"I was born in Cracow, Poland," says Leopold Stokowski's version of his biography. The year, he used to insist--sometimes very violently--was 1887, and political troubles forced his family to flee his native land when he was newborn: first to Paris, then to Vienna and finally to London, where his birth was at last officially registered.

Stokowski grew up in the age of Paderewski, when Polish birth could be a significant asset for a musician. He never quite accepted the fact (amply documented by Oliver Daniel and others) that he was actually born in London in 1882, with an ancestry that was only one-quarter Polish. He grew up in a home where no Polish was spoken, but inherited a fine Polish name from a grandfather who had emigrated to England around 1850. He spoke with a vaguely Slavic accent most of his life, though not always precisely the same accent. He seems to have acquired it on moving to Philadelphia in 1912.

An air of mystery was as much a part of Stokowski's stock in trade as his remarkable ear for orchestral balances, his restless perfectionism, his taste for innovation and his uncanny ability to make musicians under his baton perform beyond their usual capabilities. In a conducting career that began during the life of Gustav Mahler and outlasted the careers of Toscanini, Furtwangler, Walter and many others, he became the world's most famous conductor ("notorious" might be a better word). He did this not only through his unique professional capabilities, his pioneering work in movies and recording, his beloved and controversial transcriptions from the organ music of Bach and his ability to captivate a mass public, but even more through his personal magnetism and his genius for attracting publicity--sometimes when he didn't want it.

Above all, perhaps, after he had become a celebrity through his music, he held public attention unwillingly through the women in his life. These included a prolonged love affair with Greta Garbo and three marriages. The first of these was to pianist Olga Samaroff, who had been born Lucie Hickenlooper--a true meeting of Slavic souls. In the later years of their marriage, her nickname for him was "X"--standing for "the unknown," while he called her "Mad," short for "Madame." His last marriage was to Gloria Vanderbilt in 1945, when she was 21 years old and he was 63; it lasted an amazing 10 years. But Garbo and wives were undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg; there was much more that eluded even Louella Parsons and now eludes the conscientious biographer for all his 1,090 pages.

Oliver Daniel provides an intriguing example in a footnote, from an anecdote given him by Yehudi Menuhin. At a reception in Lima, Peru, during World War II, Menuhin was approached by "a very lightly clad, elegant lady" who asked him if he knew Stokowski. When he said that he did, she asked him, "Please tell him Strawberry sends her love." When he transmitted the message a few weeks later, Stokowski "didn't twitch a hair." Presumably, there were bushels of strawberries in Stokowski's life. Most are unknown--fortunately, on the whole, because the really interesting relationships of Stokowski's life were with music: with orchestras and with the people who supported and managed them. These relationships were more varied and tempestuous than those of any other conductor in our century, and they are the core of an absorbing biography.

The longest and most significant of his orchestral commitments was the quarter-century he spent with the Philadelphia Orchestra, transforming it from an ordinary ensemble to one of the world's greatest. No matter what can be said (and sometimes quite rightly) about his questionable tastes, his quirky temperament, the air of show-biz hullabaloo that often engulfed his music-making, the arbitrary way he had of "improving" the orchestration of Beethoven, Mozart or Handel, his phony accent and his need to dominate every situation, this accomplishment remains his monument. His influence can still be heard in the sound of that orchestra today, nearly half a century after his rather stormy departure--not the first or the last such departure in his conducting career.

He may have been a charlatan and a "buffone," as Toscanini called him; he may have brought elephants, ponies, a donkey and a camel into the Academy of Music for a performance of "Carnival of the Animals" at a children's concert; he may have costarred with Mickey Mouse in "Fantasia," and he may have spotlighted his hair and his hands (without baton) for purely theatrical effect during supposedly serious concerts. But he also produced a kind of orchestral sound that Toscanini envied and could never match, even with the Philadelphia Orchestra, while Stokowski could do it with any orchestra he conducted. He may have played fast and loose with his past, but that was partly because it did not really interest him very much; he fixed his eye constantly on the future, ever an optimist in beginning daring new ventures and frequently disappointed. He conducted more than 2,000 world or American premie res. Many of the works so honored are now rightly forgotten, but a partial list compiled in this biography includes Berg's "Wozzeck," Elgar's Second Symphony and Ives' Fourth, several major works of Rachmaninoff, Mahler's Eighth Symphony and "Das Lied von der Erde," Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky" and four Shostakovich symphonies, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and "Les Noces."

Oliver Daniel was a friend and professional associate of Stokowski--not quite a confidant, which nobody ever was, but probably as close as any acquaintance. This status gave him a unique access to unpublished details of the conductor's life--not only his own recollections, but those of Stokowski's other acquaintances (Garbo excepted), who answered his questions with a special and quite justified trust. He has supplemented this anecdotal material with intensive research in the abundant newspaper and magazine treatments of Stokowski, public archives, private letters and radio interviews. He tries honorably if not always successfully to avoid partisanship in his accounts of the many controversies in Stokowski's life, and he presents both sides of every dispute when he is aware of more than one side. He tackles fearlessly and with some success the thorny question of whether (or to what extent) Stokowski produced his own Bach transcriptions. And he provides as detailed an account as we are ever likely to see of the knowable facts of an intriguing life.