The ghost of Martha Washington overshadowed that of her white-wigged husband yesterday, at least in Alexandria, where her 254th birthday was celebrated with a three-foot cake, a City Hall ceremony and numerous private parties.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, the Virginia-born wife of the nation's first president, once lived in Old Town Alexandria. And that was the impetus, city officials and residents said yesterday, for all the historical hoopla to mark her birthday.

"She was a pretty sharp gal," said Jean Danforth Thompson, president of the Old Town Business Association. "But like most women of her time, she was shortchanged . . . George would go off fighting, or surveying land and Martha would stay here."

Emory W. Reisinger, chairman of the five-member Martha Washington Committee, had his own description of Martha: "I wouldn't put her in the Liz Taylor class, but let's just say she was the kind of woman who, when she walked into the room, men wanted to get to know her better."

To honor one of their first citizens yesterday, dozens of Alexandria merchants offered refreshments to customers, announced special happy hours, and exhibited Martha Washington memorabilia.

"I'm throwing a big party," said Bernard Hensley, the owner of the Hensley Gallery, a print gallery on King Street that exhibited a rare Martha Washington collection yesterday. "What the heck, she was great. We've ignored her for too long."

As Alexandrians walked by Market Square yesterday at lunchtime they saw an Armed Services Honor Guard holding flags high behind singers and politicians. A three-foot birthday cake, made from Martha Washington's pound cake recipe, was at center stage.

"What's going on?" said construction worker Jimmy L. Graham. Then he heard Acting City Manager Vola Lawson announce that the city hoped "to focus national attention on the little-recognized contribution and leadership of women in founding, building and, more recently, in the governing of our country."

"Martha? Yes, it's time to give her applause," Graham said. "George has been in the limelight too long."

Reisinger said that although the 254th birthday wasn't exactly a "catchy" number to spark renewed interest in Martha, it just happened that a group of Alexandrians came up with the idea recently. By next year, Reisinger said he believed the celebration would be more widespread.

Already, Fairfax County and Jackson, Miss., residents have expressed interest in cutting a little cake for Martha.

"I think she was a great woman," Fairfax Country Board Chairman John F. Herrity said yesterday at the Alexandria festivities. Herrity said that he wasn't about to "get in a fight with Alexandria" over which jurisdiction more rightfully claims the Washingtons as residents -- since there were much better issues to squabble about -- but he was quick to mention that Mount Vernon, the historic 500-acre farm in Herrity's district, is the Washingtons' better-known home.

According to land records, the Washingtons also kept a home at 508 Cameron St., an Old Town residence now privately owned.

The Martha Washington fan club seems to extend beyond Mount Vernon and Alexandria already. George Mitchell, a retired aluminum manufacturer living in Jackson, Miss., said yesterday that Alexandria's celebration is destined to catch on. He and his wife heard of Alexandria's plans to toast the former First Lady a few weeks ago when they were visiting the city.

Now, the couple is planning their own Martha Washington picnic for Saturday. "There'll be flags, stars, cakes, the whole works," Mitchell said.