She's running late, thank heaven. Anything to get an edge on a legend. Starchy, blunt, critical, tenacious -- these are things one hears about Agnes de Mille. She grew up in Hollywood and Harlem. She was a "spoiled, egocentric, wealthy girl," by her own account. Her choreography -- her ideas about dance -- changed the look of musicals. She survived a stroke many years back, and when one side of her body gave out, she taught herself to write -- straight, readable lines and tiny curlicues -- with her left hand. Her blue eyes, people have said, are relentless.

"Oh, that's a bad portrait of Reagan," she growls softly from her wheelchair. She's being shown slowly through the National Portrait Gallery. She has a small entourage.

"Shhhhhhhh, the director will hear you," she's told.

"Why should I not say it?," she wonders aloud. "He certainly knows it's bad. Of course it's bad. Any curator could see that."

She's in a wheelchair, but for her, the French word for it -- petite voiture -- seems more appropriate. Small carriage. Small automobile. She has somebody pushing it, but it could probably go on its own -- motion generated by de Mille's own juice, her energy, her spirit.

Under an overhead light she looks like an angel. She's posing for a photograph. Her white hair -- finer than silk, almost light as dust -- is pulled back. It's held by a floppy black bow, and from the back, she's both schoolgirl and grande dame. She holds her head up.Her nose is high and aristocratic. Her pearl earrings are dead white. Her teeth -- long and thick -- are smooth ivory. She wears a blue silk dress and a gold flower pin. She's 85.

"Give me the Washington gossip," she says to Alan Fern, director of the gallery. He's showing her Civil War portraits. "All the unprinted gossip," she asks, "from John Hay's time."

Fern obliges. She watches him with a steady stare. She's at ease listening. And then, later, she's at ease talking too. Her conversation sweeps romantically, magnificently. De Mille goes from Hollywood in the '20s to New York City in the '40s. She moves into more recent times -- about her husband, Walter Prude, who died in 1988, and her son, Jonathan, a history professor at Emory University. Several times she goes back to the '20s, to her mother's four-acre garden on a corner of Hollywood Boulevard. "Filled with lillies, lavender, violets!" In passing, she talks about her uncle Cecil B. De Mille's great filmmaking career.

"Mother and Father," she says, "managed to keep my sister and me absolutely separate from all that razzmatazz. Absolutely. An actor never entered our house. Only, one -- Wally Reid. Oh, and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, but they were royalty. We had directors and we had mainly writers. Somerset Maugham, all sorts of people."

Memory has served her. She never kept diaries or journals. "I was lazy," she says, "and it seemed awfully self-conscious." But in 1952, she wrote "Dance to the Piper," the first installment of her autobiographies and memoirs that would total -- with this year's "Portrait Gallery" -- 13 books. She's come to Washington for a couple days. The National Portrait Gallery invited her, and videotaped de Mille for "Living Self-Portraits," its collection of interviews with 20th-century cultural figures.

All her adult life was spent dancing, but in 1942, after years of sweating for Broadway dance auditions and small solo concerts, de Mille choreographed "Rodeo" and played the tomboy cowgirl who gets "the cowpoke." It opened to 22 curtain calls and led to fame and more footlights and years of hits.

And it changed the look of musicals forever -- dance became part of the action, not just an interlude of activity. De Mille went on to choreograph "Oklahoma!" in 1943, and then "Carousel" and "Brigadoon" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and -- her favorite -- "Paint Your Wagon."

When she writes, she sits quietly in bed and "digs." Images appear in her mind. "I think of something that interests me. And I write it. The next day, I rewrite it." She rewrites over and over, she says. She puts her stories aside, then "I paste them together and look at them and throw up. It's really homemade."

"I remember in color," she says. "And I can link this event and this feeling with another event and then finally we get a date ... I'm not infallible, and I wouldn't base a law case on this," she says, pointing to her head. "There are lots of things that I can't remember," she says, "like where I put anything in my bedroom." She forgets names, too, sometimes, and faces.

"But I never," she says, "forget a leg."

De Mille says she wanted to be a dancer the first time she heard music. Her father hated the idea because in those days dance wasn't for her kind of people. He wanted her to write.

"Dancing colleges then," she says, "were just gymnasiums. There wasn't any of this high-minded aesthetics. Oh, occasionally you got into a crepe de chine dress and pretended you were a nymph at dawn, or a gnome under a toadstool, but I thought this was nonsense and wouldn't do it."

She majored in English at the University of California at Los Angeles, and graduated in the class of 1926. Her teachers told her she could be a writer, but didn't care about this until later, when the books started coming out of her and she needed the money.

