In life, controversy seldom touched Amanda Blake, the straight-shooting Miss Kitty of TV's Gunsmoke, but now, three months after her death in Sacramento, Calif., at age 60, a shocking truth has surfaced. Five times a wife, Blake didn't die of oral cancer as originally reported. Instead she has become the first Hollywood actress of note to die of AIDS. "There was no recurrence of cancer," her physician, Dr. Lou Nishimura, says now. "Technically she died of liver failure brought on by viral hepatitis, which was AIDS-related." Blake's secret was known only to a few intimates. "Once she knew she had it, she decided to keep it to herself," says her closest friend, Pat Derby, who, with her husband, Ed Stewart, runs a preserve in Sacramento for unwanted performing animals. "She didn't want to live in a goldfish bowl."

Blake found out she had AIDS a year ago. At the time, she was living with Pat on her 20-acre spread, having recently moved there to devote her life to working with their animals. "We knew she was a little frail, but that's all we knew," says Derby. Partly as a promotion for Derby's organization, PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society), Blake took a month's trip to Africa last fall. "When she returned, she looked awful and was really sick," says Pat. "We thought it was the flu." What Blake didn't tell Derby is that she had seen a doctor in Africa who told her she had AIDS.

Worried about her rapidly declining health, Derby coaxed the unwilling Blake to seek treatment from Nishimura in Sacramento. With Pat and her husband in the room, Nishimura lectured Blake on the importance of treating AIDS. "We were shocked. It was the first we'd heard," says Pat. "Amanda just looked at the wall. But I thought she looked a little relieved. I guess she figured now she wouldn't have to tell us. We never discussed it after that. Amanda just seemed to accept it. She wasn't bitter and she wasn't angry. That was just the way she wanted it, and we respected it."

Those who knew Blake insist she never used drugs and was not sexually promiscuous. How, then, did she contract AIDS? A strong possibility is that she received it from her last husband, Mark Spaeth of Austin, Texas. A developer and city councilman, he died of AIDS four years ago at age 45, shortly after their marriage of less than a year ended in divorce. According to fellow city council member Charles Urdy, "They had been good friends for years. The general perception was that she was sort of down and out, in some financial difficulty, and that was the reason for the marriage. Spaeth was fairly well-off." And, says Urdy, "He was definitely perceived as being a homosexual. He was accepted as being gay, and his close friends were known to be gay."

Two demurrals must be mentioned. Blake's former housekeeper, Jane Price, says Blake told her she had never consummated the marriage to Spaeth. And as Spaeth was dying, he told the press that he might have contracted his viral infection from Blake, suggesting she may have gotten the disease in Africa during one of her trips there to observe the wildlife.

Although Nishimura listed AIDS as the cause of her death, it was not made public. It might have stayed that way if it hadn't been for Blake's will, which left her entire estate, $400,000, to PAWS. Contesting the will, members of Blake's family—including an aunt and two cousins—are trying to prove she was mentally incompetent. Derby feared that the legal fight would cause the true circumstances of Blake's death to be twisted, so she released the AIDS story herself.

The disclosure shocked many of Blake's friends, especially those who had seen her just before her death. Her agent, Steven Stevens, met her three weeks before she died. "She looked so good," he says. "Her spirits were up. She'd just finished an episode of Dragnet. Her last line when she walked out my door was, 'Get me a job. I want to do another job. I want to meet more people.' Up to the end, she wanted to pretend everything was okay."

—John Stark, Eleanor Hoover in Sacramento, reports from the Houston and Los Angeles bureaus