THERE AMONG THE POWER ELITE gathered at Morton's for an Academy Awards bash last month, it wasn't Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jane Fonda or Michael Douglas or Dolly Parton that everyone was craning to see—it was celeb-widow-cum-rock-queen Courtney Love, decked out in a $15 junk-store gown. Squatting on the posh West Hollywood restaurant's terracotta floor and chain-smoking cigarettes, Love, leader of the rock band Hole, couldn't be bothered when a supplicant pushed through the crowd and breathlessly announced, "Courtney! Maria Shriver wants to meet you."

Apparently uninterested in an audience with Mrs. Schwarzenegger, Love turned instead to celebrity photographer Herb Ritts, who had recently collaborated with her for an upcoming Vanity Fair cover story. And when Ritts presented photos of Frances Bean, Courtney's 2-year-old daughter by her late husband, Nirvana superstar Kurt Cobain, who shot himself to death a year ago April 5, Love cooed. "Ahhh, look how much she looks like her daddy." She then mentioned how much she had wanted to have a second child by Cobain (who had made an earlier suicide attempt in Rome on March 4, 1994). Before anyone could wax wistful, though, Love launched into an explicit and oddly comic monologue about her attempt to freeze Cobain's sperm after his return from Rome in order to impregnate herself later. "I called my ob-gyn," she said. "He said 'How cold is your freezer?' I told him, but he said it wasn't cold enough."

Not exactly your average Hollywood small talk, but then Love, 31, didn't become rock's most outrageously controversial personality by studying Miss Manners. Nor has the once-obscure underground diva and bit-part actress who was thrust into the limelight by her husband's suicide spent the ensuing year in solitude and somber reflection. Instead she has coped with her loss—and then, two months later, the death of friend and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff from an apparent drug overdose—in a largely public way, onstage and in a torrent of tabloid headlines.

For four months following Cobain's death, Love kept her grief private, spending time at home in Seattle with Frances and making occasional recuperative trips, including one to an Arizona health spa and another to an Ithaca, N.Y., Buddhist monastery. Then in August she went on the road with Hole to promote the band's new record, Live Through This. The presciently titled album was about to be shipped to record stores at the time of Cobain's suicide. And, despite a delayed publicity campaign by Geffen Records, which feared appearing to exploit his death, it sold briskly and was hailed as an artistic success. The album was named best of the year by Rolling Stone and Spin and won the annual Village Voice critics' poll, among other accolades. Though the album and Hole's ensuing sold-out tour have helped establish Love as a rock heroine in her own right, her offstage behavior has fueled the kind of rumors that would make even Madonna's press agent blanch.

The juiciest, all denied by Love's associates, include recent reports of dabbling in hard drugs and a stint in rehab ('I'm sure she's not involved in anything like that," says Courtney watcher Jennifer Schwartz of BAM, a California music magazine). There were also stories of dalliances with hot stars of both sexes, including rocker Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (who accused her of obsessive behavior after a romantic fling went sour last summer) and Sandra Bernhard ("They're just friends," a pal says). And though Love is close to Cobain's friend Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and has been seen enjoying the company of two of the most sought-after Hollywood studs—Stephen Dorff and Brad Pitt—at L.A.'s trendy club Jones, there appears to be no serious new romance in her life. At Morton's Academy Awards night, Love teased listeners by hinting that a 4.5 carat, pear-shaped diamond "friendship ring" she was sporting may have been given to her by Pitt, whom she says she first took for "a Kurt Cobain wannabe." Though the two have since become pals, Love, who told PEOPLE last month that "no one can replace Kurt," insists she and Pitt are "not dating!"

Even now, despite her omnipresence in the spotlight, little that Love says dispels the impression that she's a trying-too-hard-to-be-merry widow on a headlong rush toward disaster. In L.A. last November she was seen running barefoot down Sunset Boulevard in the middle of the night chasing a woman she suspected of once sleeping with Cobain. In January she was arrested and fined $500 for offensive behavior on an airplane during Hole's concert swing through Australia. In February she went ballistic when a package that she claimed contained a ruby engagement ring Cobain had given her was empty when it arrived at her New York City hotel room. Then on Valentine's Day, Courtney—who routinely dives into the mosh pit during live shows and allows herself to be groped by the crowd—berated her decidedly unwowed audience during the taping of an MTV Unplugged show (which airs April 17) in Brooklyn, calling them "[music] industry weasels."

Now, as Love leads Hole on a 10-country tour of Europe—she plans to return May 4 to prepare for her first major film role, in Feeling Minnesota, starring Keanu Reeves—friends and fans are attempting damage control. "She doesn't fit any stereotype as a performer or mother or griever," says Schwartz. "Who has the right to tell her what she should do or say after what she's been through? She really has no boundaries, and people don't understand her. They get confused and, in turn, hate her."

Others, however, applaud Love's behavior. "She's what a rock star probably ought to be," rocker Liz Phair said recently. "She does what she wants, sticks her foot in her mouth and lives a crazy life."

As for her parenting skills, says a friend, Love "is a unique and original, loving and caring mother" who, while on the road, takes Frances for outings to local parks and has been teaching her to swim in hotel pools. Sometimes Frances watches her mother's shows from backstage, wearing giant, yellow ear protectors to muffle the sound. "She's really developing well," the friend says. "She's really a smart kid."

Some credit can go to Frances's paternal grandmother, Wendy O'Connor, who has helped care for the child since her son's death. "She's very perceptive, just like Kurt was," says O'Connor, who adds that at times "it's hard to be around her because she looks just like her dad too."

O'Connor, who describes Frances as a sensitive soul who picks up dead bugs and "seems very concerned about them," has become one of her daughter-in-law's most passionate supporters. "I adore her," O'Connor says. "She sacrificed a lot for Kurt, including her career, almost. She was totally dedicated to helping him survive."

Love, who is not close to her own parents, Oregon therapist Linda Carroll and California publisher Hank Harrison, had settled happily into marriage and motherhood, according to her former mother-in-law. "She tried hard to be domesticated with Kurt," says O'Connor. So much so that during their two-year marriage, she put a Homemaker And Proud Of It bumper sticker on the family Volvo, studied how-to-improve-your-marriage books and learned to cook Kurt's favorite meal, pot roast. "I wish I had a picture of the gleam that came across Courtney's face," says O'Connor, recalling Cobain's praise for Love's cooking. "They truly loved each other."

Some friends believe that Love hasn't fully dealt with her loss. "She's still running in a fog," one says. "She's in a numb emotional state." But O'Connor thinks Love's decision to go on tour was therapeutic and that she will emerge from her ordeal emotionally intact. "She has a survival instinct," O'Connor says. "She knows how to deal with problems. She's very honest about herself. She's headstrong, direct and motivated. I really do adore her," she adds of the willful woman her son left behind. "I wish everyone could be like Courtney."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
TOM CUNNEFF, CRAIG TOMASHOFF and JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • John Hannah.