A rich man is the noblest handiwork of God"" might well be the motto of this gaudy history of American big spending and high living since the Civil War. ""That it must be spent with a maximum of panache, in the greatest possible expression of the beau geste, is what differentiates the truly big spender from the merely expensive spender."" And an exhilarating draught this is, a goblet of Mumms Champagne, in fragrant prose like gardenias shedding odor on damask. It's not so much a stack of anecdotes as a stack of $1,000 banknotes stamped COMPLIMENTARY in purple ink and issued to guests on page one. ""Blow it, baby, right from the observation car into a hundred- mile wind!"" Beebe has acid contempt for today's zillionaires cramped by public image, do-goodiness and too self-crippled to toss cash like a two-handed man. His heroes are the early Vanderbilts and Goulds, W.C. Fields (who took it with him into eternity-- the bulk of his money was never located), Bet-a-Million Gates, Diamond Jim Brady, of the lobster palaces, Colonel Mann of the original New Yorker (a scoundrel and blackmailer) and, from abroad, Nubar Gulbenkian and Lord Lonsdale-- ""The Yellow Earl."" This is perhaps closer to expert reporting than social history; but the tone is lavish for heroes, waspish for milksops.