Tragic tale of Anna Ncole, a trailer-trash princess
She was a stripper-turned-model who married a Texan oil billionaire 63 years her senior. In her lifetime, Anna Nicole Smith was dismissed as a gold digger, a drug addict and a mess. But since her premature death, her life story has become high art
In high summer 1994, a couple arrived at the White Dove Wedding chapel in Texas to exchange their vows. The bride wore a confection of tulle, a blonde bouffant and a creosote tan.
The groom, dapper in a crisp white tux, arrived at the altar in his wheelchair. When he tried to stand, his legs gave way beneath him. As the bride bent over to allow her 89-year-old new husband to kiss her, he seemed momentarily in danger of suffocating in her cleavage. Once the ceremony was finished, she disappeared to the airport to fly off to a modelling job in Europe. "Bye darling, I'm off to Greece," she said, blowing him a kiss, as he sat weeping in his chair.
It was the marriage of a Guess model and a tycoon 63 years her senior, and it fascinated the world - a tired old cliche revived and played out in glorious technicolour across the tabloids.
Anna Nicole Smith was a true contemporary Pygmalion. She was a flat-chested, mousy-haired teen-mother from deeply rural Mexia, Texas, transformed through ambition and silicone into a cartoon Vegas showgirl and global celebrity. In life, she was ridiculed, but premature death made her an icon.
Her extraordinary life story was, after her beauty and the breasts, her own most marketable commodity. When she was alive, it was the basis of her reality TV show. Since she died, it's been the subject of a book, a made-for-TV movie and a hit opera - the latter a fitting, if surprising treatment for a southern diva with a talent for drama.
Next month, Anna Nicole, an opera in two acts, returns for a revival at the Royal Opera House in London, where it first premièred in 2011.
Richard Thomas, who wrote the libretto, believes that Smith is a perfect subject for opera. "Imagine if her name wasn't Anna Nicole Smith but the Duchess of Bordeaux," he told a journalist recently. "She'd married the old duke and was chasing the family's money, and she battled with the duke's son… It's Ibsen or 19th-century opera. She couldn't sing or act, but her talent was to get profoundly noticed. She had her life to sell. And she was a great dissembler. It's an incredible story."
Born Vickie Lynn Hogan in rural Texas, Smith was raised by a single mother, Virgie Mae Hogan, who had been 16 when she herself gave birth. Her early life was poor, cruel and hard. Her parents broke up after her father was charged with the statutory rape of Virgie's 10-year-old sister. But Anna Nicole's own relationship with her mother brimmed with bitterness and recrimination all her life.
"You want to hear my child life?" she once said to an interviewer when asked about her mother. "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."
Perhaps because of the trouble at home, she didn't settle well in school. She got into fights with her classmates and eventually left, finding her way to a job as a waitress at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken. It was while she was there that she met her first husband, Billy Wayne Smith, a fry chef. At age 18, she got married, and gave birth to her son Daniel not long after.
But Smith had always had dreams of better things. And, she claimed, Billy was abusive towards her. So she took Daniel and struck out for Houston. She got a job as a topless dancer in a Houston strip club, where she was promptly told "she needed tits in proportion to her body" if she wanted to succeed.
Smith was nothing if not pragmatic about her image. She said of her breasts; "everything I have is because of them," but the implants were a constant source of problems and discomfort. The photographer Eric Redding, who shot Smith for Playboy, pinpoints the surgery as the source of the addiction problems that eventually killed her. "She had already had two operations, and one of her breasts had become infected," he remembered. "She kept having to have the implant replaced. . . She used to spend the night with us four or five times a week, and she'd call the doctor at midnight complaining about the pains in her chest. She had a little black bag, like a medicine bag, and once when we looked in it there were about 20 different medications. There was no way to keep her straight."
In 1991, when Smith was 24, an elderly man in a wheelchair came into the club where she was working during her shift and, mesmerised by her cleavage, reached out and groped her. That man was J Howard Marshall II, and it was the start of either a beautiful friendship or a cynical marriage of convenience, depending on your view.
One thing that was sure was that they both needed each other. For Anna Nicole Smith, Howard Marshall II offered the chance to be taken care of. But when they first met, it was arguably Howard who was the more lost. He was far from an old fool - he'd been to Yale and had held a senior post in the US department of the interior early in his career, before joining the elite club of the Texas oil billionaires. But he had a weak spot for women. He'd been married twice, and was devastated when his second wife was struck down with Alzheimers. Before meeting Anna Nicole Smith, he'd sought solace in the arms of another stripper, who went by the name Lady. "I was blinded by love," Marshall said of their romance. Lady was in her 40s when they met, and caught his eye while performing a topless dance with her 18-year-old daughter.
He proved his devotion by showering her with money. Lady wore nails of 14-carat-gold and matched her Rolls Royces to her outfits. When she died, after complications related to a facelift operation, Marshall declared it, "the most tragic thing that ever happened to me."
Within months his wife had died too, and he slipped into a depression. He was lonely, drinking too much and sleeping in the daytime. Looking for a boost, he headed out to a "titty bar" in the middle of the day, where he stumbled upon Anna Nicole Smith, a sexual landmine in red latex. Instantly, Marshall was smitten.
