The calls went out last Thursday: Across the country, phones rang, delivering to 32 stunned scientists, poets, scholars and other creative intellectuals four key words: "MacArthur Foundation. Fellow. Money."

"I thought it was a hoax," said Tina Rosenberg, a Washington-based free-lance writer. At 27, Rosenberg is the youngest of the 32 new MacArthur Fellows officially announced today. All of them will receive stipends -- with no strings attached -- ranging from $190,000 to $375,000 over the next five years.

The fellowships, informally known as "genius awards," can't be sought; there is no application process. Instead, the MacArthur Foundation seeks out its fellows with the help of 100 anonymous nominators around the country.

"I made the guy give me his phone number and I called him back in Chicago," Rosenberg said. "I wanted to make sure it wasn't one of my friends playing a trick on me."

"She's not the only one to have done that," said Ken Hope, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, established in 1981 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. "Some people just look the number up themselves and call back."

In Utah, the phone call left poet Mark Strand feeling a bit leery as well as surprised.

"I didn't know quite what to say," Strand said. "In 1979 I was told I had won a Pulitzer Prize, and then the judges reversed their decision at the last minute. Since then, I've been a little wary of what I'm told about what I'm going to win. I just tell myself you have to believe that this hasn't happened."

But it had happened.

And Strand, 53, had at least enough faith in the good news to drink "a couple of great bottles of wine. It was super."

The award, Strand noted, "comes at a rather odd time. I just had to sell my Toyota to get out of debt. I always run very close to falling into overdraft ... Now I won't have financial worries for the next five years." Because the amount of the awards is based on the age of the recipient -- the older the recipient, the higher the figure -- Strand, professor of English at the University of Utah, will receive a total of $320,000.

"It's been a long time since I've published a book of poems," Strand said. "I kept pushing the poems away because I had one more thing to do and then another. Now poems will come first and other things last."

"The only other thing that's changed," he added, "is I wake up in the middle of the night now. But I don't know whether it's because it's hot out here or because this big sum of money is coming."

While Strand was drinking wine in Utah, Rosenberg was celebrating in her own way: Shooting baskets in Adams-Morgan with a couple of 10-year-olds, playing poker, picking up the lunch tab for her friends and getting used to the idea of an income that will exceed her usual "four-digit" one.

"It's totally bizarre and overwhelming," she said. "You read about these things and see some biologists and economists and you think, 'Gee, they must be geniuses,' because you have no idea what they do ... I'm not even in the same league with cell division ... I'm supposed to write things that people can understand."

For Rosenberg the $190,000 over the next five years "means a lot of plane tickets" for reporting trips to Central and South America -- and perhaps the opening of a few hitherto closed doors. "I'm not sure if the award will help -- I hope it will. It's been hard getting the {magazines} I write for to be interested in the things I want to write about."

When Michael Malin, 37, a planetary scientist and geologist from Mesa, Ariz., heard the good news -- the $240,000 award that he will receive -- his response was "a beer with dinner ... I'm not a frivolous person. That's one of the parts of my personality that never got very developed. Maybe that's one of the things that will change with this."

If he runs out and does something like buying a Jaguar, it will be a MacArthur first.

"To my knowledge," said Hope, "no one has. One person bought a bicycle and another one bought a secondhand car. But we look for people whose consuming interest is their work -- so that the awarding of the fellowship will mean something to the society in which they work."

If MacArthur Fellowships have gone unsquandered, they have also gone untaxed. But beginning this year, as a direct result of the tax reform, the MacArthur Fellows will pay taxes on the income from their five-year awards.

"Monday morning I have an appointment with the guy who does my taxes," Strand said. "The first serious move I make."

Both to mitigate the tax bite and to adjust to cost-of-living increases for the first time since 1981, the foundation's board increased the awards by 25 percent.

The program's 100 anonymous nominators are paid honorariums of $1,000 each and appointed for one-year terms to identify candidates for review by a 15-member selection committee. The smaller committee meets eight or nine times a year to recommend possible MacArthur Fellows -- for final approval -- to the foundation's board of directors. There is no fixed schedule for selection of winners.

