A FRIEND is dead, a person whom I loved and who loved me. And it is so difficult to speak about a friend who dies, because a part of your life goes with her, and the memories become rambling episodes, sounds and images that light up in the dark like the image of her smile, the sound of her laugh the last time you saw her. And she smiled, she laughed, though she knew very well that the end was not far away. A few months, maybe a few weeks.
Everybody admired her because she was beautiful and clever and famous, because she was Ingrid Bergman. I admired her instead because she was a good woman: generous, honest and, over all, courageous. She had the courage of Peer Gynt, who escapes on the eve of his marriage to Solvejg to see the world and possess it -- the courage of the splendid adventurers who are devoured by the challenge, consumed by the curiosity. Or, perhaps, the courage of the flygande fagel, the migratory birds of her country that in the winter fly away in search of the sun and travel thousands of miles without stopping, sometimes falling headlong into the sea, killed by the fatigue.
Her whole life was an act of courage. Who would believe it, seeing her blush with shyness at any pretext? Out of courage she went to the golden prison of Hollywood with a reluctant husband and a 1-year-old child. Out of courage she left America and him and that child and went to live in Rome with Roberto Rossellini, facing the slanders of the mean, getting pregnant before the marriage with him, at a time when getting pregnant before marriage was a scandal, a shame. Out of courage she left Italy and went to Paris, then London, granting Rossellini the right to keep their three children, though he now loved Sonali das Gupta. She always started again, without fear, without tears. Or maybe she cried, but never in front of others.
I never saw her cry. Not even when she was told she had cancer, not even when the cancer went on invading her and stole her right arm, which became monstrous, as large as a third of her body, so she had to carry it like a trunk attached to her body, with atrocious effort because it was very heavy. In the last months, almost 60 pounds.
In a letter she wrote me on March 14, 1981, she said: "I am fighting my dragon, my arm. I cannot get free of it, that is, I cannot have it amputated, thus I fight him. Yet with fun. I call him my dog, I joke with him: 'You are not a dragon, you are a dog, a nasty sick dog. Come on, let's go walking.' Then, carrying him as a sick dog, we go walking together, to see the sun and the trees and the people. While walking, I think: 'Ingrid, it could go worse. You could have gone blind and be incapable of seeing the sun, the trees, the people.' You know, Oriana: nothing ever scared me like blindness. Besides, as fighting against my nasty dog is useless, I must get used to him: shouldn't I? I must accept him, even try to love him. He doesn't know, but deep inside I love him. Because he makes part of me and, when I am alone, he gives me company." The most extraordinary thing is that she had written this letter herself, with her right hand, the hand of such an arm. Her daughter Isotta, who witnessed it, later told me that it had taken 3 1/2 hours to write it.
We became friends in 1962, thanks to an interview: the first one I made with a tape recorder. In 1962 we already knew each other, but superficially. I had always treated her with the suspiciousness that journalists have for stars, she had always treated me with the suspiciousness that stars have for journalists, and our encounters hadn't given much. However, she had liked something I had written about her third husband, Lars Schmidt: "He must be the kind of man who squeezes the toothpaste tube starting from the end as one should, then rolling it carefully not to spoil it. Just the contrary of Bergman who, I bet, squeezes it at random. No wonder. After eight years with a genius named Rossellini, anybody would need a man in gray." She sent me an exquisite note to tell me that Lars really squeezed the toothpaste tube that way, she really squeezed it at random: Why didn't I call her when I went to Paris?
I went to Paris. I asked her if it would amuse her to try a new kind of interview I wanted to experiment with, the tape-recorded interview. She said yes, and this was the beginning of an understanding as unforeseeable as unforeseen, a friendship that would have resisted the time and the distance, the fact itself that we were rather different. Or, let's say, so differently restless. What united us, she said, was our obsession for freedom and independence, our habit of saying always what we thought, our hatred for hypocrisy and lies. "If you want to be respected by Oriana, tell her always the truth. I do." God knows how exact these words were: I never met a person as sincere as Ingrid Bergman. Even about uncomfortable or embarrassing facts, she never lied: "Of course I wanted to become Ingrid Bergman. I never doubted that one day I would be what I am. I cared so much about success. When I was young, the most important thing for me was the success. I still care for it."
