November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

ONE YEAR AGO THIS MONTH, I STOOD outside Federico Fellini’s office in downtown Rome in a cold sweat. The taxi had taken me to the wrong address and I was late; my garment bag had been stolen at the airport and I was in jeans; and I was so jet-lagged I couldn’t remember a word of the Italian I had spoken, until about 45 seconds earlier, fluently. Had I mentioned to my editors in New York that the magazine had been promised only a half hour—for both interview and pictures—when I talked them into sending me 4,300 miles to meet with this legendary filmmaker? Suddenly I suspected I hadn’t. Run! I told myself—before it’s too late!

Then the door opened, and it was too late. Before me stood Il Maestro, director of La Dolce Vita, Amarcord, 8½. “Buon giorno,” I said (my Italian, blessedly, beginning to kick in). “Buon giorno,” the burly genius responded with a look of utter astonishment. Oh, no, I thought, he is upset. “I’m so sorry,” I began. “You see, my garment bag…and I wouldn’t have been late if…” He led me to the couch, sat by my side, took my hand in his and smiled. “But,” he said, “you are just a baby.”

It’s hard to say how I turned the designated half hour into the long and deeply personal interview that was destined to be one of his last. Fellini, who died on Oct. 31 of heart failure at 73, was a remarkable man—a funny, gentle and brilliant man. He was not, however, an easy man. “I don’t like interviews,” he told me. “It is a kind of examination for which I am not prepared.” No, he insisted, he did not want to talk about L’Intervista, his film that had just been released in America—and the reason for my story. “Talking about old pictures leaves me with a feeling of loneliness,” he said. No, we could not take a photo of him at his home. “What is there of me there?” he grumbled. “There is a couch like in any house. Some chairs. It says nothing of me. It’s just somewhere I go at the end of the day.” And no, he had no opinion about Bill Clinton or Rodney King or Oliver Stone’s controversial film JFK. “I don’t want to appear like a guru,” he explained.

“Too late,” I told him. He laughed. “In that case,” he said, “I should be paid for this interview!”

His cantankerousness was, for the most part, only playful. Over the next few days, I spent hours walking, talking, drinking coffee with Fellini. “You just whistle ‘Federico!’ ” he assured me, “and I will come running.” More alluring than Fellini’s personal charm, however, more compelling in some ways than his genius, was the bond between Fellini and his wife, the actress Giulietta Masina. Their relationship was affectionate, inspiring, absolute. “It’s a right marriage, a right choice, the right thing to have decided to be together,” Fellini said. “I have never thought even once in these past so many years that things should be different.”

When I learned on Oct. 17, just days before their 50th wedding anniversary, that Fellini had fallen into a coma—one from which he would likely not emerge—my first thought was of Giulietta. “What will you do for your anniversary?” I remembered asking the actress last November.

“It will be just the two of us, a candle and a bottle of champagne,” she said. The privateness of the festivity was, clearly, at her husband’s insistence, “No party,” Fellini later declared, lapsing into his broken English. “I am always embarrassed when they try to make feast around me. I try to avoid it. I go to skip away.”

And now, I thought last week, he was skipping away forever. Yet he clung to life by the slenderest of threads. “Movie directors, they think to be like God!” Fellini told me. “They think can do everything.” Here, then, I told myself, was his final directorial decision. He was holding on, I believed, not for the sake of life itself, but for the sake of Giulietta; so that he and his wife could ring in half a century together, if not in the same room, with a candle and champagne as she had wanted, at least in the same world. And so it was. Giulietta spent Oct. 30, their golden wedding anniversary, with a few close friends in her apartment; Federico lay unconscious in Rome’s Umberto Primo Polyclinic Hospital. And the following day he was gone.

It is both filling and ironic that in death Fellini became the focus of a bizarre gala that can only be called Fellini-esque. On a soundstage at his studio in Cinecittà—underneath a 50-foot backdrop painted with an azure sky and white, misty clouds—the director’s body lay in state. More than 70,000 people came to pay their respects. The famous director Lina Wertmuller hobbled in on crutches. “He was cinema,” she said in tears. “He is and will be forever.” Fellini’s grade-school chum, Professor Ercole Sega, was lost in a mournful daze. “Now he’s in the fog,” he said sadly. “Who knows if he’ll get out…” Fellini’s wife did not attend but sent a wreath of red roses and a purple ribbon reading, “Yours, Giulietta.”

I have on my wall his photograph, and in my desk the letter he sent me last January from Rome. “I read your story without being embarrassed by the things I said (as often happens to me),” he wrote. “The photographs that you published, couldn’t you have retouched them some, taking away a few kilos and adding a lot of hair? I send you,” he said in closing, “a warm hug of friendship.”

WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY GABRIELLE SAVERI in Rome

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