When Linda McCartney failed to show up for her husband's knighthood ceremony at Buckingham Palace in March 1997,

it was a sign that the breast cancer she had been diagnosed with in 1995 might be worsening.

How else to account for the absence on such an occasion of the woman who personified stand-by-your-man dedication? Whether you liked or disliked her, there was no doubt that Paul McCartney would still need her — and she him — when he was 64.

And she had her share of critics. Some saw her first as the hussy who shattered teenyboppers’ dreams by marrying the “cute Beatle.” Later, she was painted as the erstwhile hippie chick/rock photographer who, after getting the ring, led her willing hubby around by it for nearly 30 years. But when Linda, 56, died April 17 of complications from the cancer that had spread to her liver, all such derision rang hollow. During her last few days, spent in the couple’s Santa Barbara, Calif., home, Paul reportedly remained in bed with her, talking her through the pain. When she finally passed, there was no doubt that along with her children (Heather, 34, from an earlier marriage, and Mary, 28, Stella, 26, and James, 20), she had left her soul mate behind.

For a rock & roll couple of the ’60s, Paul and Linda had enjoyed an exceptionally durable, nurturing marriage. They met in 1967, when the former Linda Eastman, then 26, was in London snapping pics of the Fab Four, and were wed March 12, 1969. Apart from the early grumbling by female fans — not to mention her lawyer father’s unsuccessful attempt to represent the Beatles — Linda more easily sidestepped the “she broke up the Beatles” accusations that dogged Yoko Ono after Ono snagged the other half of the Lennon-McCartney team. Indeed, with her grace and affability, Linda came to be seen as the good Beatle wife — the anti-Yoko who kept the home fires stoked, bore Paul three children, and played keyboards and sang in McCartney’s post-Beatles band Wings.

Yes, her musical skills were largely considered suspect. That was evident from the start. “When we found out Linda was going to be keyboardist,” says original Wings drummer Denny Seiwell, “I thought it was a pretty strange thing. She didn’t have any training … but it was Paul’s wishes.”

Was it good for McCartney’s art? Again, Linda was certainly no Yoko, whose arty persona spurred John Lennon to record some of his most visceral work. Linda, by contrast, brought her hubby’s sappy side to the fore, inspiring heart-on-sleeve trifles like “The Lovely Linda,” “Silly Love Songs,” and “My Love.” Says Village Voice senior editor Robert Christgau, “Lennon was McCartney’s edge (in the Beatles), Yoko became Lennon’s edge, but Linda indulged what was softest about McCartney, and that was not what he needed.”

But her impact on McCartney’s social consciousness and peace of mind was profound. She kept his love-is-all-you-need ’60s spirit alive, converting her husband in well-publicized fashion to vegetarianism and a concern for animal rights (a torch she’s passed to all her children, most notably up-and-coming antifur fashion designer Stella). Linda also brought him qualities that aren’t so media-obvious. “She showed him the virtues of simplicity, elegance, nature, home, and family,” says longtime friend Danny Fields.

With Linda gone, how will the devastated Paul cope? “She was his security blanket,” says Seiwell. Fields goes even further, calling her “a mother figure.” In a statement, McCartney said, “Her passing has left a huge hole in our lives. We will never get over it, but I think we will come to accept it.” Indeed, he’s likely to be grappling with his loss for some time to come; McCartney’s office confirms Paul will oversee an album of songs Linda wrote. “It hasn’t been mixed yet,” says Geoff Baker, a family representative. “Since the ’70s, Linda’s been quietly putting together and writing her own songs. Shortly before they left for America on this last occasion, they went into the studio and recorded quite a lot of tracks.” After his loss, McCartney may want to fill the world with not-so-silly love songs. — (Additional reporting by Beth Johnson and Russ Spencer)

Read more about Linda McCartney in People Online.