THE WHITE WIDOW

Anna Nicole Smith's story is a cross between Little Orphan Annie and 'Hollywood Babylon', a saga of drink, drugs, cleavages, and an old- fashioned millionaire's will
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IT'S HARD to imagine anything disturbing the hushed decorum of the Geo. H Lewis & Sons funeral home in Houston, Texas. From the glacial reserve of the receptionist sitting behind an imposing mahogany desk to the thick green carpets and the formal portrait of the late Mr Lewis himself, the very tone of the establishment assures you that, in company president Robert A Jones's phrase, it caters to Houston's "most distinguished families".

But last 7 August the mortuary's 300-seat chapel was the scene of a service unlike any other. In a casket covered in white roses and lilies and adorned with a banner reading "From Your Lady Love" lay J Howard Marshall II, the reclusive, 90-year-old creator of one of Texas's largest petro-fortunes. And behind the lectern towered his 27-year-old widow, model and actress Anna Nicole Smith, clad in white dress and wedding veil, a plunging neckline revealing her world-famous, cavernous cleavage.

Before an audience of some 30 mourners - and a press contingent invited by her to observe from outside the chapel doors - Smith broke down while attempting to read from the Bible ("The swords of the just are in the hands of God"). Then she joined her nine-year-old son from a previous marriage in a rendition of Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" before fleeing the room in tears.

Looking back on the service recently, Jones, a balding man wearing gold- framed glasses and a gold signet ring, puts on his most diplomatic graveside manner. "I would hesitate to say [it was] unusual because in these days people have different ways of expressing their grief," he tells me. "There wasn't anything I perceived as undignified." Indeed, he speculates that the all-white theme may have had religious significance for the widow: "I'm not sure that wasn't what she had in mind but... you know," the thought trails off unfinished as he glances at his chest and laughs nervously. "Her decor," he at length concedes, "I'm sure there were people who would perhaps disapprove."

Decorum has not been Smith's strong suit lately. In recent months, she has livened up a smart Oscar night party at Morton's restaraunt in LA by calling Oliver Stone, her companion for the night, a "fucking asshole", throwing up in front of Dolly Parton, and lifting her skirt to the waist and flashing the assembled company - "Smith was so wasted" commented gossip columnist Liz Smith, "that Courtney Love, in comparison, was a model of rectitude"; lost a sexual harassment case brought against her by a former (female) housekeeper; been sued for pounds 650,000 over a car crash in Texas; popped her bosom out of another provocative dress while she cavorted with the actor Bruce Willis at the opening of a Planet Hollywood restaurant in San Diego; engaged in progressively more acrimonious argument with her husband's family as the aged millionaire grew sicker and sicker; and, on 6 November, been rushed to a Los Angeles-area hospital, the victim, according to friends, of a toxic mixture of alcohol and pills. She has not been seen in public since.

Yet only a couple of years ago, Smith was seen everywhere - the 1993 Playmate of the Year and the Guess? jeans model, a pin-up who had meteorically ridden a wholesome, small-town Texas image and daunting physical assets to superstardom. By bucking the trend towards waif-like models, she had offered a beacon of hope for full-figured women. Represented by a top Hollywood talent agency, she had launched a movie career. Her promotional appearances provoked mob scenes. She was touted as the second coming of Jayne Mansfield and of her idol, Marilyn Monroe.

Friends say that she has recuperated at a Tucson, Arizona, substance abuse clinic and is planning a comeback. She may have a long way to go. These days, she is an object of ridicule; as Jay Leno quipped on his network television Tonight show: "I don't think she quite understands how funerals work. When she heard that people would be stopping by to look at the body, she apparently thought they meant hers."

More materially, she also faces a nasty court fight this spring with Marshall's younger son over her late husband's estate, estimated to be worth more than $500m; E Pierce Marshall, who held a separate funeral service at Geo. Lewis for his father, has already alleged fraud and adultery during the 14-month marriage. And on 25 January, she filed for bankruptcy protection, a move that provides her with "protection from her creditors while she re-organises her finances". "The re-organisation," one of her lawyers said, "will give Ms Smith... the time and resources to fight the many lawsuits that have been filed against her."

