06/04/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
When New York Mayor Ed Koch dropped by, economist-author John Kenneth Galbraith introduced him as "a promising young writer." As a rookie scribbler who crashed the best-seller list with Mayor, His Honor could have learned a trick or two from the assembled throng, which included America's most venerated poets, authors, artists and composers. Koch still has to prove he can produce the right stuff consistently to win admission to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a congressionally chartered pantheon of the nation's highest brows. Membership is a great honor and limited to 250, so to welcome 23 new colleagues, the academy threw a festive lunch at its Manhattan salon overlooking the Hudson River. Among the freshmen: movie producer Billy Wilder, choreographer Merce Cunningham and director Frank Capra. With all the talent and ego jostling for attention, seating arrangements were a challenge. "We try to seat people together who have similar tastes," executive director Margaret Mills diplomatically explained. "It's not easy." Her intricate calculations were plainly successful: "They came and heard all these young artists being honored," she said later. "It gives them a sense of renewal."