WHAT DOES MADAM SECRETARY OF STATE DO when she spills salad dressing on herself at a terribly correct diplomatic do? Cover it demurely with her napkin? Not Madeleine Albright. She recently told a group at an Armed Services Wives lunch her solution: "I got up and turned my skirt around." That mix of panache and practicality has well served the first woman to hold the top Cabinet position. While she has not been fully tested in her first year on the job, the zesty Albright, 60, has, says former Secretary Henry Kissinger, "put foreign policy in the center of public concern again." Even crusty conservative Sen. Jesse Helms acknowledges, "She's doing great." Cruising the world with her trademark brooches and bright suits, and speaking bluntly in a realm of carefully couched phrases, Albright has been persuasive on NATO expansion, strong on a Bosnia solution, tenacious about human rights in China and trenchant about Saddam Hussein's complying with UN inspection mandates.

The former UN ambassador's performance is all the more remarkable given the upheaval in her personal life. Shortly after she was nominated last December, she learned that her Czech grandparents were Jews, killed by the Nazis. Raised as a Roman Catholic in Czechoslovakia, England and the U.S., the daughter of a diplomat never knew her family's background. "She handled it extremely well," says her friend Geraldine Ferraro, Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984. "She meets every event that comes across her life with dignity." Away from the office, Albright likes to relax on the beach and talk about her two grandchildren. (She has three grown daughters.) Divorced from publishing heir Joseph Albright in 1983, she hasn't railed out a new romance. "It's hard for someone to fit into this life," she recently told Barbara Walters on ABC. "but occasionally someone does." Madam Secretary was. for once, too diplomatic to say who that might be.