Helen Lawrenson at 71 is now paying the price of her careless youth - she kept turning down Conde Nast who was determined to marry her - and she never used her charm, her taste, her glory (not to split hairs about it) to salt away cash.

As a result, she now lives modestly in London and has to write to support herself. On the other hand, she never went through the drudgery of marrying some fat old goat for security's sake and she counts her blessings, because, as she was saying yesterday, she never once in her life went to bed with a man she didn't like.

"I never accepted an expensive gift from any man, except Bernard Baruch," she said.

Indeed. And ah, Baruch was a friend?

"We were lovers," she said, eyeing a Margarita at the Madison booze room with some suspicion, though it turned out just fine.

"He gave me an Encyclopedia Britannica," she went on. "Other women got sables and villas at Cap d'Antibes from rich lovers, but I got the encyclopedia. He said he thought I could get one secondhand. I told him I had no time to go poking around secondhand stores so he said hell, get a new one and I did, returning $200 in change to him. Which he took."

Helen Lawrenson was managing editor of Vanity Fair in its great days, and has written more than anybody else in recent years for Esquire. Her "How Now, Fellatio, Why Dost Thou Tarry?" is considered by some critics to be (along with Emily Dickinson) the only work of consequence in our literature.

In it she recounts the efforts of young women to master oral sex. They never liked it much, but felt it was their duty to learn - as one might set his mind to get the pre-Tudor kings straight or form a clear idea of the Congo.

Never was any good at it. Tried too hard.

Her husband once said it was a fine thing, leaving him at home to take care of the babies and do all the hamburgering while she was off "getting shot at in a Mexican whorehouse.

"But of course he understood," she said. "In my day whorehouses were one place you could always get a drink. The speak-easies would be closed. You wouldn't know any boot-legger in a strange city. But you could always get a drink at a whorehouse."

The time she got shot at she had dropped in for a wee snort and was talking to a man on a sofa - she has always been the world's dream of a conversationalist - while one of the professional ladies was going to town with somebody in the corner.

"Look at me," the professional kept calling out, and was furious that her pimp paid no attention, absorbed in high-minded talk with Lawrenson.

Spurned, the whore picked up a gun and fired madly, missing Lawrenson by two inches, though the pimp gentleman, who knew his way around, was safe on the floor.

Vilent men raced in and seized the whoreperson and Lawrenson shouted:

"Do not treat her in that manner!"

The lady cried out to Helen, before vanishing, "You are not to blame."

Lawrenson said yesterday (she has not been in any whorehouses lately) she was sorry to hear that nowadays you can't get drinks at all hours in such places any more, and she also has been informed that people nowadays go to such establishments for sex.

Well, times change.

Her book is called "Whistling Girl," in allusion to the old saw that whistling girls and crowing hens never turn out well."

"I don't know what you can do with the book in a newspaper," she said, "especially the part in which I complain of that asinine prudery by which papers say 'f-' instead of 'f-'.

"It's all right to say 'go to bed with' or 'sleep with' or 'copulate,' even though these mean precisely the same thing as 'f-.'"

But as someone said to her, a bit sharply, if shhat, she need not expect to get anywhere in the world or in family newspapers.

"I always loved Conrad," she said, not wishing to be tiresome on behalf of reason and turning to literature. "'Heart of Darkness,' 'Lord Jim' . . . I love his marvelous novels where everything hinges on morals.

"Of course I have trouble with contemporary novels, and if anybody thinks I am going to read on and on about three generations of sheepherders, well I'm not."

She never cared for "Don Quixote," she said, possibly to show she has shortcomings like ordinary folk, but of course intends to apply herself diligently in the future to that gap.

Since she is only 71, she supposes it is premature to comment on the Meaning of It All.

She will tend to that in a book when she is 80.

"I don't mind saying," she said in the interim, "that I am very grateful for the gift of life. Like everybody else, I have had rebuffs, humiliations, family tragedies. Who hasn't? I like being old.

"Yes, I suppose we should have talked about women's liberation. Needless to say I believe in equal pay for equal work, but what I can't take is women who simply hate men.

"They have declared the bed a disaster area. It's a wonder to me men can perform at all. I should think a woman would see it is better to bolster men up than to tear them down and make them think they're doing it all wrong.

"But of course for me it is quite academic now. As for age, one thing is it's inevitable. I have never quite understood old women who acquire young men.

"They must know the only attraction they have is money. You would think they might have more self-respect.

"I heard of one old woman who went somewhere and had facelifts and all that and sure enough it took 20 years off. Until she put her hand to her face, and there was all the old wrinkled skin. They can't renew everything, you know.

"Though I am told there is some place in Brazil . . ." CAPTION: Picture 1, Helen Lawrence, by James A. Parcell,; Picture 2, with Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner, courtesy Mademoiselle, 1951 by Street & Smith Publications Inc.; Picture 3, Helen Lawrenson, by James A. Parcell - The Washington Post