Mary Treadwell, variously described by those who know here as militant, pragmatic, ambitious, scheming, brilliant, energetic and ruthless, has been the backbone of Pride Inc. since it was founded 12 years ago.

While others, like her former husband, Mayor Marion Barry, have used Pride as a springboard into politics, Treadwill has stayed with the organization.

Working with a small coterie of confidants, she has parlayed an organization founded as a black, self-help group during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s into a network of businesses.

She is now one of the most influential black women in the city, at ease with judges, members of Congress and the city's business and political elite. She knows how to get what she wants from government bureaucracies that have funded Pride by going to the top and how to win through charm or intimidation, as circumstances dictate.

Treadwell, 38, is a wealthy woman. But because she has chosen to remain at the helm of Youth Pride, with its carefully nurtured image of being a refuge for some of society's poorest, she controls her outward display of affluence.

She works in a nondescript office on the third floor of Youth Pride headquarters, an old building at 16th and U streets NW, on the fringes of one of Washington's toughest ghettos.

Treadwell lives well, though, driving a $20,000 Jaguar sports car, entertaining large parties at some of the city's best hotels and restaurants, presenting gifts of gold jewelry to prominent local figures.

From 1976 to 1978 she rented an apartment at the Watergate for about $900 a month. Since then she has moved back into her renovated Capitol Hill home at 411 Seventh St. NE.

Some of the people who worked with Treadwell in Youth Pride professed to have no idea about this side of her life. Frank Hollis, a senior United Planning Organization official who helped launch Youth Pride, said in an interview: "I'd be shocked if she was living at the Watergate, driving a Jaguar, that king of thing. The Mary I know is plain living."

John Anerson, a city government official and former member of the Youth Pride hierarchy, described Treadwell's life style as "middle class," neither deprived nor ostentatious. "Just because you work with poor folks, people think you have to live in the ghetto and have holes in your drawers. There's an element of jealousy among some folks who would like to have a Jaguar themselves."

Questions about the life style of this important woman about town rankle a number of people, among them her former husband, Mayor Barry.

"There were times she was as broke as I was," Mayor Barry said in an interview. "There were times when we couldn't meet the bills."

Treadwell said she has earned "more than $30,000" but "substantially less than $60,000 a year" from all her business ventures. She declined to be more specific.

Robert E. Lee Jr., who worked with Treadwell at Clifton Terrace, said in an interview that he had stolen a copy of one of Treadwell's recent income tax returns and that it showed an annual income of about $40,000. "She made much more than that from P.I. alone," he said. "The IRS would be interested in tax evasion . . . I could sent her to jail. I took them [the tax returns] from her office. It was an illegal break-in. She fired someone else for it."

Lee refused to produce any such documents and later refused to answer additional questions.

Treadwell denies evading taxes.

In several long interviews, Treadwell portrayed herself as a skilled businesswoman who would be worth at least $125,000 a year in private industry.

She said in a interview last March that as a result of unwarranted criticism of her motives, she has decided to leave Pride within a year.

"I wouldn't do it again and I don't plan to be here another year," she said. "It is not normal, evidently, for people to believe that you might be doing what you're doing out of commitment. I'm sick of people looking at ulterior motives, or how do you prove that you're honest."

In another interview, Treadwell said: "I'm supersensitive in terms of being black and I'm supersensitive in terms of handling government money. It's an old superstition that if a black's handling government money, he's got to be stealing."

Born Mary Janice Miller in Lexington, Ky. and reared in Columbus, Ohio, Treadwell was the daughter of a masonry contractor whose business success provided his family with a comfortable existence.

She attended Fisk University in Nashville, Ohio State, the Franklin School of Business and Antioch School of Law here. For the time she was a buyer for a department store in Columbus, Ohio. Treadwell's first marriage was to a young Navy officer whose name she has kept.

Her arrival in Washington in a Sunbeam Alpine sports car in the mid-1960s coincided with the explosion of the civil rights struggle, which she joined.

She met Barry and the two were married.

Their marriage was brief and tumultuous, according to former friends, among them Rufus (Catfish) Mayfield, one of the founders of Pride. f

An internal Pride memo that Barry wrote on May 10, 1973, indicates the level of disagreement between them: "I get the distinct impression by words and action that Mary wants to to be the executive director of the entire corporation with me working, if I am to work, for her. I totally disagree with this concept."

Although she devoted the last 12 years of her life to the cause of Washington's poor and downtrodden, several persons who know her say Treadwell disdains them.

According to Lee, the explanation she gave him for moving to the Watergate was "to get away from all the niggers."

Her own explanation, given in an interview, was that after suffering two "back-to-back strokes" in 1976 she required the regular use of a health club and the Watergate had one on the premises.

Treadwell's disdain and use of coarse street language is a much a legend as her stamina.

In interviews with two Post reporters, Treadwell was able to go on speaking, almost without interruption, for as long as 10 hours, chain-smoking cigarettes and never rising from her chair. Others have said she held forth at staff meetings that have lasted 24 hours.

Her rambling conversation, liberally slprinkled with quasi-sociological phrases, is often difficult to follow.

Asked to explain whether T. Barry and Associates, a holding company she heades, was affiliated with the Pride network, Treadwell replied, "Not any more than in terms of that tie-in. I mean there was no room, certainly, in that for social concerns, for training and shit. It was supportive of social concerns and training and stuff."

Or, asked to respond to allegations that Lee was taking money out of Clifton Terrace, she said, "I don't know how you operate.I operate in terms of I only have so much energy. And the question becomes, how do I best utilize it? Right. I'm not a recordkeeper. When we got folk in, in terms of dealing with problems, what could have happened, what may have happened, problems, then there were certain things that started to come to light. Okay? How can I put it?"

Treadwell sets her own, erratic working hours and expects those who work for her to be available day or night. "Her regular work week was from noon Wednesday through Thursday night," Lee said. "She actually made appointments for 11 p.m. Wednesday night. You can imagine how some of the married staffers felt about that."

At other times, Tradwell was virtually inaccessible. Samuel Adams, a former tenant leader at Buena Vista apartments, another complex she managed, said, "She was like Howard Hughes. We could never see her or speak to her."

Treadwell is a complex woman with many different sides, according to friends and associates. Mention of her name elicited this comment from Alvin Catlett, a former Youth Pride finance officer:

"She was a dictator. She would preside at all-night meetings and didn't want to hear what you had to say unless she agreed with it. She was mean, cruel, insensitive to the staff. It was like, bang, 'You're fired.' But, I also think she mellowed out in recent years, and I know she really cared about helping people."

Over the years, Treadwell has also inspired intense, personal loyalty among some of the "products," as she calls trainees of Youth Pride. Loyalty among her current staff, even some of those she has fired, is often as intense. a

Roscoe V. Brockenberry, who spent 10 years in Youth Pride as Treadwell's bodyguard and chauffeur, and remains by his own assessment "very loyal to Mary," said that her high life style disturbs him.

"I don't know to what extent Mary is still committed," he said. "I know she was for the first six years -- to the max. Now she's driving the best, the biggest Jaguar. I know the feeling it gives you -- people waved at me, shouted to me when I was in it. That's what happens whn you buy a car like that or live at the Watergate.

"First thing you know is you're associating with people who live the same way. You identify with them and forget about the people you're supposed to help."