It has all the makings of a major meow-off.

In one catty corner, Neile McQueen Toffel, former wife of actor Steve McQueen, with her memoir, "My Husband, My Friend." In the other corner, writer Penina Spiegel with her biography, "McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood."

Clawing it out in reviews, in bookstores, on the tube, the two authors -- once friendly -- are not speaking to each other. It's not as if one book is nice and the other nasty; they do equally thorough jobs of trashing the memory of the late actor. He drank, it seems, took drugs, gambled, philandered, beat up his wife, was paranoid, immature and selfish, watched "The Love Boat" -- but, hey, nobody's perfect.

Besides, the guy was a major hunk. A sex symbol. A fantastic lover, right?

"He was all right," says Neile (pronounced kneel) Toffel, snuggling back in the car seat and hugging her full-length ranch mink. "He was not great."

She's in full Rodeo Drive: gold Rolex watch, tight leather pants, oversized padded-at-the-shoulder sweater and face lift. She got a million bucks when they divorced in 1972, but hey, babe, a million ain't what it used to be.

She says "babe" a lot. And doesn't mince words. "I'm passionate, I guess. And feisty."

Feisty is hardly the word for it. As the Divine Miss M would say, mud will be flung toooonight. Intercept her on a publicity blitz through town and the former Mrs. McQ, 51, will bend your ear for hours with tales of her faaabulllous love life, her premarriage career as dancer Neile Adams, her affair with an Academy Award-winning actor, her three-night stand -- after the divorce -- with a famous Hollywood romeo who lives up to his reputation, if you know what I mean, her ex-husband's "rolls in the hay" with actresses Lee Remick and Natalie Wood, his penchant for bimbos and threesomes, the time Ali MacGraw threw a plate at him, Hollywood parties where cocaine is sniffed from big, empty Kleenex boxes, who has AIDS.

Ask her how much she got for an advance, though, and she clams up like a Girl Scout asked to reveal her cookie sales. "I don't like to talk about money."

And when a TV interviewer mentions McQueen's death from cancer in Mexico, she's not so talkative either: She doesn't deny that she was at his side, even though she was a thousand miles away back in Beverly Hills with her second husband, former NASA engineer and Los Angeles businessman Al Toffel.

Neile Toffel says she never planned to write a book about the Major Star. She says she was only putting together scrapbooks of his clippings and wanted something more permanent for her two children. But Penina Spiegel says Toffel decided to write the book in retaliation for hers.

Was Toffel afraid she would come off badly in the Spiegel book?

"You'll have to ask her that," says Spiegel, who claims to have begun her book in September 1983 with the help of Toffel.

"That is her story, my darling," says Toffel. "What she's saying is that I worked with her over a period of 10 months and doesn't say it was three times for lunch. That's her strategy for selling the book. I really don't want to talk about it because it drives me crazy. Johnny Carson told me, 'Do not mention her name.' "

For someone who claims not to have read the Other Book, she sure knows what's wrong with it. For one thing, Toffel says, it's not true that McQueen slept with all but two of his leading ladies.

"Nobody tells a wife everything," counters Spiegel.

"Obviously she doesn't know the man," sniffs Toffel. "Because there was very little Steve didn't tell me."

Toffel doesn't deny that she cooperated with Spiegel. "There were certain things she'd ask me and I'd say, 'I can't tell you that, because I'm writing my book.' She'd laugh and I'd laugh. She knew I was writing my book, but I don't think she really believed it."

When Doubleday learned that Atheneum was publishing Toffel's book, it pushed up the publication date of Spiegel's book. Then Atheneum pushed up the publication of Toffel's book. They landed in the stores the same day.

Toffel did "Good Morning America." Spiegel did "Today."

Toffel now calls Spiegel's book "a crock . . . Incredibly insane."

Says Spiegel, "I have a lot of trouble with Beverly Hills housewives."

Meow.

He would try anything," Neile Toffel says of Steve McQueen. "He had a lust for living. It was always fun and games." But there was a Darker Side. "He was flawed, certainly. There were so many demons. He had a bottomless pit that nothing could ever fill. He was searching constantly, for that peace that seemed to elude him."

Toffel is on her way to a Washington television station where she will have three minutes to plug her book. Small and thin, she has huge brown eyes; her hennaed hair is cut short and blunt.

She is direct. Candid. A spunky, self-confident woman who rose from the slums of Manila to become the wife of one of the highest paid actors in the country.

