The Comedian

WHEN Jonathan Winters got out of the Marines in 1946, he wanted nothing more than to go up to his old room and revisit his toys. The cupboard, however, was bare. "Where are my toys?" Jonathan asked his mother.

"Why, dear," Mrs. Winters said, "I gave the bulk of them away to the children at the mission."

Jonathan was quite miffed. "They weren't yours to give away," he said. "You should have told me. I'm glad they went to poor kids, but some of those things I had hoped to keep forever."

And she replied: "How did we know you were going to survive?"

Jonathan Winters never got his toys back, and perhaps as a consequence he's always paid particular attention to the child in himself. Winters' Tales: Stories and Observations for the Unusual (Random House), while assuredly a collection for adults, is firmly plugged into the author's feelings about the importance of youth and youthful inclinations. Published with little hoopla in November, the book has become an unexpected best seller -- helped along, no doubt, by the many fans who fondly remember Winters' comic genius in vehicles from Hefty trash bag commercials to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Winters' Tales is unclassifiable. Even the author can't really put a label on it, but will merely furnish the range: "It goes from animals to the definition of love to a transvestite who seduces his grandfather." There are also reports from a man who spends years hiding behind a couch and one who collects warm handshakes from complete strangers, and many other quirky souls.

Just getting these stories into a published book represents a significant victory, the author says. "It's like suiting up for the Super Bowl. At least you get to run out on the field and hear them say, 'Here's Eddie Rappaport, No. 37!' And people yell, and some boo, and some cheer . . . If you get out on the grass, that's the important thing. A lot of guys never get into the parking lot, let alone the stadium."

Though the 62-year-old Winters says he'll never abandon comedy, he's intending to get back onto the field of letters at least once, and maybe more. This is the time, he knows, to do his autobiography.

"It's not a question of running scared, but of being alert. I kid about it, but I'm in the fourth quarter," he says. "Although I had a hell of a first half -- close to 39 years of television and radio -- I hope I can hang in to enjoy the rest of it, and come into a little overtime." (If football metaphors seem to come up frequently here, it's because the Browns are finishing off the Colts on a soundless television set during the latter part of this interview.)

Comedy has never been an art form with great staying power. Audiences forget, and fans couldn't tape TV shows until recently. But a book will stick around for years. "A lot of the stuff that I've done has gone on the floor," says Winters. "This is much more permanent." And he sounds very pleased about that.

Super Mac

AFTER John D. MacDonald's death in December 1986 there was a good deal of speculation over the possibility he had left behind a final, unpublished Travis McGee novel. The McGee books always had a color in the title; the logical assumption was that the last entry in the series would use the word "black" and would finish off the hero.

Such a manuscript has never been discovered. But a final MacDonald work has indeed been published, and it even features McGee. Reading for Survival, issued by the Library of Congress, is cast in the form of a tightly packed dialogue between McGee and his friend Meyer on the merits of literacy and education.

This is didactic material, of course, and no doubt preaching to the converted; even the author called it a "small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse." It's also passionately angry, entirely convincing and a bittersweet coda to the McGee series. Copies are available for a tax-deductible $15 from the Center for the Book, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540. All proceeds go to the Center's reading promotion projects.

Nuclear Family

IN DECIDING to write about the Bechtel Group -- one of the largest privately-held corporations in the world -- business journalist Laton McCartney had an exceptionally difficult path to negotiate. He wanted to do an honest book, but he also needed access to company officials -- something it took two years to get.

"There was a tremendous amount of wooing and getting people to trust me and know me," McCartney says. "What made it possible was, they wanted their side presented accurately, and they figured I was not going to go away."

Such an approach often leads to a rosy corporate history that might as well have been published by the firm itself. That didn't happen with McCartney's Friends in High Places (coming from Simon and Schuster in March), an enlightening history of Bechtel, the San Francisco engineering corporation that built the Hoover Dam, the Washington Metro, the Alaska oil pipeline and almost half the world's nuclear power plants. "They've tried to avoid scrutiny, and I don't think they'll be particularly happy with a lot of my revelations," the author says.

For McCartney, the key issue with Bechtel is one of accountability. "In a simplistic way, does the Department of Energy represent Bechtel and other nuclear power companies, or does it represent the public interest? You've got situations where whistle-blowers go to Energy and say, 'We're having serious problems,' but they hit a stone wall. Their perception is the department is there to protect the interests of the nuclear power industry, and not ensure the safety of the plant."

Furthermore, the company's ties with the current and previous administrations -- Secretary of State George Shultz and former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger are former Bechtel officials -- illustrate the "gray area where the public and private sectors meet. One of my points is to show how these kinds of networks are both perpetuated and perpetrated -- and how a private firm can enjoy such close links with the government that is supposed to regulate it."

In the Margin

ELIZABETH DAVID's recipes are not for amateurs. "As far as quantities, times of cooking and oven temperatures are concerned I find it misleading to give exact details," she writes. For those who can handle them, two of her renowned cookbooks have recently been reissued in hardcover editions. French Provincial Cooking (Viking/Michael Joseph) is a thorough survey, nearly three decades old and still the standard work on its subject. Italian Food (Harper & Row) has been enhanced for this new oversized edition with nearly 200 color reproductions of relevant paintings . . .

Nan Robertson's A.A.: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous, billed as the first major book on the extremely popular and influential self-help organization, has been postponed until April. The problem was that A.A. officials decided they didn't want Robertson to use some of their copyrighted material. "Too much A.A. material would make it look like they're putting the book out, and they're not," says a spokeswoman for Morrow, the publisher. A.A. also wanted Robertson, a recovering alcoholic herself, to conform to A.A. style and not use her full name on the book, but she's holding firm on that . . .

Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic was one of the surprise best sellers of the fall season. Fred Hill, Shilts' agent, says it wasn't always destined to be that way. "Six or seven publishers declined to make an offer" when an outline was circulated two and a half years ago, he says. "They said either it was a subject that was going to go away, or that they already had an AIDS book." When And the Band came up for paperback auction recently, some of those same houses were now willing to offer a great deal for reprint rights. The winner was Penguin, for $577,000. The book is also in development as a mini-series for NBC . . .

One reason many people feel distanced from so much modern art is the high price of the traditional art book. Vintage Books is attempting to rectify that problem with a series of relatively low-priced paperbacks, the Vintage Contemporary Artists. The first four titles cover Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl, Robert Rauschenberg and David Salle. Edited by Elizabeth Avedon, each entry features a critical introduction, an interview with the artist, a bibliography and a handful of black-and-white and color reproductions. On the cover of each book is a photo of the artist taken by another Avedon, father-in-law Richard.