To some, Smith's fall may seem like a classic tale out of Hollywood Babylon, of innocence and freshness corrupted by the same forces that unravelled Monroe. But the truth may be sadder still: that fame and power simply brought out the worst in someone who was seriously troubled long before she posed for a centrefold. "It is a tragic story for any human being" says a close friend. "I just can't blame Hollywood for what happened."

THE PLACE Anna Nicole calls her home town could serve as a paradigm for rural north Texas. Nestled into the brown, barren plains 160 miles north-west of Houston, Mexia is home to just under 7,000 people, many of them senior citizens. The main street is usually deserted; the town's cinema has been converted into one of its two dozen churches. The local oil industry having long passed its peak, the major employer is a state- run school for retarded children.

Such an uncharismatic place might be expected to milk its association with a star like Anna Nicole. But apart from a framed, autographed headshot at the Drillin' Rig restaurant, I can find no tribute to her during a recent visit. Some of the locals, moreover, do not exactly exude pride; scowls a waitress at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken, where Smith worked as a teenager: "She's not as pretty when you see her in person. She's got an ugly mouth." The truth is that Smith lived only intermittently in Mexia as a child, perhaps for a total of three or four years. "She definitely adopted the town more than the town adopted her," says Bob Wright, the genial editor of the Mexia Daily News.

Born Vickie Lynn Hogan in Houston, Smith was one of six children whose parents split up when she was a toddler. According to friends, she and her mother, a deputy sheriff in suburban Houston, did not get on, and she would frequently be packed off to relatives, including her aunt, Kay Beall, in Mexia. "Vickie said her mother used to beat her all the time and that's why she didn't like to stay with her," recalls Eric Redding, her former manager in Houston. It wasn't until she became a star that she reunited with her father, a wood-carver in Huntsville, Texas. As for Aunt Kay, still a Mexia resident, she isn't interested in sharing memories of Vickie Lynn. "They twisted everything I said," she tells me over the phone, referring to her last media interview. Before she hangs up, she blames the press for her niece's problems: "Like shit, that's how they've treated her," she grumbles, apologising for "cussin'... She needs love, she don't need that bullcorn."

In Mexia, Vickie was no over-achiever. She dropped out of high school to work full-time at Jim's Krispy Fried and in April 1985, at the age of 17, she married a co-worker. But after 14 months of marriage to young Billy Wayne Smith, she left with their baby son and moved back to Houston. "He [Billy] was very abusive," she told Entertainment Weekly. "I was too scared to fight back, afraid I might hurt him or he might hurt me more... [He's] been in his room ever since I left, in his parents' house."

I find Billy Wayne, now 27 and, yes, still living at his parents' home on the southern edge of Mexia. At first, he tells me he will only talk for a fee of $1,000, but I persuade him to meet me outside his plain, redbrick bungalow and to chat briefly on a dust-patch version of a front lawn. He cuts a forlorn figure, short, bowlegged, pale, wearing a grey T-shirt and red gym shorts, the antithesis of the bodybuilders his ex- wife has dated in recent years. A cigarette butt hangs limply from one hand. Soft-spoken and inarticulate, he says he is unemployed but doesn't qualify for welfare. Of Vickie Lynn's stardom, he mumbles, "It kinda caught me unexpected."

Billy hasn't seen her or his son since they left town. She didn't actually file for divorce until April 1992, a month before she debuted as a Playboy centrefold; he didn't even show up for the settlement hearing. He insists he was not an abuser: "I kicked her [once] and she fell out of bed. I didn't hit her. I guess she was just lookin' for an excuse to get out of the marriage."

Life didn't get much more glamourous for Vickie Smith when she returned to the Houston suburbs as a single mother. As she would tell interviewers, she worked at a Wal-mart store and a Red Lobster restaurant. But she also earned from $50 to $200 a day as a topless dancer at men's "cabarets". One of them, Gigi's Cabaret, adjacent to a busy freeway, features a mixture of Latino and Anglo girls, many with tattoos, and an upstairs balcony for "lap-dances". Another, Rick's Cabaret, is a more upscale establishment that boasts a business clientele, a stage with a wind machine, lifetime VIP memberships and beer at pounds 4 a bottle. There's a no-tattoo rule for the girls.

