"I used to wear Oscar de la Renta dresses," says the Baroness Aïno de Bodisco. "Now I shop at Bloomingdale's." For her, living cheap is the best revenge. The 60ish baroness, a close if considerably senior friend of de la Renta's from his down-and-out days in Madrid, claims she kept him and introduced him to the beau monde so he could make it as a dress designer. "Oscar is not a self-made man," snaps the baroness. "I made him."

In return, she says, de la Renta made her an offer she was too gracious to refuse: a contract signing over half his earnings—for life. "It saved his face," she says. "He wanted to look like a gentleman who was making a business agreement and not just living off my money." Alas, she maintains, the contract has netted her only a few dresses, some flowers and one check for $2,500 so far. The baroness (whose title comes from her first marriage) was loath to press her case in court—until friends convinced her she was "a fool." She hired no less than Roy Cohn, a lawyer whose star-studded clientele includes reputed Mafia chieftain Carmine Galante. Cohn has a simple resolution. "We will find out how much de la Renta earned," says Cohn, "and then take 50 percent of that amount." He figures the take at roughly $2 million.

De la Renta had his chance to cough up quietly. Cohn inquired about an out-of-court settlement through his lawyer, Peter Tufo, a man whose understanding of the lapsed aristocracy was informed by his years of squiring Lee Radziwill (they have since split). The designer's offer was "totally unacceptable," says Cohn, and the baroness heatedly agrees. "I don't want charity," she says. "I am sure he is asking, 'How much do I pay to keep her quiet?' He can be so seductive and irresistible, but if he doesn't need you, he drops you."

The handwritten June 1956 contract appears binding—and very Mediterranean—promising "absolutely," "at all times," "during all my life" and "after my death" that the baroness would be entitled to half de la Renta's assets. It goes on: "This engagement from me to you [is] a permanent and unchangeable agreement regardless of our personal relationship or legal status as unmarried, married, divorced or widowed."

As Aïno de Bodisco remembers it, the contract wasn't worth much at the time. Young Oscar had moved to Madrid from his native Dominican Republic to study art, but his father, an insurance salesman, had stopped sending money. The couple met at a party, and the timing was right. The baroness, whose father had been the Estonian ambassador to Spain, had by then been widowed and divorced and was alone, wealthy and rattling around a grand old palazzo just waiting for a 23-year-old cause like Oscar. "He was very handsome and very poor," she remembers. "He didn't even have an overcoat. I took him out of a miserable pension and put him in an apartment." As for his passion to be "a Picasso," his mentor brooked no nonsense. "I saw he was made to be a clothes designer. I wanted him to be the most famous in the world."

She persuaded Oscar to design a dress for her, then showed it to her society friends. She claims the ploy worked and recalls her friend the Baroness Dournelle exclaiming at one point: "I always get dressed by Dior, but who is that young Dominican?"

As orders increased Oscar's confidence grew, and he landed a job with Lanvin in Paris. "The job was my idea," the baroness contends. "He lived with me, stayed in my beautiful Paris apartment. I supported him 100 percent." But in 1963, when he moved to New York to work for Elizabeth Arden—at $3,500 a month—the situation changed dramatically, she says. "He dropped me like a hot potato. It was 'I don't need you anymore.' He is not capable of guilt—he is directed by self-interest."

By 1967 she was sending him letters demanding money, but de la Renta's mind was apparently elsewhere—perhaps on Françoise de Langlade, editor of the French Vogue, whom he was courting then and married later that year. "It doesn't matter that he is married," argues the baroness. "It was a business agreement. It had to do with money, not our relationship or future relationships. It is not about who slept with whom." Indeed, she says she and Oscar remained friends until last year, though Françoise professes never to have met her husband's benefactress. "I only know what I read in the newspapers," she demurs.

Meanwhile, as the baroness' story moves toward its legal denouement, she bravely carries on in a small Park Avenue apartment, goes to 10 parties a month, likes to shepherd visiting remnants of European royalty around New York and is particularly fond of Studio 54. Boyfriends? "Of course," she sniffs. "I'm not dead yet. But I'm not planning on marrying Bill Paley, if that's what you mean. I never look for a rich man. I am more inclined to be interested in the young and handsome." By that standard, de la Renta, an attractive 46, is still half right for her, but their rendezvous in court—perhaps sometime this spring—promises no tearful reconciliation. "He used me, abused me and disposed of me," says she. De la Renta, who has yet to formally answer the allegations, limits himself to a single utterance: "You have to expect this sort of thing if you are in the public eye."