Before she won her seven-year legal battle to be acknowledged as Howard Hughes' widow, Terry Moore, 54, was just another aging actress best known for work she did decades ago. Her last screen role had been in 1976 when she played a balloonist in a bust called The Great Balloon Race, and Hollywood dealsmiths "weren't," she admits, "knocking down my door."

These days, the line forming outside her ocean-view condo in Santa Monica is longer than she ever dreamed: Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Terry Moore. Life is a flurry of deals—deals for TV projects (including two series still in development); for posters; for product endorsements and for her autobiography, which she has titled Howard Be Thy Name. The book had gone begging for years, even in the hands of hyper-agent Irving Swifty Lazar. But once the Hughes family awarded her a chunk of his $490 million estate (although neither side will reveal her take, estimates range between $10 and $20 million), she became a born-again celebrity. Pocket Books recently plunked down a six-figure advance for her tidbits about the Hughes-Moore amour (Howard rates a dreamy "the best lover I ever had" from the five-time bride), and Swifty et al. plan to market a gossipy 16 minutes of a 45-minute taped telephone conversation in which Terry and Howard chatter about such luminaries as Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner.

At this bizarre juncture in Moore's life, her live-in manager, Jerry Rivers, 34, is in charge. He calls her "a viable property." An overbearing, fast-talking type who once owned a New York garment business, Rivers sees her as a commodity just as hot as, say, Deely Bobbers. "I firmly believe," he says, "that Terry will be the Celebrity of 1984."

No stranger to commodity treatment, Terry was contracted to Columbia Pictures while in her teens and grew up under the thumb of starmaker Harry Cohn. He changed her name from Helen Koford and molded her image into that of a wide-eyed innocent. Terry says Cohn was so bent on preserving her pristine persona that "he would have wrecked my career if he'd known I was married. He wanted every man to believe he had a chance of marrying me."

That honor, however, had already fallen to Hughes. In 1948, Terry, 19, and Howard, 42, had fallen in love after Hughes had arranged an "accidental" meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He wooed her, says Moore, with a vengeance, and the two were wed in the fall of 1949 by the captain of his yacht, The Hilda, during a cruise off the West Coast. Hughes' craft was suffused in romantic candlelight and smothered with white gardenias, but the small wedding party feasted on champagne, hot dogs from a New York Nathan's Famous stand and French fries imported from Coney Island.

A self-described "career girl, through and through," Terry, then 20, says she insisted that the marriage be kept secret. In order to quell gossip, she moved back in with her mother and insurance-adjuster father in Glendale and returned to making movies like Mighty Joe Young—in which she shared top billing with an ape—and The Great Rupert, in which her co-star was a squirrel. After several more "eternal-virgin" roles, she traded her fresh-faced image for the part of a juvenile siren in 1952's Come Back, Little Sheba—which netted her an Oscar nomination—and grabbed headlines the following year by modeling an ermine bathing suit for the troops in Korea.

Moore says her success was anathema to Hughes. Even though he owned RKO Pictures, "He hated me being in the movies. He was jealous of all my leading men, and he tried to wreck my career." Fights were frequent; Hughes had her followed from the moment he met her and commanded her to wear a heavy bra even while sleeping, lest her breasts sag. But he also gave her costly bijoux, such as a 10-carat diamond (now valued at $300,000-$400,000), and fretted over her when she lost their only child—a girl Terry says was born in Munich in December 1952.

Although Terry claims that Howard was "the love of my life," she appears to have overlooked her devotion to him on the four occasions when she tripped up the aisle with other men. (Howard is said to have destroyed the ship's log in which their marriage was recorded, but the two never were properly divorced. (Moore admits to being a bigamist: "All my life I was afraid someone would find out.")

The first post-Hughes marriage came in 1951, when she became piqued at Howard and wed L.A. Rams football star Glenn Davis in a quiet Mormon ceremony. The union lasted just three months; Moore returned to Hughes and divorced Davis the following year. In 1956 Terry exchanged vows with wealthy entrepreneur Eugene McGrath. Howard countered by marrying actress Jean Peters in 1957.

Peters' ex, wealthy businessman Stuart Cramer, became Terry's fourth husband in 1959 and fathered her two now-grown sons. Moore and Cramer divorced in 1972, and it was seven years before she took her next husband—Richard Carey, another businessman, whom she wed in Mexico. Although the two have long since separated, there has been no formal split: "It turned out he wasn't divorced at the time of our wedding," says Moore, "so I guess we weren't really married." (Carey's lawyers claim that he got a quick Mexican divorce before they were married.)

Moore will have her day in court with Carey, however. Carey (who acted as Terry's business manager) has been indicted in Los Angeles on 68 criminal counts, including grand theft and forgery, and Moore was expected to testify against him in a trial which began in Superior Court last week. (The President's eldest son, Michael Reagan, gave pretrial testimony in the case, alleging that he lost $1,500 in a phony investment scheme of Carey's design.) As Terry tells it, Carey bilked her out of $200,000 by getting her to sign a sheaf of legal documents when she didn't have her reading glasses on.

"She's always been attracted to anyone who would tell her what to do, and people manipulate her all the time," says singer Mickey Newberry, a friend since 1977. "She's got a reputation as being squirrelly. She'd rather live with the illusion than believe the truth."

Moore admits to having battled severe depression. After the dissolution of her 13-year marriage to Cramer, she suffered what she calls a "morgue period," during which doctors plied her with Elavil (a mood elevator). "I was climbing the walls," she says. "I was afraid of pills because I'd had so many friends who'd died from them. They tried different things, and finally they gave me Lithium [a chemical used to treat manic-depressives]. I took it for a year, and I think it helped."

So has being recognized as the wife of Howard Hughes. She signs autographs these days as Terry Moore Hughes, and says she's channeling part of her inheritance into a charity she thinks Howard would have supported—a fund for victims of crippling spinal and brain injuries.

And the rest of the money? Some will be lavished on more size-5 shoes and frocks. A $25,000 reward will go to Rivers if he gives up the smoking habit that Terry—an ardent clean-liver—loathes. An even healthier sum may go for a new limo and a suburban mansion she claims she lost to Carey. And 10 percent will go to the Mormon church, to which she tithes.

By all accounts, however, Moore's sudden wealth won't appreciably alter her style. Over the years she's grown accustomed to the prerogatives of affluence: Her father parlayed her own earnings into a tidy fortune, and monied husbands have helped along the way. Still, she continues to haunt neighborhood flea markets, walk around Beverly Hills with $10 in her wallet and drink Tab while others sip Dom Perignon. "Money doesn't mean anything to her," says Rivers. "She gives it away. She's a darling girl who is 51 years old [her birth certificate says 54] with the attitude of someone 19."

Terry claims that she's less impressed with her fortune than with her phoenix-like fame and her newfound public status as Howard's wife. She loves the perks, but she's embarrassed by the odd side effects: Strangers have claimed to be the daughter she lost; friends have begun asking for loans. She is most poignantly Mrs. Howard Hughes' widow as she says with a sigh: "Having too much money is as bad as not having enough."