary of state who was Gwendolyn's personal attorney. These two, according to the complaint by Carter and Conrad Cafritz, "exerted undue influence" in Gwendolyn's decision to leave her entire estate to the foundation, of which they are both trustees.

The complaint further asserts that "when Decedent allegedly executed the purported Will and Codicil that have been offered for probate herein, Decedent lacked a sound and disposing mind and was not capable of executing a valid deed or contract. Decedent lacked sufficient capacity to, and did not, dispose of her property with judgment and understanding, considering the nature, character and extent of her estate."

In plain English, Gwendolyn Cafritz's two younger sons are contending in court that their mother was too feebleminded to write her will; document requests filed in court suggest they may try to prove she was incapacitated by alcoholism.

What do Conrad and Carter Cafritz hope to gain from an arduous legal proceeding that already involves at least 12 law firms and threatens to stretch on for years? None of the Cafritz sons can be said to need the money that is at stake. All are multimillionaires, and Conrad Cafritz, by most accounts the prime instigator of the lawsuit, has spun his inheritance from his father into a vast personal fortune of at minimum $100 million. But like all wills, the one now known in probate court as 3035-88 offers more than one legacy, and thus more than one motive.

There is, for example, the very palpable legacy of real estate developed by Morris Cafritz, including several lots and office buildings downtown. The majority of this property was already owned by the Cafritz Foundation, but Gwendolyn was partial owner of many of the buildings; even a limited power to control their disposition would presumably attract men with ambitions in Washington real estate.

Then there is the charitable legacy. The foundation is Washington's largest source of private funds earmarked exclusively for local projects, large enough to give the person who controls it a potentially shaping influence on the city. Morris had one vision, and Gwendolyn another; whoever now gains control might offer still a third.

Finally, there is the legacy contained in any will: The power to reward or to punish the living, to define or rearrange the narrative of a family's history. For the sons of Gwendolyn Cafritz, to accept her last will and testament would be to allow her, in more than one sense, the last word.

A Marriage of Two Worlds

Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz were oil and water, a marriage forged out of surprisingly dissonant elements. Their differences were, in fact, a part of their legend, for they were one of the earliest families to bring together the two cities on the Potomac: On the one hand was the ethereal world of social and political Washington -- her world, which venerated either good birth or a seat in the Senate; on the other hand was his world, the corporeal city of sewers and streets and buildings and real citizens, men and women who grew up above grocery stores the way Morris Cafritz had.

Cafritz developed real estate here for more than four decades, until his death in 1964, and by the sheer volume and variety of his building activities was for a time the undisputed king of his field. He had emigrated from Russia as a boy with his family, which stopped briefly in New York before settling down to run a grocery store at 24th and P streets NW. Morris grew up working in the store, stalking the Maine Avenue wharf for the freshest fish sold there and learning to love the adolescent city he saw around him. In 1904, with a $1,400 loan from his father, he started out running a coal yard at Fourth and K streets NW, then a saloon near Fourth and O. Gradually, he branched into entertainment, operating the first open-air movies in Washington (a matter of setting up chairs in vacant lots), and then a bowling alley and pool hall in Southeast, near the Navy Yard. By 1915 he was known locally as "The Bowling King" but still restlessly sought an opportunity that would truly engage him. So he began buying real estate speculatively, and in 1920 opened a real estate office on 15th Street NW.

Beginning with single-family houses, moving on to apartment houses and office buildings, he managed to dodge the Depression and was well positioned to preside over the city's transforming boom during and after World War II (see box, Page 20). In the process, he amassed one of the first great fortunes to be carved out of Washington itself. When he died, his estate would be the largest ever probated in the District of Columbia; it would take teams of lawyers and IRS agents four years to settle the estate, finally valued in 1968 at $66 million. Small wonder that, as he approached his forties unmarried, he was one of the most eligible bachelors within the small, closed circle of Washington's Jewish society.

But he reached outside that circle when he finally married. It is not clear how old he was when he fell for a 19-year-old Hungarian-American beauty named Gwendolyn Detre de Surany; perhaps because she was so much younger than he, Cafritz appears to have habitually understated his age by six or eight years. Papers filed in court by his sons' lawyers say he was born in 1888; his gravestone says 1890, which would have made him only 14 when he started his business career. In any case, he was at least 20 years older than his bride when they married in 1929.

The daughter of a Hungarian immunologist who had a role in devising the early Wasserman test to detect syphilis, Gwen Cafritz was the opposite of her husband. Where he was meat and potatoes, earnest frugality, civic pride, she was flashing dark beauty, mercurial moods and social ambition.