With this largest single announcement of new fellows, a total of 223 individuals have been awarded five-year fellowships. Unlike conventional grants, the foundation places no requirements on the recipients -- no performance standards or restrictions on how the money may be used.

The other winners:

Walter Abish, 55, of New York City, a novelist and poet known for his social, philosophical and linguistic concerns. $330,000.

Robert Axelrod, 44, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, whose research applies to international politics, business and biology. $275,000.

Robert Coleman, 32, mathematics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who has devised new techniques in algebraic-geometric number theory. $215,000.

Douglas Crase, 42, of New York City, a poet who writes of urban life and the American landscape, culture and heritage. $265,000.

Daniel Friedan, 38, physics professor at the University of Chicago, whose work focuses on string theory, a new approach to the unified theory of all interactions. $245,000.

David Gross, 46, theoretical physicist, Princeton University, who has been a leader in the study of particle physics for the last 15 years. $285,000.

Ira Herskowitz, 40, professor of biochemistry and biophysics, and head of the division of genetics at the University of California, San Francisco, whose work has contributed to the understanding of the mechanisms of molecular development. $255,000.

Irving Howe, 67, of New York City, a social and political writer and literary critic, best known for his book "World of Our Fathers." $375,000.

Wesley Jacobs Jr., 31, of Porcupine, S.D., an Oglala Sioux whose work as a rural planner involves attempts to improve the living conditions and economy of tribal areas. $210,000.

Peter Jeffery, 33, of Newark, Del., a musicologist at the University of Delaware who studies early western plainchant and Middle Eastern music. $220,000.

Horace Freeland Judson, 56, of Baltimore, a journalist and historian of contemporary science who is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Science and Writing at Johns Hopkins University. $335,000.

Stuart Kauffman, 47, professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, a theoretical biologist and physician who has made contributions to evolution theory. $290,000.

Richard Kenney, 38, of Seattle, a meditative poet whose first book won the 79th Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 1983. $245,000.

Eric Lander, 30, of Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, a mathematician with expertise in problems of genetics, biology and business. $205,000.

Deborah W. Meier, 56, of New York City, a public-school teacher and learning theorist who has founded alternative schools in East Harlem. $335,000.

Arnaldo Momigliano, 78, of Chicago, a historian whose work spans classical, Jewish and Christian cultures. $375,000.

David Mumford, 50, of Harvard University, a mathematician who works in algebraic geometry and computer graphics. $305,000.

David Rumelhart, 45, professor at the University of California, San Diego, a psychologist and computer scientist who applies the way the brain computes to computer science. $275,000.

Robert Sapolsky, 30, of Stanford University, a neuroendocrinologist currently studying stress-related disorders in baboons. $205,000.

Meyer Schapiro, 82, New York City, professor emeritus at Columbia University, one of the country's most eminent art historians whose work spans medieval, 19th-century and 20th-century art. $375,000.

John Schwarz, 45, professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology, who has contributed to the reconciliation of quantum mechanics and general relativity. $280,000.

Jon Seger, 40, of the University of Utah, an evolutionary ecologist working on problems of parental investment and control of sex ratios. $255,000.

Stephen Shenker, 34, professor of physics at the University of Chicago, a theoretical physicist who has related principles of statistical mechanics to field theory. $225,000.

David Shulman, 38, a professor of Indian studies and comparative religion at the Hebrew University and a poet. $245,000.

Muriel Snowden, 70, of Boston, a community organizer involved in education and civil rights issues. $375,000.

May Swenson, 68, of Sea Cliff, N.Y., a poet known for her inventiveness with sounds and shapes, technical capacity and symbolic use of nature. $375,000.

Huynh Sanh Thong, 60, of Hamden, Conn., a translator and editor who has introduced the classics of Vietnamese literature to English readers. $355,000.

William Julius Wilson, 51, of the University of Chicago, a sociologist who studies race relations and disadvantaged blacks. $310,000.

Richard Wrangham, 38, of the University of Michigan, a primate ethologist who studies the social organization of early hominoids. $245,000.