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.
It began—all of it, really—when an old, sad man decided to give his life one last go.
J. Howard Marshall II was sitting in the backseat of his Mercedes sedan one afternoon in Houston in October 1991. He was 86 years old and in the throes of a terrible mourning. He was, his staff worried, suicidal.
Dan Manning, Marshall’s friend and personal driver, was particularly concerned.
“J. Howard,” Manning said, looking up at him in the rearview mirror, “I’ve been thinking.”
There was a pause. “Go ahead.”
“I’ve been thinking maybe it might be time for a new young lady.”
J. Howard looked at Manning in the mirror. He said, “You might be right.”
The Mercedes pulled into the parking lot at Gigi’s, a windowless stucco box ten miles from downtown. Manning helped J. Howard into his wheelchair and pushed him inside, down a small entryway and past a huge fish tank, at which point they entered the club proper, and their eyes struggled to adjust. With the exception of the colorful lasers dancing in squiggles and the multicolored spotlights on the small stage, it was exceedingly dark. Manning pushed J. Howard to a spot beside one of the purple couches, where they ordered a drink. The stage was empty. It was afternoon.
And then the spotlights kicked up. A dramatic ballad began; it was her signature dance. In the middle of the stage, she wore a short, skintight, spaghetti-strapped red dress. Over the speakers: Never seen you lookin’ so lovely as you did tonight. I’ve never seen you shine so bright …
She moved. Relatively quickly it became clear she was, at best, a mediocre dancer. Nevertheless, as she continued, as she teased, she became unexpectedly compelling, even vulnerable.
There’s nobody here; it’s just you and me; it’s where I wanna be …
And now her tiny dress was gone, and she stood there, naked but for her red G-string, her giant breasts unfurled.
Though she went by the stage name of Nickie at the time, she came into this world as Vickie Lynn Hogan, on November 28, 1967, in Houston, the second child born to then-16-year-old Virgie. Her father was her mother’s second husband, and Virgie divorced him as well after he pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of Virgie’s 10-year-old sister. She would remarry four more times and have two more children.
Virgie worked for almost three decades as a deputy with the Harris County Sheriff. She regarded herself as a strict but devoted mother, and would maintain that Vickie Lynn’s childhood had been happy and safe. Vickie Lynn would remember otherwise. “You want to hear my child life?” she would ask a television interviewer years later, trembling in anger. “You want to hear all the things she did to me? All the things she let my [stepfather] do to me, or let my brother do to me or my sister? All the beatings and the whippings and the rape? That’s my mother.”
From an exceedingly early age, Vickie Lynn demonstrated a strong if vague ambition to become someone other than who she was. At 5 years old, she declared she wanted to become a model. Not long after, her dream took on more specificity: She was in the living room, lip-synching the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She did not say she wanted to be like Marilyn Monroe. She said she wanted to be her.
Initially, at least, she did not look much the part. En route to growing five feet eleven inches tall, she was flat-chested, chunky, and had big, mousy-brown hair. She attacked her schoolmates when they made fun of her mannishness. She continued to lash out, and by the time Vickie was 15, she and her mother agreed she should move to her aunt and uncle and cousins’ sagging shack on Nigger Creek Road, in the intensely rural town of Mexia, two hours north of Houston.
Vickie dropped out of Mexia High School after failing her freshman year. She took a job at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken, where she met Billy Wayne Smith, the scrawny 16-year-old at the fryolator. They were married within a few months, and at 19, she gave birth to Daniel Wayne. Three months later, she and Daniel were in a car heading back to Houston; she claimed her husband had abused her.
She separated from her husband and took jobs at Wal-Mart and Red Lobster. On her way home one night she spotted a sign off the interstate of a woman in a bikini and high heels. She went in seeking a waitressing position; she was told there was none, but was invited to audition and was loaned a reinforced G-string. Onstage she was awful—and particularly self-conscious of her small breasts, an unrelenting source of consternation. Nevertheless, she was offered a spot on the day shift.
Quickly, word spread of the new blonde country-girl dancer; it was, ironically, her naturalness that was her initial selling point. She became more confident. She crimped her hair and bought sexy clothing. With her mother helping to watch Daniel, she embraced the life completely. She had sex with men. She had sex with women (several who would come to know her well would consider her a lesbian). She woke up one Christmas morning on the floor of an apartment naked with another dancer, the tree knocked over, vomit everywhere. And then one day a girl at work offered her a pill. It was, she said, a drug called Xanax, to help you relax. In her brain she felt something extraordinary; she would later compare the feeling to walking on stilts. She began carrying a plastic bag filled with pills—Valium, Xanax, other benzodiazepines—in her purse. One night, while dancing, she fell off the stage and crashed onto a customer.