"Kind of a dingbat" is how one dancer at Rick's bluntly remembers Smith. "She just wasn't brainy," adds perm-haired Kiki. "She hustled, she worked a lot of tables," but management confined her to the day shift because she was too large for the busier night hours. And Kiki noticed that Smith had an alcohol problem, even grabbing customers' drinks rather than waiting to be served by the bartender. Indeed, between July 1989 and January 1990, Smith was charged three times with drunk driving. She eventually pleaded guilty to one charge and was put on two years' probation.

According to Kiki, Smith always said she wanted to be a star, but in the twilight world of topless dancing, that dream seemed a long way off. Still, she made enough to finance breast implants and she found a bodybuilder boy-friend who encouraged her to lose weight and apply for modelling assignments. And one day, he pointed out an ad in a local magazine announcing auditions for prospective Playboy models.

Eric and D'Eva Britt Redding vividly recall the stunning impression Vickie Lynn Smith made in September 1991 when she tottered into their Houston photography studio, wearing a tight Spandex dress and five-inch heels that made her well over 6ft tall. She weighed about 160lbs and had size 36DD breasts. But what most impressed the couple was her face.

"She had an incredible look!" enthuses D'Eva, herself a striking woman with a mane of curly, hennaed hair. "She just had a real pretty smile. There was something magical about her." Adds Eric, a dapper Texan: "The face was definitely a '10'. "

The Reddings, who were Smith's managers for the first year of her career, are reminiscing at their studio in a Houston office building. A modish couple - D'Eva wears a white wool sweater, black trousers and silver bracelet while Eric sports black loafers with no socks - they have been in the modelling business for some 15 years and still scout for Playboy. But there's no question that Vickie Smith, who smiles down at them from two framed colour photographs on the walls, was their greatest find. "Unbeliev- able!" exclaims D'Eva. "It was amazing to see someone just pop up like that out of nowhere. And she has this incredible sex appeal."

Playboy editors were so smitten by the Reddings' test-shots that they immediately slated Smith for their March 1992 cover. From there flowed a dizzying sequence of events. She was featured as the centrefold in the May 1992 issue, a pictorial that so captivated Guess? president Paul Marciano that he renamed her "Anna Nicole" and anointed her as the model to replace Claudia Schiffer in his firm's campaign. "It was like for me to see all the women we dreamed about when we were kids in France," he gushed on one of Smith's Playboy videos.

She was soon earning $10,000 a day on modelling assignments and being represented by the Elite agency in New York. By the time she was named Playmate of the Year in May 1993, she had moved to Los Angeles, rented Marilyn Monroe's Brentwood home and launched a movie career. Although her first roles were cameos, they were in mainstream studio productions - the Coen brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy and Naked Gun 331/3: The Final Insult.

As she soared toward superstardom, Smith's appeal wasn't men-only. Women cheered as she proclaimed, "Thin models look so unhealthy" and confessed that she ate Godiva chocolates at every shoot. She was a perfect antidote to Kate Moss-type waifs. "The image of Anna Nicole Smith has liberated a lot of people," an anorexia expert told People magazine.

Making her still more marketable, she appeared to be the American Dream personified. Understandably, given the grim reality, she had reinvented herself as the quintessential, fresh-faced "girl-next-door", a small-town beauty who was working at Wal-mart when celebrity was thrust upon her. She omitted "topless dancer" from her CV; maintaining the all-American aura, she claimed her bust had developed as a result of motherhood; and purring out quotes in a Texas-twanged little-girl voice, she had a simple message: "Follow your dreams; they can come true, however big you are."

