"Elaine helped put Bill on the map. But, then, Elaine herself would have had no place on a map, no career, without Bill. He was the genius. She was the manager of the genius. But she was a genius at that job."

-- Artist Grace Hartigan in "Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage"

Brooklyn-born Elaine Fried was in love with vanguard painter Willem de Kooning before she ever met him -- a meeting that, she later told biographer Lee Hall, she had engineered. A 19-year-old art student, artist's model and, by all accounts, red-haired beauty with golden brown cat's eyes and a brilliant mind, she first visited de Kooning's downtown Manhattan studio in 1937 and -- according to Hall's controversial new dual biography, "Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage" -- "they ignited." As an unidentified "friend" says on the book's opening page, "Being around them was like being in a radioactive area, a highly charged atmosphere of sex, ambition, talent, intelligence and energy."

Now the rest of the de Koonings' friends -- who include much of the art world and seemingly all the inhabitants of the Hamptons, where Willem de Kooning still lives -- have exploded over Hall's portrait, which, they say, is "preposterous," "distorted," "tawdry" and "wicked."

Hall's inflammatory thesis goes like this: When Bill and Elaine married in 1943, Bill was still unrecognized except among fellow artists (at 39, he was still dressing windows for A.S. Beck shoe stores). Elaine, an aspiring painter, was 25 and dazzling. When they separated 14 years later -- caught in a downward spiral of affairs and alcoholism -- Bill's career had taken off, boosted by critically acclaimed shows at the Charles Egan Gallery and the writings of two of the most powerful critics in New York, Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg. As it happened, Elaine had been having affairs with all three men.

Hall's book is here to say -- and this is the heart of the controversy, and the source of the accompanying outrage -- that Elaine leveraged Bill's career through her sexuality and, in the end, "largely created and orchestrated the de Kooning myth."

"That's ridiculous," says Bill's oldest living friend, New York sculptor Ibram Lassaw. "Bill would have been the greatest even if he'd married Susie Smith! His career didn't need that kind of furthering." Agrees Jacob Kainen, now one of Washington's most prominent artists but, in the '50s, a penniless young painter in New York, "That's nonsense. It's Elaine who would have been obscure if she hadn't married Bill." Kainen's wife, Ruth, scoffs, "{Rosenberg} was very, very handsome -- and very attractive to women. If Elaine slept with Harold, it wasn't to get publicity for Bill."

But, insists Hall, "any fair-minded person would have to say that Elaine's intimacies with those people helped Bill. That's not to say it was a plot. Bill did get attention others did not get. Granting his talent and genius and everything else, there was another element in his life that other artists didn't have -- and that was Elaine."

The "myth" Hall says Elaine (who died in 1989) "largely created" -- which is accepted as fact in many quarters of the art world -- goes as follows: that Willem de Kooning was the greatest of the New York School abstract expressionist painters who emerged in the '40s and '50s, Jackson Pollock notwithstanding; that abstract expressionism was the most important American art movement of the 20th century; and that, ergo, de Kooning, who will be 90 next year, is now the greatest living American painter.

Oddly, the most violent objections to the book among those closest to Elaine aren't over whether she slept around, but why. "It's not just the sex," Elaine's sister Marjorie Luyckx said by phone from her Freeport, Long Island, home. "Everybody knows that the affairs happened. But they weren't to further Bill's career; that changes the entire character of it. Elaine and Tom {Hess} dazzled each other: It was true love. It had nothing to do with having an affair for power or prestige or Bill's career. ... It cheapens her life and it cheapens Bill's work and it cheapens Tom's character -- and Harold's too. ... She turns Elaine into a sex-crazed prostitute." Luyckx adds: "I know Lee Hall, and I thought she was a scholar and seeker of truth."

The Lassaws say they are "embarrassed" by the partial dedication of the book to them "because people would think we supplied information that was detrimental to the memory of Bill and Elaine. ... A life dedicated to the highest ideals of art is made cheap and sleazy by a book like that," says Ibram. "Just because they drank a lot didn't mean they were depraved. And this idea of sleeping with critics to get a write-up is ridiculous."

