HE IS a notorious forgetter of people's names. He may be one of Washington's worst public speakers. He has a quick temper and a reputation, in certain quarters, for arrogance. And he knows it, all of it, as well as anybody.

"I don't make any bones about it," says Kennedy Center chairman Roger L. Stevens, sitting in the corner of his windowless office farthest from his desk. Next to his chair, eagerly discarded on the carpet, is the metal cane the doctors gave him last weekend, after he fell during a jaunt in the woods of upstate New York. Despite the fall, he looks relaxed and robust at 71, three months after triple-bypass open-heart surgery.

"I get accused of ignoring people, but I don't mean to," says Stevens, launching, quite unsolicited, into the subject of his "negative personality." "I'm sure I rub people the wrong way. There's nothing I can do about it in my old age."

The smile that accompanies this statement is somehow shy and sly, regretful and defiant, weary and satisfied at once. It reflects the two heart attacks, the countless political and financial trials, and the constant crossfire of criticism he has passed through. And the knowledge that, 20 years after John F. Kennedy brought him to Washington to create a national cultural center, Stevens has become an enduring force in a city that doesn't, as a rule, encourage endurance. How did he do it? Put this question to the people who know him best, and you get a crash course in understanding a paradoxical man.

Lesson one: Stevens has a remarkable talent for focusing on the key questions in apparently murky situations. "He moves from A to Z in a hundredth the time it takes other people," says Thomas R. Kendrick, the Kennedy Center's director of operations.

Case study: In 1964, when even Lyndon Johnson had given up on congressional authorization for a national arts council, Stevens identified the problem as Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia, who had kept the bill lodged snugly in his House Rules Committee for several sessions. Stevens persuaded a mutual acquaintance, Riggs Bank president Robert Fleming, to use his influence with Smith, who promptly had a change of heart. Later, Stevens showed his gratitude by depositing a $5 million grant from the Ford Foundation in a Riggs account.

Lesson two: "He doesn't take the obvious solutions as the only ones," says Harry McPherson, the center's general counsel. When a deal is in jeopardy, Stevens will listen to all the options presented to him, and then -- just as things are looking hopeless -- find a new one.

Case study: When Kennedy Center construction costs began to outstrip the financial package Congress had voted in 1964 and amended in '69 -- and when McPherson, among others, had resigned himself to the prospect of going back to Congress for more money -- Stevens managed to avoid the inevitable indignation that would have greeted such an appeal by borrowing $3.5 million from the center's parking lot contractor.

Lesson three: He doesn't look back. "Roger has a great quality of not being interested in post-mortems," says his longtime theatrical partner, Robert Whitehead. "He is only interested in moving on to the next thing. That makes for a very good partnership."

Case study: As an Adlai Stevenson Democrat, Stevens was deposed by President Nixon from the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts. But he cultivated the Nixon administration's favor where the Kennedy Center was concerned, and the Nixon years turned out to be excellent ones for White House support of the Kennedy Center, and of the arts in general.

Lesson four: When Stevens makes a deal, he infuses others with confidence that, as Whitehead puts it, "the money will be there." This presents an impressive contrast, adds Whitehead, with the usual feeling in the theater -- that the money "probably won't be there."

Case study: In May 1950, Stevens put together a $1 million, forfeitable down payment on the Empire State Building and signed an agreement that gave him six months to raise the balance of a $50 million purchase price. He succeeded with about 48 hours to spare, assembling a financial package so Byzantine that settlement involved 600 separate documents bearing 2,000 signatures. (He sold his interest two years later, turning a $1 million profit on what was essentially an $800,000 investment of his own money.)

Lesson five: He is a "superb" fund-raiser, according to Abe Fortas, Stevens' lawyer and a Kennedy Center trustee. "Roger talks to potential donors as a peer, and in the peer group he presents sort of a role model. There's a feeling that one shouldn't say no to a man who has been so generous and so nonflamboyant or reticent about his own fantastic giving. He's never drawn a dime from the Kennedy Center."

Case study: CBS has agreed to contribute $600,000 to a season of plays at the Eisenhower Theater next spring -- a season Stevens envisions as a way of "sliding into" his dream of a Kennedy Center-based theater company. But union contracts will make it all but impossible to line up TV rights to the productions in advance. So, to the rumored dismay of CBS attorneys involved in drafting the deal, it is unclear just what their corporation will get for its generous investment. What is clear is that the deal came out of a chairman-to-chairman talk between Stevens and CBS' William S. Paley.

Lesson six: The bottom line of Stevens' financial reliability is his own money, and his willingness to dip into it. "He's forever bailing this place out," says one close associate.

