It was Barbara Walters' birthday party, from touchy beginning to electrifying conclusion.

A reporter had just finished asking Walters' good friend Charlotte Curtis of The New York Times some innocuous-to-the-point-of-boring questions - How long have you known her? What do you think of her press coverage? - when the birthday girl and Curtis went into an intimate huddle, and next thing you know, there was Walters, dazzling in a lavender one-shoulder Halston gown, making toward one of her media sisters to give her a personal example of her famous, direct, pull-no-punches interviewing style.

"I hear you're a reporter and you're asking very bitchy questions," she said, in that dusty, gravelly voice.

The startled reporter managed a question as to why Walters' ABC Evening News co-anchorman Harry Reasoner - who has made no secret about his reluctance to share the spotlight with anyone - was not in attendance.

"Harry isn't here because he couldn't be here," said Walters. "He had a speaking commitment he made some months ago to talk at the New York Association of Savings and Loans in Florida and he said I couldn't pay him as much as they could. What else do you want to know."

Well, what about the story in this month's Cosmopolitan, in which Walters called the past year, with her attacks from the press, "the worst year" in her life.

The gaze is even: "That's a very old story, that's last year's story . . . Listen, it's been a very difficult year, but most of those difficulties have been beyond my control. Now it's all turned out fine. And if you'll forgive me, I've had a very tight week and I've had a rough weekend and now I just want to enjoy myself with my friends."

So saying, while on assignment with Walters in the Mideast, where she was interviewing Yasser Arafat, two of her producers were killed in a plane crash while delivering her film - an event which almost caused Walters to cancel her Monday night party. (The party, held at midtown Manhattan's small and elegant Katje Restaurant, went on because it was considered impossible to stop it at the last minute.)

And this year, Walters has faced the toughest criticism of her long television career.

Even before her arrival at ABC last fall as the first primetime network anchorwoman, her $1 million-a-year salary brought her under widespread attack. Former CBS New president Fred Friendly, a TV consultant to the Ford Foundation, suggested ABC, third in the ratings, would be better off spending its money on correspondents.

Harry Reasoner, ABC's solo evening anchorman, then making a reputed $300,000 a year and not wanting to share the spotlight, threatened to quit. (Reasoner's salary reportedly has since gone up to $300,000 - the same as Walters, who technically makes up the difference with her specials - but Reasoner is still rumored to be thinking of quitting.)

Three months into her stint at ABC, CBS correspondent Morley Safer, after her Carter interview in which she told Carter "be wise to us," publicly called her "Pope Barbara . . . the first female pope blessing the new cardinal."

And a few months ago when Roone Arledge stepped up to head ABC News and made no secret of his plans to downplay anchor people and move them into the street to report, a whole new spate of runors began - is-Barbara-being-demoted talke.

Yet on Oct. 4 Walters will have been at ABC one year, so that the overall feeling at her 46th birthday party Monday night was one of triumph after a year of unfair attack.

Ladies Home Journal, which threw the party and has put Barbara on its cover for the third time, made no secret of their feeling on the subject: "Yhe Plot To Get Barbara Walters" reads this month's cover story.

And most of the people at the blacktie dinner dance, which included a great many TV, political and journalism heavies, seemed to agree with LHJ.

"Who got Arafat, tell me that," said Walters' former co-worker Gene Shallit, of the NBC "Today" show, "but they'll find some way to put her down, too."

Other staunch defenders and friends at the celebration included wrier Gael Greene, huddled with columnist Liz Smith, designer Molly Parnis, and financial writer Sylvia Porter. Daily News editor Michael O'Neill shared a table with his wife, Mary Jane, society columnist Suzy, Curtis, and former Mayors Robert Wagner and John Lindsay and their wives.

Texas-bred Joe Armstrong, the newly appointed publisher of New York and New West magazines, was one of the few men not in black tie, arriving late in a three-piece suit and pointy-toed, gleaming black cowboy boots. "Barbara Howar gave me a 6-to-9 party," explained Armstrong, who had brought his younger sister. "This is my second shift."

