Dean Acheson, who was there himself, described them as being 'present at the Creation'. He was talking about people like Clark Clifford and Averell Harriman, the men who surrounded the president, Harry Truman, in the early days of the Cold War. Though neither Acheson, Truman's Secretary of State, nor Harriman have lived to see the latest Democrat regime, Clifford is still there and so is Harriman's widow, Pamela, who for the last 25 years has been the town's leading socialite.

Clifford, a Missouri lawyer who came to Washington at the outbreak of the Second World War, became special counsel to Truman, who was also from Missouri. From that moment until now, Clifford was a first-hand witness of almost every other event that made history: from Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain speech, to the Cuban missile crisis, to President Johnson's defence department during the Vietnam war, to the fall of the Berlin wall.

Pamela - nee Rigby, the daughter of an English earl - assumed her regal position as the consummation of a personal career which began with a brief marriage to Winston Churchill's son Randolph and took her across the world. A courtesan in the emerging post-war Europe, she engaged in serial affairs with rich fops of the kind now known somewhat fondly in America as Eurotrash, such as Elie de Rothschild and the Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli. At the bar in the Ritz in Paris, Hemingway wrote pornographic poems about her.

Eventually, in 1971, aged 51, she married the American railroad heir Averell Harriman, who was then 79 and had been in and out of US administrations since the beginning of modern time. He had served four Democratic presidents and become a pillar of the Democratic Party.

Ms Pamela moved with ease from the mansions of the Riviera rogues to the halls of power in Washington, from the elegant dining rooms of Paris to the salons of New York. Before Harriman's death in 1986 and increasingly after it, she used some, but by no means all, of his legacy to build up the Democratic Party, and her efforts were rewarded by President Bill Clinton with the glittering prize of US ambassador to France.

Clifford and Mrs Harriman have known each other for years - he was a lifelong friend and business partner of Averell - but the Cliffords and the Harrimans lived their separate lives until Averell's will brought them together - her as a very rich widow, him as the lawyer who had the responsibility of handling much of her wealth. Together they face a dollars 30m lawsuit.

Three generations of Harriman heirs claim that Mr Clifford, Mrs Harriman and others not only lost most of the considerable fortune that Mr Harriman had set aside for them, but also deceived them about bad investments. The prospect is that Clifford, who is 87, and Harriman, 74, will live out at least part of their last years far from the chandeliers of the grandes salles of international business and politics, and instead face the broken-down lighting of the seedy hearing rooms in a New York courthouse.

In Washington, the drawing rooms are filled with chatter about how these political and financial blue-bloods came to such grief - how, especially, they came to allow a convicted swindler from Wall Street and another financier who was being investigated for alleged securities fraud to lay a hand on the Harriman money. Was it misconduct or just bad luck?

By today's standards the sums involved are rather small, which makes the fact that the family sued more curious. The Harriman heirs - who include two elderly daughters, aged 76 and 77, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren - think suing people is vulgar.

'They're the least litigious people in the world,' said Peter Duchin, who grew up in the Harriman household. 'They're old-fashioned classy people with a good sense of values who believe that civilised people should be able to air their differences without lawyers. They must be mad as hell.'

They were driven into court, apparently, when their substantial monthly cheques from the Harriman trust fund suddenly stopped coming.

When Harriman died he left dollars 33m to his widow, Pamela, and named her executor, with vast power over his numerous investments. The others, including the two daughters by his first marriage (Pamela was his third wife), were not left enormous riches but were made beneficiaries of some of his other investments. Clifford, another lawyer, Paul Warnke, who was chief adviser on arms control for presidents Johnson and Carter, and Pamela, were appointed watchdogs over the trust fund.

From 1984 to 1989, Clifford and Warnke, the suit says, managed the money conservatively and rather well: the assets in the trusts grew from dollars 13m to dollars 25m. The daughters received about dollars 200,000 a year from the trust fund. But between 1989 and 1993, dollars 21m of the trust money was ploughed into the bottomless maw of a resort hotel and conference centre in New Jersey that had once been a Playboy Hotel and is now on the verge of bankruptcy.

Involved in the investments, at one level or another, were some questionable characters, including Robert Brennan, a smooth securities dealer who piloted his own helicopter in television ads for his First Jersey Securities. He is on trial for alleged securities fraud. A second 'helper', according to the court papers, was Eugene Mulvihill, a New Jersey resort owner who was charged in 1984 with 110 counts of criminal conspiracy, fraud, forgery, theft and embezzlement. Under a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to six criminal counts, was fined nearly dollars 300,000 and put on probation for three years.

Clifford claims there is no question of fraud. 'That's an awful ugly charge that's not sustainable,' he says. 'Somebody has the perfect right to criticise us for having bad business judgement.' That's all. In any case, he says, he cannot be held responsible for what happened because Mr Harriman agreed that Clifford would not be liable for any losses incurred in his role as trustee.

The gossip is that Clifford ran into trouble over the investments because he runs his law firm with an iron hand; only he is in charge. He is very secretive and had no one to tell him that what he was doing was not a great idea.

Poor Mr Warnke says he did not know of the extent of the investment in the hotel, and was not kept properly informed. 'I feel that I did the job properly on the basis of the information I had,' he said.

In Paris, Mrs Harriman has said through her lawyers that she was not a trustee as such, more like an overseer. She regretted that the grandchildren had brought this suit 'rather than trying to work something out co-operatively'. The court will have to answer the question of how much responsibility Mrs Harriman did have; and in the course of the hearings, which will not start for several months, much will be said about the extraordinary way she conducted herself as the matriarch of the Harriman family.

The bad blood goes back many years. By all accounts the heirs were deeply disappointed when Mr Harriman married Pamela. From the first day, almost, she just shut them out. Sometimes they would come to Washington to see the ageing Mr Harriman and she would say he was not well enough to be seen, and in at least one instance is said to have barred them at the gate.

'She froze them out physically and she froze them out psychologically and then she froze them out financially,' says Chris Ogden, a former Time reporter who has written an unauthorised and frothy biography of Mrs Harriman entitled Life of the Party.

By the time Averell died, the rift in the family was so deep that on the day of the funeral, Mr Ogden reported, the children went to the family grave site unaware that their father and his wife had previously decided that he would be buried in another plot, four miles away. Apart from the unequal share-out of the money, Mrs Harriman also refused to share any of his effects with the children. They didn't sue then. 'We don't approve of making a fuss,' one grandchild told a friend at the time.

The Harriman suit is the second filed against Clifford recently. He was investigated in connection with the collapse in 1991 of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, but the judge ruled that he was too ill to face trial and he was acquitted. Whatever the result of the Harriman suit, Clifford's peerless vantage point of so many historical passages makes him a metaphor for an American political epoch.

As for Mrs Harriman, she is said to be on her way home from Paris, tired of diplomatic entertaining on the meagre State Department budget, feeling her age for the first time, and fed up with what she sees as Clinton's foreign policy bungles. They say she doesn't get the kind of access to the White House she thinks she deserves. Her Georgetown houses are up for sale, for about dollars 5m.

Though she has been compared to the great courtesans of history - Nell Gwyn and Madame de Pompadour - the wags of Washington are uncomfortable with giving her the status of an epoch-maker. And she is hardly a role model for the women of today. 'She has never done anything in her life that isn't for and about Pam,' said one female critic. 'There's no one like her, so there's no era that included people like her, she has no redeeming value - except, perhaps, to disprove the old Republican adage about Democrats, that they are constantly careless about other people's money and only thrifty about their own.'

(Photographs omitted)