She was Neile Adams when they met in New York in 1956. Steve McQueen was a struggling actor and she was a dancer on Broadway. They shared similar backgrounds; both were only children of teen-aged, alcoholic mothers; both survived against tremendous odds. McQueen had been abandoned by his father at the age of 6 months and, shortly afterward, by his mother. He grew up in a series of relatives' homes and wound up in a juvenile institution. He began stealing hubcaps and said later that if he hadn't become an actor, he would have been a criminal.

Adams was born in Manila, the daughter of a showgirl. She never knew her father and was raised by an old man. After some time in a Japanese concentration camp, she was sent to America for schooling.

"One night I was watching a movie with Suzanne Pleshette. We were watching 'The Year of Living Dangerously.' There's a scene where they show the tin huts by the river bank, those shacks. I said, 'I used to live in houses like that.' She said, 'God almighty, how did you get from there to here?' I said" -- she kicks her heel in the air for emphasis -- " 'These dancin' feet, babe.' "

When McQueen and Adams met, Neile was the famous one. After they got married, she gave up her career to concentrate on his. She urged him to take certain parts, certain jobs. She read all the scripts. Got him an agent. Moved to Hollywood.

"Together, we made a staggering motion picture career," she says now. "I'm very proud of that. My dreams of Broadway and stardom were gone. I figured I might as well put this energy behind him. I can't say I was the force, but I was certainly the pivotal person in his life."

They were the only family each other had ever had.

"I think Steve had a larger ego. No. Maybe he had a smaller ego disguised by a bigger ego. That's why he was more fragile than me. He was a more sensitive soul than I am. I'm colder. That's why I'm able to survive. I'm tougher.

"I was incredibly ambitious. I don't do anything halfway. Neither did he. We played hard. We loved hard. We worked hard. We did everything hard. Nothing was in between."

At her insistence, she now says, McQueen agreed to do "Wanted: Dead or Alive." It was his big break. As bounty hunter Josh Randall, he combined a cool sexuality with a macho vulnerability that would become his trademark.

If it hadn't been for her, she says, McQueen still would have made it. "It might have taken him longer."

She stares coolly out the window. "He would have made it eventually some other way, had I not been around. Because as soon as he found that camera and realized what was happening between him and the camera, he was off and running. There was a real love affair."

And speaking of love affairs, this guy made Casanova look celibate.

Toffel says McQueen was always a ladies' man -- he always had affairs, and she always forgave him. It got worse, she says, in the 1960s after an underground publication listed him as a suspected homosexual. The star went bananas, Toffel now says, trying to prove his masculinity.

"He went absolutely berserk," she says. "He said, 'I'm gonna take this town like Grant took Richmond.' "

He also had a compulsion to confess his infidelities.

"I think it was to relieve the guilt," Toffel says. "He really hated feeling guilty. Of course, it was up to me to make it all right."

Did she?

"Sure. I mean, not right away. There's always pain involved when your husband tells you he's had a fling. It bothered me, but I kept it under control. At least on the surface.

"He always came home to me anyway."

And when he did, it would be bearing gifts. "I got a lot of goodies," she says with a smile. "Cars, diamonds, jewelry, dresses. He was always so sweet afterwards."

Toffel now puts it down to self-destructiveness.

"With Steve, if things were going right, he'd find a way to mess it up ."

Films like "The Great Escape," "The Magnificent Seven," "Love With the Proper Stranger" and "The Cincinnati Kid" had made him a star. But he was still getting scripts with Paul Newman's fingerprints on them. Then came "The Thomas Crown Affair" in 1968, followed by "Bullitt," and McQueen was the hottest male box-office attraction. "I'm the number one sex symbol in the world," he would tell his wife.

He built a reputation as a wild man, racing cars and motorcycles and doing his own stunts. He and Neile bought a lavish home, known as "The Castle," in Beverly Hills, and one in Palm Springs. Steve was mercurial, a little boy. Neile was busy fending off starlets and advising her husband on what films to do. "I knew what was right for him," she says simply.

They partied with the James Garners and the Greg Pecks, lunched with Bette Davis and dined with Spencer Tracy.

"I didn't know what was happening except I knew it was terrific. I could go anywhere without money. I'd go into a store and they'd say, 'That's all right, Mrs. McQueen.' "

Talk d about Hollywood Babylon: Toffel has seen it all, from Janet Leigh being knocked head first into a ladies' room toilet, to Fernando Lamas slapping Rock Hudson for kissing his wife, Esther Williams. Once she and Steve were in Acapulco with Joan Collins and Tony Newley and everyone was fighting, but that's another story.