When we did not see each other for a long time, we wrote each other letters. And she saved mine as she did every piece of paper: bills, receipts, old contracts, train and air tickets. Each piece of paper at its correct corner of its correct drawer. Order was her fixation. For the letters, though, she had a kind of cult.
Once I wrote her a letter about Robertino, her son by Rossellini, who was 18 years old and who had come to New York, where I had invited him to dinner. It had been Ingrid who asked me to invite him because she wanted me to talk with him and try to clear up his uncertainties: "I don't understand what he wants to do with his future, what work he is going to choose, and I care to know what you think of him." So I wrote her that I thought all the best about him because he was a very serious, very civilized boy full of ideas in which his young age got rightly lost, and she should set him free to fly where and how he wished, without cutting his wings with requests and advice. "Ingrid, you must put in your mind that it isn't easy to be the son of Bergman and Rossellini. Besides, you know very well that the work he will choose doesn't count. What counts is that he becomes a man, and it seems to me that he will." She placed the letter in a very special drawer and 12 years later, for his 30th birthday, she gave it to Robertino with a copy of my book "A Man."
On the telephone she was so amusing. I don't remember a single call in which she did not make me laugh. She made me laugh even when I called her from Tehran, that is, from a situation that was far from pleasant. It was the days of the American hostages, and I had returned to Iran to interview Bani-Sadr on the subject. The Islamic extremists had been informed and, very infuriated about the interview I had recently done with Khomeini, they had forbidden Bani-Sadr to keep his appointment with me; then they had expressed their intention of kidnaping me, too. And, to make it worse, I now faced the necessity of informing Sandro Pertini, the president of the Italian Republic, who had given me a message for Bani-Sadr and who had ordered me to call him immediately if something went wrong. But how? It was late in the night and, at the Italian Embassy, nobody answered the phone but a doorman who spoke Iranian. The ambassador was away and, when I asked the hotel operators to give me Rome, they were instructed to say the circuit was broken.
All at once I got an idea: Could I call London? Yes, of course, London yes. I gave Ingrid's number; her sleepy voice came on at once. "Who's there? I am resting." "Ingrid, it's me. I need a favor, fast. Call Pertini and tell him that I am in trouble." She woke up in a second. "Where are you?" "In Tehran." "Blindfolded?" "Not yet." "I understand. I'll call him at once. But let's hope that he doesn't take it as a pretext for a proposition. I mean, let's hope that he doesn't think I am after him." When we were cut off, I still laughed.
And, of course, Ingrid's Nordic efficiency got its results in every sense. The Islamic extremists did not kidnap me and, in addition, in Rome all came to whisper that Bergman used to call the president at night. Might it be that the two were having an affair? She reproached me at length: "Dammit, the rumor spread in England too, and now nobody wants to believe that between me and Pertini nothing exists, that he is 84 years old, that I called him simply because I was acting as your secretary. Do you know why nobody believes me? Because now he sends me postcards, and everybody can read them."
In those days she was already hopelessly ill. I saw it myself when she came to New York for the promotion of her book "My Story." Meeting her at her daughter Pia's apartment, I almost did not recognize her. She was so thin, so worn out, her legendary beauty totally gone. At dinner, when she invited me to a Japanese restaurant, more than once my heart went out to her. There was a young couple sitting next to us, and the boy murmured to the girl: "Is that Ingrid Bergman?" The girl answered: "You must be joking. At the most, that one could be her mother." Ingrid heard and, blushing, she ordered another bottle of wine. "I need it."
