Ritzy charity balls have become so common in Palm Beach that planners usually have to throw several small parties in advance to generate publicity and enough momentum to peddle the remaining tickets.

But for the Knights of Malta Ball, the first ever held in the South, the 500 tickets were snapped up almost immediately, at $150 each (and higher - one donor gave $5,000) by townies and out-of-state guests alike. Usually hard-to-land folks like the Winston Guests, the Joseph Lauders, Douglas Fairbanks and Rose Kennedy showed up for this one. One hundred fifty applications had to be returned.

The ball Friday night at the Breakers Hotel sold out two weeks in advance, without the usual pre-parties.

"The international jet set, that's what attracted them," said Agnes Ash, publisher of the Palm Beach "Shiny Sheet," which focuses heavily on society happenings.

While it's commonplace for overseas bluebloods to drop in, she said, "We usually get just a few at a time, not a big bundle like this one."

For weeks before, Suzy, the New York gossip columnist, had been dropping tantalizing tidbits about all the glamorous Europeans names - a couple of dozen dukes, princes, princesses, barons and vicomtes - who would be there.

"There was all that ballyhoo for dignitaries from France and others like the Duke of Norfolk so everybody in Palm Beach was breaking their necks to get tickets for it," said Mrs. V. J. Zerbo Jr., a member of the ball's Palm Beach committee.

"A cocktail party was given for one of the princesses, and everyone kept saying to each other, 'Did you get an invitation? Did you get an invitation?' Maybe the people here aren't as sophlisticated as they think."

In America, there are several hundred members of the Southern Association of the Soveriegn Military Order of Malta, including about 40 in Washington.

A number of other orders of Malta exist, but to get into this one, you have to be Catholic and have contributed much time and much money to charities, not necessarily Catholic ones.

The American Knights are mostly businessmen, but in Europe, the order is more prestigious, including a good number of inherited positions. The Knights even maintain their own diplomatic relations with 40 countries.

"It's not just money," said Frank Wright, who runs the Palm Beach Round Table. "You can't buy your way in. It's personal involvement too."

Among Washingtonians who made the trip to the Breakers, a huge Renaissance-style resort built in 1926 and patterned after the Medici Villa in Rome, was Archbishop of Washington William Cardinal Baum.

At the cocktail reception, where guests clutched gift packages of Aramis and Estee Lauder perfume and muched cheeses set around an ice sculpture of the Maltese Cross, one lady took her husband in tow and told everyone in earshot about how his tuxedo "was the same one he wore when we were introduced to Queen Elizabeth."

The Duke of Norfolk, a reserved chap with a clipped mustache, was all but tackled by a socialite in a red gown - one of many in the crowd, matching the Maltese flag of red background and White Cross - who promptly launched a speech about how "I think we both represent power."

She rambled on about the old days when "of course we went on beautiful holidays to Europe - ah, Versailles!" before the Duke excused himself to go meet Rose Kennedy, who was craning her neck and wistfully sighing, "I haven't seen many Frenchmen yet."

Herded into the ballroom for a re-past of Pompano bonne femme and le coeur de filet d boeuf, sauce Bernaise, the guest assumed seats at tables for 12, surrounded by huge Maltese Cross flag draped from each wall.Then the top-ranking nobility was announced, filing in beneath a spotlight.

"Americans are nutty about titles," said one guest. "That's one reason there are so many here who otherwise wouldn't be."

Most of the $100,000 expected to have been raised will be used to finance hospice centers for the terminally ill.

"Look at Florida today - all old people," says William H. G. Fitzgerald, a Washington investment banker who's president of the Southern Association. "When you get to be 60 years of age or so, you share this experience (of death) with so many people. You become very sensitive to it, and this is why the ball is such a success here.

"The Knights of Malta, since the Crusades have dedicated themselves to the care of the dying, and that's where the idea of the hospice comes from - it's proven so successful in Europe for many years. They've learned how to prepare people to die."

The Knights of Malta already have established a pilot hospice program to be linked with Carroll Manor in Hyattsville. Most of the proceeds from the ball, however, will be used to help set up another in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Since the center won't be in Palm Beach, the ball's purpose annoyed some of the residents.

"The Catholics are coming in here and siphoning off money that could go to local charities," complained one woman.

Though the Southern Association in headquartered in Washington, where Fitzgerald did most of the party planning, he selected Palm Beach for the locale strictly because of geographic coincidence, he says.

"The Southern Association has the South Central states and the Southeast and the Caribbean, and if you look at the map, the center of that is between Miami and Jacksonville, so Palm Beach is a logical place."

That rationale drew a laugh from one of his friends. "I asked him why Plam Beach," the friend says, "and he told me, 'because that's where the money is.'"