THE SUBURBAN RETREAT INNOCENTLY CALLED THE GULF BRANCH Nature Center is an Arlington County parks department facility set around a tinkling brook, with towering white pine trees and jungles of rhododendron. Here nature lovers and schoolchildren come to admire caged kingsnakes, butterfly identification charts and exhibits on the structure of beehives.

But tales of raucous parties and celebrity skinny-dipping in a bygone age have long made the rounds among visitors to the tranquil quartz stone house in the woods of residential Arlington, a quick hike up from the Potomac near Chain Bridge. Rumor was that a world-famous silent-screen actress once lived in the house, built as an opulent rural retreat long before ground was broken for the surrounding subdivisions of River Crest and Bellevue Forest.

Some Arlingtonians thought the actress was Theda Bara, the Ohio-born vamp who made several silent movies during and after World War I. But most zeroed in on Polish-born Pola Negri, who became known to Americans in the 1920s as the silent-screen star of such steamy films as "Passion," "Forbidden Paradise" and "Gypsy Blood."

"I was the star who introduced sex to the screen," she later said, "but it was sex in good taste." She fell in love with Rudolph Valentino, and when he died at the age of 31, she threw herself on his funeral bier while the flashbulbs popped.

The arrival of talking films made Negri less bankable, and in the early 1930s, she returned to Europe. But World War II brought her back permanently to the States, where she settled in San Antonio, emerging from retirement only for a 1964 role in Walt Disney's "The Moon-Spinners."/

Negri's Arlington connection was long unproven. Her 1970 autobiography, Memoirs of a Star, says nothing about Northern Virginia. Arlington historian Eleanor Lee Templeman said shortly before her death in March that she tried to track down the Negri story in the 1950s but found no documentation then.

It wasn't until 1972 that a rival Arlington historian, Cornelia B. Rose Jr., also now deceased, read that Negri was in San Antonio. Rose wrote to Negri about the estate, known as White Pines, and received this reply from the actress's secretary: "Miss Negri did indeed rent the house you mentioned, in the spring of the early 1930s. She cannot remember the exact year."

Pola Negri died in San Antonio in 1987, having declared unshyly that with completion of her memoirs, "I also shed my public image and once again become the completely private individual I was beneath the extraordinary facade of glamour and exoticism."