De Kooning's longtime mistress, Joan Ward, mother of his only child, condemned the book in a written statement as follows: "A practically illiterate smear of Bill and his painting, plus a sordid, demeaning picture of Elaine, plus a lack of research, identification of sources, and a total misunderstanding of a whole era and the painters involved."

And art critic and New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer huffs that Hall's book "turns the whole story of the de Koonings into a pop soap opera saga which will probably come to its ultimate reward as some kind of television mini-series." ("Who am I to argue with an oracle?" replies Hall.)

Meanwhile, what's left of the "brotherhood," as Elaine called the old-time New York abstract expressionist art crowd, has circled the wagons around Marjorie Luyckx, who is editing Elaine's memoirs and critical essays on art. These days, Luuckx is collecting corrections in the margins of Hall's book as friends call to protest errors and misquotations. (A book-signing party in Southampton last weekend was attended by a crowd that was reportedly sparse but well-behaved -- until a former studio assistant of de Kooning's turned up and, according to Hall, "began screaming at me, and yelling at others, telling them not to buy the book.")

Still, only one artist, Sherman Drexler, 68, said he'd considered seeing a lawyer about a misleading footnote that places him, by implication, in the hottest seduction scene in the book. "It wasn't me, I swear!" he says.

Hall's reaction? "What a hoot!"

Nobody else is laughing. "The factual errors become rather astonishing," says Joan Washburn, Elaine's dealer. "I called the Archives of American Art about the recurring mistakes, and they said that if corrections are presented to them, they will enter them so they won't be passed on and on in other books." She said that she, Luyckx and several others are preparing such documents.

In a recent interview at the National Arts Club in Manhattan, Hall said she expected some reaction, but not the virulence the book has aroused. "Don't ever underestimate the political fervor of the art world," she says. "It's a very tight group, and they're trying to maintain a myth. ... A lot of people will say that Bill was a stand-alone genius, but I don't think it's true."

Hall knows the politics of which she speaks. A painter, art professor and former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, Hall has written three other art books, including a well-received (except in the Hamptons) biography of New York dealer Betty Parsons.

"Don't forget, my book is based primarily on 20 years of conversations with Elaine," says Hall, who came to know her principal subject during the years -- penniless for Elaine, prosperous for Bill -- after the de Koonings separated in 1957. Elaine was living by her wits, says Hall, teaching, lecturing, writing and painting in what the book describes as alcoholic squalor. "Every teaching and lecture gig was eagerly accepted. I think teaching saved her life," says Hall, who provided many such jobs, and often taped Elaine's words and follow-up conversations, or wrote of others in her journal.

Hall is puzzled by the reactions of some of Elaine's friends to the book. "I don't think my portrait of Elaine is disparaging," she says. "It's almost biased in her favor. People quite properly applaud Elaine's generosity, her patience ... she had 700 best friends. ... Elaine was wonderful, generous, exuberant -- a sprite. But it doesn't mean she was without a dark side."

But others condemn what they call a distorted, belittling and ultimately unfinished portrait of Elaine. Says Washburn: "I think there was an overemphasis, to say the least, on her drinking. She was a superb writer, and wrote on many other people besides Bill: Arshile Gorky, and Stuart Davis, and Edwin Dickinson and Franz Kline. This is a woman who had made a big contribution to the literature of that period, and it's not even deemed worth quoting in this book.

"She was an alcoholic, but this constant discussion of it without bringing in the things that matter -- like her writing, and her interest in politics and in dance -- she was wonderful company because of all these interests, and I don't think that comes across. ...

"And the idea of Elaine sleeping with delivery boys: It's preposterous. What is {Hall} trying to do to this woman who was supposed to be a friend of hers!"

Actually, Elaine addresses the question of her sexual activity in the book: "I wasn't really promiscuous, just curious and full of energy," she told Hall. "I mean there were interesting men around, and I was interested to find that they were interested in me!"