But the reinvention was only superficial: Anna Nicole hadn't shaken off Vickie Lynn's darker side. During that first year as a pin-up, the Reddings had seen her abuse alcohol and prescription drugs and go on eating binges; they had seen her show up at night-clubs, yell "Yee-Ha!" like a cowgirl and proceed to burst out of her tight-fitting clothing in an echo of her topless days; and they had seen ominous signs that she could behave like the most self-important of celebrities. Aunt Kay believes success came too fast. "She did it all at once, from poor girl to rich girl," she tells me. But another source disagrees. "She was pretty messed up from the get- go," sighs a close friend. "All stardom did was give her more money and more time to be out of control."

LIKE Geo. Lewis & Sons, the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, California stands for elegance and sophistication. It offers courtesy Rolls-Royce service, a roof garden, marble floors, room rates from $315 to $3,000 a night - and the utmost discretion. Certainly, no one there will talk about the emergency on the evening of 12 February 1994 that resulted in two of its guests, Anna Nicole Smith and her friend Daniel Ross, 20, being rushed to hospital.

A publicist maintained that Anna Nicole was suffering from a severe migraine, but police said that she and Ross had been mixing alcohol, the painkiller Vicodin and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. She spent three days recovering at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "She would mix things all the time," says the close friend. "I would literally see her [take] five or six pills of one thing, then take five more and then drink a bunch of booze and she'd be talking to the walls for two days." As Smith told the Sun in March 1995, "I was popping prescription drugs like candy. The painkillers would take me down, so I started taking other drugs to take me up."

The Peninsula Hotel incident was the first blow to her wholesome image - and more would quickly follow. In May 1994, Smith sued her former Honduran housekeeper, alleging that Maria Antonia Cerrato was obsessed with her and had tried to kidnap her son; three months later, Cerrato countersued, claiming Smith had sexually harassed and assaulted her. And while they were busy swapping charges, Smith opened another rich vein of tabloid material by marrying J Howard Marshall II.

The unlikely couple had met at Rick's Cabaret back in 1988. A small man with huge ears, a booming voice and an eye for beautiful women, Marshall was instantly attracted to her, though somewhat preoccupied by a wife and a mistress, a dancer known as "Lady" Walker. After both women died in 1991, he focused his attention and wealth on Smith. He plied her with gifts of jewellery, including $2m worth on a single visit to New York, bought her a $1m ranch on 14 acres in Cypress, outside Houston, and treated her to cosy lunches at the River Oaks, Houston's most exclusive country club. "I'm sure it knocked the socks off the staff to see a big, buxom blonde in there," laughs Betsy Parish, gossip columnist at the now-defunct Houston Post newspaper. "It's very uptight."

Their wedding at the White Dove chapel in Houston on 27 June 1994 was almost as bizarre an affair as the funeral. Again, the theme was all-white, with the wheelchair-bound groom clad in a white tuxedo and the bride in a white, hand-beaded gown featuring what the chapel's owner called a "very, very, very low-cut neckline". Countering the tabloid speculation, Smith has always insisted she truly loved her "Paw-Paw" and that she wasn't interested merely in his fortune. "I love him, and we're in love, and that's it" was a typical comment. But she fuelled scepticism by leaving Paw-Paw immediately after the ceremony for a "photo shoot" in Greece, her bodyguard - who also claims to have been her lover - in tow.

The Reddings contend that Smith doesn't mind gossip. "As long as she's in the limelight she's happy," says Eric. Smith concurs: "I've always liked attention," she once said. "I didn't get it very much growing up and I always wanted to be, you know, noticed." But it's hard to imagine her enjoying the notices she has got this past year.

Between flashing her knickers and bursting out of her dress, Smith has been inundated with legal problems. In January 1995, she went to court to get a restraining order against the bodyguard, an ex-convict called Pierre De Jean whom she alleged had threatened to kill her; in March, Daniel Ross brought an action against her, still pending, alleging that she had ordered De Jean to attack him at a Beverly Hills nightspot; and a Los Angeles judge ordered Smith to pay Cerrato over $700,000 in damages after dismissing her case against the housekeeper because she had failed to complete her pre-trial deposition. Smith - who had testified, "I did not have sex with Maria, period... She tried to have sex with me"- has appealed against the judgment. "Without ever having the benefit of a trial on the merits, Ms Smith has been branded a lesbian rapist," her Los Angeles attorney protested.