The pills notwithstanding, she remained resourceful, taking additional shifts at other clubs, saving money, so that at last one of her life’s dreams came true, when she was lying in a recovery room, her chest wrapped tightly in gauze. Several procedures would follow to create her infamous 42DD bra size, the product finally of two implants on each side and a total of three pints of fluid.
Inside Gigi’s that afternoon, it was this surgical dysmorphism that secured J. Howard Manning’s attention. He was staring up at them from his wheelchair. He was wearing a suit and tie. He was emaciated. His tiny face was covered in liver spots. His teeth were gray.
He lifted his hands and squeezed them. The smile on his face was contagious.
She chose to go with it.
The following day, they were in a hotel eating room service. J. Howard was effusive and charming. He told her some of his life story. She was flighty and funny.
After a while she told him she was sorry but that she needed to get to work. He handed her an envelope; inside were ten hundred-dollar bills.
“Don’t go to work, my Lady Love,” he said. His small wrinkled face wrinkled further with his smile. “You don’t have to ever go back to work.”
Certainly, her motivations at the outset were largely if not wholly practical: She was a 24-year-old single mother, a high-school dropout, a stripper with dreams and enough of a grasp of the situation to recognize her good luck.
“Now, there’ll be no falling-in-love stuff, J. Howard,” Dan Manning cautioned later that day.
J. Howard smiled. “It might be too late for that.”
Manning, duly concerned, telephoned J. Howard’s son Pierce, a steely businessman who lived in Dallas and was intimately involved in his father’s financial affairs.
“Well, that won’t do,” Pierce said calmly. “We can’t let that happen.”
They had, alas, been down this road before. J. Howard had lived long enough—and wealthily enough—to enjoy a certain imperiousness. He’d survived a bout with typhoid fever as a child that left his left leg shorter than his right. At Yale Law School, he met his first wife, Eleanor Pierce, with whom he had J. Howard III and Everett Pierce; after graduation he was given a high-ranking position in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Later, President Truman asked him to serve as the American counsel for World War II reparations, and upon Japan’s surrender, J. Howard stood beside Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Moscow embassy. The family eventually settled in Houston, where Marshall earned a reputation as one of the last great American oilmen. He assumed a minority interest in his friend Fred Koch’s energy conglomerate, which would become Koch Industries, one of the largest privately held companies in the world and a leading supporter of conservative political causes.
As J. Howard’s fortune ballooned, his romantic attention shifted, and in 1961 he divorced his wife and married Bettye Bohanon, whom he’d met decades earlier in business. His relationship with Bettye was joyous but truncated: In the early eighties she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. J. Howard was devastated. And so one afternoon he stopped at what he would later describe plainly in a deposition as “a titty bar,” where a 42-year-old brunette named Jewell Dianne Walker, or, simply, “Lady,” was performing a strip routine with her 18-year-old daughter.
Intoxicated, he quickly offered her a “proposal to beg you to be my mistress”: “Light of my life,” he wrote her. “Now as always you can count on my love and devotion.” He lavished her with jewelry, Rolls-Royces to match her outfits, a sizable annual “salary.” He told Pierce that, in the event of his death, she was to be taken care of unconditionally. She spent gratuitously, wearing nails of fourteen-karat gold. They became a known couple around Houston, and referred to each other as husband and wife.
In July 1991, during a face-lift procedure, 51-year-old Lady Walker suffered complications from a congenital brain defect. J. Howard called her death “the most tragic thing that ever happened to me”; he spent $52,000 on her funeral. Within two months, Bettye died, too. He fell into a chasm of despair. His condition deteriorated. He spent most days asleep, drunk on Johnny Walker Black Label, or both. And then he met Vickie Lynn.
After being apprised of their burgeoning relationship, Pierce made the drive down from Dallas. Over dinner, he warned his father of the financial jeopardy involved. He appealed to J. Howard’s sympathy: How would he feel if his father were dating a woman young enough to be his granddaughter? J. Howard dug into his meal. He accused his son of simply being “jealous.” He said he would do whatever he pleased.
He went back to work.
Upon being wheeled behind his desk overlooking the Houston skyline, a giant oil painting of him hanging on the wall, he began his day like this:
“Call Vickie,” he’d tell Manning. “See what Vickie’s doing.”
He told them—every one of them, his accountant, his lawyers, his sons—how much he was in love with her.
“Well, great,” feigned his secretary Eyvonne. “Congratulations.”
“Do you think Vickie Lynn would marry me?” he once asked Manning.
“Sure,” Manning said wryly, “why not? I’ll marry you.”