She paid a price, according to the book. At age 38, after several abortions, Elaine had a hysterectomy, which doubtless heightened her distress when, soon thereafter, Bill's only child Lisa was born to Joan Ward.

New York art dealer Allan Stone, a close friend of Elaine's, says he feels the power/sex emphasis skews the book, and he blames some of those interviewed. But he agrees that Elaine was a heroic figure, and sees that in Hall's portrait.

"{Willem} de Kooning had the capacity for great cruelty," says Stone, who first met Elaine when he was practicing law and she came to ask about her rights as a separated wife. "She loved Bill, but Bill could be very unkind, and he also had a ferocious temper." (The book recounts an incident when he struck her in the face.) "It probably forced her to look for solace elsewhere. I wouldn't make any highfalutin' moral judgments. I think she did what she had to do for her own psyche: She had a lot of character and dignity. And she always took the high ground.

"Look," concluded Stone, "I think Elaine did everything she could to help Bill because she believed in his genius, but I doubt that's why she had the affair with Hess. Hess was attractive, wealthy and intelligent. ... He represented everything she didn't have access to. And she had lots of information, and he wanted it."

In 1976, Hall writes, Elaine decided to stop drinking and, miraculously, did. Determined to make Bill stop drinking too, she reconciled with him, bought a more substantial house in Easthampton and -- since they had never divorced -- reclaimed her position as his wife. She took charge of his studio, stopped the leakage of his work into the back rooms of the art market, and threw out the drinking buddies who egged him on.

The book describes how she also put Bill on a diet of health food and, surreptitiously, fed him Antabuse, which causes violent nausea if alcohol is ingested. Bill, by then a nasty drunk and binge drinker of mythic proportions, soon got so sick of Antabuse-induced wretching and vomiting that he sobered up too.

"I think I emphasized her courage; look what she did in terms of overcoming her own alcoholism, and pulling Bill together and taking charge," Hall says. "Nobody would deny that Elaine saved Bill's life. That takes enormous strength and caring."

Unfortunately Elaine was unable to cure her own addiction to cigarettes and, after what Hall describes as "12 of her happiest years" reconciled with Bill, died of lung cancer in 1989.

Immediately after Elaine's death, de Kooning, who has Alzheimer's disease, was declared incompetent by his daughter (and only heir) Lisa, now in her late thirties, and her lawyer, John Eastman. De Kooning and his vast estate -- including paintings worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- have since been under the tight-lipped supervision of the two. Neither talked to Hall.

Hall feels that many of those who take issue with her book -- including reviewers close to the brotherhood -- have missed her point: that it was Elaine's intellect and critical skills, not her body, that Hall is crediting with the boost in Bill's career. "Talk {about a new art form} was in the air," says Hall, "but Elaine" -- who was a critic for Art News -- "was the one who gave abstract expressionism articulation. ... Before Hess and Rosenberg wrote their famous articles about it {in the late '40s}, they were being tutored by Elaine."

But the suggestion that egotists like Hess and Rosenberg needed any of Elaine's elucidation -- or would have accepted any even if they did -- elicits guffaws from, among others, Jacob Kainen, who knew Rosenberg when they were both on the editorial board of Art Front, the magazine of the Artists' Union. "It's ridiculous; it's so absurd. They were intellectuals who knew the field and de Kooning themselves. They didn't need interpretation from her."

"MOMA {the Museum of Modern Art} and Art News really created the abstract expressionist school of art," insists Hall. "There's nothing in the work of the artists to connect them, really. De Kooning, essentially a figurative artist, is not like Pollock, who is not like Jack Tworkov... . They don't have one thing that they believe in except the primacy of self, and who should be famous and rich. That's the one cohering belief in that whole group."

One thing that sets Hall's book apart from some of the more superficial and fictionalized artist and artist-couple biographies of recent years is her attempt to set the art world in which Elaine and Bill de Kooning lived and worked into the larger context of American social history. American art -- traditionally the poor cousin to its European counterparts -- took an extraordinary turn in New York after World War II, helped along by a heady mix of American artists and avant-garde ideas -- notably abstraction -- introduced by European-trained artists (de Kooning among them). The avant-garde spirit had begun to seep into the American consciousness with the Armory Show of 1913 in New York, which introduced European modernism to this country. But critical mass was reached when European artists began to arrive just before and during World War II.

