"Everyone grows older, except Cary Grant." -- Grace Kelly

I remember the dressing gown. Shocking, flamingo-pink silk, knotted jauntily at the waist. On anyone else it would have looked like a parody of a matinee idol.

On Cary Grant, it was perfect.

"Howdja like it?" he asked, opening the door to his hotel room with one hand and smoothing the silk with the other. "It's my aging actor's outfit."

He led his guest to a small sofa, then sat on a chair by the window. The sun streamed through the glass, and his platinum hair was thick and shiny. That was his secret of looking so "marhhvelous," he had said that morning. Sitting with his back to the light.

His voice was lilting and witty, with that quirky half-Cockney, half-Cambridge accent, and his face was a beautiful shade of bronze. His brown eyes twinkled behind oversized glasses, and the dimple on his chin, the same one that Grace Kelly fingered, wondering how on earth he ever shaved it, looked fake. As if some plastic surgeon had promised, and delivered, a perfectly sculpted Cary Grant chin.

It was December 1983, and he was in Washington for the annual Kennedy Center Honors. Although he generally hated interviews, he had agreed to meet a reporter for breakfast and talk about turning 80. His wife, the former Barbara Harris, then 33, was busy packing their suitcases in the next room. They were off to Monaco the next day, "to see Rainier."

I remember a bottle of champagne chilling in a silver bucket, and there were probably flowers somewhere in the room. He was still in his robe and slippers, he said, because he wasn't feeling well. "I'll tell you what it is if you don't print it. It's so bloody silly. It's an infection of the bladder. It's not uncommon. I'm riddled with antibiotics."

He absent-mindedly began putting on a watch. Then he glanced down at his wrist, noticed he was already wearing one, and did a Cary Grant double take. In the movie, he might have said, "Oh dear," while the flinty heroine made goo-goo eyes at him. That morning he laughed self-consciously, a little shyly. "Well, I'm half awake and putting on two watches."

Meeting him, you couldn't help but wonder if Cary Grant was ever comfortable being Cary Grant. While he was tall (6 feet 1), handsome and charming, if a little grumpy that morning, he seemed more vulnerable than his screen persona.

I asked how the recent deaths of friends Grace Kelly and David Niven had affected him.

"I don't know how I consider death," he said. "So many of my friends have been doing it recently. My only fear is that I don't embarrass others. That I don't die an ugly death."

He crossed his long legs. "I hope I do it well."

Saturday Grant got his wish.

"My mother did it rather well," he said then. "She just went to sleep. That's what I'd like to do. Who knows? I may go outside and get knocked down by a cab."

He married five women, experimented with mind-altering drugs, was said to be stingy, wore a 44-long suit, fathered one child and wanted more, even at 80. "I'm capable, sperm-wise," he laughed. His daughter Jennifer, the product of his union with actress Dyan Cannon, was born in 1966 when Grant was 62. (Cannon later filed for divorce, claiming Grant had spanked her and that he had taken LSD every day for 10 years.)

"I did take LSD," Grant said.

His one regret in life, he said, was waiting so long to become a father.

"I wished I'd had more children. At the time, I did not have children because I did not feel that I could bring them up the way that I would have wished to. Because of the paucity of my own youth. It lacked many advantages. And I would have wanted to give my children advantages.

"So I kept on taking care of me and mine. I was selfish, perhaps. It was my own insecurity."

(Through films and his business, Grant became a very wealthy man. Friends were quoted yesterday as saying he left the bulk of his estate, estimated at up to $ 60 million, to his daughter.)

As Archibald Leach, his childhood self back in Bristol, England, "I was loved to a moderate degree." His background, he said, "was not poor. It was lower middle class." His father ("a dear, wonderful, quiet man") was a clothing presser; his mother spent many years in a mental institution. Grant was an only child.

He said he didn't have any hobbies, preferred reading history and biographies over novels and never muttered "Judy, Judy, Judy."

Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman were said to be his favorite leading ladies, and Sophia Loren his greatest offscreen passion. His favorite director, he told me, was Alfred Hitchcock.

The phone rang. It was his doctor. He spoke briefly, then hung up.

"Where were we? Shoot."

He said "shoot" for the rest of the hour, whenever he was ready for another question. He also divided most things in life into two categories: "marhhvelous" and "charhhming."

He reminisced about his films, recalling anecdotes and friends. He said he never actively pursued fame or success. Like most things, it had come easily. He said he didn't miss making films "in the slightest."

He groused about several unauthorized biographies being published in England and said he had decided not to write his autobiography. "It's my own business," he said shortly. He had a healthy disdain for the press. "They love gossip."

Yes, he said, women still accosted him in public.

"My wife gets rather annoyed."

"I do not," Barbara Grant said hotly.

"Yes she does, she gets absolutely furious."

A small table had arrived from room service, with boiled eggs for Grant and cereal for his wife. He was warming up to the conversation, even enjoying it. "May I steal one of your English muffins?" he crooned over the table.

There were advantages and disadvantages to fame, he said. "I don't know what one wants. One must aim for something. A congressman must aim to be president. Of course one wants to be a success. I think what one aims for is a degree of admiration, adulation, respect."

The lack of affection in his childhood, he said, drove him to the stage. "We all do anything in order to get respect, adulation. We all need love."

He doled out personal advice ("have a bay-bee") as well as professional. "You don't have to go after things aggressively. I don't think I ever did, as far as I can remember. If this is what you're doing and you wish to continue, do it to the best of your ability. Live it. Love it. Go after it. Not necessarily as aggressively as some have, but they come out the other end okay."

One must steer, he said. "Select. To one's best advantage. But not necessarily to the disadvantage of others."

Grant met his fifth wife ("luckily") in 1976 at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London. She was doing public relations. They married in 1981, and she became a combination wife-secretary. It was obvious he was in love.

"I was impressed by the person," said Barbara Grant, a pretty woman, with her hair pulled back in a neat bun. "Not so impressed by the legend."

"You said I was a legend," Grant mocked.

By then, the light had changed. He was no longer behind it. He looked older, more frail. He leaned forward, a half-smile on his face. "You know," he said, "I never understood the legend."