The house on Foxhall Road, completed in 1938, was explicitly designed to fulfill that ambition. Even as the chaos of wartime Washington started to loosen social strictures, Washington's leading hostess, Evalyn Walsh McLean, stopped entertaining; this opening, together with a boost from Eleanor "Cissy" Patterson, publisher of the Washington Times-Herald, gave Gwendolyn her opportunity.

Throughout the '40s and '50s it was her custom to give a large cocktail reception each spring, and to mark the opening of every fall season with a party honoring the start of the Supreme Court term. At seated dinners for 22, she entertained ambassadors and justices, senators and Cabinet secretaries.

Gwen Cafritz and her chief rival, Perle Mesta, were in fact the first of a new breed -- celebrity hostesses who openly courted the press and saw no shame in self-promotion. Old press notices, written in the uncritical fashion of the day, recount her summers in Monte Carlo; her typical day in Washington (beginning with a ride in her limousine -- license number 2301, to match her address -- to the Supreme Court or the Capitol, to take in a decision or an interesting hearing); her winter trips to Palm Beach; her shopping trips in Paris; her ladies lunches at the Mayflower Hotel. Only between the lines or in conversations with old friends can one make out how nakedly she wore her ambitions, and how hard she was working to measure up.

"She was not, as they say, invited anywhere at the beginning," recalls Gore Vidal, whose novel Washington, D.C. includes a character "suggested," he says, by Gwendolyn Cafritz. Irene Bloch, as she is called, is a wealthy department store owner's wife who mounts a relentless campaign for acceptance in Washington society.

"Old Washington was very antisemitic, as you know," continues Vidal, whose childhood here as the stepson of lawyer and investor Hugh D. Auchincloss and the grandson of Oklahoma Sen. Thomas Gore gave him an intimate education in Washington society. "Jews in general just didn't figure. There were of course the grand exceptions like the Warburgs, and Walter Lippmann, and Arthur Krock . . . And even then, there was always fussing. And {Gwendolyn} was just considered comical, and there were a lot of jokes about her. That's why her final victory rather delighted me."

High culture was one of her chosen routes to acceptance. She was multilingual and had studied art history at the University of Budapest. But she had a disconcertingly self-serious way of advertising it. To one interviewer she said that art was "the theme, you might say" of her life, "as in a Wagnerian opera." To Edward R. Murrow, in a 1956 interview, she said that to speak of Washington cocktail parties was "unfair to Washington. They're more like the French salons."

Vidal wrote, "Irene's evening dress was much too vivid, too personal, too fashionable for the calculated dowdiness" of a dinner in old-line Washington. And to the publicity-loathing cave dwellers, the Georgetown hostesses who were society leaders by birth, Gwendolyn's so-visible efforts made her a figure of fun. Ymelda Dixon, who covered many of her parties for the Evening Star, recalls, "They were great parties, because she had the means and the imagination. But they also sort of outraged people." There was no one she would not invite to dinner, sometimes calling the offices of Cabinet secretaries to ask for any day in the next year when the secretary would be free. Even her friends laughed at the way she would seat herself intently in the lobby of the Paris Hotel in Monte Carlo, at a table "very strategically placed," in the words of one, to court the passing society.

Morris was a famously frugal man who used to tell friends he couldn't afford to rent office space in the best of his buildings, and his major vanity, beyond lying about his age, appears to have been combing his pomaded hair over a bald spot at the back. Yet he uncomplainingly supported all of Gwendolyn's efforts, and was said to adore his colorful bride. "I think he went along," says a longtime business associate, Irwin Altman. "He wasn't overly enthused about it, but those were her wishes, and he sort of enjoyed it in a quiet way."

While she cultivated the mighty, Morris looked closer to home, helping to found the Washington Community Chest, becoming an activist in local Jewish groups. He was for years the president of the Jewish Community Center and donated the land for its first headquarters on Q Street NW. He was "greatly respected and liked, even in an antisemitic society," recalls Dixon. Yet Morris made little impression on Gwendolyn's social world, and she often went out or took vacations alone. In Washington, D.C., when Irene Bloch's husband dies, a character says, "We should build him a monument, and dedicate it to the Unknown Husband."

The Cafritzes slept in separate bedrooms, Morris rising at dawn to get to the office. He may sometimes have yearned for recognition: One night, after one of the glamorous dinners, he drew a friend of Gwendolyn's away from the dining room and into the kitchen. "He took me into the kitchen and showed me how the cook would leave coffee for him in the morning," remembers the friend. "He got up at 5 or 5:30, and he wanted to show me what a hard-working man he was."

