The Italian opera missed a great heroine in Oriana Fallaci. This diminuitive Italian journalist, who has made piccata out of such luminaries as the Shah of Iran, Muhammad Ali and Yasir Arafat, who made Henry Kissinger a cowboy for all times and Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu cry, can perform with the best of divas.

She will screw up her face in mock amazement at a question about her politics, writhe with anger when talking about Muhammad Ali, roll her eyes in ecstacy over Chou En-lai, sneer with disdain when talking about American femininists, and go limp with sorrow about her own suffering before jumping up to slam down the "diabolic American telephone" which is virgins.

How she suffers. This woman who has prodded world leaders, the powerful and the famous, to strip themselves to the bone for the greedy masses, is quaking like the small child she looks.

"Don't look at me," she cries, retreating to a corner of the hotel room and covering her face with her hands. "I look awful. Just close your eyes and interview." It is like the ghosts of all her interviewees have come to haunt her.

She is nothing if not resilient, though. A moment later, she is smoothing the green scarf that covers her head, trying to make the khaki-green sweater and washed-out pants into something couture with her hands. Her mood change has been brought on with the arrival of "my patisserie."

"They had to go to Brazil for the coffee? Look at this. These I was afraid of. They don't know what is patisserie and what is biscuits here in Washington. Never heard about that."

She leans back on the sofa and clasps her forehead "Umph. I didn't sleep last night more than two hours. Each time I come to Washington I am sick. It's Washington with its powers and politics, they bring me bad luck. When I leave New York, I'm not so bad - no, I'm sick already because there is Wall Street there with its power. But Washington, whenever I enter in this fear of power, I get sick."

There is a testimony to her cold spread out on the coffee table in front of the sofa. Aspirin, Vicks Day Care, Neo-syneperine, things she confides sotto voce she doesn't plan on taking. She says she's ugly, but even with the cold she has a seductive fragility and beauty that is undoubtedly the key to her getting powerful men to spill their guts into her tape recorder.

"I am a woman who has suffered so much and who suffers so much," she says. "Not now because I have reached the acme of suffering. All my life has been in agony. Listen, the happiest moments of my life were with Alekos (Alexandros Panagoulis, her lover, who became a symbol of resistance to the former dictatorship in Greece and who was killed in a car accident last year). We were crazy and had such fun. But what a life. We went for a holiday, a few days in the sun, and we had to escape. They were going to kidnap us. We go to a restaurant in Athens and a car tries to run us down. All my life has been like this.

She lapses with the emotion, overcome by her own story. Yet, this wilting Oriental-looking woman has been called tough, bitchy, histrionic, mean even. She lights up like a boxer ready for a match when it is implied that perhaps she has been as hard on her interviewees as she says her own life has been.

"Never, have I been mean," she snaps. "Only with politicians, the people with power. They need journalists for publicity. It's their life. And they're right. I am a marvelous instrument of publicity whether you like me or not. If you are the Shah of Iran and long by journalism. My destiny it lit-Alekos. Ah. Ah. Ah. I wouldn't have time because it goes everywhere in us shout and laugh at us and they go. I owe everything to journalism."

[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]ian feminists' movement is stronger time because it gets everywhere in the world. And I understand them, and I listen to them. In their place I would do it. In their place if Fallaci comes to interview me, I wouldn't reject her because she would be useful to me."

She thinks, though, that she has no personal power and no ego. "You really believe that a journalist has power. We are the Ali Babas of power. The power is so strong it can afford the luxury of giving us the illusion that we count for something. They let us shout and laugh at us and then go on doing what they want."

She pooh-poohs Watergate. "Capital runs America. You think investigatory journalism. Here the power is so strong they don't need to do what they do to Alekos (whom she feels is a martyr). Here they let you publish the documents and then everything goes on as before."

Yet, Fallaci, who is 47, has made herself a formidable career in journalism. This first of four daughters of an Italian carpenter, she gave up a career as a doctor when she could not afford to continue her studies.

Used as a provacateur who transported guns and bombs from one place to another by her father during the war, Fallaci is L'Europeo newspaper's most famous journaliste provocateuse. With an apartment in New York and a house in Florence and a country house outside Tuscany, her profession has paid enough to get her away from the limelight.

Why journalism? Because "its fascinating, not as fascinating as writing books, though," she whispers in a motherly fashion. "Books, they are creative. But I'm never ungrateful. From now on I will write more and more books. I've been kidnapped too long by journalism. My destiny is literature." (Fallaci has just written a novel called "Letter to a Child Never Born.") She is chopping the air with little karate moves. She croons.

"But I'm so grateful to journalism. To journalism I owe everything. To journalism I owe the fact that I have learned to write. To journalism I have the fact that I'm no more poor. To journalism I owe the fact that I've been living and seeing things. To journalism I even owe Alekos. If I were a doctor or something, I wouldn't have gotten involved in the story of Aleko. Ah. Ah. Ah. I wouldn't have has the opportunity to get into contact with the people who were in contact with him when he was in jail. Ah. I owe everything to journalism."

Like a school girl reciting a rhyme she begins to chant.

"But now, thank you Papa. You were very nice to me, but I go and live alone. I'll come and see you very often, we will stay together as much as possible, but I want to have my little apartment, Papa Journalism."

Fallaci is an opinionated woman, though, and one wonders whether the joys of fiction can match the combat of interviewing. When Fallaci talks about her subjects, she mimics and pantomimes them. For some she hasn't a shred of sympathy, mostly because their politics (she calls herself "a social anarchist") don't match her own.

"Muhammad Ali? He's a reactionary. Humph. A man who says to a woman that she has to wear long sleeves. A man who treats his wife like he does. I couldn't go next to him," she minces herself up, giving a disdainful look at the air next to her. "He said, 'You, you, go away from me, you white woman.' Oh my God that man. I found him unbearable. He had a fascist arrogance. Oh, Jesus. I couldn't stand it. There was nothing revolutionary in him. Personal vanity and that's all. And nothing is less revolutionary than personal vanity. He doesn't give a damn for people, his people. He gives much only for himself."

She pauses for a moment, her eyes suddenly enormous with admiration, "but what a press agent. In the history of humanity, there has never existed a publicity, public relations man like Cassious Clay, Muhammad Ali. He's fantastic. If I were at a university where you teach public relations, I would pay him a fortune.

Fallaci rivets you with her attention and energy. She seems to spin a web of tales and fantasy when she talks. She can succinctly dismiss American feminists by saying they are bourgeois, that revolution is a word that terrifies America.

Fallaci laments the feminist movement in America because she says the lesbian groups have ruined it. "They started yelling their head that they hated men. You don't do that. You say," she whistles and snaps her fingures, "come here, listen to me. You indoctrinate them, not reject them. Because otherwise, it is always the women who suffer." Fallaci's latest book focuses on what shw calls "women's suffering" over the decision whether to have children or not and the issue of abortion, something she maintains Italian feminists have a better grasp of then American women.

"Ala la la la," she wails. "The Italian feminists movement is stronger than America's in both quality and quantity." She cradles her forehead. "Ah, such a headache I've got," she says by way of ending. "I've talked myself out."