Through almost 50 years of films, John Wayne erected a private monument to the American way of life that, in the end, moved his fans and critics alike and provoked a flood of memories as diverse as his countrymen.

"I was crazy about him," Dick Cavett said yesterday. "I must have seen the 'Sands of Iwo Jima' 11 times - and I still watch it on the late show.

"I was doing a special in California three years ago and I heard he was shooting a picture. I went to see him. He got down off a horse on the western set, and he was charming and wonderful. Any ill fellings I may have had about his hawkish views immediately vanished in his charm."

Cavett also recalled that, contrary to his roughhewn image, Wayne loved to read. "I heard him whistling, 'Someday I'll Find You,' and I said, 'Do you know what that is?' He said Noel Coward, and he even quoted from 'Private Lives.'" When Cavett promised to introduce Wayne to Coward, Wayne said, "I'll hold you to that," but it was never arranged.

Dee Brown, author of the best-selling Indian history, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," called Wayne "a voracious reader on Western history."

"I've always had a feeling that if he had been born 10 years later," said Brown. "Wayne might have been the one to make the first great movie in which Indians were honestly portrayed.

"And I think that if you asked the Navajos out where they made a lot of his films, they would have nothing but admiration for him personally."

Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) looked back over Wayne's career and mused, "If John Wayne was never quite the way we were, he was always the way Amercians have wanted to be."

"The West has finally been won," said Udall, then added, "and I'm going to miss that big cowboy."

For Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, former Chief of Naval Operations, Wayne was a constant figure in a changing world.

"He made all of us respect Amercia a little more by teaching us - about honor, integrity, patriotism, strength and humility despite great success." Wayne was, said Zumwalt, "one of the five or six people in my life I thought of as major male symbols."

Feminist leader Gloria Steinem was intrigued by an obituary which said that Wayne had "consciously manufactured the image of a slow-talking strongman" and that he used to practice in front of the mirror.

"He sounds like the essence of the Western star because he was a person imitating a Western star, Steinem said. "He's the stereotype of a stereotype. It was a useful stereotype to the extent that the wouldn't take the violent initiative, he didn't go looking for a fight. But that image of total competence, the all-powerful man, never showing emotion, must have been a great burden."

To a Midwestern male, however, Wayne was a "cultural yardstick":

"As long as his features filled the movie screen," said Sen. Robert Dole (R.-Kan.), "he provided all of us with convincing evidence that America was like the frontier itself: younthful, brimming with potential, self-assured, a bit headstrong."

Dole mentioned the contrast during Wayne's appearance on the Academy Awards broadcast between "cancer's ravages and the indomitable spirit," and concluded, "His death robs each of us a little bit of our innocence."

As a symbol and vocal supporter of the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, Wayne came under the fire in the '60s from a younger, liberal counter-culture. But even those who attacked Wayne's views then were respectful yesterday.

P.J. O'Rourke, editor-in-chief of the National Lampoon and a dedicated revoluntionary in the '60s, admitted a grudging admiration for Wayne.

"He was really difficult to make fun of, partly because he was such an effective self-parody that it was hard to top it. And the bottom line was that you somehow admired him. Any attempt to destroy him through satire was always half-hearted because of the ultimate charm of his image.

"What summed up John Wayne to me was the final scene of 'The Green Berets,' where the sun sets grandly into the sea . . . but if you think about it, there's no place in Vietnam where you could see the sun go down over the ocean because the coast all faces east."

Folksinger and liberal activist Joan Beaz, a leader of the antiwar movement, saluted Wayne's personal fortitude, if not conceding the principle.

"John Wayne did not stand for the things I consider my own personal values," said Baez, whose husband David Harris was imprisoned for resisting the draft, "but he certainly proved his personal and genuine toughness - image aside - throughout his illness right up to the end. I have deep admiration for that."

But the most enduring image of The Duke was written almost 15 years ago, in an essay by Joan Didion called "John Wayne: A Love Story":

"When John Wayne spoke, there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it.

"And in a world we understood to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever, but in any case existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself home free, not in a hospital with something going wrong inside, not in a high bed with the flowers and the drugs and the forced simles, but there at the bend of the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the early morning sun." CAPTION: Picture 1, John Wayne in "Stagecoach," 1939; Picture 2, John Wayne on the set in 1970 with son John Ethan Wayne, then 8 years old; by UPI