As loved ones aeek answers to the star's sudden death at 32, friends fear her longtime battle with inner demons may have turned fatal

By Kristen Mascia
January 11, 2010 12:00 PM

Last June, over long chats off-camera on the Eugene, Ore., set of the thriller Something Wicked, Brittany Murphy bonded with castmate Robert Blanche. She loved hearing about Blanche’s three daughters and confided her desire to become a mom. “She loved kids,” says Blanche, “and she talked about getting healthy enough to have a child. She was underweight, and she was struggling with that. But she realized she needed to get strong first. I really hoped she’d get there.”

And yet, just six months later, on a sunny December morning, the talented actress was gone at 32, dead of an apparent cardiac arrest. On the night before she died, Murphy had been fighting flu symptoms and nursing a case of laryngitis by watching movies in bed with her husband, Simon Monjack, 39, and their Maltese, Clara, over homemade soup and Murphy’s favorite Thai takeout. On Dec. 20 Murphy went to the bathroom; at 8 a.m., her mother, Sharon, checked on her, found she had collapsed and called 911. At 10:04 she was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Reeling, her loved ones struggled to make sense of their loss. “This is what’s killing us: How did it happen? We want to know why we lost our baby,” Monjack told PEOPLE in an emotional phone interview the day after his wife died. Murphy had mitral valve prolapse, Monjack says, a heart condition that is usually not life-threatening, but no other chronic health issues. Her mother also told doctors she had a history of diabetes. But L.A. coroner investigators reportedly recovered bottles of prescription drugs at Murphy’s Hollywood Hills home, including the painkillers hydrocodone and Vicoprofen. On Dec. 21, an autopsy was deemed inconclusive pending toxicology results that could show whether drugs were involved—which Monjack vehemently denies. “There was nothing here that could endanger her,” he says.

Then what could have killed the bubbly, outgoing 32-year-old? Several sources say Murphy had struggled with weight and self-esteem issues for years, and some fear their physical toll could have played a role in her death. “She had inner demons,” says a friend. “She always wanted to be something she wasn’t, and had insane self-image issues: her weight, her hair, her teeth, everything.” Plagued for years by rumors of an eating disorder and drug abuse—which she always denied—Murphy seemed “too thin” this past summer, according to Wicked‘s Blanche. She raised eyebrows most recently on Dec. 3, when she appeared at the Tt Collection Pop-Up Party in L.A. looking frail. Monjack calls rumors of anorexia or bulimia “crazy,” saying Murphy was trying to gain weight but having difficulty because of a high metabolism.

Longtime friends first saw a big change in Murphy after her breakout role in 1995’s Clueless. Back in 1990, when the aspiring teen actress and her mom (a former marketing exec who split with Murphy’s dad, Angelo Bertolotti, when Murphy was a toddler) moved from New Jersey to L.A., “she was drastically different—full of life, determined,” says one friend. Yet, as she landed better roles and hot boyfriends, Murphy appeared to buckle under the pressures of stardom. “She went downhill,” the friend says. Explains another: “She didn’t want to be the fat girl from Clueless. She wanted to be a beauty.” By the mid-2000s, she was also “a huge party girl,” remembers a former friend. According to a source who worked with her a few years ago, colleagues suspected her of drug use because of her erratic behavior on-set: “She never knew her lines.”

Through her ups and downs, Murphy sought comfort in her mother, a two-time breast cancer survivor who lived with her (“We’re extraordinarily close,” Murphy once told PEOPLE), and later in Monjack (see box), whom she began dating after they connected at her 28th-birthday party. After two broken engagements, to talent manager Jeff Kwatinetz and best-boy-grip Joe Macaluso, Murphy married the British screenwriter in April 2007 at their L.A. home. “Once we were married, we never spent a night apart,” says Monjack. “That will be my greatest memory.”

In recent months, Murphy had been working steadily. Monjack traveled with her, often doing her hair and makeup. But in November she hit a rough spot when she was replaced in the thriller The Caller. Murphy’s rep said she left due to creative differences; a source says Monjack had been “trying to tell the director what to do,” which he denies. Afterward, Murphy had been resting and looking forward to Christmas—her favorite holiday. Instead of celebrating, at twilight on Christmas Eve she was laid to rest in a private ceremony at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills. “She was like no other, a bright light,” Kathy Najimy, who worked with Murphy on Fox’s King of the Hill, told PEOPLE after her death. “We hope that in honor of her life … the pressures that girls and women face will fade. Her spirit still soars.”