Ever since Socrates opened shop in Athens and taught young boys how to run oratorical circles around the Sophists, public speaking has been regarded as an art. Now it's big business.

And ever since Daniel Webster founded the International Platform Association (IPA) 150 years ago, professional gabbers -- including Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt -- have gathered to talk, talk, talk about the Talk Business.

The top speakers, at $40,000 a pop, are Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, according to IPA director general Dan Tyler Moore, who is running this year's sesquicentennial convention at the Hyatt regency.

"Those are the tops on the lecture circuit," says Moore. "Kissinger gets about $18,000, Gerald Ford gets around $10,000, Art Buchwald gets $10,000 to $8,000, a little less for Abigail Van Buren. People tend to see someone on television and they work up an appetite to see them in person." Other agents report that the recent trend is away from inspirational speakers and more toward economic conservatives like Milton Friedman, David Stockman and Arthur Laffer.

It's an in-the-flesh market being held this week, a clearinghouse of cht and gimmick. Of course, you won't catch Johnny Carson or Henry Kissinger buttonholing industry people in order to fill their engagement schedules. Most of the big names who have come -- Carl Sagan, F. Lee Bailey, Stockman, Herman Wouk and David Brinkley among them -- are here to pick up awards and some extra exposure, in case anybody's forgotten them.

On the other hand, those who have come to check out the wares will not only meet with various booking agents but also with dozens of people who make their living by appearing .

Famous or not, everybody is yapping up a storm.

F. Lee Bailey is scheduled to go on in the Regency Room in 15 minutes. Now he is standing in the lobby, talking on a pay phone, taking long drags on a Merit and letting the ashes fall where they may.He is growling about the air traffic controller situation and pacing as much as the phone cord will let him.

Bailey has just flown here from Detroit to accept the IPA's Clarence Darrow Award and hopes to be on his way to Fort Lauderdale, where he will help Kenny Rogers file a suit over the singer's 82-foot yacht. "It's leak," says Bailey after hanging up. "He paid $575,000 for it and has put another $850,000 into it."

Bailey's theme at his speaking engagements, where he earns $5,000-$6,000, is usually "the plight of the downtrodden."

"These days the downtrodden are led by the air traffic controllers," says Bailey. "Reagan is wrong about this one and I want people to hear the other side of the story.It's the kind of thing Clarence Darrow would have done."

Morris Katz smears a dollop of gold oil paint across the canvas.

"What do you want I should paint?" he asks. "How 'bout an enchanted castle?" Dipping into a two-foot-long pan filled with paints, Katz finds the black and smears on two trees in three seconds flat.

"I'll have this finished in eight minutes. This is instant art," he says in a Polish accent. "I am the fastest painter in the world."

Don't those trees need some leaves?

"Yes! Leaves! This is how I go with dee-tail -- cautiously applied and beautifully expressed. Watch!"

He takes a wad of toilet paper, dips it into the orange and yellow paint and dabs the trees full of October splendor. Instant art! Instant Holiday Inn paintings! Mel Brooks meets Grandma Moses and sends their son off to the Catskills to make a few paintings!

Katz is trying to drum up some future business here. He lives in Greenwich Village but usually works at colleges and at mountain resorts like the Concord and the Neville for $2,000 an appearance. He also sells his "instant" paintings -- $70 for the "big ones, $10 for the little ones."

"I've sold 104,000 paintings," says Katz. "I'm the people's artist. Anybody can sell a painting for a million dollars. But I can make lots of them for $70. If my art teachers -- may their souls rest in peace -- if they could see me now and rise from the dead, they'd probably drop dead again." t

Katz takes the edge of his palette and, with the panache of a jackhammer, puts the finishing touches on the castle.

"Boom! Finished!" cries Katz with all the ecstasy, and none of the agoney, of Charlton Heston finishing the Sistine Chapel. Before the paint dries, Katz pockets $70 and "The Enchanted Castle" is headed for someone's mantelpiece.

Magician Mark Wilson is here to pick up the Second Annual Harry Blackstone Sr. Award. He has made Don Rickles disappear, levitated Odd Couple Jack Klugman and Tony Randall and cut Cher into sections. It's been a long career -- 39 years in the magic business.

"This year I ws in China," says Wilson. "The Chinese probably were the best audience I've ever had. We were the first Western performers they had ever seen. Bob Hope filmed a show over there, but not for a Chinese audience."

In the Forbidden City, Wilson did red rubber ball tricks and on the Great Wall he did the old rope trick, "A magician there told me, 'We've been waiting for you for a long time,'" says Wilson. "I taught one old man there the "Out of This World' card trick backstage one night. When he saw the principle of it, tears came to his eyes and he embraced me. It had fooled him but now he's the only Chinese magician that knows it."

Then Wilson demonstrates how to turn a white handkerchief red, make a half-dollar disappear and "psychically" bend a paper clip.

"I've got hundreds of them," says Wilson. "Four or five hundred illusions."

Magdelena Bay's flaxen hair shimmers under the chandelier and her gold pendants, bracelets and rings twinkle and glitter like New York at night when seen from across the Hudson. She has just read her verses to the IPA Poet's Meeting.

Her skin is at once spotty, sweaty and tanned. The words pour from her, part in sorrow, part in rage:

"I am 59. I fled East Prussia [German] in 1943 when the Russians came," she says, on the verge of tears. Then, apropos of nothing, she takes a photo out of her wallet. There she is, more than 10 years ago, packed into a gold lame dress and gloves. Her hair is a golden beehive.

"I could have been a movie star," she says. "Anyway, my father was Lithuanian; my mother, she loved the Jewish people, she did, I wrote a book called 'The Refugee -- Don't Hate Me,' 1,800 pages. It's another 'Gone With the Wind', but they won't publish it.

"I don't get a chance. I could have a best seller but I get a lot of setbacks because I'm from Nazi Germany. The big publishers, they won't do it."

Why not?

"Prejudice," she says, crying.

Prejudice?

"Yes, I hate to say it, but the Jewish publishers won't give me a chance."

The Jewish publishers?

"Yes."

And all the big publishers are Jewish?

"I think so. Most of the big ones are, I think. I don't know what it is, I can't put my finger on it," says Bay, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale. She seems honestly frustrated and frequently says she "loves the Jewish people."

"Maybe my book, maybe it wasn't so professional. But I have a command of the language, my own style," she says. "I should have a chance to tell my story."

She also accuses an agent of ripping off her book for films such as "Holocaust" and "The Marriage of Maria Braun."

"Magdelena Bay. Maria Braun. M. B. My initials, you see?"

Oleda Baker is ubiquitous. Or maybe it just seems this way.

She is stunning, a Modigliani version of Catherine Deneuve. Tall, blond and perfectly made up -- Baker is 45.

She has been passing out her latest novel -- "Reluctant Goddess -- What Happens to the Woman Who Has Everything When Her Heart Tells Her It's Not Enough?" -- and mentioning to everyone within earshot her line of beauty products.

But that's not all.

She walks, or rather slinks, into the lounge where Morris Katz is splashing up another seascape.

He stops and stares.

"I'm a painter, also," says Baker.

"What do you paint?" says Katz, his palette dangling at his side.

"Romantic fantasies," says Baker.

Katz turns back to his canvas and paints twice as fast as before.

"You know," he says. "You should give me a call. We could get on television together and first you can say how great I am and then I'll say how great you are."