JOHN MALCOLM BRINNIN is this country's best high-class gossip. Of course he is

more than just a tattle, as readers of his penetrating books on Dylan Thomas and Gertrude Stein already know, but he wipes out the professional opposition (including such respectable tongue-waggers as Liz Smith and "Taki") because he brings such formidable skills to the art. Possessed of a prose style that is smooth as silk, and a personality that can pounce like a cat and withdraw like a butler, he is also a man of high intelligence who drops names like pearls but never embarrasses himself or his readers.

If we all lust in some palpitating place to be part of the secret high society of our time, then John Malcolm Brinnin is the most discreet lecher of all, and deftly brings home the bacon for the awkward and unworthy. He is a unique resource who superbly feeds that part of American human nature which usually goes to the fast-food troughs of People and The Star to get its fix. Brinnin, with his jewelled hand, makes it all seem ultra-respectable, but the bang in the belly that we get from the release of intimate, spicy information is even more striking because of his finesse.

Drawing on a journal that he kept over a period of 40 years, poet-professor Brinnin this time out gives us six portraits of celebrated literary/arts figures whom he knew in the '40s, '50s and early '60s. Distance has clarified his vision rather than tamed it, and we are the lucky recipients of Truman Capote's slow descent into the world of "Rex and Lilli, Charlie and Oona, Garbo and Cecil, ZaSu Pitts and Phoebe" after an austere start. Also--photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's unbelievable megalomania; Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen's masked manners with a dying husband in the house; the sad, exotic Sitwell family (especially Dame Edith) in all their flakey loneliness; Alice B. Toklas' shrewd senility at the end; and T.S. Eliot lassoed from his bachelor digs, which he shared with a deformed London critic, by a female employe of his publishing firm (who firmly married him).

Nothing Brinnin puts down is trite. Everything is loaded--he is not interested in muckraking so much as peeling back the skin of conventionally proper situations. The atmosphere of his scenes is charged, but more like an impending summer storm than anything you can put your finger on. Indirection, rather than a splash of hot scandal in the face, is his forte. And even though his primary focus is literary--the 65-year-old Brinnin was at one time director of the New York Poetry Center, through which he solidified many of these relationships--this book goes far beyond the usual enclosure of smart literary chit-chat. The lures of wealth, great names, power and privilege flit over and through each portrait. Brinnin is a true grandson of Henry James and Marcel Proust, and in keeping with our documentary age, takes that drawing-room awareness into the close quarters of steamy reality.

Yet even though we have never seen someone like, say, Truman Capote so clearly--"this childlike packet of a man with his fauntleroy velvet, his dancing pumps, his baby seal's voice"--Brinnin is hardly content just to exercise his cutting eye and ear. He is finally a moralist, although never of the boring kind. He is sad that his young friend Truman has finally succumbed to all the glitter (though not so sad, it should be noted, that he refuses a luncheon in Venice with Katherine Hepburn arranged by arch-fixer Capote). He is also quietly indignant that his older friend, T.S. Eliot, has been hooked by the ex-Miss Fletcher of the publishing house of Faber & Faber, where Eliot was a working partner. After painting a scene in detail, in other words, Brinnin then gives us a thumbs up or a thumbs down. It's clear that he enjoys these final judgments-- and we enjoy the cool nerve he shows as well, like snubbing the new Mrs. Eliot whose new "mink cape slipped, revealing a delicate circle of pearls around her neck."

John Malcolm Brinnin is obviously no one to mess around with. Gentlemanly, knowledgeable, loyal, he also has a live wire in him that gets scalding hot when people behave beneath his standards. Thus his book reveals the man as much as it does the celebrities to whom he paid court. Camus and Sartre used to talk about the existentially "engaged" writer in those heady years following World War II; with Brinnin we have what might well be a new category, the engaged portrait-painter and gossipeer. These details that so rivet us-- Cartier-Bresson's "china-blue eyes and hair close-cut as a prisoner's," Elizabeth Bowen's "permanent smile," a deteriorating Edith Sitwell "bowing continually like a grotesque mechanical doll," Alice Toklas "pouncing with a cackle on a foolish idea or an inflated reputation"--reflect the full intensity of Brinnin's picture of life. They are not lightly given, even though the expression is often low-key.

It is not a broad world that he serves up, it is even narrow and elitist at times, but it is totally committed, totally felt, even when the focus of his unwavering concentration is something as casual as the unexpected presence of Katherine Anne Porter in Santa Monica "immaculate in white except for high-heeled black patent leather shoes." Brinnin can make lightning shoot through the ordinary. And when you keep in mind that the host of personalities in his book are far from ordinary--are, indeed, wrapped in legend--you can see what a tense, stormy adventure awaits even the most timid armchair voyeur. And don't we all, as Brinnin so sharply knows, fit that cowardly description?