In the early 1950s, Louis Dolivet, a well-connected Frenchman who edited a liberal magazine in New York, was a small fish, a footnote in history only because he had been accused of being a communist spy.

He denied the charges, and they died quietly. He settled in Paris and began a new life.

But about 10 days ago the past again began to haunt Dolivet, now 74. The Sunday Times of London, he was told, intended to publish a story about charges he thought had been forgotten 30 years ago. Dolivet rushed to London, and obtained an injuction to keep the story from appearing.

The newspaper carried an almost irresistible headline the next day: "Our spy story is gagged."

The paper breathlessly hinted at a real potboiler: an international spy ring, "communist activists" with "close ties to the White House and the United Nations," and a self-described Soviet agent close to the British royal family.

The unnamed men were so well-connected that they had "helped write a speech for a former American vice president," the story said.

There was enough on the public record about Dolivet to invite curiosity. All old, but dramatic news from the 1950s.

He was denounced once on the floor of the House of Representatives; before a Senate subcommittee a mysterious "Witness No. 8" accused him of being a liaison for communist agents at the United Nations, and when he tried to return to the United States for his son's funeral he was refused a visa.

The story in the Sunday Times ballyhooed a week ago may never see the light of day. The newspaper doesn't have evidence to prove the spy charges, according to executive editor Don Berry. Instead, a second, less spectacular story was tentatively scheduled for publication this Sunday.

A second, unwitting player in the drama is Dolivet's former brother-in-law, Michael W. Straight, a former editor of The New Republic and a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Straight's name has frequently appeared in the British press since last spring when he revealed he was the man who years ago exposed eminent British art historian Anthony Blunt as a Soviet spy. Straight said he met Blunt in a group of student intellectuals at Cambridge during the 1930s, and Blunt later tried to recruit him as a Soviet agent.

Dolivet is a victim of a "competitive journalistic rat race," said Straight, who lives in Bethesda. "There is no linkage between Blunt and Dolivet."

Straight and Dolivet parted bitterly more than 30 years ago, and haven't spoken to each other since. Their story is worth repeating now only for what it says about a particular period in American history, and the British press' current infatuation with spy tales.

Dolivet is a nationalized French citizen with an elegant manner and a bizarre past. He came to the United States in 1940, founded a small magazine and, after a whirlwind courtship, married money and social position in the form of actress Beatrice Straight. He was an extremely handsome man, a gifted writer and an eloquent orator.

"He looked like Beethoven and was a fine speaker who impressed everyone he met," said Straight. "He was filled with words about peace."

Dolivet was in demand as a writer and speaker. His articles appeared in liberal magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic. He spoke before groups such as the World Confederation of International Governments and the National Farm Institute.

He was founding editor of Free World, a magazine published in six languages that advocated such things as the establishment of the United Nations, a world court and an international police force. It had broad support among liberal intellectuals.

Among the names of writers and public figures listed on its masthead were John Gunther, Harold I. Ickes, Thomas Mann, Syngman Rhee and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Before he came to America, the Romanian-born Dolivet was involved with anti-fascist peace organizations in Europe with alleged communist ties. The names of these groups are largely forgotten today. According to one source, Dolivet was being watched by several intelligence agencies during that period. But nothing came of it.

One sign of U.S. interest in these pre-war activities appeared in a 1943 memo by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. "He said I was a very dangerous man," Dolivet said.

As an editor, Dolivet conducted a long correspondence with Vice President Henry Wallace. Dolivet's letters mainly were requests for articles and statements of endorsement from Wallace, which the vice president readily supplied.

According to Wallace's papers in the Library of Congress, he met privately with Dolivet on at least two occasions, and circulated a speech, "The Century of the Common Man," which Dolivet says he wrote for Wallace.

Dolivet says he also met with Harry Truman after he succeeded Wallace as vice president.

After the war, Dolivet continued to edit the magazine, which changed its name to U.N. World, and tried unsuccessfully to become a U.S. citizen on grounds of his 25 days of service in the Army. He also became a U.N. consultant.

By 1949, Dolivet's marriage had broken up and he was in trouble with some of the conservative businessmen who backed his magazine, partially because they thought it was soft on Soviet aggression.

That same year a mysterious witness charged before a Senate subcommittee that Dolivet was a liaison between communists and the U.N. Secretariat--a charge that acting U.N. Secretary General Byron Price called "the nuttiest story I ever heard."

This matter was dropped after Dolivet met secretly with subcommittee Chairman Pat McCarran (D-Nev.). But it flared briefly a year later when a several congressmen denounced Dolivet on the House floor as "a very dangerous Stalinist agent." He denied the charges, saying that if he were an agent the Russians would have sent him to Siberia long before because of anti-Soviet articles he had written.

By 1952, Dolivet was again living in Europe and working with a new French group, called Fighting Democracy, headed by Leon Jouhaux, the winner of the 1951 Nobel peace prize. Dolivet's name surfaced when he tried to reenter the United States to attend the funeral of his 7-year-old son, who had drowned.

His request was so sensitive it went to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who consulted with Attorney General James McGranery. A memo about their conversation in the Truman presidential library says: "The secretary explained that Mr. Dolivet's history prevents the issuing of a visa . . . . The department also had advice that the family did not want Mr. Dolivet to come."

That same month a blistering attack on Dolivet appeared in New Leader, a liberal magazine. It charged that Dolivet was "one of Stalin's slickest agents" and that he was turning the new political movement--which was supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, among others--into a communist front.

Dolivet's name then disappeared from public view. He was given a visa to reenter this country in 1967 and received an official apology. He prospered and grew old.

He thought his past was forgotten. "Then, suddenly all this comes out of the blue," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm not a spy and never had been, but now I have to prove it all over again."