By then, at J. Howard’s instruction, she’d stopped dancing. He bought her a lipstick-red Mercedes convertible. He took her to Harry Winston, where, during one visit, he bought her $2 million worth of jewelry. He put her on the Marshall Petroleum payroll and gave her his credit-card numbers; he said he’d teach her how to spend money.
She accompanied him to meals at the country club or his favorite restaurant, Red Lobster. Sometimes, she rubbed herself on him as he lay on his back in bed; she used her hands and mouth and sometimes other parts, too, to the extent he was capable. He told her relentlessly that he’d fallen in love with her. Over time she told him she loved him, too. She took to calling him her “Paw Paw.”
Around the same time, Vickie’s boyfriend, a bodybuilder named Clay Spires, spotted an ad in a Houston fitness magazine soliciting models for Playboy. She was reluctant to call, and when she finally showed up for a test shoot, she was terrified, unable to take her clothes off. Once she did, the photographer snapped several Polaroids, straight on and without professional makeup; he found her beautiful, but worried about her size as well as the stretch marks on her breasts. Though the magazine’s photo editors shared those concerns, they decided to fly her to Los Angeles; it was her first time on an airplane. The test shots worked. A few months later, she appeared on Playboy’s March 1992 cover, styled as a debutante in an emerald-green low-cut gown and gold silk gloves. Two months later, she was the May centerfold.
Paul Marciano, president of the Guess? Jeans company, flew to Houston to meet with her. Vickie had never heard of Guess?, and she wrote in her diary that she feared Marciano would think her fat or want to sleep with her. But despite her lack of experience, he offered her a contract to inherit Claudia Schiffer’s role as the face of the brand. First, however, Marciano insisted she change her name. She suggested Anna Smith. He suggested adding Nicole.
Her very first test shot for Guess?—a black-and-white image of her lying in hay, straw dangling from her mouth—led the campaign and became instantaneously iconic. Hugh Hefner named her 1993’s Playmate of the Year.
Six months earlier she’d been dancing topless at Gigi’s. Now she was the most famous model in the world.
J. Howard could not have been prouder. He formed her a company and rented her Marilyn Monroe’s bungalow in Los Angeles; later he bought her a house in Brentwood and secured her an apartment in New York. She settled as well into the sprawling ranch he bought her in the country outside Houston, complete with Arabian horses and livestock. He bought her another house closer to downtown; sometimes, when she could not sleep, she’d have her favorite sheep brought there from the ranch to cuddle with.
At the ranch during Christmas, J. Howard gave her a $107,000 yellow-diamond ring. Not for the first time, he asked her to marry him. Again she offered the same answer: She needed to focus on her career, in order to provide for her and her son’s future. Anna Nicole presented him with two life-size images of her naked. Outside, she climbed atop one of her ATVs, securing his arms around her. She turned the ignition and they took off, careering across the property, laughing.
Behind his back, though, she continued to see an older butch lesbian she’d been dating off and on for several years, as well as several men. Sex occupied an odd purpose in her life: She seemed often to give it for reasons that had little to do with her personal pleasure, and when she had it she typically demanded it take place in the dark. She wrote in her diary, “I hate for men to want sex all the time. I hate sex anyway.” Though much would be made of her multiple partners, Manning would later testify that J. Howard was aware and tolerant so long as she was available for him first.
She became an international phenomenon. She scandalized Scandinavia, where giant billboards of her posing provocatively for H&M led numerous drivers to run off the road. Norway’s Parliament debated their legality. In the spring of 1994, she cut short an international tour after being mobbed in Singapore. When she returned home, J. Howard proposed yet again, telling her she’d saved his life and that he wanted to take care of her and her son forever. At last, she agreed.
Their wedding took place on June 27, 1994, in the White Dove Wedding Chapel. Sitting in his wheelchair, wearing a white tuxedo, 89-year-old J. Howard watched as his 26-year-old bride walked down an aisle of white rosebuds. He’d tried to stand, but his legs buckled. When it was time to kiss the bride, Anna Nicole leaned down to kiss him. Afterward, once white doves had been released into the sky, she delivered heartbreaking news: She needed to catch a plane out of town immediately for a photo shoot. Her new husband sat crying in his wheelchair. Blowing him kisses, she rushed away with her bodyguard, who would later claim the two had sex in a hotel room that night.
News of the wedding leaked and then gushed. They were an easy punch line. David Letterman ran a Top Ten Anna Nicole Dating Tips (No. 10: “Forget the personal ads, try the intensive-care unit”). But the notoriety was paying its own dividends. Anna Nicole was cast in a series of movies, including The Hudsucker Proxy and Naked Gun 33 1/3. J. Howard flew to Los Angeles to spend time with her. They wanted to start a family, and at one point consulted a fertility specialist.
