HOLLYWOOD, DEC. 12 -- It is said that famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell could make a star or snuff out a career with the stroke of his pen.

But at an auction of the journalist's memorabilia in Hollywood today, it became apparent that in the end, the allure of the stars has outlived the star-maker.

The auction room was not quite full at the auction house of Butterfield & Butterfield when bidding began simultaneously in San Francisco and Los Angeles. On the auction block were more than 40,000 letters, radio scripts and photographs collected by Winchell during the nearly five decades he ruled Hollywood with a newspaper column and microphone.

Winchell died in 1972, but the materials were recently consigned for auction by his granddaughter.

With the raising of a bidding card and waving of a finger, collectors and dealers bid hundreds and thousands of dollars on items ranging from thank-you notes written to Winchell by Hollywood's royalty to hundreds of letters from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover thanking Winchell for tips on possible subversives.

Doris Harris paid the highest price of the day when she bid $10,000 for a letter in which "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell corrected an item written about her in Winchell's column. Another bidder paid $6,000 for a single-spaced letter sent from Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, in which Ernest Hemingway writes that his publisher believes his current novel has "F. to A. {"A Farewell to Arms"} beat."

The prices and fervor had been expected. "There's been a lot of interest from book collectors, autograph collectors, anybody interested in a bygone era," said Butterfield & Butterfield spokeswoman Laura Smissaert, who added that the nearly two-hour auction yielded $140,000. "Winchell was one of the most influential people in the '30s, '40s and '50s."

But among the items that sold for less and garnered less attention were the jewelry, personal possessions and articles about Winchell. It seemed that many people bidding were much more interested in the golden age Winchell represented than in the man himself.

"I'm familiar with his history," said 29-year-old comedy writer Les Gould, who purchased a file filled with letters and telegrams sent to Winchell by such comedic greats as Lucille Ball and Jack Benny. But Gould added that he was far less interested in the journalist than he was in the comedians the journalist wrote about.

Gary Milan said he wanted to add to his collection of celebrity memorabilia. Among his acquisitions: a file he purchased for $700 that included a letter from former president Nixon about a dentist.

"It was most thoughtful of you to write to me as you did with regard to some of the generous comments which were sent my way when you visited Dr. Beckwort," read the single-spaced letter. "Going to a dentist to me is a greater ordeal than facing a mob in South America."

"I think the letter is going to go on the wall of my office," said Milan -- a dentist.

But there were some who were drawn by Winchell.

George J. Houle, a dealer who bought 30 items, including letters written to Winchell by composer Irving Berlin, remembered his days as a child when Winchell's radio-worn greeting "Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America" sent electricity through the air.

"He was very important in his day, but today he's somewhat forgotten," Houle said. "No one really collects Winchell. They collect the people around him."

Winchell's loss of stature is not surprising, said author Neal Gabler, who is currently writing a book about the culture and evolution of gossip in America, in which Winchell was a key player.

"Winchell would understand perfectly," said Gabler, who bought bound copies of Winchell's columns from the New York Daily Mirror and radio broadcast scripts. "Winchell could make or break celebrities. But he was also {an example} of how fleeting fame is."