The New York Public Library amassed roughly a quarter of a million dollars tonight by hanging medallions around the necks of 20 authors dubbed Literary Lions, and then pairing them with benefactors who each paid $15,000 for the pleasure of having dinner with them. Which raised the question of whether the annual event properly qualified as a tribute or a fundraiser.

"It's probably both," mused Tom Wolfe, a 1981 Lion, who for the occasion abandoned his signaturewhite suit in favor of a tuxedo. "I've had writers call me up and say, 'How do you get recommended?' thinking it took a political campaign. It's more or less like the Nobel Prize -- mysterious."

Among this year's Lions was novelist Mary Gordon ("Men and Angels"), who said she was happy to support the library and besides, "I haven't worn a long dress since my senior prom in 1966."

Also Russell Baker ("Growing Up"), who was surprised to learn that his dinner host, John T. Sargent of Doubleday, was paying $15,000 for the privilege. "I've known John a long time," Baker murmured, "but I didn't think we were that close."

Also honored were novelists, essayists and screen writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, which was diplomatic since they are married. Didion said it would have been fine with her if the library had chosen to honor one or the other: "It would have meant we could sit together at dinner."

As it was, Didion imported her mother, Eduene Didion, from California; Dunne's date was their 19-year-old daughter Quintana Roo Dunne. Didion and Dunne have recently finished a screenplay of a Carlos Fuentes novel. "It stands, as all movie projects do, in limbo," Dunne said.

Their fellow Lions included Michael Arlen, Stephen Birmingham, poet Kenneth Koch, short-story writer Peter Taylor, and novelists Howard Fast and William Gaddis. The New Yorker was particularly well represented: E.J. Kahn Jr., Berton Roueche' and Elizabeth Drew, chronicler of the 1984 election campaign, were also among the Lions.

Elsewhere, Norman Mailer fielded questions about next week's PEN appearance with his nonfan Gore Vidal, giving readings from their work at a Broadway theater ("I don't think either of us quite knows how it's going to turn out, so we're both looking forward to it").

Historian Barbara Tuchman, who said she'd been researching at the New York Public Library "since I was 16," kissed novelist Louis Auchincloss. Bill Blass, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Gloria Steinem, William F. Buckley Jr. and Brooke Astor smiled for photographers. And library Director Vartan Gregorian offered a theory explaining the event's popularity: "There are no speeches. It's one of the few speechless evenings in New York."

Lion Mark Helprin ("A Winter's Tale"), who dislikes mingling, spent the cocktail hour listening to the musicians in the gallery and thus missed the presentation of his red ribbon and bronze lion's-head medallion. "I don't wear jewelry," he said.

Neither does Calvin Trillin, anymore. "I used to wear the thing all the time," explained Trillin, a Lion last year, of his medallion. "But I found if you turn over in your sleep the thing pokes you. When I ran into Vartan Gregorian, he said I wasn't supposed to wear it when I was sleeping. I didn't know that. So now I don't wear it at all."