Conservationist Patrick Francis Noonan, Children's Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman and American Civil Liberties Union leader Morton Halperin, all from the Washington area, are among 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation's so-called "genius awards."

The winners will each receive between $155,000 and $300,000 tax-free over the next five years -- the older the recipient, the higher the grant. There are no restrictions on how the recipients spend their awards.

Halperin, 47, a staff member on the National Security Council during the Nixon administration, later sued Henry Kissinger, accusing him of wiretapping his conversations in 1969. Halperin said he would stay in his job at the ACLU despite his $232,000 windfall. The author of "Top Secret" and other books on intelligence policy, he is also director of the Center for National Security Studies.

"I've got one child at Harvard, one at Amherst and one who is talking about law school," he said. "You can spend money pretty quick that way.

"I'm writing a little book on nuclear war. I'd like to finish that. It's about how nuclear weapons should never be in the hands of the military but rather regarded as last-resort terrorist devices."

Edelman, 46, will receive a $228,000 grant. She was the first black woman ever admitted to the Mississippi bar, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School. She worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the 1960s and became a partner in the Washington Research Project in 1968. The Project evolved into the Children's Defense Fund, which concentrates on problems of juvenile justice, health care, housing and education. Edelman was traveling in Japan and could not be reached for comment.

Noonan will receive $212,000. He is founder of Conservation Resources Inc., a group that tries to forge alliances between businesses and conservationists. In the 1970s he served as president of the Nature Conservancy, the largest private sanctuary system in the world. Noonan, 42, who holds graduate degrees in urban planning and business, described himself as "speechless."

"I've been committed to the field for 20 years and I hope this gives me the time to look at what I want to do, just think and rethink what's happening in conservation," he said. "I want to crystal-ball a little bit. It's time to look at acid rain, polluted rivers, maybe see what some of the European countries are doing, what we can learn from them."

In the past the MacArthur Foundation has given awards to scientists, artists and scholars, including a teen-age scholar of Maya art. But this year there are no prodigies or startling suprises. The youngest recipient is William Cronon, a 30-year-old historian at Yale who has written an ecological history of colonial New England.

Among the winners is an interesting pair of literary figures, critic Harold Bloom ($260,000) and poet John Ashbery ($272,000).

Bloom, a leader of Yale's influential cadre of scholars and critics, began his career as a student of the Romantics, then forged a controversial theory of literary inquiry -- "the anxiety of influence." Bloom is fascinated with the way certain poets write "against" the background of their "precursors," the way, for example, Wallace Stevens does battle with the tradition of Emerson and Whitman. Bloom, who is also a scholar of Jewish mysticism and author of a novel, "Flight to Lucifer," is currently writing about Freud, Kafka, Shakespeare and the Bible.

One of Bloom's most influential essays was "The Charity of the Hard Moments," a study of John Ashbery. Elusive, witty and at times impenetrable, Ashbery's poetry is influenced by the work of W.H. Auden and Stevens as well as French surrealist Raymond Roussel and the painters of the New York School. In an interview, Ashbery once said he appreciated Bloom's attention but viewed his essay more "as a work of art." Ashbery writes art criticism for Newsweek and teaches at Brooklyn College.

Three leaders of the avant-garde in the performing arts won awards: Merce Cunningham ($300,000), Paul Taylor ($260,000) and Ellen Stewart ($300,000).

Cunningham, 66, one of the oldest of this year's recipients, presented his first solo dance program in New York 41 years ago. He still performs with his own company. Taylor, who also leads his own troupe, has choreographed "Arden Court," "Lost, Found and Lost" and "Equinox" in the last five years.

Stewart is a fixture of New York's off-off-Broadway theater. For more than 20 years she has been the producer, manager and director of La Mama, one of the city's most innovative theater groups.

The MacArthur Foundation was established in 1978 with the fortune of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur. The family owned the country's largest privately held insurance company, Bankers Life and Casualty Co.

Since 1981 the foundation has committed more than $50 million to 166 men and women. The selection process is bewildering but consistently produces a fascinating group of winners. A committee of 15 considers names provided by 100 anonymous nominators.

The other winners: Joan Abrahamson, 34, $180,000. Assistant to Vice Presidents Mondale and Bush, Abrahamson is now working to establish the Jefferson Institute. John F. Benton, 53, $256,000. Benton is the author of books on medieval England and France and is a professor at the California Institute of Technology. Valery Chalidze, 46, $228,000. Born and educated in the Soviet Union, Chalidze founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee in 1970 with Andrei Sakharov and others and was also founder and editor of Khronika, a Russian-language publisher of human rights material. Jared Diamond, 47, $232,000. As a biogeographist, Diamond studies species communities and dynamics of island communities. Robert Hayes, 32, $172,000. Hayes founded the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City. Edwin L. Hutchins Jr., 36, $192,000. Hutchins has studied Trobriand Islanders and Micronesian navigation and works at the Cognitive Science Research Group and at the University of California in San Diego. Sam Maloof, 69, $300,000. Maloof is a woodworking craftsman and furniture designer. Andrew McGuire, 39, $200,000. McGuire has done pioneering work in burn safety.

* George Oster, 45, $224,000. Oster, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has worked on problems of evolutionary biology, population and ecology. Thomas Palaima, 33, $176,000. Palaima has done pioneering work on Minoan and Mycenean epigraphy and scribal systems. Peter Raven, 49, $240,000. Raven works on conservation in the tropics and is director of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Jane Richardson, 44, $220,000. Richardson works on the comparison and classification of protein structures and is medical research associate at Duke University. Gregory Schopen, 38, $196,000. Schopen's research centers on early cults of Indian Buddhism; he teaches at the University of Indiana. Franklin Stahl, 55, $264,000. Author of "Genetic Recombination: Thinking About It in Phage and Fungi," Stahl is a professor at the University of Oregon. J. Richard Steffy, 61, $288,000. An electrical systems designer until 1972, Steffy has worked on shipwrecks all over the world and is an assistant professor at Texas A & M. Shing-Tung Yau, 36, $188,000. Shing-Tung Yau is a professor of mathematics at the University of California at San Diego.