The family observed Jewish holidays, and the sons attended religious school at Washington Hebrew Congregation on weekends. But Gwendolyn sometimes took pains to tell friends that she herself was not Jewish. The strange paradox of her marriage was that Morris's money enabled her to carry out her lavish social dreams, while the family's being Jewish also placed limits on her chances of realizing them.

But in the end, her siege of Washington society outlasted most of those limits. "She was a classic case," summarizes Vidal. "She wanted something, and she put up with a lot of {expletive}, and she got it. That's what we call a success story.

"That what she wanted was pointless is not for us to judge."

Empire of the Son

Nor, apparently, is it for us to judge what her sons now want from a D.C. Superior Court judge: All three declined to beinterviewed.

The suit was filed by the middle and youngest Cafritz sons, Carter, 53, and Conrad, 51. But almost no one seems to doubt that Conrad is the main force behind it. "When I heard about it, I wrote Conrad and told him I thought it was a horrible thing he and his brother were doing to his mother," says Dorothy L. Casey, a retired secretary who worked for the Cafritz Co. for decades, reflecting a widespread tendency to speak of Carter as his brother's satellite.

Certainly it is Conrad who seems to embody, in one slight frame, the polarities of his parents' lives and personalities. For better or worse, he is the son who has tried to live out both their ambitions -- to build on a scale that will make an impact on the city, and to develop a persona that will make him an actor in the capital. "He's part of a legendary family, and he's the only one who seems interested in keeping up the legend," says one friend.

There are, superficially, great similarities among the three brothers, who all share their mother's dark coloring. All three stayed in Washington to work at some variation of their father's trade. Each is in his second marriage; each is in some way involved in the arts.

Calvin, 58, who finds himself a defendant in this lawsuit, is usually described as gentlemanly, methodical and reserved. "Calvin is a very sweet, very nice person," says D.C. lawyer Max N. Berry. "Very sort of philosophic, sort of honorable." Operating under his own banner, Calvin Cafritz Enterprises, he has built both residential and commercial buildings in D.C. and Virginia.

Carter Cafritz, who sits on the board of WETA, began his career in partnership with Conrad, building apartments and town houses in and around the city. Today he shares office space and support staff with Conrad's growing interests, but for the most part pursues his own deals.

Carter appears something of a cipher even to old family associates. "Carter, he always did what the other two did," says Casey. "Carter Cafritz is just a genuine nice fellow," says Raymond Carter, a former vice president of the Cafritz Co. "Conrad is more in the father's mold. He's truly out to make a big impact on the city, I think."

Conrad Cafritz is, in a word fondly used by friends, weird. "Conrad is really an anomaly," says lawyer and real estate developer Donald Brown. "He's creative, he's smart, also ambitious, like his father. But he's much different from his father, in a lot of ways. Conrad's strange, and doesn't mind people thinking that he's strange; he kind of encourages it."

For one thing, he has a dark, avowedly cynical sense of humor. For another, he is said to alternate in seconds between a manic intensity and a mumbling diffidence. "Right at the moment he could be most charming, he does something to undercut it," says one friend. "That black sense of humor asserts itself, or he'll do something outrageous." Several friends read this changeability as part of a larger ambivalence about whether he wants to be an insider or a maverick, heir to a famous tradition or the rebel who subverts it.

All of their lives, the Cafritz boys have been aware of their status as the sons of Morris and Gwendolyn. In high school, for example, Conrad stood out even among his privileged classmates at St. Albans. His class yearbook is littered with references to his family's money; in a list at the back of "most likely" candidates, the last two entries read, "Most Likely to Succeed: Johnson, Clague," and "Doesn't Have To: Cafritz."

Today, he still combats a version of that assumption, pithily summed up by one detractor in this way: "You don't have to be Albert Einstein to take money and make additional money in real estate." Conrad is angrily aware, say friends, that his success will always be explained away. Of the three Cafritz sons, says restaurateur Herb White, "Conrad seems to be the one who has something to prove to himself."

Perhaps as a result, he works hard, with much of Morris's old drive. "Maybe we try a little harder because our family name is well-known," he told a reporter in 1965. And he still fights his battles with a surprising intensity, rarely bothering with the shake-hands-and-forget-it bonhomie common in Washington business. In particular, he has carried on an epic feud with Herbert S. Miller, chairman of Western Development Corp. Western won a city contract in 1985 to develop the so-called Portals site at the foot of the 14th Street Bridge, potentially the largest commercial development in the city. Conrad, who was a losing bidder for the job, waged a lengthy challenge, arguing that Western was giving short shrift to the minority partners whose participation qualified the partnership for the contract award; though he finally lost last year, he succeeded in forcing a renegotiation of terms between Western and the Redevelopment Land Agency. The entire time, he fought with gloves off, publicly charging his rivals with bad faith.