Case study: Stevens belittles his ability to bail the Kennedy Center out of its periodic troubles, but "I would if it was a hundred thousand dollars or something like that," he concedes. He once pitched that very sum into the coffers after the failure of a play he pushed the center into sponsoring on Broadway. "It was absolutely dreadful, and I was so embarrassed about it that I just took over half the loss," he says. "Nobody asked me to, but I just did. It was one of those messes you just get into. Elizabeth Ashley was in it. It was a spoof on westerns, written by Sam Taylor. Don't ask me the title, because I try to forget the titles of those disasters as fast as I can." The title of this disaster was "Legend."

The Kennedy Center is celebrating its 10th birthday this week, but Stevens' association with it extends back through another 10 years of hustling, lobbying, scraping, patching, flattering -- whatever it took, in short, to turn a rather cavalier proposal of the Eisenhower era into a reality two politically volatile and inflationary decades later. If there is a bit of "the hell with everybody" in Stevens' attitude, it may be traceable, in part, to those preparatory days when he had to be gentle and accommodating all around -- when he had to sweet-talk people he might have preferred to swear at.

Late in 1962, he pulled out all the stops on a nationwide TV telethon to raise money for the national cultural center, and "everything went wrong," he recalls. "It was one of my worst moments." As a result, he went to the White House and offered his resignation. "Mr. President, I said, I'm doing a lousy job on this. There's somebody else that could do a better job."

Kennedy refused to take the hint, leaving Stevens grateful and determined. But a year later, having reconsecrated the venture as a Kennedy memorial, he had to face a Republican plan to restudy the idea. Sensing that the momentum would never be better, he agreed to let $15.4 million of the authorization became a loan rather than an outright grant.

By the time the center opened in 1971, Stevens' skills at patchwork-quilt financing had been tested to the limit. All the furnishings, down to the carpets, had to be acquired on lease-purchase terms. "The first few years we were hanging on by our fingernails," he says.

He was asked recently how he could stand all the financial and political headaches of those years. "I couldn't," he answered. "I had my first heart attack in 1970."

But he has never regretted "throwing away a good real estate career for the theater."

Stevens went into real estate in the early '30s, in his native Detroit, after the Depression had scuttled his college education in mid-freshman year, and after he had worked as a gas station attendant and, briefly, on a Ford assembly line.

"I had a very painful job at Ford," he has said. "When they'd cast a gear there'd be a burr on it and I had to hold it against a revolving steel brush to get the burrs off. Well, on the night shift, one of those famous Ford speed-ups would usually come along. They'd triple the run, and to keep up, your hands would slip and get cut up. Three people I worked with quit. My reward was that one morning the foreman came around and fired me. That was in 1932, five years before the start of the United Auto Workers union."

"That's when I became a Democrat and a supporter of unions," he adds. In the same period, Stevens would walk a mile or two to save the six-cent streetcar fare -- a detail that surfaces whenever he is in a reminiscing mood -- and he made heavy use of the Detroit public library system to make up for the lost college education. (His hobbies have never changed. "I read and walk, that's all," he says.)

Then he became a real estate broker, and then, building on his commissions and talents as a deal-maker, an active speculator. This was also the period when he met his wife, Christine -- at a party. He volunteered to find a secretarial job for her, and wound up hiring her himself. (The Stevenses live in Georgetown, and she lobbies for humane treatment of animals from an office in the basement. They have a daughter, Christabel, who lives in New York.)

After a wartime stint as a naval officer, Stevens expanded his real estate dealings even as he began to think about a career change. "Real estate people are a terrible bore to be with," he had decided. He would become a book publisher or, failing that, an art dealer. The theater was the third and last alternative on the list -- until he lent a hand in reviving a dormant theater festival in Ann Arbor. His money helped mount a production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" that so delighted Stevens that (in partnership with Broadway producer Michael Myerberg) he took it to New York.

Of course, you don't bring a Shakespeare play from Ann Arbor to Broadway. "Twelfth Night" folded after a few weeks, and would have folded sooner if Stevens had not been willing to lose (as it turned out) $45,000 on the deal. He came away from this experience with three things -- a good review (from The New York Times), a lasting principle ("If you're going to do a revival, you need a star") and a reputation as a soft touch.

Disagreeing, Going Along

Stevens doesn't like to miss the boat, sometimes even when it is a leaky boat headed for an unclear destination. So when you peruse a list of his theatrical productions, the first characteristic that leaps off the page is sheer bulk. How could one man -- with or without a real estate business on the side -- find time to tend to 14 productions in a single year? (The year was 1957. The plays, incredibly, included Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending," Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood," Ray Lawler's "Summer of the 17th Doll," William Wycherley's "The Country Wife," Noel Coward's "Nude With Violin," Jean Anouilh's "The Waltz of the Toreadors" and the Leonard Bernstein/Arthur Laurents/Stephen Sondheim musical "West Side Story.")

