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?”