Then, in 1988, came the announcement that Conrad Cafritz, with Japanese partners, had bought Washington Harbour, the glitzy development below K Street in Georgetown that had been troubled from its opening; the original developer of Washington Harbour was Western. "Conrad was persistent as hell in getting that project," says one person familiar with Conrad's business. "I'm sure part of it was to show Herb Miller he was serious."

Conrad's strategy has been diversity. Through a number of different companies, he both invests in and develops all kinds of properties -- commercial, residential, retail and even industrial. He has assembled a group of about 14 local hotels, including the Georgetown Inn and One Washington Circle. He has interests too in a booming brokerage firm he helped bankroll, and in a Midwestern shopping-center conglomerate. He has always been involved in the bread and butter real estate of housing, from building single-family homes in Prince William County to renovating apartment complexes in Alexandria; he was a major beneficiary of the Washington condo boom. The Washington Harbour purchase, along with a current joint venture to develop a riverfront office and hotel project in Rosslyn, has caused speculation that Conrad Cafritz is increasingly eager to be identified with high-quality, high-profile projects that might bring him more notice.

There are hints too that he has social ambitions on Gwendolyn's scale, if not exactly of her type. Conrad and his first wife entertained often in their Georgetown house in the '60s, giving parties -- often liberal fund-raisers -- that offered cozy intimations of radical chic. (His first wife, Jennifer, has since married Laughlin Phillips, son of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips and president of the Phillips Collection.)

Today, he is married to Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who is a local power in the arts and in liberal political causes -- and the only Cafritz listed in Who's Who. Peggy, the product of a well-to-do black family from Mobile, Ala., has worked especially at promoting arts in the black community: She almost single-handedly founded the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and was Marion Barry's first chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. (Conrad and Peggy were both involved in Barry's first election campaign, and Peggy is the godmother of Barry's son, Christopher.) She appears every week on the WETA-TV arts show "Around Town." She has pressured the Smithsonian to increase the number of minorities in high-ranking positions and has been arrested outside the South African Embassy as a leader of Mother's Day protests there. And in the two decades of her advocacy, she has established a high profile -- and raised a lot of hackles among the old guard that runs most of the city's major cultural institutions.

After their marriage in 1981, Conrad and Peggy bought Sen. Stuart Symington's house in the Foxhall Road area, studied it for a while, then tore it down to build a new house. They keep china and glassware sufficient to serve hundreds. They had a large fund-raiser for Jesse Jackson in 1988, and for Conrad's 50th birthday, Peggy gave him an enormous black-tie dinner at home. "There were moments when you wanted to go around and have everybody wear not just a name tag, but a bio,"says their good friend Margaret Lenzner.

Conrad has six children -- three adopted sons, who were Jennifer's by a first marriage; two daughters with Jennifer; and, with Peggy, 5-year-old Zachary. Perhaps the most remarkable member of this third generation is his daughter Julia, who dropped out of Brown University four years ago with a classmate to found a band named Pussy Galore. It has been variously reviewed as "one of the more important bands to emerge from the new head-slamming school of American guitar/noise bands" and "the gnarliest, most scuzzed out molotov to hit the streets since the heady days of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks." Most of the band's song titles are too profane for citation in mainstream reviews (or newspaper magazines such as this); one, a song that would surely have outraged the vocalist/guitarist's grandparents, is titled "You Look Like a Jew."

It is a jolting reminder that Peggy and Conrad, a black woman married to a white Jewish millionaire in a racially divided city, represent a fascinating reshuffling of the social deck that produced the polarized marriage of Morris and Gwendolyn.

'A VERY LONELY WOMAN'

There is a poignant moment in Gwendolyn's 1956 interview with Murrow when she points out a portrait of herself that hangs on the wall. "I think it has the clean linear design of a Botticelli, and the elegance of an English portrait," she burbles, in her faintly accented great-lady voice, "and that's the way I would like my children to remember me. I hope they will."

Conrad and Carter Cafritz have chosen instead the purgatory of probate court, where their complaints suggest less lovely memories. "Getting along with her," says one developer who knows the family, "was something none of them ever mastered."

Gwendolyn reportedly raised her children according to the dictates of her European background -- under the aegis of servants, to be seen and not heard. Her statements in the press, even the adoring press of yore, suggest at the least a daunting mother. Asked in 1954 why all her sons bore two-syllable names beginning with "C," she replied, "Morris names all children, horses, dogs, apartment houses and everything around here. I just make speeches."