“I don’t love anyone but I’ll find someone just to get preg. Is that so bad.”
Back in Texas, Pierce was scrambling. He’d learned of the wedding and hired private detectives to trail them in Los Angeles, for fear they’d visit a lawyer to make changes to J. Howard’s will. When J. Howard returned home, Pierce presented, for his father’s signature, several legal documents whose contents he misrepresented (J. Howard could no longer read without the assistance of his one-foot-diameter magnifying glass). Unwittingly, he relinquished all control of his estate.
In December 1994, J. Howard, staving off pneumonia, flew to Los Angeles. He was still infatuated (he had been calling her dozens of times a day), but by this point Anna Nicole’s drug use was intensifying, and she was preoccupied. When he arrived, she was in bed, and he decided to join her. He told his driver, “Well, hell, just throw me in bed next to her.”
“Oh, no, Paw Paw,” she reminded him. “You know you don’t get up in bed with me. You pee the bed.”
For much of his visit, she was unavailable. For Christmas he gave her a teddy bear wearing a gargantuan emerald pendant; she gave him a nose-hair trimmer. Later, during an evening out, there was confusion about who was caring for him, and he was left outside in heavy rain.
When J. Howard returned to Texas, his condition worsened. In January, Anna Nicole visited him at his house. She stayed up with him through the night, spooning chicken broth into his mouth, despite an order that he be fed only through a tube. When he began choking, she became hysterical. He lost consciousness and had to be revived en route to the hospital.
Pierce reacted swiftly and coolly: He assumed temporary guardianship of his father and cut her off completely, forwarding her bills directly to her. For a few years now, she had been spending—and, at the end, demanding—upwards of six figures per month. She was caught off guard. She became desperate.
When J. Howard was released from the hospital, she visited again. She took off her shirt and bra and climbed atop him, shoving her breasts in his face: “Do you miss your rosebuds?” she pleaded, a tape recorder in her hand, urging him to repeat out loud his promise to take care of her and her son. He was unable to speak. Finally, Pierce hired several armed guards, significantly limiting her access to her husband. Some on his staff claim he expressed regret for having married her.
And on August 4, 1995, John Howard Marshall II, sick with stomach cancer and unable to swallow, died. Anna Nicole was in New York when she got the call. She reacted with convulsions and was hospitalized.
A court-appointed intermediary brokered two funerals; Anna Nicole opposed Pierce’s plan to “burn his dad” (in keeping with J. Howard’s long-standing wish to be cremated), so hers took place first. Amid harp music, J. Howard’s body lay in a casket covered with white roses and lilies and a banner reading, “From Your Lady Love.” She wore her wedding dress and veil; Daniel, 9, also wore the white tuxedo from their wedding. The two of them rose at one point to offer the Bette Midler song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” in honor of all J. Howard had done for them.
Anna Nicole Smith was suddenly in terrible straits, distraught by the loss of her husband and in deep financial peril. J. Howard’s will had left her nothing. And so she dove blindly into the vastness of the American judicial system.
She contested the will in probate court in Harris County, claiming tortious interference by Pierce; Pierce’s brother, J. Howard III, joined her case, asserting that his father had promised him an inheritance as well. The case, Marshall v. Marshall, would prove so complicated that the trial would not start for four years.
At the same time, she’d been sued by Maria Cerrato, Daniel’s nanny, who, after being fired by Anna Nicole, claimed she’d plied her with drugs and alcohol to have sex with her, threatening to fire and deport her if she did not oblige. She sought $2 million in damages. Anna countered that it was Maria who took advantage of her sexually.
It was a most inopportune time for a lawsuit. Several lumps in her breasts had prompted surgery, which led to infection and emergency surgery (the lumps turned out to be benign). Simultaneously, she suffered gastrointestinal distress, requiring, her doctor would note, “approximately three times the normal levels of Demerol to control her pain.” She repeatedly missed her depositions. Furious, the judge ruled on Maria’s behalf, ordering Anna Nicole to pay her more than $800,000. It was money she did not have.
And so Anna Nicole Smith one day rode an elevator to the ninth floor of the Roybal Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles to declare personal bankruptcy, claiming $9 million in debts. It was at this moment that E. Pierce Marshall, drenched in bitterness, made what was undoubtedly the most shortsighted decision of his life. He filed a claim against her bankruptcy, arguing that she owed him damages for allegedly slanderous comments she’d made about him. The court was now obligated to determine the truth, and so launched an investigation into their entire history. Another discovery process commenced.
