Last March, Patricia Roberts Harris was invited to the home of Flaxie Pinkett, a Washington realtor and a close friend since the two women met nearly 40 years ago through the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Howard University.

Pinkett had lost a sister to cancer several months earlier and she was anxious to spend a long afternoon reminiscing about her with Harris, who had known the sister. Pat Harris was seldom one to confide in others, but Pinkett was certain that by sharing her own innermost feelings she could get Harris, someone she knew yet didn't know, to open up as well.

"I thought it opened a door through which she could have told me anything she wanted," Pinkett recalled recently. "But she didn't . . . She never breaks down like your sister might do or your daughter or your son or a close buddy might do.

"She keeps it to herself," Pinkett said, more out of love than regret. "I don't know anyone more private than her."

For much of her life, Pat Harris, 58, who is now seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor of the District of Columbia in the Sept. 14 primary election, has taken great pains to keep her public and private lives separate.

Harris is content that most people see only her public persona: the highly intelligent, quick-witted and sharp-tongued black woman; the daughter of a dining car porter who rose to national prominence as a civil rights advocate, educator, corporate lawyer, diplomat and cabinet member.

She has little to say about the more personal side to her life that helped to mold her: The breakup of her parents when she was 6 years old. The influence of her headstrong mother and grandmother who brought her up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago. Her relationship with a beloved younger brother, Mickey, who died 12 years ago. Or her inner turmoil as a young Howard student, angry with a society that discriminated against blacks and women yet driven by her middle-class values to strive for success and recognition within that system.

Some of her closest friends and associates must strain to recall the few times when Pat Harris let down her hair. The once frequent dinner parties that Harris and her husband, Bill, gave were planned more with an eye for provoking lively debate than encouraging personal conversation among old friends.

Even as a young student at Howard University, during the early 1940s, Harris was more apt to lecture the girls in her freshman dormitory on civil rights and the labor movement than to gossip about boys.

"Some people are driven in public life to be popular or well-known or to be embraced," said Sharon Pratt Dixon, a former student and protege of Harris and now director of Harris' mayoral campaign. "She's driven by a need to do well, to produce . . . She's more guarded because there is more at risk."

Harris' husband of 27 years, William Beasley Harris, a federal Maritime Commission administrative judge, frets that his prominent wife is sometimes misunderstood.

"Sometimes people have run into her sharp mind and tongue . . . but never get a chance to see there is humor and joy attached," Harris said. "One of my weaknesses is I've always liked very smart women, because the returns are always better, despite what you may have to go through."

Harris, 67, a tall, courtly man with a soft voice and reserved manner, married his wife in September 1955 after a whirlwind, three-month courtship.

"We never played any games," he said.

Pat Harris, wearing a smart beige knit sweater and skirt, sat rigidly on her living room couch one morning last week, struggling to appear at ease while a newspaper photographer repeatedly snapped her picture.

Harris is a small, attractive woman with frosted reddish-blond hair and a creamy brown, freckled complexion. She is distrustful of photographers and photo editors, convinced that over the years they intentionally have portrayed her in harsh, unflattering images. Appearances are important to Pat Harris.

A stunning, almost sensuous photograph of a bare-shouldered Harris, which was taken by Lord Snowdon at the United Nations in 1967 and published in Vogue, is displayed in a downstairs study.

Harris also takes pride in showing visitors a photograph of her mother, taken 20 years ago, that shows a beautiful woman with a haunting gaze.

"My mother is really a remarkable woman -- one of the most feminine people I have ever known," Harris said. "Not too long ago, I walked into my bedroom and I said, 'I have made it!' My bedroom smelled like her bedroom, which was always nice and perfumey and just very pleasant. An extraordinarily feminine person and yet she can repair an iron, wrap a package and fix an electrical outlet.

"She brought me up to be independent, firm minded, firm and honest," Harris added. "She is very bright, very certain that she's right, whether she is or not."

Harris' home, an unpretentious two-story, brick structure in a quiet, wooded neighborhood, near 17th and Holly streets NW and abutting Rock Creek Park, is her refuge from her professional and political life.

The walls of the living room are lined with books, mostly biographies and histories and an occasional novel. Harris has been a voracious reader since she was a young girl, when she used to read aloud to her grandmother and, by age 9, read her way through the entire collection of children's books in the Mattoon public library. Now, she says, she allows herself the luxury of one novel for every biography she reads. (The last novel was "Gorky Park.")

The Harris household is adorned with memorabilia of her career. The handsome brown leather chair she used as secretary of the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), rests in a downstairs nook.

On the walls hang photographs of Harris with her two major benefactors--President Jimmy Carter, who enabled her to become the first black woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, and President Lyndon B. Johnson, who appointed her U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg when he couldn't persuade her to work for him in the White House. There's also a picture of her husband meeting Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian president.

Pat Harris, by most accounts, is an expert cook and baker. She has spent many happy hours in a small, bright-yellow kitchen that is equipped with a commercial meat grinder. She has always done her own food shopping, even when she was a member of the Carter cabinet. More than once, shoppers at Magruder's grocery store on upper Connecticut Avenue were startled to see the secretary of HUD dipping her hands into the string bean bin.

Harris always took great pride in the dinner parties that she gave on the average of twice a month until the demands of being a cabinet secretary took their toll. Since her April entry into the mayor's race, Harris again has found virtually no time for socializing.

The Harrises are an interesting study in contrasting personalities -- she is more aggressive and judgmental; he is more deliberative, patient and soft-spoken.