To those who thronged to the parties, the children were rarely in evidence. An old friend remembers a Fourth of July party at which one or more of the boys stood in a window above the path that led indoors from the pool to the cocktail area, throwing firecrackers down onto the guests.

Once grown, the sons established limited, perfunctory contacts with their mother. One possible reason for that -- and for any bitterness that might motivate the lawsuit -- is suggested by the suit's underlying argument: "For many years, beginning at a time not precisely known to plaintiffs, but at least by the time of the death of the late Morris Cafritz, the Decedent began suffering from a number of conditions that resulted in physical and mental debilitation," reads the complaint. "Decedent's condition deteriorated after the death of her husband in 1964 and grew worse in the following years."

Other documents filed in court indicate that the sons will argue their mother was incapacitated by alcoholism. One interrogatory demands that Riggs National Bank, which was Gwendolyn's bank, "identify all individuals or facilities that, from 1954 until Gwendolyn Cafritz' death, provided to Gwendolyn Cafritz any care, advice, counseling, or treatment relating to her consumption of alcohol . . . including, but not limited to, any facilities located in Washington, D.C.; Palm Beach, Florida; or Monte Carlo, Monaco." Another asks the bank to produce "all documents relating to purchase or provision of wine, champagne, or liquor on behalf of or for Gwendolyn Cafritz or for delivery to or consumption at 2301 Foxhall Road."

Interviews suggest the sons will not lack for evidence to support their argument. Michael J. Dowling, who became the Cafritzes' butler in the early '60s, describes a tragically common decline. "She was good to me, and she was a good woman in my eyes," he says. But he believes her drinking was a source of family discord. "The boys used to make a joke of their mother. If she gave them an order, they took it lightly, because she liked to drink."

Her drinking got out of control, he agrees, shortly after Morris Cafritz's sudden death of a heart attack in 1964. "Lots of times she could drink and she knew exactly what she was doing. And other times she didn't. As time went on, she lost complete control, and she had to drink more."

She kept up appearances even in the privacy of her home, where she drank Scotch from a decanter in the living room. "The decanter always had to be full," Dowling says. "Those were her orders: The Scotch should never be let go beneath the neck of the decanter."

As is often true when the secretive disease of alcoholism is combined with the see-no-evil sociability of Washington, Gwendolyn's problem was rarely recognized. It is, as always, unclear where her inborn quirkiness shaded into the effects of alcoholism; but many of her friends, in later years, simply came to think of her as "difficult" or "eccentric"; Almost everyone has a story about her forgetting their names, or making some sudden comment of shocking rudeness. But almost no one noticed what seemed apparent to Gore Vidal, in brief glimpses of her during the '60s: "Toward the end {of the decade}, she was always drunk whenever I saw her. She was forever trying to tell me some long story I could never make head or tail of."

According to friends, her confidence was badly shaken when she was robbed at home in 1969 by gunmen who bound and beat her, stealing most of the spectacular jewelry Morris had given her. In the '70s she became a near-recluse. And given the life she had lived and the kind of friends she had cultivated, few people were close enough to her to understand why. "I used to call up the house and get her maid, and her maid would talk to me about her, and say that she was completely worn out and simply couldn't get up and get herself ready to go on the warpath," says socialite Polly Logan. "I just thought she maybe had had enough of running around, and she was maybe going to stay in a while."

She gave only two parties in the last 15 years of her life -- one in 1978, her first in five years, and the final party in 1986. "With so-called friends all around her, she was a very lonely woman," says Dowling. "She felt that was the end, when she couldn't function socially."

She carried her isolation to her grave. Her husband, along with her parents, was buried in Washington Hebrew Cemetery, in Southeast, in a nicely landscaped, square plot designed for four under a monumental headstone reading CAFRITZ. But the fourth square in the plot remains empty; Gwendolyn Cafritz was memorialized in a Presbyterian church and had herself buried far north in Rockville's Parklawn Cemetery, among strangers.

'Their Financial Needs Are Adequately Provided For'

Of the three sons, Calvin seems to have had the best relationship with his mother. Upon Morris Cafritz's death in 1964, he became president of the Cafritz Co.; and in the first will Gwendolyn wrote, in 1969, which included all three sons, she made Calvin an executor and left him the Foxhall Road house. In 1971, he resigned from the company amid reports of conflict with his mother, and by the time she wrote a 1977 will, all three sons, including Calvin, had been dealt out of any inheritance.