Anna Nicole moved into a small apartment in the Valley with Daniel and a B-filmmaker named Ray Martino, whom she’d met while shooting his movie To the Limit. Ray, twenty years older, earnest, hairy, and odd-looking, found her scared, funny, and childlike—her continued use of pacifiers was endearing to him. She spoke often of Paw Paw, how much she loved and missed him, how grateful she was. She was terrified of Pierce, certain he’d paid off most of her friends and family to secure her never-ending stream of dirty laundry (there is evidence to suggest that in some cases she was right), and paranoid that he might kill her. Her binge eating accelerated. She took huge quantities of pills.
One morning, when Ray was preparing to take Daniel to school, she told him, lying in bed and staring into the mirror, “I don’t wanna be here, Ray. I don’t wanna be alive no more.” He did his best to reassure her, but when he returned home a little while later, she was unresponsive. She was connected to a breathing machine in the ICU, where it was not clear whether she would survive her overdose; there was talk of permanent brain damage.
Anna Nicole recovered, and Ray persuaded her to check into the Betty Ford Center. He called her mother, Virgie, and she visited for several days, promising she’d return for Thanksgiving. But on Thanksgiving Day, as Ray, Anna Nicole, and Daniel were on the lawn eating turkey and mashed potatoes off paper plates, Virgie called to say she could not get off work. “My mother will never come to my side until I die,” Anna Nicole told Ray. “You’ll see, my whole family will come out of the woodwork then.” She refused to see her mother ever again.
Anna Nicole temporarily embraced her sobriety. She began jogging at a track near their house, plotting her comeback. But within three months of checking out of Betty Ford, on the night of the 1996 Academy Awards, she telephoned Ray from a hotel room, drugged. One evening, not long after, Ray heard screaming from the bedroom; her nipple had torn open after one of her implants ruptured; she required yet another reconstructive surgery, and was back on painkillers.
Throughout her relapse, Ray remained a stabilizing force, especially for Daniel. Money remained an issue, however, and after being dropped by William Morris, Anna Nicole signed with a small legal firm on Rodeo Drive, hoping the lawyers would help relaunch her career. One of the partners, 29-year-old Howard K. Stern, a graduate of Berkeley and UCLA Law School, seemed starstruck, and they forged an unusual attorney-client relationship. He was nebbishy and had a tendency to talk in legalese to impress others; Anna Nicole found him silly and nonthreatening. The friendship they developed, and its decided asexuality, was novel for her. He immersed himself in her ongoing court cases. In time she became his only client.
On March 10, 2000, at 10:12 p.m., Anna Nicole Smith sat down to write a letter to her mother. “I’m not happy,” she wrote, “never have been really. Very lonely mom. I no how you’ve felt with men!!” She told her she was alone but for Daniel, her “pried and joy.” She said she’d recently had a stress-induced miscarriage that “nearly killed me.” She planned on trying again. “I don’t love anyone but I’ll find someone just to get preg and not let him no. Is that so bad. I don’t think so. Men are pigs.”
She wrote that she wanted to do so “before Daniel leaves me.”
E. Pierce Marshall did not hide his contempt for the proceedings of the United States Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles; he instructed his lawyers to obfuscate wherever possible. When the trial finally started, in 2000, Anna Nicole Smith was called to the stand. Of her late husband she told the judge: “I don’t care what anybody says, I loved that man.” Her case was buoyed by the testimony of Pierce’s brother, who told the judge his father had repeatedly told him in telephone conversations how genuinely he loved her and that he intended to provide for her after his death.
On October 6, 2000, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Samuel Bufford ruled that Anna Nicole Smith was entitled to $449.7 million from her late husband. He also ruled that her stepson should pay her an additional $25 million in punitive damages. He excoriated Pierce Marshall, finding that he conspired with his father’s lawyer and accountant to thwart J. Howard’s wishes. He called his behavior toward Anna Nicole “intentional and reprehensible.”
But Pierce took comfort in a courtroom roughly 1,500 miles away, as the State probate trial at last got under way in downtown Houston. His lawyer, Rusty Hardin, interrogated Anna Nicole on the stand about her sex life with J. Howard. “It wasn’t a sexual, baby-oh-baby-I-love-your-body type of love,” she explained. “It was a deep thank-you for taking me out of this hole.” She was sometimes confused by words he used, such as “insatiable” and “voracious”; “I know I’m a high-school dropout,” she said. She wore a tight pink T-shirt bedazzled with the word SPOILED. At one point, when she began crying, Hardin asked her: “Miss Marshall, have you been taking acting lessons?” From the stand she responded, “Screw you, Rusty.”