They started spending time together, though it was a friendship at first, and she repeatedly turned down his requests to marry him. But she stopped dancing when he asked her to, and he spent a million dollars on jewellery for her, promised her a ranch in Texas and an apartment in Manhattan.
It seems unlikely that the relationship was ever consummated. According to the photographer Eric Redding, "She thought of him as a father or a grandfather figure. They did fun things. They used to go to amusement parks; they went fishing. She said they never were romantic, though he wanted to be. I asked: 'Did you at least give him a blow job?' She said, 'There's no way he could even get it up. We've never had sex. But he does like me to bounce my bare breasts on his bald head.'"
While Marshall continued to pursue her hand in marriage, things were starting to look up for Anna Nicole. She'd been selected to appear in Playboy. When she debuted as a centre-fold in the magazine, the shoot was picked up by the fashion brand Guess, who hired her to take over from Claudia Schiffer as the face of the brand.
"We haven't seen that kind of charisma since Marilyn Monroe," said the photographer who took the now iconic black and white shots, in which Anna Nicole Smith reclines in a barn, a piece of straw between her teeth.
It was only when she was acknowledged as a top model and a world famous beauty that she accepted J Howard Marshall II's proposal.
"I don't care what people think" she said. "We're in love, and that's it. . . It just so happens that I get turned on by liver spots."
The couple might have been happy, but J Howard Marshall II's son Pierce, rather predictably, was not. Dismayed by his father's behaviour he determined, from the first, to ensure that the family fortunes wouldn't fall into Anna Nicole's hands. Before J Howard Marshall II died, he granted his son power of attorney over his estate. Pierce immediately set about cutting Smith off from his father, financially and physically, going as far as to hire armed guards to enforced restrictions on her access to her husband.
When Marshall finally passed away from stomach cancer in 1995, after 14 months of marriage, Smith was dismayed to discover that there was no provision made for her in his will, despite his repeated promises that she would be taken care of.
At war with Marshall's family, Anna was not invited to the official funeral service for her husband. In retaliation, she organised her own, bizarre service, at which a handful of her friends were present, as well as People magazine and several camera crews. She wore her wedding dress, and performed a rendition of "Wind Beneath my Wings," during which she openly wept.
The battle over her inheritance was launched immediately, and still drags on to this day, having travelled from probate court all the way up to the Supreme Court. Drowning in litigation, subsumed by a situation which she knew to be unfair but struggled to grasp, Smith retreated further and further into her addiction to prescription drugs.
"I had people suing me from here and there, I just felt so overwhelmed," she later explained of how she ended up hospitalised and in a coma following an overdose in 2004. It wasn't the first time her drug habit had landed her in hospital - her first overdose was in 1994. Despite a stint in the Betty Ford clinic, she never seemed to manage to get clean for any sustained length of time.
For the best part of a decade, Smith became regarded as a kind of professional hot mess. And she rose to the role with enthusiasm, slurring her words as she presented at the American Music awards, giving interview after interview discussing her financial problems and struggles with addiction, during which her diction was never quite clear and crisp.
Her own eponymous reality TV show was a kind of bawdy tragi-comedy, in which her unhinged persona was played up for laughs, as she tottered around unsteadily in kitten heels, all cleavage and hair, feeding Prozac to her poodle. No attempt was made to conceal her vulnerability, her naivety. And she herself seemed to relish the exposure. "I love the paparazzi,' she once said. 'I've always liked attention. I didn't get very much growing up, and I've always wanted to be, you know, noticed."
During this period, her weight fluctuated wildly. Eventually, she became the spokesperson for a diet pill, Trimspa, and shed kilos by adding yet another drug to her daily routine.
One of the key characters in the show - at the centre of her bizarre and dysfunctional entourage was her lawyer, Howard K Stern. In 2006 she gave birth to a baby daughter in the Bahamas and named Stern as the father on the birth certificate.
But just a few days later, the unthinkable happened. Her son Daniel, then aged 20 collapsed at her bedside and died, after taking a lethal combination of prescription methadone and antidepressants. He had been struggling, more quietly, with his own problems. Despite her devotion to her son, Anna had always declared, that like her idol Marilyn Monroe, she would die young. 'Well, that's fine for her," said David Granoff, her former publicist and a family friend who had known Daniel since childhood. "But for a kid having to worry about her all through the years - seeing her experience poverty, riches, poverty again, being in the limelight - I think depression hit him like a ton of bricks."
For Anna Nicole Smith, who had survived so much, this was the final straw. Five months later, having declared bankruptcy, she was discovered collapsed in her suite at the Hard Rock Hotel, Florida having taken an accidental overdose. This time, the desperate efforts to resuscitate her failed. She was 39 years old.
It wasn't the end of the legal battles. Her five-month-old daughter, Dannielynn, was potential beneficiary to a sizeable portion of the J Howard Marshall II fortune, and two men came forward to contest Howard K Stern's paternity claim: a freelance photographer called Larry Birkhead and bizarrely, Prince Frederick Von Anhalt, 9th husband to Zsa Zsa Gabor, who claimed that he and Smith had a ten year affair. After a DNA test Birkhead was revealed as the father to the little girl, now aged seven.
According to a recent one hour special feature Larry and Dannielynn filmed for E!, they live simply and happily in rural Kentucky. But, they are still waiting for that cheque.