By the time of her death, however, Calvin was still the son closest to his mother. When she drafted her third and last will in 1981, she wrote a final clause that reads almost like an afterthought, but resounds in the lawsuit now underway: "It is my wish that our descendents {sic} shall maintain an interest in the affairs of THE MORRIS AND GWENDOLYN CAFRITZ FOUNDATION and its philanthropic purposes and I desire that, following my death, CALVIN CAFRITZ be elected to serve on the board of the Foundation."

Today, Calvin is foundation chairman. And it is over the foundation, established to memorialize the name and works of the Cafritz family, that the Cafritz family is now at war.

Morris Cafritz incorporated the foundation in 1948 to give money to Washington-area charities, and when he died 16 years later, he left it half his estate, mostly as stock in dozens of closely held corporations; as the new majority owner of most of these companies, and with Gwendolyn owning most of the rest, the foundation became in essence the owner of the Cafritz Co., its subsidiaries and its assets.

After Morris Cafritz died, his close associate Martin Atlas became executive vice president of the company, and vice president and treasurer of the Cafritz Foundation, while Gwendolyn Cafritz ultimately became president of both. The foundation's board of trustees consisted of Gwendolyn Cafritz and the two men who would become her executors -- Atlas and William P. Rogers, her attorney.

Conrad and Carter Cafritz are claiming that Rogers and Atlas "secured domination and control" over Gwendolyn, controlling all of her assets and making her the figurehead president of both the foundation and the real estate businesses, "notwithstanding that she was, and Defendants Atlas and Rogers knew she was, incapable of discharging the duties incumbent upon her in such positions." They charge in their suit that Rogers and Atlas influenced her to leave all the property she controlled to the foundation.

Rogers, an attorney general under President Eisenhower and secretary of state under Richard Nixon, declined to be interviewed for this story; he has denied the allegations in papers filed in court. Atlas too declined to comment, but he issued a statement when the suit was filed saying that he had no role in drafting the will, and no advance knowledge of its contents. He too has denied the sons' allegations in his formal answer to their complaint.

"I know Atlas hates publicity like poison," says Raymond Carter, a former Cafritz Co. vice president. "He's always very, very protective of the Cafritz name, as if it were his own."

Gwendolyn's estate is worth at least $140 million, including both her personal holdings and a trust passed on from Morris Cafritz's will (see box, Page 32). Under the terms of an old agreement, each of the sons will automatically receive $7 million, tax-free, in recompense for having forfeited, in the late '60s, some money from a different trust. But of the property over which she had control, Gwendolyn left her children only "such photographs, family mementos, and similar objects of domestic use or ornamentation as my executors, in their absolute discretion, shall determine that I would wish to have preserved for my children."

And Gwendolyn's estate is not, in the end, the only -- or even the main thing -- at stake. At the heart of the lawsuit is a quest to gain at least partial control over the whole empire of which Gwendolyn's estate is an integral piece, over the whole legacy that Morris Cafritz created.

Some observers speculate that Conrad, hardheaded real estate man that he is, simply wants some say in the disposition of the real estate owned -- in many cases, co-owned -- by the foundation and Gwendolyn's estate. In real estate, especially within the constricting borders of D.C., power isn't limited to those who own the land; controlling the land can be almost as good. The holdings in downtown Washington include buildings in the 1700 and 1800 blocks of K Street and a parking lot at 12th and K; buildings in the 1300 and 1600 blocks of L Street; property in the 1600, 1700 and 1800 blocks of I Street. The holdings also include a major share of the two Universal buildings at Connecticut and Florida avenues NW, and shares of the massive River House apartment buildings in Pentagon City. In addition, there are at least 10 apartment buildings in D.C.

Conrad, say friends, has watched in frustration as downtown Washington boomed and the foundation failed to take maximum advantage of its holdings. Says a friend, "He thinks they're a lot of fuddy-duddies living in the 17th century." It is easy to imagine that for a son of Morris Cafritz, watching great deals go unmade is a kind of hell. The only thing worse might be to watch deals go on without him: Along with becoming chairman of the foundation, Calvin Cafritz has taken the helm of the old Cafritz Co., andis reportedly trying to bring it tonew life.

Then there is the foundation itself, with its powerful endowment for the city. The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation is already, with its more than $220 million in assets, the largest source of private funds earmarked for the District of Columbia. It is a secretive organization: The foundation would answer no questions for this article. But public records show that, like any organization privately controlled by a very small number of people, it is very susceptible to change by a determined leader.

In 1962, when it was the product of Morris Cafritz's vision, the largest grants went to the United Jewish Appeal and the Community Chest Federation. Small grants went to 15 more Jewish charities, and the rest to such local charities as boys clubs and hospital funds. Gradually, as Gwendolyn took command of it, its character changed. By 1967, records show a sprinkling of grants to highbrow cultural causes: the Committee to Rescue Italian Art, the Opera Society of Washington, the Corcoran Gallery. And by 1970, arts and humanities took the largest share of the funding.

