When Marilyn Monroe was a starlet at 20th Century Fox in the late 1940s, she became the studio publicists' delight.

Bright, funny, with a stunning face and figure, her interviews and photographs were a sure sell. Desperate to be recognized and loved, she agreed to everything the publicists proposed."You know, Marilyn would look good in a potato sack," one of the "praisers" remarked. That sparked an idea. A potato sack was dry-cleaned, the wardrobe department sewed it up, and Monroe posed in the photo gallery. The photograph appeared in newspapers nationwide.

Those were the days when publicity minds worked overtime to attract national attention to studio stars and movies. The 1920s to the late 1940s produced an era of wonderful nonsense in Hollywood, enhancing the town's reputation for excitement, glamour and ballyhoo.

Times have changed. Today, news editors are wary of anything that smells of a publicity stunt. Although that didn't prevent some from being suckered into Dennis Rodman's "wedding."

With the end of the big studio, there were no contract lists of actors to publicize. Studio publicity departments still exist, but they are concerned solely with marketing new products.

"Now a company buys national TV ads to launch a movie," explains Herb Steinberg, a 50-year veteran of studio publicity. "If it `opens' (does good business in the first weekend), the company continues supporting it. If not, the movie is dumped. There's no art to opening pictures nowadays."

Steinberg, who headed publicity departments at Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures, entered the trade in postwar New York. His first chore was a movie called "Down Missouri Way," featuring Shirley the Mule.

New Yorkers were astonished to see Steinberg leading Shirley, an ad for the movie on its back, down Fifth Avenue. The pair turned into Rockefeller Plaza and tried to have lunch at the restaurant overlooking the ice rink. The management refused, giving Steinberg the press coverage he sought.

The art of the publicity stunt stretches back to Greek amphitheaters of the 5th century B.C. In this country, such hype dates back to colonial times and was practiced by carnivals, Bible-pounders and snake-oil salesmen.

Harry Reichenbach became the most famous New York stunt-meister during Prohibition and after. He represented circuses, Broadway shows and occasionally movies. He once registered a guest at an elegant hotel under the name T.R. Zan. When the press discovered the guest was a live lion, the coverage drew attention to a new "Tarzan" movie.

The world of high finance used stunts to humanize moguls. A publicist placed a female midget on the lap of a smiling J.P. Morgan at a U.S. Senate hearing, and the photo and news reports eclipsed Senate speeches about the misuse of wealth.

The publicity stunt flowered in booming Hollywood, and no star was spared. When Greta Garbo arrived from Sweden, MGM press agents (the term used before the more dignified "publicist" was adopted) decided she needed to be Americanized. So they clothed her in a running outfit and had her pose on the University of Southern California track with famed coach Dean Cromwell.

Before she established herself as a great actress, Bette Davis submitted to the occasional stunt. During a desert location for "The Bride Came C.O.D." with James Cagney, it was widely reported that Davis had sat on a clump of cactus, with painful results. Unreported was the fact the cactus had rubber spines.

On a recent spring day, a handful of veteran publicists gathered for lunch at a Los Angeles area restaurant. Most are retired; all have worked more than 50 years for the studios. They were asked to recount memorable stunts of the past.

Arthur Wilde remembered a premiere during World War II when a sailor stepped out of the crowd, handcuffed himself to a glamorous star and swallowed the key. A press agent's plot.

"When I was sent to Kentucky to work on a Burt Lancaster picture, `The Kentuckian,' " Wilde related, "I decided to work the same stunt. I found a young man in the Air Force, bought a pair of handcuffs at a pawn shop, and I alerted the press."

When the leading lady came back to the hotel, the stunt worked to perfection. That is until a local judge stepped out of the hotel bar, saw the fuss and threw Wilde, his photographer and the airman in jail. "Lancaster wanted to kill me," Wilde recalled.

Frank Liberman was working on the Warner Bros. musical, "My Wild Irish Rose," when two of the dancers announced their intention to marry. The wedding was held on the set with Dennis Morgan, Arlene Dahl and the whole cast and crew in attendance. The photos made all the papers. No matter that the marriage was one of the briefest in Hollywood history.

At a time when the producers association reviewed all still photographs, the censors decreed that shots of Gina Lollobrigida in her scanty "Trapeze" costume be airbrushed to hide the cleavage. Walter Seltzer, who headed publicity for producers Hecht-Lancaster had the retouched photos sent to the actress in Paris.

With Seltzer's prompting, Miss Lollobrigida sued the association and Hecht-Lancaster. Seltzer supplied her with the much-quoted line: "You made me look like Gary Cooper."