Outside court, her career went into a nosedive. Instead of Guess? jeans - whose contract with her had expired - Anna Nicole was modeling for lower- profile companies like Lane Bryant, a clothes retailer for full-figured women. "I've lost a lot of work off of publicity crap like this," she complained in her deposition in the Cerrato case. And instead of appearing in major feature films, she shot two "straight-to-video" movies for PM Entertainment, a small Los Angeles production company. The first, To The Limit, was released in July, prompting Variety to observe that she "runs a speak-your-weight machine a close second in the acting stakes". Much to her distress, she was not even given a screen test for the remake of Niagara, Marilyn Monroe's 1953 excursion into lust and murder.

In September 1995, her psychiatrist describ-ed the newly-widowed Smith in court papers as "clinically depressed", while her personal assistant used Garboesque terminology: "She is," he testified, "extremely anxious about meeting people or going out in public." Two months later, she was a patient at Burbank's St Joseph Medical Center; an adverse reaction to prescription drugs she was using for severe headaches, her publicist explained. A friend is more explicit: "She was really messed up. It was an overdose."

GIVEN ALL the hysteria, you could hardly blame Anna Nicole Smith if she were to beat a hasty retreat to Mexia. Maybe a few years from now, she will be Vickie Lynn again, receiving visitors - forlornly, like Billy Wayne - on a dusty street without a pavement, her blonde hair blowing in the prairie wind. "I think Mexia is a place to grow up in and retire," she once said. "I don't think there's a middle."

But there's talk now of a comeback. One agent says Smith's working on a layout for Italian Vogue; Skyscraper, her second film for PM Entertainment, in which, improbably enough, she plays a daredevil helicopter pilot, is due out in the summer. Her publicist says she will be doing media interviews again "in the near future". Beyond that, nobody's disclosing much. Smith is believed to have been staying in a Los Angeles apartment rather than the home she owns, a Bel-Air residence with garish pink railings and trim that is being remodelled. The Cypress, Texas, ranch, meanwhile, appears uninhabited, a withered Christmas wreath to be seen hanging from its wrought- iron gates.

Some are dubious about Smith's prospects. "She can't keep her life together," says her friend. "People did try to help her and she just wouldn't take it. You have to want to do it." The friend adds: "She's really obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and she would always tell me that she's probably going to die like that."

The Reddings, whose tell-all book, Great Big Beautiful Doll: The Anna Nicole Smith Story, will be published this year, are more sanguine. "People like to hear about her," D'Eva says. "They want to know what she's doing." Indeed, Playboy's recent The Best of Anna Nicole Smith video has been among the Top Ten US sellers. And Eric Redding predicts that, "I think she's going to find her niche somehow in Hollywood. She's not going to give up trying, that's for sure."

Failing that, there's always the fortune of the man she mourned last August.

Limbering up for the court fight, Pierce Marshall has already alleged that Smith defrauded his father by making "excessive gifts" to "strangers of the marriage, with some of whom she had adulterous affairs"; ex-pals such as De Jean have indicated that they are prepared to bolster Pierce's case. Furthermore, Anna Nicole is not named in her husband's will, which was drafted two years before the marriage. But according to her Houston lawyer, Diana Marshall (no relation), who is renowned as one of the toughest litigators in Texas, state law allows a bereaved spouse to collect as community property all assets generated during the marriage. For Smith, that could mean millions of dollars in interest income alone from J Howard's investments. Certainly, Forbes magazine reported recently that Smith's attorney had turned down a $10m settlement offer from his heirs. And the lawyers claim her bankruptcy filing will help her cause: "We welcome this opportunity to focus Ms Smith's resources on the fight against Pierce Marshall," said one.

"The estate battle is the key," says Eric Redding. "That's why a lot of people are still taking her seriously. She has the opportunity to be a very wealthy woman." And that could mean permanent access to the decorous haunts of the distinguished. !

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