After five months of trial, the jury ruled unanimously in Pierce’s favor, upholding the will and rejecting Anna Nicole’s (and also J. Howard III’s) claims. Since the U.S. bankruptcy judge’s ruling asserted to preempt the Texas probate judge’s, Pierce appealed to the U.S. District Court in Southern California, arguing that the bankruptcy court had lacked jurisdiction. The District Court, however, concurred with the bankruptcy court, though it reduced her award to $88 million, a figure in line with specific statements J. Howard had made about leaving her half the sum he’d earned during the time they’d known each other. Pierce appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
In 2002, at the height of the popularity of Ozzy Osbourne’s MTV reality show, the E! cable channel pitched Anna Nicole one of her own. It was sold to her as an unscripted sitcom, or at least this is how she perceived it; they would be given everyday scenarios and then filmed acting them out. She solicited many people’s opinions. Virtually all of them told her to decline the offer. Daniel, now 16, was vehemently against it.
By then Howard and Anna Nicole had taken to calling each other best friends. She scoffed at the suggestion they could be anything more—“gross” was her standard reply—but they were essentially living together (she and Ray Martino had broken up). Howard reveled in his role as her personal lawyer-manager-caretaker-gatekeeper. He’d also become completely dependent on her financially. He thought the reality show a good idea, and agreed to participate.
The debut of The Anna Nicole Smith Show was, at the time, the most watched show in E!’s history. She slurred her words, crawled on the floor, farted, burped, dry-humped. The channel offered up the tagline “It’s not supposed to be funny; it just is”; one critic called its exploitation “obscene.” An early episode featured an “eating competition” in which she ate a pizza and an order of manicotti. When she returned from a bathroom break, Howard accused her of vomiting. “If you can’t trust me, what the fuck are you doing in my life?” she yelled. Outside the restaurant, she would not let it go: “As a matter of fact, I went in there and took a shit! How ’bout that?”
It was excruciating for Daniel. At North Hollywood High School, shortly before he asked to be home-schooled, a classmate approached him. “Dude!” he said. “Your mom is so fucked up! What is she on?”
At least as degrading for Anna Nicole was an appearance on Howard Stern’s (no relation) radio show. Stern was incredulous about her weight gain; he called her a “big fat porker.” As soon as she walked into the studio, he urged her to step on a scale. He guessed her weight at 300 pounds. She left the interview in tears.
In 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the lower federal courts, agreeing with Pierce that they had overstepped their bounds. Anna Nicole’s lawyers petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. That fall, she traveled to Vermont to shoot a B-movie called Illegal Aliens, about three aliens, a holographic mentor, transvestites, and an intergalactic villain played by the female WWE performer Chyna. Anna Nicole was in a hotel room having her makeup done, Daniel lying on the bed, when Howard burst in. “The Supreme Court said yes!” he shouted. The court had agreed to consider their case. They were going to Washington. He was ebullient.
Any enthusiasm on her part was tempered. It had been a decade since the death of J. Howard, and the years of legal wrangling had taken their toll. She had, in fact, contemplated giving up the case several times. Each time, those around her convinced her she’d gone too far to stop now.
Much had changed since her reality-show days three years earlier. She had lost 69 pounds—the result, she would claim, of a diet pill called TrimSpa, for which she’d become the heavily publicized spokesperson (she did not advertise her additional aids, such as the human growth hormone, B12, and immunoglobulin she injected with regularity in her buttocks). She also had a new boyfriend, Larry Birkhead, a young photographer from Kentucky with frosted blond hair. She told him she thought they’d “make a beautiful baby together.”
Within months of their meeting, Larry moved into Anna Nicole’s airy three-story Studio City house. Howard was also there, preparing for the Supreme Court case; often he slept on the couch in the open living room below their bedroom. The atmosphere was awkward, particularly for Daniel. He’d enrolled in Valley Community College for business, but was missing classes and doing poorly. For the first time in their lives, mother and son began fighting.
Anna became pregnant, miscarried, and became pregnant again. Her drug use persisted, and she and Larry fought over it frequently. Larry, like Daniel before him, had taken to dumping her pills down the toilet when she was not looking. One day, she could not find her bottle of methadone. She violently confronted Larry about disposing of it. He suggested they review the tape from the surveillance cameras installed throughout the house. They did, and several minutes in they saw Daniel walk into her room, take the bottle, and walk out.
Four months into her pregnancy, she became paranoid for her baby’s health and abruptly ceased all her medications. She entered withdrawal and was admitted to Cedars-Sinai, where a psychiatrist suspected that she suffered from borderline-personality disorder. Her hospital room offered an odd scene: Larry and Howard, each jockeying to care for her. Howard, Larry would later say, gave her additional drugs from her bag when she asked for them. At one point, Larry recalls, Anna was preparing a baby book, and there was a spot calling for the father to record his thumbprint. She summoned them both over. In the spot for father she pressed Larry’s; nearby she pressed Howard’s and wrote “uncle.”