By the end of the war New York City had replaced Paris as the avant-garde capital of the world, and abstraction suddenly rendered traditional American realism obsolete, which it remained for decades.

In Hall's view, this was the moment when the lives of artists who'd never thought about fame began to be touched and changed by it -- de Kooning among them. And it was also the moment when the phenomenon described in Tom Wolfe's book as "The Painted Word" kicked in. "I think the basic thesis of that book is very credible: that art was changed by language and criticism into a commodity."

Following Wolfe's lead, Hall plunges on to say that what is loosely called "abstract expressionism" -- also "action painting," or "gestural painting" -- by its very nature, shifted the emphasis from the art to the artist-as-commodity. Borrowing the notion of "automatic writing" from the surrealists, action painters began brushing and dripping paint on huge canvases, using large, often violent strokes -- not to reproduce something seen, like a bowl of fruit, but to express something deeply felt: the artist's innermost thoughts and feelings. Gradually, says Hall, "the artist and the signature became more important than the work of art, and painting became biography." It was then, she says, "that we turned artists into performers and celebrities."

Hall raises another explosive issue in the book: rumors and unanswered questions about the late works that were pouring out of de Kooning's studio at an unprecedented rate, even as de Kooning's faculties were failing, in the '70s and '80s. In the book and in conversation, she leaves one wondering: After Bill began to fail, were studio assistants telling him what to do? Were they actually finishing the work, as one eyewitness alleges? Was Elaine?

"I don't know who was doing the late paintings," says Hall. "They look hasty and thin, and there was a marked change from what de Kooning had done earlier. I knew from observation that he was suffering more impairment than was being said. Elaine was so protective of him that she tried to cover for him and tried to hide that fact. She didn't want him demeaned or embarrassed.

"Given that, I think anybody who's interested in art, or in people, would have a right to question whether the late work is authentic. I'd be asking: Is this the work of a great artist? The question of authenticity is not the same as counterfeit; it wasn't Bill's fault -- he got old and feeble. But if you think about the price of those paintings and the hype that went on around them, you have to wonder." Such questions are bound to cloud the market, and, ultimately, could dilute the price of the late works, which have been sold for as much as $2.2 million.

As de Kooning's 90th birthday celebrations get underway this fall, such questions will surely be raised, starting with "Dubuffet and de Kooning: The Late Work," a show due to open Sept. 17 at the Pace Gallery in Manhattan. And the questions will surely be fully engaged -- if not resolved -- by two major Washington exhibitions {see box}. National Gallery curator Marla Prather does, however, already have some views on the matter: "I find these rumors {about the late works} hard to believe, because I've looked at the work, and to me the most amazing thing about the works {from the '80s} is how they go back to the '40s. You get to know this guy's hand: There are films of him painting in the late '70s and '80s. If the studio assistants were doing those paintings, my hat goes off to them."

If proof is needed of Hall's belief that the late 20th-century artist has become more important than his art, it comes with the news that tomorrow, by court order, fingerprinting experts will visit the Easthampton studio where de Kooning now sits and stares, under the eye of round-the-clock caregivers, to settle a matter of authorship. At issue is the question of who modeled three clay maquettes that Elaine said were made by Bill but which the estate now claims are by Lisa de Kooning.

But if money and authorship have become central to the art world, it should be no surprise that Willem de Kooning, even at age 89, is in the middle of such a dispute. Whatever else one thinks of "Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage," the book makes clear that this couple was always precisely attuned -- for better and worse -- to the cultural Zeitgeist. "My thesis," says Hall, "is that Elaine and Bill lived by the tenets of abstract expressionism: unfettered energy and the courting of accident, which they claimed and reshaped. I see them as emblems of the post-World War II art world."