Just three weeks before a fire gutted her Manhattan loft on Oct. 14, actress Elizabeth Ashley had emptied a California storage space of a lifetime's mementos and keepsakes to ship them to New York City for use in researching a planned memoir. "Everything in my life was in that little loft," she said after surveying the charred and sodden debris—all that remains inside the 900-sq.-ft. apartment she has rented for 22 years. "Everything was incinerated: every photograph of my child; every photograph of my mother; all the correspondence between Tennessee Williams and me; scripts that he made notes on. My life has been erased."

Like a dark irony in one of her late friend Williams's gothic tragedies, the blaze apparently began when Ashley, 60—a lifelong smoker whose fear of fire caused her habitually to douse ashtrays with bottled water—accidentally dumped a wet but still smoldering cigarette in a bedroom trash bin as she left her apartment that morning. "Because the thing I am most terrified of is fire," says Ashley, "I am horrendously careful." Not careful enough, however. "We believe that this was careless smoking," says New York City Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen, who visited the scene. A Tony Award-winning actress whose six-year marriage to the late actor George Peppard produced her only child, Christian Peppard, 31, a New York City writer, she was preparing for a lead role in the forthcoming Off-Broadway comedy If Memory Serves. Now Ashley, who will live in a sublet while her loft is being repaired, is philosophical about her loss. "They say that God purifies with fire," she says. "Maybe for the first time in my life, I'll be purified."