She did. Not because she was giving up, though. Nor because she was becoming bitter. In her Paris interview she had said: "I think that poor people, sick people, are more than authorized to be not good. Physical pain makes us bitter like hunger does." However, even through her physical pains, she continued to be good, to be strong, and determined to start all over again. She repeated that she wanted to work, to make another film at least: "I am an actress, you see, a real actress. And real actresses are like Ethel Barrymore: they continue to act till one hour before they die." She also was tempted by the offer of a movie about Golda Meir, but she hesitated to accept it because "Number one, I am not a Jew. Number two, I know nothing about politics. Number three, it's a matter of nose. Look at my nose: does it look like Golda Meir's nose?" It was that night that I explained to her how right it would be for her to play such a role, how much her soul resembled Golda's soul. "Is a nose more important than a soul?"
Months later she accepted the role, and if this was a mistake or not, I don't know. I think the movie isn't good, it's a boring propaganda of Zionism. But I know that Ingrid's interpretation is superb, it's her swan song. Then I know that Golda helped her to start again for a while, to live a little longer. There were moments when it seemed that she wouldn't get to the end, because of the heat in Jerusalem that took her breath, because of the cruel schedule, because of the arm, which hurt unbearably though it hadn't grown too much as yet. Her courage won this time too, and brought her back to her London flat, then to the hospital where now she got better and now worse, then better again and worse again, while she proudly denied it. "I am fine, fine. Please stop saying that I have a foot in the grave. True, I had it. But the soil was too humid there, too cold, and I suffer from rheumatism. So I returned to Cheyne Gardens Road where it's warm." Three months ago she even was able to impose upon herself a trip to New York, in order to celebrate the 30th birthday of her twins, Isabella and Isotta. "When Pia was 30, I gave a party for her. When Robertino was 30, I gave a party for him. So I must give a party for my twins too. I don't want them to judge me an unfair mother."
And it was in New York that I saw her for the last time. She stayed in a little hotel on 59th street with Robertino, who had picked her up in London. She called me, I ran, and when she opened the door of her suite I got a lump in my throat. By now, she had become the ghost of herself: one could not understand how she had been able to reach the airport, to board the plane, to cross the Atlantic, to arrive at the hotel and lie down on the bed. Under her nightgown her leanness was heart-rending, under her grayish hair her face was a net of deep wrinkles, and for me it was like seeing again my mother in the last days of her cancer. I would have cried: Why did you come, why do you renew a grief that I cannot forget?
But the most terrible thing was that arm, now almost another body attached to her body, uselessly covered by a large heavy scarf. But she smiled her beautiful smile of always. And smiling she sat down on the chair, she arranged that strange object attached to her body: "It's a trunk by now. See what happens when you're Ingrid Bergman, when you are a star. You know why my dragon, my nasty dog, has become bigger than me? Because the doctors have exceeded with the radiation. If I were a normal patient, they would have given me normal doses; as I was Ingrid Bergman, they gave me too much. How to reproach them? After all, it was not an excess of radiation, it was an excess of love."
Then, still smiling, at times laughing, she told me how stupid and evil the world is. In the morning she had tried to take a walk with her nasty dog, and a group of women had recognized her. They had asked for an autograph and they did not believe that she refused it because she could not move her hand. "Don't you see that my right arm is ill?" she repeated. They insisted all the same. Then one had raised the foulard. She had seen. She had shouted: "Yecch!" "Believe me, Oriana, if I hadn't to use my left arm to carry my nasty dog, my trunk, I would have hit that woman in her mouth."
In the meantime she smoked, one cigarette after the other, incessantly. "Ingrid, is it wise?" "No, it isn't, you are right. Smoking gives cancer. I must avoid smoking, it could give me cancer."
We said many other things that last time: about life, about death, about the right to go when we think that our moment has come. For instance, after an evening blessed with happiness.
So now I have a tormenting suspicion, the suspicion that she did not go because her nasty dog had overpowered her but because she felt like a flygande fagel when it falls headlong into the sea, killed by the fatigue of flying. In other words, because she decided that her moment had come. In fact, she died the day of her birthday, she who cared for birthdays so much, and after celebrating it with Lars. That is, after an evening blessed with happiness.