Of the $54 million the foundation has given away since 1970, $32 million has gone to the arts and humanities, almost $9 million to community services, $8 million to education and almost $5 million to health. Its annual reports list a fairly traditional, staid set of beneficiaries, and its grants are studied by an advisory board heavily weighted toward the kind of high-profile, high-society arts philanthropy that Gwendolyn favored: Among the members are National Gallery of Art Director J. Carter Brown, retired Smithsonian secretary S. Dillon Ripley and retired librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, as well Carolyn Deaver, wife of former White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, and a social friend of Gwendolyn's, Mrs. Tazewell Shepard.

The control of so much money, especially in a city with limited corporate philanthropy, brings enormous power. It is intriguing to imagine what different directions Conrad Cafritz might urge -- and how much they would draw from the activism of his wife, who has likely pondered what difference the Cafritz endowment might make to her lifelong campaign to wrest the arts from Washington's white upper classes.

Finally, there is an emotional legacy to be earned -- or perhaps shed. It is hard not to wonder what the effect might have been of hearing Gwendolyn Cafritz's will read for the first time.

To Martin Atlas, she left $50,000 and a Chagall painting. She set aside bequests for two nephews ($35,000 each); a former company employee, Dorothy Casey ($10,000); and four former servants (two bequests of $50,000 and two of $25,000). She left $25,000 to a favorite former escort, a Brazilian former employee of the Inter-American Development Bank who now lives in Rio de Janeiro. She also made bequests of $100,000 each to 10 of her 13 grandchildren -- excluding the children Conrad adopted, to whom he has remained a committed father.

To Calvin Cafritz, she left the symbolic role of family chief, Morris Cafritz'ssuccessor in a world of primogeniture. But Carter and Conrad Cafritz are not named in their mother's will. "I make no other provision in this will for the benefit of my children," it states, "as their financial needs are adequately provided for" by the old agreement giving them $7 million each.

Of other needs, the will says nothing.

2301 Foxhall Road

The outcome of the lawsuit is unpredictable, though clearly it will be an uphill fight: Showing that someone was alcoholic is very different from demonstrating that she was incapable of writing a will. It is also different from proving that a respected lawyer and former Cabinet member, in league with a longtime family associate, unfairly loaded the dice.

But Conrad has rolled out impressive legal artillery, captained by former White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler, and seems prepared to dig in for a long siege -- at least long enough, perhaps, to wring a settlement from his opponents.

Meanwhile, for as long as it takes, Conrad's childhood home turns a sleeping face to Foxhall Road, drapes drawn at all the windows. Gwendolyn left the $14 million landmark to the foundation, with the very Gwendolyn-like wish that it become "a center in which scholars, statesmen and civic leaders may conduct research, conferences, seminars and other func-tions relating to issues of interest tomankind."

For now, the house is tended by at least two servants, who are listed in court documents as living there, and the grass is beautifully clipped, the pachysandra well-tended. There is still a sign directing deliveries to the back of the house, as if tradesmen were still streaming up to the front door to importune the lady of the house, and Ridgewell's were due at any moment with more shrimp and cocktail sauce.

But it has that air of a property just turning past ripeness, toward seed. As you draw close to the famous burgundy front door, with its surrounding marble, you can see that the paint is cracking and fading to pink; and greenish stains from metal window fixtures are starting to weep down the white brick walls.

If you could walk around to the back, you might look out at the famous view; and you might almost see as far as Southeast D.C., where Morris lies with his in-laws, still waiting. Perhaps one day Calvin, or Conrad, or some Cafritz now unknown, will find a way to bring together the opposite forms of ambition that thrived in this house, and give a second start to the dynasty that never was.

MORRIS CAFRITZ'S WASHINGTON

In the past two decades Washington has been one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, building new fortunes, multiplying old ones, constantly attracting new players from other cities. It is hard to imagine, in this competitive atmosphere, that a single person could have dominated the field as Morris Cafritz once did.

Cafritz started by investing in real estate, and was always ready to make a prescient purchase, but his true passion was construction. "He just wanted to build, build, build, build!" recalls Raymond Carter, a former vice president of the Cafritz Co. "He always had a new job going. Once it was built, he wasn't interested in it."

He began with houses, ultimately building about 10,000 homes in the Washington area. He started by buying -- for $700,000, in 1922 -- the equivalent of 90 city blocks in Petworth, including the Columbia Golf Club, and ultimately built 3,000 houses there.

