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.