Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.

They were special luminaries in a starry night - a four-star general, a French chef, a widow of a president, a concert pianist, an inventor of domes, a Watergate judge.

It didn't matter that Walter Cronkite had regretted that morning, or that Gore Vidal reportedly had gone to Rome instead. There were still enough celebrities Monday night at the National Portrait Gallery to quench most any celebrity lovers' thirst.

The occasion was the gallery's acquisition of the Time magazine cover collection - about 900 paintings, watercolors, drawings, photographs and sculptures that include some of the best and brightest people of the past 20 years. At least as viewed by the pundits of Time.

Of these 900 covers, 107 will be put on exhibit beginning today. They range from Paul Tillich to Frank Sinatra, from Beverly Sills to Vince Lombardi. And of those 107 subjects, 70 of whom still breathe, about a dozen showed up Monday night - along with 250 just plain folks who never made the cover - to view themselves and dine on cold duck. It was, as Time might say, an improbable, impossible and mythological night.

Lady Bird Johnson, surrounded by a covey of Secret Service, had come in from Texas. She couldn't be sure just when she was on the cover. "Gee, we'd have to go down there and look it up, honey. I think I was on sometime between '64 and '68." And as for Lyndon Johnson, well, he was on a bunch. "I remember him getting on once as majority leader. That might have been the first."

Julia Child, who thinks she was on in the late '60s, thought her portrait made her look rather like a washerwoman - "a messy old thing. But it did sell my books." This was said without acrimony.

Child, who was not in on the planning of the menu (hot soup, cold entree, followed by a round of ratatouille), thought it was nonetheless "very interestingly conceived." Especially since the gallery has no kitchens and everything had to be brought in. She also liked the wines.

Ventured Child's husband, Paul, a former Foreign Service officer who is roughly a head shorter than his wife: "Well, since Julia was one of a select number, we thought we'd come down and flap our flag."

Others seemed less willing to flap their flags. Such as Gen. William Westmoreland, trim and distinguished gray, who said he couldn't remember how many times he made the cover. "They're not framed in the basement. Our house is not a museum." It was hard to engage him beyond that.

Eugene McCarthy, no stranger to celebrity Washington shindigs, moved among the house like an old campaigner. "Actually, I think I was on twice," he said. "And I was supposed to be on Newsweek one week, but got bumped when they devalued the pound and that made the cover. We blamed Lyndon for that."

Buckminster Fuller might have been the evening's most charming honoree. He is very hard of hearing now and must turn up his hearing aid to carry on a conversation; it buzzes fierecely in his head. But he can't turn these parties down. Unlike some of the others, he remembered much about his Time portraiture.

"It was done in '64. They came and took thousands of pictures of my eyes. The artist made my head look like a geodesic dome. But as you can see, it's not a geodesic dome, or even a true sphere." This was said while fondly rubbing his smooth, nearly hairless pate.

A clutch of Time executives, looking more like board directors of the Chase Manhattan than journalists, came down from New York for the occasion, poublisher; Ray Cave, managing editor, and Henry Anatole Grunwald, corporate editor.

Grunwald (known by his staffers as "HAG," though not to his face) is the man who presided over most of the donated covers during his long reign at the helm of Time. He offered a kind of modus operandi for cover selection: "News sells covers. It's not only sex or pretty girls. Although, all things being equal, pretty girls still sell them the best. Thank God."

His colleague Davidson declined to say who would be on the cover of Time this coming week. "Of course, we're always willing to change at the last minute. Sometimes as late as Friday before Monday publication. A few times we're changed on Saturday. To change on Sunday would require something short of the Third, World War."

Other Time subjects present Monday night were pianist Van Cliburn, from Kilgore, Tex., who was accompanied, as is nearly always the case, by his mother; John Sirica of Watergate fame, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Asked about the Nixon memoirs, Schlesinger replied: "It makes 'Six Crises' look like the 'Iliad.'"

Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) had a place reserved next to Lady Bird Johnson, but was nowhere to be found. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) had canceled earlier in the day. Family sickness.

The guests dined Monday night on the Gallery's third floor, where an earlier American celebrity, Abraham Lincoln, held his second inaugural ball. Walt Whitman read his poetry here to wounded troops in the Civil War. Gallery Director Marvin Sadik said that the room had'nt been so distingished since that moment.