The guest of honor herself - who walekd around in high spirits, hugging and kissing, even putting an arm around the problem reporter and deciding to be friends after all - had come to her birthday unescorted, though Alan Greenspan, the man Gene Shalit called "her fella," was in attendance.

And though Harry Reasoner and Roone Arlege were not there (Arlege, still head of ABC Sports, too, was at a game in Cleveland). Arledge's wife, Ann, a former Miss Alabama who made a hit with the photographers in a low-backed gown, did attend. So, also, did ABC board chairman Leonard Goldenson, ABC president Fred Pierce, and Walter's own executive news producer Av Westin, who proudly took credit for first putting Barbara in front of the camera.

"It was 1953, and she was a writer for the 'Good Morning,' show, and we were doing a fashion show and one of the three models didn't turn up - on TV you know you need a minimum of three - and I told her to go on."

Who knew Walters earliest, in fact, was a popular game at this rather tender party.

Alan King, until dethroned by a woman who said she and Barbara had gone to grade school together, claimed he had known Barbara longest, having met her when she was 14 and he was a 19-year-old comic working at her father's Latin Quarter night club in Boston and New York.

"Mamie Van Doren remembered that when she used to work the Latin Quarter. Barbara would always be telling her to cover up. Not to look so bare on the top," he laughed.

Did they date?

"Naah," said King, "Cuz I got married when I was 19 and she didn't get attractive until she did the morning show . . . still, I'm very proud."

More formal testimonials followed after dinner. Fred Pierce said it had been "tremendous" working with her. Curtis praised her as "a role model for so many women." Bess Myerson, who's done a little TV reporting herself, said that when she was campaigning recently for New York mayoral candidate Ed Koch, nobody asked her what job she really wanted. "It was Barbara's," said Myerson, quickly adding, "I'm teasing."

Then Walters got up, blew out the three candles on her mocha and rum mousse cake, and made her speech.

And, though she earlier had claimed that her last year's troubles were an old story, it was obvious they were still very much on her mind. She also clearly was concerned that no one misinterpret the absence of Arledge or Reasoner - particular Reasoner.

"I won't have Harry taking a bum rap because he's not here," she said. "We've had our struggles, but we've learned to respect each other and work together."

She stressed her affection for ABC, adding that through the last year she had received that company's full support. She thanked "those of you who struggled with me through last year, all of it." She also made a victory speech of sorts.

"Next week, Oct. 4, is my one-year anniversary," she said. "And while I hate to see any member of the press have to take back things they've said - I've made mistakes on the air and know how rough it is to take them back myself - I'd like to say to everybody who said I wouldn't last, come around, and we'll kiss and make up, and drink champagne."

And then, her professional voice shaking, she talked about the loss of her two producers. David Jayne and Larry Buckman, in last week's plane crash.

"I'm not superstitious, but this is the first trip I didn't want to go on," she said. "There was gunfire 50 minutes away, and I figured if there was a kidnapping plot, who could be a better candidate than a nice Jewish girl doing an interview with Yasser Arafat on Yom Kippur. But we went, and we couldn't transmit by satellite, and we didn't want to dub, so each night David flew back and forth, from Beirut to Amman, where he could transmit, and Friday, we heard his charter back from Amman went down, and he was killed . . ."

"I learned two things from this," she began, "never to take charter planes and" . . . her voice broke and she started to cry. "I hate being maudlin and I hate sentimentality . . ." she said, "but I remember, when the pressure was rough this year, when I had a bad night, I'd think, well, my child is well. I earn more than other people. I have a pretty good life, and that's what's really important . . . and this weekend . . . you know, we lot an entire interview, and I couldn't give a damn, and we lost my luggage and I couldn't give a damn, that's just not important. It's the people we lost, the sweetest, the kindest . . . they're what important. And it's all gotten me thinking, maybe it's time for a little kindness, and the next year, let's be a little kinder to one another."