For more than two and a half years, she fought cancer with everything she had. But Farrah Fawcett’s final hours were peaceful ones. At her side in a Santa Monica hospital room, Fawcett’s longtime love, Ryan O’Neal, caressed her and recounted fond memories from their passionate past. “He talked to her continuously through the night,” recalls Fawcett’s doctor Lawrence Piro. “He professed his love to her, reviewed their relationship, told stories.” Conscious until nearly the end, Fawcett “lit up when she heard those things.”

On the morning of June 25, Fawcett, 62, finally succumbed. Like everything else in the TV icon’s life, her illness became a public event, with paparazzi in pursuit and Fawcett herself recording her treatment for the NBC documentary Farrah’s Story. But if anyone understood the bizarre experience of fame, it was Fawcett, who found instant superstardom with the 1976 premiere of Charlie’s Angels. With her tanned, toned, all-American looks, “she was the female Robert Redford,” her then-manager Jay Bernstein later said. Her rocky romances—especially her roller-coaster 30 years on and off with O’Neal, 68—also became a spectator sport. Even stepping out for dinner created a sensation. “We would go to Mr. Chow and a riot would break out over her in the streets,” says her close friend Joan Dangerfield. “They’d have to call the police. And she would be as nice to everyone as she could be. She had a heart as sweet as cotton candy.”

She became a sex symbol—make that the sex symbol—in the 1970s. Perhaps it was the hair. Blonde, feathered, defying gravity and gravitas, Fawcett’s mane launched a zillion blow-dryers. And that body—Fawcett didn’t even have to wear a bikini, opting instead for a red one-piece, in the image that an army of teenage boys made the bestselling poster of all time with some 12 million copies in circulation. Yet for all those God-given attributes, Fawcett made a valiant effort to overcome her good looks and be taken seriously as an actress. “Looking a certain way,” she told Movieline magazine, “is a blessing and a curse.”

No one knew that better than she. Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Ferrah (she later changed the spelling) Leni Fawcett was the town knockout—when she walked into a restaurant, conversation would screech to a halt, recalls her high school sweetheart Gary Roberts. But she was no snob: “She was friends with everybody.” Majoring in art at the University of Texas at Austin, she was only a freshman in 1965 when she was voted one of the 10 most beautiful women on campus.

At the encouragement of a publicist, she set out for L.A. in 1968. “I wasn’t really prepared for this town,” she once told the Associated Press. “It all happened so fast.” Soon she appeared on The Dating Game and landed roles on such shows as The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family. In 1973 she married actor Lee Majors, who later starred in the hit action series The Six Million Dollar Man. “She’s like a little girl,” Majors told PEOPLE in 1976. “So cute, so beautiful inside.”

And of course on the outside, as viewers would discover when she appeared alongside Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith as sultry operatives for a private investigator on Charlie’s Angels, an instant hit. Explaining the show’s appeal, Fawcett told The Washington Post, “People want to see some glamour, some clothes, some hairstyles, you know—they want to see girls.”

Determined to cash in on her popularity, Fawcett bolted after a single season, breaking her contract to launch a movie career. After a string of disappointments, she earned rave reviews for her work in the 1984 TV movie The Burning Bed, playing a woman who takes revenge on her abusive husband. “She had a lot more depth than the public realized,” says her costar Paul Le Mat.

By then her domestic life had also taken a different direction. In 1979 she split with Majors and sparked scandal by publicly taking up with his pal, actor Ryan O’Neal. “I was so overwhelmed by this physical and mental attraction for him,” Fawcett told PEOPLE. The romance also marked a turning point in her life, she said. “This is the first time I’ve made my own decisions, and it makes me feel good.”

Throughout their infamously tumultuous relationship, the couple never married but had a son, Redmond, in 1985 (joining Tatum, Griffin and Patrick, O’Neal’s children from previous marriages). “He was her No. 1 priority,” says Fawcett’s friend David Pinsky. “She only wanted for his happiness, his safety, his future.” She was determined to help her only child face his ongoing struggle with drugs, which landed Redmond in jail this spring for violating his probation on drug charges (he was allowed to visit his mother in her final weeks, and they spoke on the phone twice on the day before she died). “It was incredible watching her battle to help Redmond,” says Griffin. “She had the patience of a giant.”

After she separated from O’Neal in 1997, Fawcett experienced a public tailspin. Appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote a Playboy special—in which she painted on canvas using her naked body—Fawcett seemed disoriented and incoherent. She denied rumors that she was on drugs, explaining that she was exhausted and trying to be playful. In ’98 she made headlines again when she and her then-boyfriend, director James Orr, had a fistfight in front of his L.A. home. (Orr was eventually convicted of battery and sentenced to three years’ probation.)

Though she continued working—dabbling in reality TV with 2005’s short-lived Chasing Farrah—Fawcett had largely moved out of the public eye by the fall of 2006, when she was diagnosed with anal cancer. Though she was shocked at first, “the cancer did not change her,” says Dangerfield. “She remained kind, strong and funny even in the face of this vicious enemy.” Fawcett underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments and thought she had beat the disease by February 2007, when she celebrated her 60th birthday. But then that May came news that the cancer had returned. Determined to fight, she traveled to Germany seeking alternative treatments. Loved ones rallied around her—including O’Neal, with whom she had reunited a few years earlier as he won a battle with leukemia. “She lost her hair. She lost weight. She just hadn’t lost her hope,” says O’Neal.

In and out of the hospital over the past three months, Fawcett continued to amaze family and friends with her resilient spirit. Just days before she died, Fawcett was sitting up in bed, asking her friend Dangerfield for a steak. “I rushed to a restaurant and when I got back she ate more than I did!” Dangerfield recalls. “We sat on the bed and talked about fashion. She was happy.”

O’Neal had hopes of marrying Fawcett if she regained enough strength—a moment that never came. Now, for O’Neal, “the good moments come when he realizes that he was able to stand by her side and help her through this,” says Dr. Piro. “The bad moments come when he realizes that he doesn’t know how to face a life without her.” Says O’Neal simply: “I loved her with all my heart. I will miss her so very, very much.”

For more on Fawcett’s extraordinary journey, look for a special PEOPLE tribute book, Remembering Farrah: Her Life in Pictures, now on sale at newsstands and in bookstores.

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