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 sonshow 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.