By Antoni Gronowicz

Afterword by Richard Schickel

Simon and Schuster

476 pp. $24.95


By Rachel Gallagher

Donald I. Fine. 259 pp. $18.95

WHEN I LIVED in New York in the '70s, everyone knew someone who had seen Greta Garbo. Striding through Central Park or idly windowshopping on Fifth Avenue, she was a piece of Manhattan folklore -- like Moon Dog, the street musician with the Viking headress.

For almost 50 years those sightings nourished the potent legend of Greta Garbo, dazzling star of the '20s and '30s, who had triumphantly survived the transition from silent films to talkies only to choose silence once again -- a silence that lasted from 1941 until her death on April 15 of this year.

The protagonist of Rachel Gallagher's first novel, The Girl Who Loved Garbo, is a contemporary Manhattanite who takes the legend seriously. The occasionally visible Garbo has become for 26-year-old Rebeccah Duffy a symbol of feminine self-definition, a woman who refuses to be possessed, who values "personal freedom and liberty to the exclusion of all else." Rebeccah is in need of such a model as she bounces between her longtime boyfriend, who wants marriage and children; a new flame, who offers hot sex and coke-fueled excursions in the fast track; and the challenges of her own work as an industrial designer.

The Girl Who Loved Garbo is not a very good novel; the Garbo motif seems tacked on, an attempt to give resonance to the tritely conceived character of Rebeccah. But it is a timely testimony to the enduring fascination of the Garbo legend, on screen and off.

If the timing of the publication of Gallagher's novel is serendipitous, that of Antoni Gronowicz's "biography" is anything but. Completed in 1976, the book has been sitting in a vault at Simon and Schuster awaiting the death of Garbo, who, in public statements in 1978, denounced it and denied ever having met its author. Though the publishers claim to be convinced of the book's authenticity, clearly they were taking no chances on a libel suit. The Garbo estate has been waging a campaign against the book -- noting that Gronowicz's 1984 biography of Pope John Paul II was denounced as a hoax by the Vatican, and claiming that the Polish-born Gronowicz, who died in 1985, was never able to prove that he knew Garbo.

There are also plenty of internal reasons to doubt the complete veracity of Gronowicz's Garbo, starting with the small print on the copyright page: "The author wrote much of this book using the first-person literary device to emulate the voice of Greta Garbo. The words are those of the author, based on his recollection . . ." At best, then, this mostly first-person account is Gronowicz's alleged recollection of Garbo's alleged recollection of events and conversations going back to her childhood in Stockholm in the century's teens.

According to Gronowicz's prologue, he met Garbo in 1938, when he was perhaps 25, she 33. She took him to her bed immediately, but he modestly notes that she "didn't show a special ecstasy," and there is no indication that this experiment was repeated in the subsequent 20 years during which he claims to have known her and to have made notes for this book.

If you subscribe to the notion that fact is often more ludicrous than fiction, then the chief argument in favor of Gronowicz's having known Garbo is this prologue. Consider, for example, the description of the aftermath of their lovemaking: "She abruptly pushed me to one side, jumped off the bed, and started doing some forceful dance exercises while singing a Swedish peasant song whose melody -- but not the words -- I recognized. I was startled and asked, 'What are you doing?'

"Without interrupting her dance, she replied, 'I don't want to have a child.' "

Surely no one would make that up.

The outlines of the story Gronowicz's Garbo tells in this execrably written but compulsively readable book are well known. She was born into an uneducated peasant family in Stockholm in 1905. Her father was alcoholic, her mother abusive. As a stagestruck adolescent she worked in a department store and hung around the Swedish Dramatic Academy, where she eventually won a scholarship.

She had big feet, protruding ears, an awkward "masculine" gait and an unforgettable face. She also had talent. In 1923 she was discovered by Mauritz Stiller, a Swedish director with a growing international reputation. "I will be your mentor and will make you a great film actress," he reportedly told her. "After I die and after you die, our films will survive."

They became lovers and, in 1925, he took her to Hollywood where his prophecies for her were fulfilled. His own career went downhill, however, and in 1927 he returned to Europe. Suffering from cancer, he committed suicide the next year. She was haunted by his memory -- and, indeed, by his voice -- for the rest of her life.

Meanwhile, she went from success to success, exuding sensuality in silent films like "The Temptress" and "The Flesh and the Devil" (the first of several films with superstud John Gilbert); tugging the heartstrings in great melodramas of the '30s like "Anna Christie," "Grand Hotel," "Queen Christina," "Anna Karenina" and "Camille"; demonstrating a surprising capacity for wit, even self-parody, in her one comic masterpiece, "Ninotchka."

John Gilbert became her lover; so, according to Gronowicz, did conductor Leopold Stokowski, actress Marie Dressler and screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta. The explicit sexual detail about these and other affairs is one way in which Gronowicz's book differs from earlier accounts.

Another is the explanation for her retirement from film at the age of 36.

The usual story is that, following the critical disaster of her film "Two-Faced Woman," Garbo decided to stop making movies for the duration of the war. But a kind of entropy set in, and she drifted into permanent retirement.

In Gronowicz's version, however, permanent retirement was her intention, as the only sure way of holding on to her money and her legend in a changing world to which she was not sure she could adapt. "To defend my achievement, I choose as a weapon complete silence." It was of a piece with Stiller's strategy at the start of her American career: "We must be publicized, but we have to convey the impression that we are opposed to publicity."

"I am walking alone because I want to be alone," said a subtitle in her 1929 silent film, "The Single Standard." She said it again in "Grand Hotel," and in a slightly different version in "Ninotchka."

Of course she never really was alone, as film critic Richard Schickel notes in his excellent afterword. In retirement she had a shifting circle of friends, lovers and admirers -- photographer Cecil Beaton, health guru Gayelord Hauser, designer Valentina and her financier husband George Schlee, and a number of "stupid rich people" whose idle pursuits she shared. Those 49 years were pretty meaningless.

The films survive. If, by contemporary standards, most are overwrought melodramas, her face is still fabulous, her performances glowing. Still, as Schickel points out, it is ironic that the only one of her movies "that remains alive for us today . . . the only one we can contemplate reseeing with pleasure . . . is the movie in which she and her colleagues so artfully satirized her screen persona: Ninotchka."

Nina King is editor of Book World.