The cat was a Braque, not a Steinberg. Definitely not a Steinberg, said Steinberg.

The object of his attention lounged near the front door, one leg inelegantly raised.

"There is something very beautifully camouflaged and elegant about the cat." Saul Steinberg said, watching Joan Mondale's calico cat go through its late afternoon toilette.

"Suddenly the white becomes a color. Some cats are dressed up with stripes but this cat's while has the quality of a white shirt," said Steinberg.

"A special cat," he decided.

Mondale appeared enraptured by the description, seeing with new eyes, perhaps, the Mondale family cat, known far and wide (or at least around the vice president's house) as plain and simple "Kitty."

"It's a calico," she began, filling the momentary void yesterday as her guest of honor at the small tea she gave stood quietly, a not uncharacteristic stance. Time magazine, in a cover story on the artist last April, had portrayed Steinberg as "immobile in repose as a large tabby cat," and indeed, here he now stood in repose.

"Calicos are only females," Mondale continued, tracing the genealogy of Kitty back to "one notorious female calico" in Cleveland Park, where the Mondales used to live.

Steinberg seemed to ignore his hostess's reference to Kitty's gender.

"Even the features on his face are the cubist transformations and the cubist colors - black, a variety of browns and the orange of the cubists. It looks," he said, "like the cubist period of Braque, the face transfigured by the variety of colors."

"It is a Steinberg cat," insisted Catharina Biddle, herself an artist but one with for too little time to practice it, she lamented, since her husband Livingston became head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

"No, no," Steinberg corrected her, going on to liken his pen-and-ink cats with Cleo de Merode, a ballet dancer of the Belle Epoque whose name nobody recognized but politely pretended to, anyway.

So Steinberg was back in town, here for a purpose because "one doesn't come to Washington without a purpose." This time it was last night's opening of his exhibition at the Hirshorn Museum; the last time was in 1945 when the got "stuck" here.

He had been in the Navy, had come back from overseas and nobody knew what to do wit him. It was a terrible experience - "wartime Washington was a horror," he remembered. You of course, it had changed.

"It has become a highway city - it still has that frightening character of the court. Courts are always frightening, royal courts, you know."

It sounded so negative. He paused.

"We have to praise the small provincial airport," he said, his face expressionless if pleasant enough. "Nice, cozy, a pleasure to arrive in. . ."

Kitty had fled outdoors.. We get along fantastic, except for one thing. Mike has a very heavy