The answer is that Stevens doesn't necessarily find the time. He usually limits his role to the key decisions regarding finances and personnel, and he works with partners -- with different partners, depending on the nature of the project. "Roger and I constantly disagree," says Whitehead, his most frequent partner. "On the other hand, we've had a good working relationship. Roger was always generous about going along with my point of view. I've never been nearly as generous about going along with his point of view."

Despite Stevens' eclecticism, a definable taste runs through the sprawl of his career. There is a clear dislike for sexual or Freudian themes (not to mention coarse language). There is an equally clear fondness for puzzles, for wordplay, for irony, and for plays that address the human condition at a certain poetic remove. All of this has made him a lover of London's West End, and the American patron of Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and David Storey. But he has also helped sustain the careers of American playwrights Arthur Kopit, Edward Albee and Ernest Thompson.

When the musical "Annie" needed extra funds for the final leap to Broadway, Stevens ponied up $200,000 on behalf of the Kennedy Center -- by far the center's best investment to date. Still, Stevens expresses befuddlement that an inferior road company of "Annie" has been a virtual sellout at the Opera House this summer, while Sir Ralph Richardson and "Early Days" played to two-thirds empty houses at the Eisenhower. "You can't cry, so you have to laugh," he says.

He likes to assume the role of the "lamb among lions," as E.J. Kahn Jr. expressed it in a New Yorker magazine profile 25 years ago. The role is basically a sham, as both his enemies and friends point out.

"He has a sort of old-fashioned American reticence and modesty," says Whitehead affectionately, "but that's a facade. He's not a modest man. He enjoys success and power very much." Praise, Always Praise

Two sides of his naivete' seem to be absolutely genuine, however. The first is the obvious delight he takes in associating with actors and actresses. With them, his general brusqueness -- his "suspicious bedside manner," to quote Whitehead -- vanishes. When he meets a performer after a performance, "I always say it was very good," says Stevens. "Actors want praise, and whether you like what they've done or not, you should praise them, because they go through hell."

The other loud note of unsophistication in Stevens' character is a total failure to keep up with popular culture (excluding the theater, of course). Stevens may be the only part-owner of the Empire State Building who ever managed not to have heard of King Kong. "Really, a gorilla climbs up the thing?" he asked. "How interesting."

Not long ago, someone alerted Stevens to the American tour of the Rolling Stones, and he was ready to book them for the Kennedy Center until an aide spelled out the facts of life about rock concerts. The aide also spelled out the group's name -- Stevens had remembered them as "The Rolling Stars."

These stumblebum moments make it hard for people to dislike Stevens -- if and when they get to know him. In back of his reserve, there is a disarming directness about the man. He may not bother with "Hello" or "Goodbye" or the other routine pleasantries, but his conversation is equally free of veiled hints and (encounters with actors aside) flattery.

The word "gentleman" pops up often when those who do business with Stevens are asked about him. He has a reputation for keeping commitments and maintaining loyalties, sometimes beyond the usual statute of limitations for such things. Thus, even when director Jose Ferrer had presided over the musical "Carmelina," a $1 million disappointment, Stevens brought Ferrer back a few months later to stage another play at the Kennedy Center ("Home and Beauty," which flopped on a smaller scale.)

But Stevens gets hopping mad when he thinks he has been used badly. He thought so two years ago, when the National Theatre's board of directors decided to sever ties with the Kennedy Center, while broadly hinting that Stevens had been guilty of neglect or mismanagement. "I've never seen him more angry about anything," says one associate.

Stevens' tendency to run things out of his hip pocket may have figured in the National fracas. The National was dark for long stretches of 1978 and '79, and a few of its board members blamed that fact on simple inattention. They wondered, too, if they hadn't missed out on some Broadway hits because of bad relations between Stevens and some Broadway producers -- including Emanuel Azenberg, who was virtually a one-man show at the National last year, bringing three productions there as soon as the National left the Kennedy Center orbit.

An Achilles Heel

Similar criticisms have been leveled at Stevens' management of the Kennedy Center. His taste in plays has been criticized as "elitist" or "old-fashioned." It is said that he tends to give important posts (artistic as well as managerial) to people with modest credentials, in order to maintain his own hold on key decisions. "Roger's Achilles' heel is that he wants to direct everything and he cannot," says one former associate. Others say Stevens has been more and more willing to delegate authority in the last few years, while gradually building a staff that could keep the Kennedy Center afloat after his departure.

His departure is a subject Stevens needs no prompting to raise. His position is simple. "I have told the trustees a number of times that anytime they can find someone to replace me, go ahead," he says.

But no one who knows him can picture him in retirement, and there is circumstantial evidence that he may feel the same way. Just listen to him talk about his first Broadway success in the spring of 1950. It was a musical version of "Peter Pan," starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff. "On opening night it had about 20 curtain calls and really caught fire," says Stevens wistfully. "Once you've had a lot of curtain calls and great praise, it's like heroin. You're hooked for life."