Between 1925 and 1941, Cafritz built more than 85 apartment houses, including 15 large luxury buildings, such as the Majestic and the Hightowers on 16th Street NW and the Westchester on Cathedral Avenue NW. In 1929 he also built the since-demolished Ambassador Hotel, at 14th and K streets NW, where he and his family lived until 1938.

In the '50s, Cafritz had an early conviction that the future direction of downtown Washington was along the K Street corridor, and before his death in 1964 he built a dozen buildings in the "new" downtown, mostly on K and I streets NW. The most famous of these was the Cafritz Building, at 1625 I; ballyhooed in 1950 as the first "park-at-your-desk" building, it had ramps rising 10 stories at the building's core.

Cafritz was a tireless promoter of the city. "Watch Washington Grow to One Million," he urged in newspaper ads of the '40s, a slogan he changed to "Watch Washington Grow to Two Million" after the 1950 census counted more than 1.4 million in the metropolitan area. His faith was great enough to lead him into investments that would later seem visionary: He developed the Temple Heights tract at Connecticut and Florida, for example, buying the land in 1945 with developer Charles H. Tompkins and sitting on it for 12 years before selling the northern part for development of the Washington Hilton, and building the two Universal Buildings on the southern part of the site.

At the same time, he and Tompkins had the foresight to buy the land now known as Pentagon City. "I've just bought 100 acres of downtown Washington," he was fond of saying. There he built the massive River House apartments; his estate eventually sold most of the land for others to develop.

Morris Cafritz is remembered more for the quantity than for the aesthetic quality of his works. His most notable contribution was in the streamlined art deco apartment houses designed, either singly or together, by architects Alvin L. Aubinoe and Harry L. Edwards, including the Majestic, the Hightowers, the Empire and the since-demolished Gwenwood on 19th Street NW. Aubinoe and Edwards also designed the Cafritzes' dramatic house on Foxhall Road.

A minor but colorful part of Cafritz's legacy was an idea borrowed from Harry Wardman, his predecessor as the leader of the field. In the 1400 block of Spring Road NW is a row of seven almost identical walk-up apartment buildings. The Cromwell, Aberdeen, Fernbrook, Rosedale, Isleworth, Traymore and Zellwood are in sorry shape today, but still stand as a modest monument to the name C-A-F-R-I-T-Z.

-- M.W.

THE FORTUNES AT STAKE

When Morris Cafritz died in 1964, his estate was worth $66 million, mostly in the form of stock in dozens of closely held corporations he had established to manage his real estate. He left it as follows:

Half to the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.

One quarter to his widow, in a "marital trust" that would pay her interest until her death and give her the power to "appoint" the ultimate heirs to the principal; if she did not exercise this power, the principal would pass to the Cafritzes' sons upon her death.

One quarter to be divided among his sons, in trusts they would inherit outright at age 35.

Twenty-four years later, when Gwendolyn Cafritz died, her estate consisted of two parts: the marital trust established under Morris's will, and her own property -- the landmark house on Foxhall Road and various real estate, stocks, bonds and savings accounts.

Because Gwendolyn's estate has not been probated, its value is hard to establish. At the time the lawsuit was filed, family sources told The Washington Post that the marital trust was worth $84 million. Under an earlier agreement between Gwendolyn and her sons, she gave up her power to "appoint" one-quarter of the trust, meaning that $21 million -- or $7 million each -- would automatically go to her sons upon her death. She retained the right to will awaythe remaining three-quarters, or $63 million, which sheleft to the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. Except for minor bequests to former employees and other family members, she also left to the foundation all of the property she owned outright. A document filed in probate court says an initial inventory of her own property exceeded $90 million; however, inventories filed with her will account only for a little more than $80 million.

At the least, then, Gwendolyn's will disposes of more than $140 million. Conrad and Carter Cafritz are pursuing this stake in two ways: One is a lawsuit naming all her beneficiaries and her executors -- William P. Rogers, Martin Atlas and Riggs National Bank. It charges that Rogers and Atlas "exerted undue influence" on her decision to leave all her money to the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, and that Gwendolyn herself "lacked testamentary capacity," meaning that she was incapable of writing her will. This suit asks the court to overturn her will, after which, under D.C. law, her property would be divided among her sons.

Her two younger sons have also filed a separate petition that pursues only the marital trust. It asks the court to rule that under Morris's will, which gave Gwendolyn the right to leave the trust to "such person or persons" as she wished, the foundation -- technically a corporation -- could not qualify to receive the trust. With such a ruling, the trust would pass to the three sons, as outlined in Morris's will.