Last July, as she sat quietly in the art-filled library of her sunny Malibu home, the physical ravages of the war within were all too apparent. Her blue turban was pulled low on an ashen forehead, and the sparkle was gone from her blue-gray eyes. The flesh beneath her light cotton blouse was a raw, deep red, the result of metal rods planted beneath her skin and superheated—a radical treatment known as hyperthermia.

That a virulent cancer finally took actress Jill Ireland this month at the age of 54 was not startling. But that she had resisted it with such grace and fortitude for six full years was truly inspiring. "I'm very proud of her. She was so very brave," says Ireland's white-haired mother, Dorothy, who flew from their native England to share her daughter's last month of life. "She had faith and hope right till the end." If Ireland's strength astonished family and friends, she herself seemed to remain grounded and defiant. "It's in the DNA," she would say. refusing to dwell on the grim details of her illness. "I'm a fighter like my father."

That much was obvious. In 1984 doctors found a malignant lump in her breast, as well as evidence of extensive "lymph node involvement." Ireland underwent a radical mastectomy and a brutal, six-month round of chemotherapy. For 3½ years, at least, she seemed to have beaten the disease into submission. But by the fall of 1988, doctors found not only that the cancer had returned, but that it had metastasized to the liver and bones. At about that time, she announced plans for a syndicated talk show. What she didn't tell anyone was that doctors were estimating she had three months to live. "I've settled into a feeling of gratitude," she said, embarking on a new round of chemotherapy. "I've had four good years since the surgery. Hopefully I'll have some more good years."

Instead the months were unspeakably cruel, no more so than last November, when her adopted son Jason, 27, one of the seven children she and husband actor Charles Bronson had raised, was found dead from the cumulative effects of a more than 10-year-long drug habit. (Her tribute to Jason, written months before her death, appears on pages 123 and 124.)

By then her condition was grave, the cancer having spread through her body, filling her chest with fluid. Ireland continued her grueling, radical course of treatment at the Arlington (Texas) Memorial Hospital, where metal skewers were tunneled under the skin of her chest and superheated to 160 degrees. "Jill said it was the most excruciating thing of all," says Lori Jonas, her friend and longtime publicist. "She took morphine during all of this, but it barely touched the pain."

Ireland was also hooked up to an eight-pound chemotherapy bag and received twice-daily radiation treatments. Chemotherapy drip vials were inserted into a catheter that led directly to her heart. "Charlie was there the whole time, often holding the vials for her," say Jonas. "He was so loving, so attentive."

As he had been throughout. At the start of her illness, Bronson, who fondly called Ireland his "golden girl." shelved his own film career to stay by her side. "I've been lying low," he said last summer. "It's not possible to take Jill with me [on location], and I won't be away from her."

"I never saw a couple who loved each other more." says family friend Barbara King. "You could see it in the way they looked at each other. She was his inspiration."

In what proved to be her final months, Ireland spent time at the family's Malibu house, an airy Mediterranean home filled with Persian rugs and antiques. It was there that she worked on her third book and rested from the effects of what had become a course of constant chemotherapy. Says Jonas: "She wasn't strong enough to go anywhere." But Ireland had already been recognized for her battle with the disease. In 1988 she was awarded a Medal of Courage by then President Reagan. She was also named a crusade chairman for the American Cancer Society, and as recently as last month was honored at the dedication of U.C.L.A.'s new neuropsychiatry building for her work promoting cancer education.

Throughout her ordeal, Ireland drew on the support of friends, 30 of whom gathered last month to celebrate her 54th birthday. The following day, April 25, she received her own star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, three blocks from Charlie's, an honor that she deemed, in a faint, hoarse voice, "quite a thrill."

Earlier this month, even as the last of her energy finally ebbed, "She had all her faculties—they were not diminished," says her friend, writer Vernon Scott. "She wasn't out of it by any means. I guess I'd have to say she was gallant." On the night of May 17, Bronson and her son Paul slept in her room. The next morning, as Paul describes it, "I had already told her what I needed to tell her, that I loved her. There was no pain. She just went to sleep. It was just sleep."

Not long ago, Ireland had indicated her own preference for a memorial service. There was to be not a funeral, she insisted, but an old-fashioned wake, with balloons, champagne and guests dressed in bright colors. And so it was. In a private ceremony at a Beverly Hills hotel last week, Bronson, the children and family friends gathered to carry out her wishes. It was, as she had wanted it to be, "a celebration of my life."

—Susan Schindehette, Eleanor Hoover in Los Angeles