The question this summer is not whether one got The Chain Letter but how one answered it.

The letter, which has been circulating with a vengeance in the top media circles of New York and Washington, suggests that if you don't pass it along quickly -- within four days -- your life, your limb, your fortune, your press pass, something dear to you, will be in danger.

Promising good luck to those who do pass it along, the letter warns, "The one who breaks the chain will have bad luck. DO NOT KEEP THIS LETTER." It then adds that secretaries can make copies efficiently and send them along to "five of your friends to whom you wish good luck."

When these secretaries made copies, they also made copies of the cover letters, so that anyone receiving The Chain Letter recently has also gotten a stack of other people's responses. The packet constitutes a roster of the media in-crowd.

For example, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., deputy publisher of the New York Times, got the letter and sent it along to five friends, including Random House executive Peter Osnos and New York Daily News Publisher Jim Hoge.

Sulzberger acknowledged in his cover letter that "You'd think I'd have more courage than to send it on to you."

Osnos sent it to novelist Sally Quinn, who sent it on to, among others, Shelby Coffey III, editor of the Los Angeles Times. Coffey sent his to Will Hearst, head of Hearst Newspapers, Sander Vanocur at ABC News and Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post.

"How can it hurt?" said Coffey in his letter.

Bradlee sent his copy to five friends with this note: "A man will do anything out of fear."

Pierre Salinger of ABC News in London also passed along a copy saying: "Having received this letter on my 65th birthday, I have no choice but to send it on as ordered. I am getting too old to take a chance of breaking the chain." Among his targets were San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, humorist Art Buchwald and tobacco heir Smith Bagley.

Bagley sent his to several people, noting: "Unlike the rest of these fools, I believe in this stuff." One of Bagley's targets, Albert R. Hunt, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, passed his along to NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, who referred to Hunt's "voodoo journalism" in the copy he sent to five friends.

Buchwald sent his copy to five female friends, including Cosmopolitan Publisher Helen Gurley Brown and Eppie Lederer, a k a Ann Landers.

"I've been asked to send this chain letter on to my five dearest friends. This is the best sex I ever had," wrote Buchwald. "The last person to break this chain was seated next to Morton Downey, Jr., at her next dinner party."

One picture can provoke more than 1,000 words, especially if the caption suggests that the person pictured is a prostitute with the AIDS virus who is still plying her trade.

Since she was identified in the June 25 issue of Newsweek as a working prostitute who secretly harbors the AIDS virus, Linda Kean has been arrested in Oakland, Calif., threatened with attempted murder charges by the Oakland police and finally released after serving three weeks in jail.

More recently, the San Francisco papers have revealed that she was given $60 for posing for the photographer -- tantalizing money for an admitted drug user. She also told reporters as she left the jail that she had lied to Newsweek about being HIV-positive.

"I was dope sick," she said to one interviewer. "What did you want me to do?"

Newsweek's chief of correspondents,Stryker McGuire, said editors are still in the process of finding out how and why Kean was given the money by the freelance photographer and reporter who covered the story.

"Obviously the money shouldn't have been given to her," McGuire said. "We are still in the process of deciding what happened, and, frankly, we're unhappy about what we know. We still haven't untangled the whole thing."

Newsweek sources said they believe that what Kean told the magazine about her AIDS infection was true. Oakland police have also told San Francisco reporters that they believe she is infected with the virus.

"One thing we are absolutely certain of, we believe the people about, is that the money was given to her after the fact," said McGuire. "I would rather not characterize what the circumstances were."

Newsweek featured Kean in a ultra-short skirt as she leaned against a pole, one knee bent, a cigarette in her hand. The caption identified her as "a heroin user and prostitute {who} suspects she got the virus from a contaminated needle. She hasn't felt any symptoms yet -- and she doesn't tell customers or other hookers in Oakland that she's infected. That, she says, would be 'professional suicide.' "

Within hours of seeing the magazine, Oakland police arrested Kean while she was with a customer, and asked her for an AIDS test. If she was found to have AIDS, the police wanted to charge her with attempted murder. The judge who ruled on her case said the question of whether she was tested and any results would be confidential.

The arresting officer told the San Francisco Chronicle that he did not arrest Kean's customer. Instead, the police suggested that he "go home and look at Page 23 of this week's Newsweek."

The idea of freelance writing always sounds wonderful. No office distractions, no boss asking for a story and an expense account by sundown -- it's a journalist's dream, right?

Not exactly, as New York writer Charles Kaiser was reminded recently. Kaiser sold a story idea to Esquire magazine about New Yorker Editor Robert Gottlieb. Esquire got the story, decided not to run it and sent Kaiser $1,000 as a "kill fee." Not so fast there, said Kaiser, who argued that the contract promised him $5,000 for the story and said that the kill fee would come only after he was given a chance to rework the story.

Since he was rebuffed in his efforts to rework the story, Kaiser went to small claims court in New York City. Meanwhile, he resold the piece to Manhattan, inc., which published it before announcing it was becoming part of another magazine to be called M, inc.

After hearing both sides, an arbitrator decided last week that Esquire did indeed owe Kaiser money -- $2,000 plus $45 interest. Kaiser says he's giving $500 of the loot to the National Writers Union, which represents freelance writers and whose leaders appeared in court on his behalf.

"The world is full of freelance writers who have had miserable experiences with Esquire. I decided to file on behalf of all of us," said Kaiser.

"I've managed to make editors of two dozen other magazines happy {by rewriting stories at their request}, so I don't think anything is so unique about Esquire that I couldn't make them happy too. I still don't have a serious idea about what their objections were except a letter from their lawyer saying that it was 'entirely the wrong flavor.' "

Esquire Articles Editor David Hirshey told Newsday last week that "I think the writers I work with know that I'm not someone who kills for sport."

Contacted last week, Hirshey confirmed the quote and elaborated.

"The irony of it is that I thought I was doing Charlie a favor rather than go through the empty motions of having him revise a piece that the editors felt was unsalvageable," said Hirshey. "In hindsight I should have put him through a grueling rewrite process and then killed the piece."