As the media gathered outside the Hollywood, Fla., hospital where her body lay, one cable network correspondent observed there were more cameras present than he had seen at Yassir Arafat's funeral. But Anna Nicole Smith, 39, possessed a different kind of claim to fame and infamy. She went from a flat-chested, smalltown girl who worked at Wal-Mart and Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken in Texas to become a mega-celebrity of the 21st century sort, all name, little resume.
Born in Houston on Nov. 28, 1967, her parents moved quickly to Mexia, a small town of some 6,000 that lies just 40 miles east of Waco in the heart of Texas. Three weeks before her second birthday, her parents were divorced. She dropped out of school by eighth grade and at 17 married Billy Wayne Smith, the 16-year-old fry cook at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken. The fried chicken drive-in is still there and Billy still lives in Mexia. He was one of the 50 mourners at a memorial service last fall for his son, Daniel, who was born 10 months after their marriage and who died almost 20 years later in the Bahamas from a drug overdose.
Anna Nicole did her mourning in the Bahamas. She had slipped away from Billy Wayne and small town Texas in 1987 and found her way back to Houston, a city with a brash and brassy side. There, in October 1991, an aging oil millionaire, grief stricken with the loss of both a wife and a mistress, was taken by his chaffeur for a little cheering up to Gigi's Cabaret. It was the kind of place where young women dance exotically for their suppers. And that is how Anna Nicole found her second husband, Howard Marshall II, one of the richest men in Texas. They married in June 1994. He was 89 and she was 26. "He wanted to make me happy," she said. "His wish was my command."
The rest is tabloid history. Marshall died 14 months later and Anna Nicole joined James Howard Marshall III, who had been disowned by his father, in a still ongoing legal war with her other stepson, E. Pierce Marshall over the $1.6 billion estate. That battle, however, ensures that not all of Anna Nicole's story will be told in tabloid form. A year ago, the aggrieved widow, dressed in black, her blonde curls tamed, appeared inside the hallowed chamber of the U.S. Supreme Court. What followed was a unanimous decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that gave new life to Anna Nicole's quest to inherit her late husband's fortune.
She aspired to rich widowhood but she was born to be her generation's model of the eternal American blond. "I want to be the new Marilyn Monroe and find my own Clark Gable," she said in her Playboy interview when she was named Playmate of the Year in 1993. Her acting credits Carrie Wisk, a daredevil helicopter pilot in the self-produced action move Skyscraper or Lucy, in another self-produced flick Illegal Aliens a tale of of space aliens rescuing Earth from evil never matched Monroe's. Her short-lived reality show, "The Anna Nicole Show" was the highest rated program on the E! network. It was quickly cancelled but not before it offered a glimpse of her battles with drugs and weight, the plagues of other Great American Blondes.
She never found her Clark Gable. But she seemed to have wanton fun in the search. Her last beau, lawyer Howard K. Stern, perhaps the father or not of her five-month-old daughter, had joined her in a legally non-binding "commitment" ceremony in the Bahamas in late September last year, two weeks after her son's death. Together, they had jumped off a catamaran after the ceremony, swimming to a nearby island where they celebrated with champagne and fried chicken. This week, she checked into the glitzy Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. She'd been there in the past. It was the sort of place you'd expect to see Anna Nicole Smith. And that was where she collapsed.
As the word spread in Texas that she had died, they began to gather in Mexia. The satellite trucks, that is, lining up in the parking lot at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken. As Anna Nicole said, "What else do you need to know?"