Another Heartbreak

01/24/2002 at 01:00 PM EST

Whatever the project, Carrie Louise Hamilton did it her way. As she lay dying from cancer-related pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Jan. 20, the music of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, two of her favorite artists, filled the room. Directing her own death as if it were one of her short films, she instructed that her ashes be divided between rural Colorado, where she had once bemused fellow townsfolk with her pink boas and pink-tinted hair, and Arkansas, the destination of a recent solo trek in search of family roots. In the end, Hamilton, a prototype child of Hollywood who had taken a wrong turn before finding the right direction, was surrounded by those who meant most to her: her two sisters, five of her six living half siblings and, of course, the woman whom she had both loved and battled most ferociously -- her mother, Carol Burnett.

Later that Sunday, as family and friends gathered at the home of Hamilton's sister Jody to share stories, photographs and tears, there was a bittersweet edge to their grief: Here was a woman who, as a teenager, had famously sunk into a pit of drug addiction that nearly shredded her family, then successfully rebuilt her life and relationships -- only to die at 38. "Carrie certainly straightened herself out," says Burnett's pal and comedic sidekick Tim Conway, 68, who attended the impromptu wake. "More important, she also brought about a reunion with Carol." Burnett, 68, greeted Carrie's friends but stayed only 20 minutes before driving to her Santa Barbara home to mourn in private with her husband of two months, musician Brian Miller, 45. "Carol is a very strong lady," says Conway. "She has had a life in which it was necessary to be strong, and she has developed a pretty strong outlook."

Hamilton's three-year adolescent descent into drugs and alcohol tested that strength. The episode rent Burnett's heart, contributed to the demise of her marriage and literally reduced the comedian to a stuttering mess. After Hamilton's recovery, Burnett chose to take their story public as a cautionary tale of Hollywood privilege gone horribly awry. "I was always Carol Burnett's daughter," Hamilton, at 15, explained to PEOPLE in 1979. "When I got high, I wasn't anymore. I wanted my own image." In the decades that followed, mother and daughter grew close, ever more so in recent years as they collaborated on Hollywood Arms, a play about Burnett's early life. "This was Carrie's idea," says John Hamilton, one of eight children that Joe Hamilton brought from his broken first marriage when he wed Burnett in 1963. "She started it, and they wrote it together." Their work on the play, which is scheduled to open in April at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, continued even after doctors diagnosed Hamilton, who had smoked since her early teens, with lung cancer in August. Three months later doctors found cancer had spread to her brain. "Carol had always been very supportive of Carrie, but now they were sharing their talents," says a family friend. "The process brought a reawakening and rediscovery of their friendship."

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