It was February 28, 2006, an overcast morning, and they were walking down Capitol Street, the three of them, in their way, a family. Her hair was blown straight and silky, and she wore a conservative black dress with a scoop neckline. She was flanked on one side by Daniel, her 20-year-old son and the person she regarded as her one soul mate, and on the other by Howard K. Stern, her lawyer and confidant. Reporters were standing on the steps of the Supreme Court. Down the street they spotted her.
“Anna! Anna!” they called, cameras popping like a fireworks finale, as she flashed her hands in protest. “Respect for the Court, please, respect for the Court,” she repeated, her speech slightly slurred. A fan pressed up, softly: “Anna? Can you sign for me, please, Anna?” She responded, “I … I … please.” Howard took her arm. Daniel fell out of view. And then the photographer in front of them stumbled, falling flat onto his back. As they walked up the steps, down went another. And another.
More than a decade had passed since the death of her 90-year-old husband, which set into motion an extraordinary legal battle. After thousands of hours of testimony and millions of pages of briefs and depositions, the question before the court that morning boiled down to a somewhat esoteric point of law: whether the federal courts have the authority to intercede on occasion in probate matters, which are typically the province of the states. Arguing that they did, and that she should therefore be entitled to half her late husband’s estimated $1.6 billion fortune, was Anna Nicole Smith, sitting quietly on the south side of the court beneath a frieze of Solomon. Arguing that they did not was her 67-year-old stepson, Everett Pierce Marshall, on the opposite side of the gallery. She was almost illiterate and could not understand much of the conversation between the attorneys and the justices, who nevertheless seemed sympathetic to her argument. “It’s quite a story,” Justice Breyer noted. “She’s saying, ‘I just want some money from this guy,’ ” Justice Souter said. “That’s all she’s saying. ‘I’ll assume the will is valid; just give me some money.’ ” Pierce’s spokesman was telling reporters, “Anna Nicole Smith is not the brightest lightbulb in the fixture.” She sat there crying, overwhelmed, her lawyers would later explain, by memories reignited by the mention of her late husband’s name.
They left out a side door, and the hysteria recommenced. She took off her sunglasses. An Associated Press photographer snapped a long-lens photo. Looking at the tiny screen on the back of his camera, he saw that he had captured one of the most beautiful images ever taken of her. It is unstaged and unretouched; she is clear-eyed and radiant. It was, in a sense, a triumphant moment—her beauty recaptured after a multiyear, televised descent into sloth; her case earning the legitimacy of the highest court in the land. But the vortex of her private life was swirling as furiously as ever: the financial problems; the prescription drugs; her long-standing psychological turmoil; her son’s unknown demons; even the baby she was carrying, and the paternity battle it would trigger.
A few months later, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor—affirming the authority of the federal courts, which had looked kindly on her claims to his estate despite the fact that she had not been mentioned in his will. The justices sent the case back to the appellate court to review the remaining issues. The appellate court ruled once more that those issues were the jurisdiction of the State court. Years passed. The Supreme Court agreed to consider the case again. Last winter, lawyers for both sides showed up to offer their oral arguments. This time, though, there were no television crews or photographers jockeying for position. There were no shouting fans.
Sometime this month, and as soon as this week, the court will issue its final decision in the case. It will be, at long last, the definitive adjudication of one of the most voluminous and colorful cases in the history of American jurisprudence. But for those whose lives constituted the case’s facts, the decision will mean less than nothing. For within one year of that morning in 2006, all of them would be gone.
Hers is a story that wove itself into American popular culture, chronicled on television and in the tabloids (and even, recently, on a London stage as an acclaimed new opera). And yet until now, much of Anna Nicole’s life has remained hidden, or willfully distorted by those who knew her, so that by the time she died she was less well known than when she first attracted the world’s attention almost twenty years ago.