The New York Times is, above all, a decorous institution, a dignified place where senior executives might elbow each other behind closed doors but always smile politely in public.

Until now.

In remarkably harsh comments made public on his last day at the Times, Abe Rosenthal rips into Max Frankel, his successor in 1986 as executive editor, as a "coward," "somewhat of a liar," "a non-entity who is ill," "a bit of a fool"--and someone who "cheapened the paper" to boot.

"Max Frankel has no significance in my life," Rosenthal tells Vanity Fair, though the vehemence of his rhetoric suggests otherwise. "I think he's left little of significance at the Times. I'm not saying zero, but he'll be remembered for little else besides his attack on me."

The "attack" to which Rosenthal refers is contained in Frankel's autobiography, "The Times of My Life," published earlier this year. Now it's payback time.

It may be a coincidence that Vanity Fair released the forthcoming article the day after Rosenthal said that Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had fired him, ending his 55-year career there. Times honchos certainly knew the ugliness was coming. Rosenthal, 77, did not return a call seeking comment, and Frankel, 69, a Times Magazine columnist, was traveling and could not be reached.

"It reflects their fundamentally different philosophies of journalism and the fact that they kept rubbing up against one another over the years," says David Margolick, the ex-Timesman who wrote the Vanity Fair piece.

Rosenthal served as managing editor and executive editor from 1968 to 1986; he was a hard-charging, hard-news man whose imperious style created fierce loyalists and harsh enemies. Frankel held the top job from 1986 to 1994, bringing a feature-oriented style and ushering in a more relaxed period of "glasnost."

Frankel says in his book that his main goal was to be "not-Abe." He describes Rosenthal as "self-promoting," "volcanic" and "Lear-like," the man who refused to allow the Times to use the title "Ms."

During the 1971 debate over whether to publish the Pentagon Papers, Frankel writes, Rosenthal was shaky, self-centered and worried about being forced to resign if the paper backed off.

Rosenthal calls the book "contemptible" and like "walking in dog turd." Asked about the warfare between two important journalists, Rosenthal fires back: "Who's the other important journalist?"

Rosenthal also dumps on Frankel's performance as Washington bureau chief during Watergate, when The Washington Post repeatedly scooped the paper. "He screwed up totally on Watergate," Rosenthal says. "Not totally. It was my fault for not having removed him."

Timesfolk are split over whether Frankel's book was honest or way out of line. Dave Jones, a former editor, tells Vanity Fair that Frankel's candor "takes a certain amount of courage." But veteran correspondent R.W. "Johnny" Apple says: "I think Max Frankel could give me and almost anyone else lessons in pomposity."

In reporting Rosenthal's departure yesterday, the Times (which never got around to saying he had been dismissed) handed his op-ed columnist assignment to Clyde Haberman--the same Clyde Haberman who was canned by Rosenthal in 1966.

Haberman was a City College stringer who, in a small-type listing of school honors, made up a fictional award and recipient that somehow made its way into the paper. "Abe went through the ceiling," Haberman says, lecturing him that "you'll never work in newspapers again." Haberman was hired back a decade later and his career managed to thrive.

"The irony wasn't lost on people here that the guy who winds up doing Abe's swan song is the guy he fired," Haberman says. "Life does indeed take funny bounces."