The Hungarian-born New Yorker charged last month with spying for Soviet-bloc military intelligence, Otto Attilla Gilbert, is a witty, charming man well known in New York's emigre community, where spying for the communists is considered treason twice over.

According to former close associates, Gilbert liked to spend long, idle hours in Hungarian caf,es in New York, boasting of amorous adventures in European capitals and describing quirky business deals.

News reports following Gilbert's arrest in Augusta, Ga., gave no indication of how he earned a living. But to Hungarian-American friends around the tables at the Mocca Restaurant on New York's Second Avenue, Gilbert sometimes bragged that he sold bargain stationery to Fortune 500 executives.

Longtime acquaintances of Gilbert's told The Washington Post's Charles Fenyvesi that Gilbert culled names from Ivy League college alumni publications and, before pitching his products, told his prospects an old classmate had suggested he call. At other times during the 25 years he's lived in the United States, according to these acquaintances, Gilbert traveled the country in a Cadillac, staying in small towns just long enough to coax local leading citizens to attend a lavish party.

Gilbert boasted that at the parties he presented himself as a sophisticated, well-connected European whose New York uncle--alternately described as a beloved close relative or a monster-- had just died and left him with a huge inventory of office supplies that he had to unload at low prices. Then Gilbert proceeded to peddle as much as 10 years' supply of carbon paper, pens and stationery.

"Otto Gilbert was always out for himself," says a man who knew him for 20 years.

Another old acquaintance appraised Gilbert this way: "He had no politics, no principles. What he hated was work."

In 1965, eight years after he escaped from Hungary, Gilbert returned to his homeland. His car was searched at the border where Hungarian customs officials found 200 Austrian-made, plastic raincoats--then the rage in Budapest. He was sentenced to four years in jail for smuggling but was released within a year.

In the tight little world of New York's Hungarian ghetto, it was noted that upon his return to the United States, Gilbert sported suits of a higher quality than ever before. He drove a Mercedes-Benz, and the man who had been derisively known as "Mr. Lipton" --because of his preference for tea-- began sipping wine and tipping generously. He explained his enhanced style of life by saying he had received an inheritance, though his friends had not heard previously of any wealthy relatives.

The good life may have ended for Gilbert last month, when he allegedly went to Georgia to collect supposedly secret documents and film from a U.S. Army warrant officer the Hungarians thought they'd "recruited" five years ago. As it turned out, the career Army officer was a double agent wearing a body bug, and FBI agents arrested Gilbert in what the FBI pronounced one of the biggest espionage cases in American history. MEDIA FAST TRACK Gannett announces a mid-September start-up date for its national daily newspaper called USA Today. Inaugural edition will serve the Washington and Baltimore areas, with expansion weeks later to Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Pittsburgh. Two bits a copy . . . Journalism chic: While John W. Hinckley Jr. stands trial at U.S. District Court in Washington, his movie idol, actress Jodie Foster, spends the month of May as an editorial intern at Esquire magazine in New York . . . "Laissez isn't fair, and neither is Reagan," says Ralph Nader's former righthand man Mark Green who calls his new paperback from Bantam, Winning Back America, "one person's first draft of what electable liberalism could look like." Green, who lost a bid for the House from Manhattan's East Side in 1980, heads a New York think tank called Democracy Project that hopes to offer a philosophical alternative to Reagan's Republicanism.

From the folks who bring you New Homes Guide, Condo Guide and the slick Washington business magazine, Regardie's, comes The Washington Area Guide To Restaurants, a twice-a-year listing of 1,000 area eateries. Publisher Bill Regardie says the Reader's Digest-sized, stiff-covered guide will contain no critical reviews but lots of geographical listings and ads. Buy the cover for $7,500 and your restaurant gets a flattering, three-page article inside. Due in August, 30,000 copies will be placed in area hotel rooms, 20,000 mailed to subscribers of Regardie's and 50,000 to newsstands . . . A novelist and former Washington Post writer now living in Colorado, Tom Huth, offers a ghostwriting service for people too busy or inexperienced to write their autobiographies. Additionally, Ghostwriter, Inc., will produce novels written to specification, "with principal characters and themes supplied by the client or with the client cast in the leading role" . . . Acropolis books this month publishes America the Poisoned by Lewis Regenstein, vice president of The Fund for Animals. Regenstein catalogues a litany of horror stories of chemicals made by man, for man that may wind up doing in man . . . Lowest pay in town for free-lance writers may be for the Department of Labor's Monthly Labor Review. Authors are paid no money but are given a proofing pencil, which reads "For a Monthly Labor Review Author."