Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten was killed Thursday by a shotgun blast police say was fired by her estranged husband, who then turned the gun on himself.

"Dorothy has been living what could best be described as a Hollywood fairy tale," read the photo captions in Playboy's Playmate of the Year layout. "She is one of the few emerging film goddesses of the new decade."

The two nude bodies were found by friends in a back bedroom of Stratten's husband's West Los Angeles apartment, which he shared with two other people. hFriends say that her husband, 29-year-old Paul Snider, was despondent over the Playboy poses, but a spokesman for the magazine denied this.

Dorothy Stratten, 20, had been discovered last year by a Playboy staffer in Vancouver, B.C., where she worked as a waitress at a Dairy Queen lunch counter, wearing a white uniform that set off her blond hair and hazel eyes. Publisher Hugh Hefner flew her to Los Angeles -- her first plane ride -- for test shots, displayed her body to the world in the August 1979 issue of his magazine, and named her Playmate of the Year this April.

It was Hollywood Babylon reenacted, a Horatio Alger adventure in the skin trade.

"Being a Playmate is almost a mythical thing," said Vicki McCarty, a fellow Playmate who is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Berkeley and a law student. McCarty explained her own posing as "just a little risque, and that's what I like about it."

Dorothy Stratten was not quite as articulate as Vicki McCarty. But if she had trouble with complex sentences, she could smile alluringly. And what minor faults her body displayed were easily perfected with an airbrush.

Her husband had encouraged her to cooperate with Hefner, according to a Playboy spokesman. And although her Canadian mother had disapproved, by September Dorothy Stratten claimed to be proud of her public disrobing, telling one dinner campanion that posing nude had been "something just a little out of the ordinary, a good way to get started in a career."

Yet even as she spoke and answered questions, she waited for Snider to whisper responses into her ear, which she then mouthed to the person interviewing her. They seemed to the dinner companion a sad but well-matched couple; he Svengali; she the pliant beauty.

She went to work briefly at the Century City Playboy Club, and eventually left her husband, hoping to begin a Hollywood career on her own. She obtained roles in several movies: "Americathon," "Galaxina," and most recently, "They All Laughed."

And then on Thursday afternoon, her estranged husband invited her back to the two-story apartment, apparently to discuss the separation. According to the police, as Stratten lay on his bed, Snider pointed the shotgun at the face that had delighted millions of men around the world, and pulled the trigger. Moments later, he leaned over the gun and again fired it -- this time into his own chest. The shotgun was found on the floor, under his body.

"The death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all," Hefner said yesterday. "She was a beautiful and talented woman."