The Death Of A Model

SHE GOT BY IN LIFE ON JUST ONE EXpression, which may have been her downfall as an actress but her salvation as a person: a smile of such simplicity that not even a 20-year career slide could cloud it. Not even lolling around Studio 54 with Halston in the 1970s could make Margaux Hemingway look decadent. Nude in the pages of Playboy, she could achieve no more than a faint imitation of sultriness. Whatever her troubles, and they were many, she kept smiling through them. In any event, when she was found dead last week at the age of 41, a world eager for details of her last miserable years discovered, astonishingly, that she seemed to have escaped the lonely, bitter, squalid end that our culture prescribes for former stars whose careers are eclipsed by their kid sisters'.

Bulimic, alcoholic, irresponsible (she had filed for bankruptcy in 1991, claiming debts of more than $800,000 and some $6,000 in assets) -- Margaux was all of those, and afflicted with epilepsy to boot. She was supposedly last seen on June 29 by a neighbor, who described her as looking ""haggard'' and ""sad.'' A friend found her already-decomposed body on the bed of her Santa Monica apartment two days later. Police said there was no evidence of foul play or drugs; toxicological tests could take several weeks. One possibility is the rare syndrome known as SUDEP -- Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy. Hemingway had been controlling her epilepsy with medication, but, according to her close friend Linda Livingston, ""she hated taking it ... She had become a real health nut and didn't like how the medication made her feel.''

She might, of course, have taken her own life, although friends very much doubt it. ""You always think the worst,'' Livingston told NEWSWEEK, ""[but] I just don't think so.'' Hemingway had just finished narrating a nature series for the Discovery channel and was planning to launch a new rain-forest-themed fragrance in the fall. ""She was on her feet and glad to be making money again,'' Livingston said. ""Everything was on the upswing for her.''

She was born with a famous name -- and famous weaknesses. One was for alcohol: her cousin Lorian Hemingway once wrote that ""more than 75 percent of my family has been alcoholic.'' Another was a legacy of suicide that included not just her grandfather Ernest (""Papa,'' who killed himself when Margaux was 6) but his own father, sister and brother. On the plus side, she said at least one witty thing in her life (married to a man several inches shorter than she was, she gave her height as ""5-foot-12''), which puts her in a class by herself among models. But mostly, she had her face, an icon of the American West: eyes as clear and blue as a mountain lake beneath those fabulous old-growth eyebrows and a forehead as broad and unfurrowed as the Great Plains. It was a face that, like the West, called forth mankind's most acquisitive instincts. Within weeks of her arrival in New York in 1974 as a strapping 19-year-old ski bunny from Ketchum, Idaho, gossip columnists were dropping Hemingway's name into stories about the parties she had been to; within months she had landed the largest modeling contract ever given to a woman at that time ($1 million to promote a new perfume by Faberg). Just two years later she made the disastrously ill-advised ""Lipstick,'' a film that ironically inaugurated the much more successful career of her sister Mariel.

Did Margaux get too much, too fast? Well, what else would you expect from someone who was a supermodel at 19? She paid for it, with the obligatory stint at the Betty Ford Clinic a decade ago, two broken marriages and whatever inner torments afflict a onetime star who finds herself at 41 living in a studio apartment above a garage. But something kept her going. It may have been the smile.