The day after she left the hospital, she went to her general practitioner, who re-prescribed the medications she’d just detoxed from. She and Larry continued arguing. She told him she wanted him out of her life. He left, and later talked about her in the press—making her furious.
Daniel, meanwhile, became increasingly unstable. He started drinking and talking back. (When Howard mocked him for his presumed virginity, he shot back: “I don’t know why you’re worried about me. You’ve been around my mom for twelve years and haven’t had any pussy either.”) One evening, he destroyed his bedroom in a fit of anger. When he began staying out all night, not telling his mother where he was going, she decided she had had enough. Ray Martino, with whom Daniel stayed in touch, agreed to let him stay in his apartment in the Valley.
“They’re driving me crazy,” Daniel told Ray. “I can’t fucking take it.”
On June 20, 2006, less than four months after he stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and vowed that his stepmother would not see a dime of his father’s estate, E. Pierce Marshall, 67, succumbed to what his family described as “a brief and extremely aggressive” infection.
Pierce’s wife resolved to continue his crusade in his stead.
That summer, Anna Nicole and Howard settled in a friend’s gated white house on New Providence Island in the Bahamas, a block and a half from the sea. She said she wanted to get away from the press attention; more important, she believed that by giving birth there and declaring Howard K. Stern the baby’s father, she could thwart Larry Birkhead’s paternity claims.
Daniel stayed in California. He was concerned for his mother, however, and contacted a private investigator, explaining that he believed Howard and others were isolating her and encouraging her drug use. But when the detective requested a retainer, Daniel dropped the matter. Not long after, in mid-July, he was with Ray when he abruptly began crying. “I hate this!” he shouted, becoming increasingly upset. “I hate my life!” He began punching Ray. He screamed that there were things crawling on his skin.
He was admitted for psychological evaluations that stretched over four days (by coincidence, he was placed in the same hospital room in which his mother had recuperated from her most serious overdose a decade earlier). He was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
On September 7, 2006, Ray’s cell phone rang. Anna Nicole had had her baby girl.
By the time Daniel arrived in Nassau, it was 10:25 p.m. Howard picked him up and was taken aback by how much weight he’d lost. Security cameras captured Daniel and Howard smiling as they walked back inside Doctors Hospital. When Daniel entered the room, there was his mother and his baby sister, Dannielynn Hope. Howard snapped photos of the three of them in bed together, smiling (photos that would reportedly command $650,000).
That night in the hospital, Howard made himself a bed on the floor. Daniel, who was lying on the other bed in the room, told him he wasn’t able to sleep and offered his spot to Howard; he moved to a chair beside his mother’s bed to watch TV. She woke up several times throughout the night, and Daniel helped walk her to the bathroom. At 6:20 a.m., a nurse noted Daniel helping reposition his mother in the bed.
It was just after 9:30 a.m. Howard was asleep in the other bed. The baby was asleep in her Plexiglas bassinet. Anna and Daniel were lying together in her bed. She opened her eyes and reached to touch him.
She screamed for Howard.
A team of doctors and staff responded. She was hysterical. They tried to move her from the bed. She stayed there with Daniel as they began chest compressions. An anesthesiologist inserted a tube down his throat and noted the absence of a pulse and the coolness of Daniel’s skin. There were shouts for various drugs; IVs were inserted; he was connected to monitors. For a half-hour it went on like this.
Until they told her they were sorry, there was nothing more they could do.
She shrieked. “Jesus, take me instead! Please don’t make me trade one baby for the other!”
At one point she told Howard to take a picture of her baby boy.
It is a horrible photograph. They are in bed, and she is clutching his body against hers, his head listing, his lips slightly parted around the thin plastic tube, his empty sea-glass green eyes visible behind slits.
Two and a half weeks later, in a catamaran off Paradise Island, Anna Nicole Smith and Howard K. Stern united themselves in a commitment ceremony (for photos of this and videos of her C-section, she received at least $1.2 million). They told Larry King they’d been secretly in love for years. They said they were trying to do what makes them happy. They were unwavering in their insistence that Howard K. Stern was the father of the child.
Daniel’s death was ruled an accident, the result of the combined toxicity of three specific medications: Lexapro, the antidepressant Zoloft, and methadone. He’d been prescribed only the Lexapro; his mother had had prescriptions for methadone; there was no obvious explanation for the Zoloft.
At Daniel’s funeral, Anna Nicole repeatedly demanded they reopen his casket and tried to pull her son’s body out. She lashed out at Howard and the other attendees.
A needle was produced, and she was injected with a sedative.