Pat Harris first met her future husband in 1953, when he was a law professor at Howard and she was assistant director of the American Council on Human Rights here. But the couple didn't start dating until May 1955, when Sadie Yancey, then the dean of women at Howard, called Pat Harris to say, "There's a man here at Howard University that you ought to marry." The couple was married four months later.

Pat Harris said she is grateful for the emotional support and encouragement she has received from her husband, who is nine years her senior. In the late 1950s, for instance, Harris was at a crossroads in her career, seeing little room for growth as an educator because most blacks at the time were limited to black schools. Bill Harris encouraged her to study law.

"He is very sure of himself," Pat Harris explained. "I think he is a very competent person who has no problem about knowing who he is."

He returns the compliment, saying that his wife has always handled success well and has looked out for his interests. For instance, when Pat Harris went to Luxembourg in 1965 as U.S. ambassador, Bill Harris went along as a special consultant to the State Department on European legal problems.

Speaking of his wife's major achievements, Harris added: "I've never had any of these things thrown up to me as if to say, 'Look what I've done.' Here's a woman who was always in the upper percentile in everything she did . . . and her head has not swelled."

The Rev. Pauli Murray of Baltimore, a longtime friend of Harris and the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest, says that Harris was greatly influenced by her midwestern upbringing in an Episcopal, working-class family that put a premium on education, success and upward mobility.

Murray, who sees in Harris many of her own traits, summed it up this way: "We both strive to be champions."

Harris' mother, Hilgren Roberts, who lives in retirement in Chicago, is a descendant of former slaves who worked out their freedom half a century before the Civil War and settled in Mattoon, a small prairie town in southern Illinois. Her father, Bert Roberts, who is deceased, grew up in southern Indiana.

Before the separation, the Roberts family lived in Cincinnati, where Bert Roberts worked as a dining car waiter, a relatively prestigious railroad job for blacks in those days. "One of the memories I have of my father is his coming home from a run, stacking the tips on the table -- quarters, nickels and dimes," Pat Harris said.

After her parents separated, Pat returned to Mattoon with her mother and brother. Later the family moved to Chicago, where she attended Englewood High School on the Southwest side and her mother worked first as an actuarial clerk for the black-owned Victory Mutual Life Insurance Co. and later for the Veterans Administration.

Her brother Malcolm -- Mickey, to her -- was very different from, yet close to, Pat. He never went to school beyond high school, worked first in a tractor factory and later as a truck driver. Mickey named his daughter Pat, after his older sister, yet turned down several invitations to visit Harris here. In 1970, he died of cancer in Chicago.

Pat excelled in high school -- she describes herself as a bookworm who rarely went out -- and attracted a flurry of college scholarship offers. She settled on the one from Howard and came here in 1943.

Pat Harris was a striking figure at Howard, a highly sophisticated, pretty girl with long hair who mingled well with upper classmen as well as the freshmen.

From the start, she displayed a keen interest in civil rights and the labor movement. But she also pursued more traditional campus activities, such as pledging Delta Sigma Theta, a national black sorority and service organization.

One of her sorority sisters, Jeanne Noble, now a college professor in New York, recalls sitting in Harris' book-and-newspaper strewn room one evening while Harris lectured a group of classmates on the history of the labor movement.

"I don't think I had even conceptualized the labor movement, and here was Pat, going into its history," Noble said recently. "She sensitized us to the labor movement and to civil rights."

But Harris wasn't always so serious, Noble insists. "If she saw a cute fellow, she giggled and talked about him," she said.

Harris took part in several of the early civil rights demonstrations in Washington, which in the early 1940s was a strictly segregated city. She led a group of Howard students that staged a sit-in at the Little Palace Cafeteria at 14th and U Streets NW in April 1943. The cafeteria refused to serve blacks although it was located within a segregated black area and was near the Booker T, a theater frequented by Howard students.

The following year Harris also took part in picketing the Thompson restaurant and cafeteria, located a few blocks from the White House, which refused to serve blacks.

Harris graduated from Howard summa cum laude in 1945, with a major in political science and economics. She spent the next 15 years involved in civil rights and social work, through the YWCA in Chicago, the American Council on Human Rights and Delta Sigma Theta.

But by the late 1950s, she had outgrown her activism and was headed down the more traditional avenues of law and politics. She graduated from the George Washington University Law School in 1960 and served a brief stint at the Justice Department, before returning to Howard to teach law.

Friends say that Harris was hurt by what they considered unfair criticism that she stuck to her law books while others took to the streets during the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Today, Harris says she was more bemused than upset by the criticism, noting that she paid her dues to the civil rights movement before some of the demonstrators of the 1960s were born.

"I did not have wide eyes over the civil rights movement of the 1960s because that was what I had pushed for during the 1940s and 1950s ," she added. "I was on the next step of the movement, which was the civil liberties concerns -- the effective use of power concerns. I didn't have to sit in because there was somebody else sitting in by then.

"When I sat in," Harris said, "there was nobody else to do it."

After her stint as U.S. ambassador, Harris resumed teaching and administrative duties at Howard. But in February 1969, one month after she had been appointed dean of the law school, Harris resigned, protesting that the university president, James Nabrit, had undercut her position in negotiating with striking students.

To this day, Harris remains bitter about the university's handling of the student strike. But her feelings about the student strikers seem ambivalent.

Harris couldn't help but feel a certain kinship for a new generation of student protesters, she recalls. But in her day, students protested restrictive dress codes and off-campus hours. These students wanted to eliminate letter grades and demanded a say in running the school.

"Some of the demands that the students made, like pass-fail grading system, it really increases the opportunity for arbitrariness by faculty members," Harris said last week.

"They were caught up in a kind of hysteria," she said. "I considered the strike self-destructive. My generation never did that."