He was a 16-year-old autograph collector -- not baseball players' but presidents' and first ladies'. She was the widow of an assassinated president and a Greek shipping tycoon.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony first met Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis in August 1975 at the Robert Kennedy tennis tournament at Forest Hills in New York City. Now, 22 years later, his definitive book of tender tributes has been published. "As We Remember Her: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the Words of Her Friends and Family" never says a disparaging word -- no skeptics, critics or enemies included. How Anthony came to do the book shows the value of perseverance and presumptuousness.

"At the tournament, she was sitting by herself," Anthony remembered, over fish with the Chronicler at the Thai Room. "So I sat down beside her and talked -- about her White House redecoration and my plan to write a book about presidents' wives and power. I'd already begun the research."

That was the longest conversation they ever had in person. But for 18 years afterward, they talked on the telephone and corresponded on their favorite subject, the presidents' wives and times. Anthony's two volumes on the first ladies were published by Morrow in 1990-91.

Mrs. Onassis answered his questions in handwritten letters -- and sometimes through her friend and colleague Nancy Tuckerman and later editor Lisa Drew, another friend of hers.

"I sent Mrs. Onassis the First Ladies' manuscripts -- when a person of that stature cooperates, there's a price to pay," Anthony said. "But she didn't ask that anything be taken out." However, like the book editor she had become, "she would add more information, and better words," he said. When he wrote of "first ladyship," she blue-penciled it as "a most unfortunate" term.

"Her friends told me those were the happiest years of her life, helping authors, writing introductions, putting together art books," Anthony said. "Those and her years just out of college as a Washington Times-Herald Inquiring Cameragirl' columnist."

Frank C. Waldrop, her editor at the Times-Herald, told Anthony: "She didn't know anything about taking photographs. But she certainly knew how to get to people. . . . She was a bright young woman. She could see around corners. . . . She worked and she earned a living."

As a journalist Jackie Bouvier's biggest story was Elizabeth II's coronation, which she both wrote about and illustrated. She gave up journalism when she married. During Jack Kennedy's brief 1,037 days as president, she was perhaps proudest of her White House guidebook.

Duke Zeller, a former Senate page, told about taking notes to her from Sen. John F. Kennedy. "She used to pack these picnic lunches for the senator. . . . They would just sometimes go out and sit on the Capitol steps."

After Jack Kennedy's death, she kept her strong passions about global concerns. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told Anthony that "she exploded about Vietnam. She began punching me in the chest and yelling, Stop the killing, stop the killing!' "

When Robert Kennedy announced his presidential run, she said to historian Arthur Schlesinger: "Do you know what I think will happen to Bobby? The same thing that happened to Jack. . . . I've told Bobby this, but he isn't fatalistic like me." After Aristotle Onassis's death, Jackie Onassis went to work as an editor for Viking Press and later Doubleday. "With her multi-million-dollar inheritance from Onassis," Anthony writes, "it was obvious . . . she didn't go to the office four days a week because she needed the $10,000 salary . . . friends say it ultimately provided her with a stronger sense of self than she had ever had.

"Books weren't her only concern. She selected her causes carefully -- preservation, the arts, the same ones she initiated when she was in the White House."

The book's quotes and narratives, Anthony said, come from the 200 hours he spent in 1995 interviewing 61 people, along with 70 oral histories from the John F. Kennedy Library and 24 books. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he also interviewed, spoke of her admiration for Mrs. Onassis at a recent party for "As We Remember Her" at the White House -- publisher HarperCollins paid for the copious canapes.

Anthony said Mrs. Onassis, an early supporter of Bill Clinton, felt a connection with Mrs. Clinton because of their shared interests in children, the White House's art and history, and government support of the arts. She advised Hillary Clinton: "You've got to do things that are right for you. Don't model yourself on anybody else."

As first lady, Anthony said, Jacqueline Kennedy best used her influence to save Lafayette Square's historic houses (at the suggestion of David Finley, then Fine Arts Commission chairman), to help organize the White House Historical Association and to support Sen. Claiborne Pell's effort to create the arts and humanities endowments. She liked the "idea of an American version of the French Ministry of Culture," Pell said in his tribute.

"People who didn't know her paid too much attention to her things -- clothes, jewelry, objects -- during her life and after," Anthony said. The eulogies of her intimates show "her ideas are her legacy." CAPTION: Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony is the author of "As We Remember Her," a collection of reminiscences by friends and family of Jacqueline Onassis.