RALPH INGERSOLL: A Biography By Roy Hoopes. Atheneum. 441 pp. $19.95.

IN THE SUMMER of 1937, Henry Luce -- the "gimlet-eyed baby tycoon," as a New Yorker writer would later describe him -- made the general manager of Time Inc. an offer virtually nobody could be expected to refuse, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.

Luce promised $1 million in Time stock if Ralph McAllister Ingersoll would stay with the company for another five years, energetically sowing his brand of dissension, creating new ideas and the ulcers that go with them and helping churn out some of the best and most controversial journalism of the era.

But Ingersoll, a fascinating but bizarre man who knew, loved or feuded with many of the great and famous of this century, turned Luce down.

"What the hell do I want with a million dollars?" Ingersoll said, thereby setting the stage for his liberation from Luce two years later at age 38, to the dismay of his friends, his father and his psychiatrist.

Ingersoll, who died in March at the age of 84 and who cooperated with journalist Roy Hoopes for this intriguing biography, then went on to create PM -- a futuristic newspaper that published many of the intellectual giants of a gigantic era but never quite conquered its internal wars between the pro-communists and the anti-communists who divided the staff.

This book, thick with gossip about such luminaries as Lillian Hellman, Ernest Hemingway, Clare Boothe Luce and Harold Ross, is basically the story of a man more important to the history of journalism than he is famous, at least today, almost 40 years after he resigned as editor of PM.

Ingersoll, however, was something of a wunderkind of the magazine business a half- century ago, serving as managing editor of The New Yorker magazine in his mid-twenties. He ran Fortune and helped create Life magazine for Luce in his thirties, retiring from the empire in 1939 as publisher of Time.

Besides creating and dominating PM, he also wrote a best-selling book about what it was like to be a draftee in World War II; and finally, after the war, helped start a small, but thriving newspaper chain on the Eastern seaboard.

He also worked briefly as a miner and mining engineer after his Yale graduation. He was always a vigorous socialite; the husband of four women in succession; the paramour of many others; the father of two sons and three stepchildren; the author of nine books. He had many friends and enemies -- often the same people who loved him for his brilliant but vicious wit and then turned on him for seeming venomous. Hemingway and Ingersoll started out in a fast friendship nurtured on good drink, conversation and roughneck deep sea fishing, and Hemingway exhuberantly hugged Ingersoll after he caught his first sailfish in Key West. Later the macho man of American literature, souring on Ingersoll because of their differences over the production of a film, began calling him "Ingersnake" behind his back.

Clare Luce, whose feud with Ingersoll during the birth of Life magazine has been widely chronicled in other books about the era, fares badly in Ingersoll's version. As he put it in his unpublished autobiography that author Hoopes quotes from extensively in this book, Ingersoll viewed her as "a fascinating text book case of arrested development -- the arrested emotional development of a precociously bright female child at or about early puberty."

What is interesting about Hoopes' biography is that he has resisted the urge to mimic Ingersoll's flamboyant style, featured in the mountains of internal memos that provided scorching critiques of whatever publication or person being analyzed at the time. Instead, Hoopes lays out the stories of Ingersoll's life simply and directly, sparing the reader many of the sweeping psychological analyses that plague too many other books of this genre.

Moreover, although Ingersoll cooperated on the book before he died, he agreed that after it was written he would only challenge facts, not Hoopes' occasional judgments. Hoopes, a journalist who lives in Bethesda, was also free to plug in some less friendly assessments of Ingersoll, which provide the book with an extra layer and make both Ingersoll and his biography more interesting.

Oddly missing from this story of a man who was widely accused of being a fellow traveler during the prewar years and who was one of those members of the intelligentsia who toyed with but ultimately rejected the Communist Party was Ingersoll's view of the McCarthy era. By then he had become intensely interested in earning money through his partnership with eccentric millionare Charles Marsh.

The book also suffers occasionally from an Ingersoll-at-the-center-of-the-earth tendency that can be offputting: "By the summer of 1941, the sides were clearly drawn: Great Britain and Ralph Ingersoll, with open support from President Roosevelt, were locked in a fight-to-the finish war with Adolf Hitler. Then suddenly Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded Russia. This was tremendous news for Ingersoll."

Ingersoll told the chronicler of his life that Eleanor Roosevelt feared a military coup in 1942 to overthrow her husband as president and begged him to warn FDR, whose response was to laugh it off saying that the editor must learn to take only one Roosevelt so seriously.

Ingersoll also said that during the war, he was hitchhiking on a military plane when he and a friend suddenly warned the pilot not to land on an offshore island held by the Germans. The sudden detour, he said, thus saved not only his own life but that of two other passengers aboard the same plane, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.

But if Ingersoll seemed to suffer from chronic egocentricity -- an affliction that has been known to rage in pandemic proportions among those practicing the journalistic trade -- it is a small price to pay for this view of an interesting man in a fascinating time.