IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT—well, it was dark anyway—when Janet Sussman Gartner learned she was the inspiration for high school classmate Erich Segal's first novel. Gartner, her husband and three children were sound asleep in their Ma-maroneck, N.Y., home in 1969, when the telephone practically exploded at 3 a.m. "Hey, Sussy" crooned a seductive voice. "I just wrote you a 258-page love letter." It was Segal, then a Yale professor, freshly stoked on completing the manuscript the world would soon know as Love Story. He had taken the essence of Gartner, her razor-sharp wit, playful sexiness and love of music, and created Radcliffe student Jenny Cavilleri, the leukemia-stricken heroine of his bittersweet weeper about an Ivy League romance that ends in Jenny's death. The novel became the best-selling book of 1970 and a 1970 box office smash starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal. "I remember feeling like a jolt of electricity went through me," recalls Gartner. "I didn't sleep the rest of the night. I was too overcome with what I realized I meant to him."

Gartner, 60, kept mum about being Segal's inspiration, but, she says, Al Gore's clumsy assertion last month that he and wife Tipper were the models for the book's couple proved too much to bear in silence. (Gore has since declared it all a misunderstanding.) The idea that Tipper Gore was Jenny, Gartner says, "is the most preposterous thing I ever heard."

Segal, 60, now married and living in England, isn't talking. But in a 1971 article on the author, the Italian magazine Oggi identified Gartner in a photo (with Segal in France in 1960) as the woman who had inspired Jenny—without naming her. And, Gartner says, Segal took her to dinner with actress MacGraw in New York City just after the film's release. Segal recently said that he never met Tipper but that the character of Oliver Barrett was based both on Gore and actor Tommy Lee Jones, Gore's Harvard roommate.

All these years, Gartner shared her secret only with family and friends. "I grew up knowing that my mother was Jenny," says daughter Aleba, 31, a publicist. "It was kind of legend in our house." But Gartner says that she and her husband, Gideon, 62 and CEO of Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass., kept quiet because "it seemed a little bit awkward to have my identity known" while she was married and Segal was single.

Though they never dated, Gartner and Segal were close friends from their days at Brooklyn's Midwood High School in the 1950s. Raised by intellectual immigrants from Poland and Russia, Janet Sussman was quick-witted and outspoken. Like the fictional Jenny, she played piano and, like her own mother, spoke three languages. "I'm not a shrinking violet," she says. "Someone once coined me 'the girl with the sparkle'."

In 1954 the smitten Segal enrolled at Harvard, from whence he filled Gartner's Brooklyn mailbox with dozens of letters, which she still treasures. "Darling Suss, sweeter than halvah," he wrote. But Gartner did not return his affection. "He was a very great friend, and my admiration for him was boundless, but I did not share his emotions," Gartner recalls.

She entered Barnard College in 1955, and in 1960, a year after graduating, she joined her older sister Deborah in Paris for a seven-month sojourn. Segal followed, Gartner says, with intentions of winning her over. The romance never blossomed, and in 1961 she married Gideon Gartner, another high school pal. Though Segal continued corresponding—and he never had to say he was sorry—his tone changed from lovelorn to friendly. Eventually the two fell out of touch. End of story?

Not quite. Gartner, now divorced and living in a Greenwich, Conn., apartment, supports herself as a pianist and music coach. She believes Jenny's death was a metaphor for Segal's failing to win her in real life. Indeed, Segal told Oggi that losing the woman you love is the same "whether she's left you for another or whether she's died." Gartner admits she sometimes wonders what might have been had she married Segal. For one thing, he might not have created the greatest hankie wringer in modern literature. "If I had dated him and everything had been fine, I'm not going to say he never would have written Love Story," muses the muse. "But the need to write it may have been less."

SOPHFRONIA SCOTT GREGORY
JENNIFER LONGLEY in Connecticut

  • Contributors:
  • Jennifer Longley.