The juiciest story is Neile McQueen Toffel's own infidelity.

It happened around the time her husband was in France making "Le Mans." It was a bizarre period, she says. The film was going badly. McQueen toyed with the idea of committing suicide by crashing one of his racing cars. Neile had come to France with their two children, Terry and Chad, then left. "Everything was falling apart. In some ways, I felt I needed to be punished."

She met the handsome movie star on a plane and had a brief fling. It was the only time she was unfaithful to her husband, she says.

"I wanted to get even with him . . . I knew what his reaction would be."

After she confessed her affair, McQueen embarked on a systematic cycle of beatings and begging for forgiveness. Their relationship deteriorated. Toffel says now that she feared for her life.

"The most intense relationship he ever had was with me. I was the one pivotal person in his life. He revered me and trusted me and loved me. When I betrayed him, all hell broke loose. He really couldn't handle it."

He was most hurt, she says, that she picked an actor.

"What was I supposed to pick, a plumber?

In her book, the man is unnamed. He is described as a handsome, [foreign] leading man.

Omar Sharif?

She is convulsed in laughter. "No. He wears hair nets. I can't go to bed with somebody who wears a hair net. A friend of mine was having an affair with him. She left early because she had to go to an interview. She forgot her earrings. She went back, knocked on the door and he answered, wearing a HAIR NET!"

She and McQueen fought. He once held a gun to her head, she says. She stayed with him for months. After all, this was Steve McQueen. You don't just walk out on a major movie star.

After a stab at therapy, they divorced. Neile got slightly more than $1 million as a settlement.

"I could have gotten more, actually. It didn't make any difference. I knew he would always take care of me. Certainly he would never have let me go to Bonwit Teller's and become a saleslady!"

Steve met actress Ali MacGraw while the two were making Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway." Toffel says she and MacGraw later became close friends. They even look a little alike. "We all look alike," Toffel says, referring to McQueen's three wives. "Steve had affairs with blonds and married brunets.

"I was so grateful Steve married Ali instead of some bimbo."

The car pulls up to the television station, WRC, Channel 4. Toffel is scheduled for an appearance on "Live at Five." She walks into the waiting room, sits down and asks for a glass of water. No ice. Ice is bad for you, she says.

She continues talking.

"He and Ali were a mismatch. I'm crazy about Ali, but Steve said that really should have been a romance, a big romance in his life. Certainly for Ali, Steve was the love of her life."

According to Toffel, McQueen set out to destroy his second wife's career. He was jealous of her success. "Their relationship was so volatile. It was just a matter of who was going to kill who. Ali wouldn't take any of the guff he was giving her.

"She said she'll eventually write about him. About 10 years from now, to fill in the gaps. She's not ready yet."

After his divorce from MacGraw, McQueen married model Barbara Minty.

"Barbara understood that my relationship with Steve was an unusual one."

Toffel says she and McQueen continued their sexual relationship long after their divorce and that McQueen had even asked her to return to him. She refused.

"I was the core of his life. He was cast adrift. I wasn't there anymore. After he and I split up, his life was not the same."

She crosses her legs and wonders aloud what reporter Lea Thompson will ask her.

She's gonna ask me why I didn't leave when Steve beat me. I know that's going to be one of her questions."

The segment is up next. Toffel checks her makeup, then enters the studio. Thompson does a lead-in, saying that Neile Toffel was the woman closest to Steve McQueen. That she was at his side when he died of cancer in Mexico six years ago.

"You talk about how he roughed you up many times," Thompson begins, "how he held a gun to your head . . . You kept coming back. Why did you stay with him?"

Neile Toffel says she wants dinner. And she wants it at the Jockey Club. She likes the restaurant's red-and-white-checked tablecloths. She enters the dining room and, out of habit, scans the room for faces. There are none. It's too early. The place is empty. She seems disappointed.

Asked why she didn't correct Thompson about being in Mexico, Toffel says, "I didn't deny it only because it would have taken another minute."

She orders freshly squeezed orange juice and the crab cakes. She says she still works out almost every day. "Some days I can beat those 18-year-olds," she says with a satisfied smile.

Her book, she says, is the chronicle of a marriage. The one thing she feels bad about, she says, is that McQueen's life wasn't all that happy. He had a huge void that nothing could fill. She was his slave. She was his mother, sister, lover, playmate.

"I think I've become a stronger person. More independent. The kind of life I led with Steve, where I was so submissive, is not possible anymore," she says, batting her eyelashes.

"I used to be the perfect wife."