"I just went out last week," she says of L.A. "UCLA established a scholarship in my name in literature. Not dancing. And I was proud, proud, proud."

Dance is "communication through living bodies," she said once. And bodies are all over her writing. "Portrait Gallery" is loaded with attenuated descriptions of the faces and hands and feet of long-dead ballerinas or -- like Carmelita Maracci -- barely remembered ones. There are many strange observations of a trained dancer's eye:

"Her foot was long for her height," she writes of dancer Alicia Markova, "but very slender, strongly arched, and as delicate as a bird's claw. ... Her legs and ankles seemed so remarkably slender, her hands so tapering, one felt they would snap off with the first jar."

Maracci "had the head of a rather precious monkey, or of a wicked marionette," de Mille writes. Alicia Alonso "seems like a lady lizard that one longs to tame but cannot." Ballet impresario the Marquis de Cuevas "was a trigger-tight little person, all black and white, and as he gazed at me with his agate eyes he seemed to be mentally biting his nails."

Her words almost seem translated from a foreign language. She has an Old World, bohemian sensibility combined with a fresh, bizarre mind: "She lived a foolhardy, daredevil, wild, bold, and gallant existence," she writes of Isadora Duncan. "She was an outlaw, a kind of emotional commando. She questioned every single tradition, artistic, social, religious, and moral, and she tested them out for us on her own bleeding spirit." She has an opinion about most things. In writing, she could come off like a battle-ax, a pistol. In person, she's a quiet sort of force. Her uncle Cecil B. De Mille, was a maker of big-scene big-epic big-theatrics. And, as it happens, he changed the "d" in his name so it read bigger too. He and her father, screenwriter and playwright William Churchill de Mille, haunt "Portrait Gallery." She compares them, as brothers. She reflects on their influences and their lives.

"Money symbolized for Cecil an essential verity," she writes. "He talked a great deal about God, but kept a wary eye on the box office. I'm not sure he trusted God with the bottom line."

She admits that the creator of "The Ten Commandments" and "Cleopatra" and "The Greatest Show on Earth" had a great influence on her. "Very large," she says. "But as I grew older, my aesthetic was totally different from his. I didn't think he had any taste -- which is a dreadful thing to say about a world-famous man."

She's not crazy about his view of women. "His view ... of what sex is about between men and women, I mean, it's a 15-year-old boy's erotic fantasies."

She has opinions about art funded by the government. She's for it. She served on the first board of the National Endowment for the Arts. "I was on the very first," she says, "the maiden voyage, with great people. It was a board such as never has been assembled. ... Only two people were there for political reasons, and the rest were there for the most legitimate ones -- they were great artists themselves or the heads of great artistic museums or teachers of art. We had no axes to grind whatsoever. And we had very little money so there wasn't much to scrap over."

She has seen one of the "so-called dirty pictures" by Mapplethorpe, she says. "Very uncomfortable," she adds without explaining further. "But it's hard to talk about art," she says, "because you get into aesthetics and a subject that I don't really understand or know how to express very well."

She continues, anyway. "But art, I think and believe, asserts truths -- real truths. And it's permanent because it's true. And artists have to talk in symbols, to a large extent, because great truths or real truths cannot be expressed in ordinary language, everyday language ..."

"And subject matter has nothing to do with the art," she goes on. "You take the three apples by Cezanne. A great painting. Well, three apples in a dish -- what's three apples? You take Turner, the English painter. He painted women's genitals as a hobby. Ruskin burned the lot. Should he have done that? Were they bad paintings? Or, were they just remarkable paintings of a subject that is forbidden to drawing rooms?"

De Mille proposes exhibiting all the Mapplethorpe photographs -- and putting the ones that she described earlier as "very uncomfortable" in a separate room of a museum.

"That room," she says, "will probably be mobbed because people like to see what they're told they mustn't. But does seeing them make them want to go out and do it? I mean, what does Jesse Helms do? Rush home and try it in the closet?"

She sits quietly. Names of new people still don't come to her. "But I can remember the day my little sister was born," she says. "I was 3. I remember that -- Father coming into the room from Mother's bedroom and saying, 'Well, you have a little sister and her name is Margaret George de Mille. Can you say that?' And I was shrieked with nerves, because my father always had that effect, and I hid my face in my Irish nurse's skirts and then as soon as he left the room, I said, Margaret George de Mille. I remember that.

"I also remember looking out the window and seeing certain smokestacks -- we lived in Harlem -- certain smokestacks in the late afternoon sun, and how they looked. I remember the whole thing."