It was hot in the Bahamian sun. In the house, Howard was on the phone, negotiating. Anna Nicole was in the bedroom, the TV on. Two Haitian nannies cared for the baby and spoke behind their backs relentlessly, in Creole. Days passed as she lay there. She woke from time to time in fits and screams, sitting up in bed: “Where is Daniel?”
She ate little. She held the baby. She took her pills. Howard helped her to take them. She slept with a poster-size photo of Daniel.
In February, they flew to Hollywood, Florida, to pick up a boat they’d purchased. They checked into the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Anna Nicole was suffering from a massive infection—the product of abscesses within the tissue of her buttocks from her vitamin and growth-hormone injections. Though she was badly sick, she’d wanted to make the trip. They were joined by a few friends as well as her next-door neighbor from Studio City, an endlessly sympathetic psychiatrist she called Dr. Khris, who prescribed most of her medications.
With a fever of 105 degrees, she struggled to sleep. She took Klonopin, Ativan, Valium, and Restoril, all at therapeutic doses. She was given ice baths and antibiotics. She sucked the liquid sleeping medication chloral hydrate from a baby bottle. On the morning of Thursday, February 8, 2007, almost exactly five months after Daniel died, Howard left her in the care of her bodyguard’s wife and another woman while he inspected the boat. Sometime after 1 p.m., he received a phone call that she was not breathing.
What happened in the end was in keeping with everything that preceded it.
Even the disposition of her body required the intervention of the judicial system. Following a six-day courtroom circus in Broward County—featuring a sometimes-sobbing family-court judge aiming to parlay his fifteen minutes—Howard K. Stern’s request was granted (over the wishes of Virgie, who’d wanted her buried in Texas), and Anna Nicole’s body was finally laid to rest in the Bahamas with Daniel.
No fewer than five men asserted possible paternity of her baby girl, including Prince Frederic von Anhalt, the husband of 90-year-old Zsa Zsa Gabor, who claimed a decadelong affair with her. Once again the courts were asked to intercede, and a DNA test determined what was known all along, that the girl was Larry Birkhead’s. Larry took Dannielynn, and is now raising her in Kentucky and Los Angeles, trotting her out for milestones like birthdays for all the world to see.
And then another court of a different sort became involved. In March 2009, then–attorney general of California Jerry Brown held a press conference condemning Anna Nicole’s very public abuse of prescriptions and charging her “enablers” and “conspirators”—Howard, internist Sandeep Kapoor, and Dr. Khris—with various crimes related to helping her obtain her medications. To many it seemed like an open-and-shut case. Not so to the judge, who chastised the government as overzealous and found it a matter of fact that Anna Nicole was a chronic-pain sufferer who did not meet the legal definition of a drug addict in California. Last September, the jury dismissed the most serious charges against them. But his partial acquittal notwithstanding, Howard’s life had been shattered. Jobless at 41, he moved back in with his parents, who in recent years had freely loaned him and Anna Nicole their savings.
Which leaves one last court, the highest in the land. Should the Supreme Court uphold the lower courts’ rulings, Dannielynn stands to inherit a minimum of $88 million.
The medical examiner’s office in Broward County determined that Anna Nicole Smith died not from a fatal dose of any single drug but, like her son, from their combined toxicity, along with the infection caused by her injections. As her body was being examined, detectives combed through her hotel suite, cataloging the many bottles of pills and the various pseudonyms to whom they’d been prescribed. The sheets on her bed were stained brown. There was vomit in the sink. The baby bottle filled with liquid sleeping medication sat on the bedside table. Her purse was on a chair. An officer went to it and began leafing through sundry items: makeup, papers, more pills. There was also a loose four-by-six-inch photograph, which she’d carried all this time. It was of Anna Nicole, Daniel, and J. Howard. In it they are smiling.
1986 With her first husband, Billy Wayne Smith, and their son, Daniel. Photo: Newscom
1994 Marrying J. Howard Marshall II in Houston. Photo: Newscom
2001 Testifying in Texas probate court against E. Pierce Marshall. Photo: Carlos Antonio Rios/WireImage
2002 Filming The Anna Nicole Show, on E! Photo: Everett Collection
2005 Partying with, from left, Howard K. Stern, Larry Birkhead, Daniel, and her doctor Sandeep Kapoor, at a gay club in Los Angeles. Photo: Andrew Shawaf/Pacific Coast News/Newscom
2006 Leaving the Supreme Court. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo
2006 With Daniel and her daughter, Dannielynn, in the hospital in the Bahamas. Photo: Getty Images
Dannielynn Birkhead at the Kentucky Derby last year. Photo: Jeff Gentner/Getty Images