A story of modern celebrity: The trials of Anna Nicole

She's given birth to a daughter, seen her son die in her arms - and sold the family pictures for $650,000. Now, she's said to have married her lawyer, one of the baby's two possible fathers. Even by her standards, the past month in the life of America's most outrageous personality defies belief. By David Usborne
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The Independent US

They do say that in America any dream can come true if you try hard enough. All that is required is blind determination, a degree of luck and, above all, divining a path to easy money. It helps if you have a brain, but even that is not entirely necessary. Women should always consider breast enhancement surgery.

This, at least, is the prescription that has worked with astonishing success for one 38-year-old lady who goes by the name of Anna Nicole Smith. When she was a flat-chested teenager scraping dollars together in a deep-fried chicken joint in the Texas town of Mexia, she had already made herself a vow: one day she would be someone - very rich and famous and adored. In other words, the next Marilyn Monroe.

Congratulations, Anna, you have made it! Like Marilyn, you are an icon, irresistible to paparazzi around the globe and fodder to every headline writer from Vegas to Vladivostock. If at times your comet has seemed to wobble, look at the newstands this very weekend. Sweetie, you are everywhere.

But, Houston, the city of your birth, we have a problem. You have a putative mega-fortune but it's all snarled up in the US courts. Meanwhile, you may have taken the tragic side of the Monroe mystique a little far in the past couple of weeks, your son dying and all. One more thing: you want to be loved, but, honestly, you make it hard for us.

A little about that court battle for an instant. Husband number two was a Texas oil tycoon named J Howard Marshall. Worth $1.6bn, he walked (or rather rolled - he was wheelchair-bound) into the strip club where Ms Smith shimmied and swayed in Mexia back in 1990. Four years later, the love-birds married.

He was 89 and she was 26, a 63-year difference. To say the family of Mr Marshall disapproved is an understatement. Relations hardly improved when he died two years later and left her nothing, prompting her to go to court to claim half his estate. Not on your life, the Marshalls said, and still do.

If you wonder why a family would recoil at having Ms Smith as an in-law, consider the events of this month alone. The woman redefines wacky. No question about it, she is the reigning queen of drama and, thus, more than a little exhausting. In three short weeks she has given birth to a child whose paternity is uncertain.(Two men are claiming to be the father.) She has lost another son, felled at the age of 20, seemingly by a cocktail of drugs. And she has gained - at least according to news reports yesterday - a new husband. It begs that old film title game again: "Two Fathers, a Baby, a Wedding and a Funeral".Actually, the funeral part is premature, because Daniel Smith, the progeny of Ms Smith's first marriage - to a cook in the aforementioned Jim's Krispy Chicken - is, best we know, still in a funeral parlour in the Bahamas, pending a hearing next month into the cause of death.

On 7 September, in Nassau, she gave birth to a girl named Dannie Lynn or Dannilynn, depending on which tabloid version of the happy event you are reading. With the baby's arrival, the paternity spat began. Ms Smith's lawyer and confidant, Howard K Stern, went on CNN to fess up: he is the father. Funny, because the world had been thinking it was a photographer ex-boyfriend of Ms Smith called Larry Birkhead. And indeed, it was only hours before he popped up to make the same claim.

Meanwhile, Ms Smith had motherhood to master all over again. Three days after delivery, a visitor came to her maternity room at the Doctor's Hospital in Nassau. It was Daniel. He coos over his new half-sister, sits on a bedside chair and apparently dozes off. Except that this young, apparently fit, man actually died. It was 10 September. The headlines grew another inch taller. What could have happened? He had been depressed, we were to learn. Was this cruel suicide? Was he spiting his mum?

Late last week that mystery was more or less cleared up. While the coroners in the Bahamas have yet to render an official finding, a private pathologist hired by Ms Smith, called Cyril Wecht, said he had found three medications in herson's body and their combination had triggered a fatal heart problem. One of them was methadone, a drug usually prescribed to heroin users to help them fight their addiction. But Ms Smith, for the record, has no knowledge of her son ever using drugs.

Anyone would be distressed by such a combination of circumstances. Ms Smith has a new child and at the same time is called upon to grieve. Her grasp of the conventions of mourning is flimsy, however. Never shy about turning a buck, she promptly flogged the last photographs of herself and Daniel, taken in the hospital room, to a gossip magazine for a reported $650,000 (£347,000). Nice.

Is she at least wearing black and hunkering down with her new offspring? No, she is not. Rather, she has been wearing white. Yesterday came the astonishing news, care of Star magazine, that on Thursday Ms Smith took to a catamaran and, somewhere off Blackbeard's Cay, Nassau, stood on deck and got married. Husband number three is Mr Stern. It was her estranged mother, Virgie Hogan, who offered the most pithy reaction. She said: "I feel sickened. It's not right."

Doing what is right has never been Ms Smith's priority. She does what gets her into the headlines and gets her money. None of it would have happened without the deceased Mr Marshall. How much she loved him is open to speculation and is at the core of the now decade-old probate wrangle. She was not with him when he died and according to reports, she had dalliances with other men when she was his wife. But he did love her. His biggest gift, aside from many baubles valued at about $6m (£3.2m), was to support her modelling and acting aspirations, including paying for her mammoth mammary enhancements.

Her break came in 1992, when she landed the front page of Playboy magazine, a triumph that was quickly followed up by a nude centre-fold. (And, yes, the tabloids were calling her the next Monroe.) Thereafter she was chosen as the new face of the Guess? fashion house, displacing Claudia Schiffer. She even appeared in a couple of movies, includingNaked Gun 33 1/3.

With Mr Marshall's demise in August 1995, her career went into a nosedive as she faced the distraction of trying to get her hands on the money she thought was rightfully hers. Her journey through the American court system has been as much of a rollercoaster as her personal and professional lives. She claimed her husband had verbally promised her half of his fortune and a Los Angeles court awarded her almost $450m (£240m) in September 2000. But the oil baron's eldest son, Pierce Marshall, appealed and in July 2001 a Houston court vacated the judgement.

Then a year later, she was given a mere $88m (£47m) , but that too was reversed by a court of appeals in December 2004. But Ms Smith was still not done. Her lawyers took the case to the US Supreme Court in Washington. They asked the justices to confirm her right to have the entire case heard in the federal court system in the hope that the rulings of the lower courts, favouring the Marshalls, could still be overturned.

The appearance of an almost demure Ms Smith at the Supreme Court hearing in February this year - dressed all in black with matching black sunglasses - caused yet another tabloid brouhaha. In the meanwhile, lawyers for the Bush administration had made their position known to the seven justices. Fans or not of Ms Smith, they were anxious to protect the jurisdiction of the federal system and urged the court to find in her favour. And, on 1 May, that is what it did. The Supreme Court's ruling far from guarantees that Ms Smith will get the fortune she seeks, but it gives her a fighting chance and keeps the case very much alive.

At some point, Ms Smith must have realised that pending an eventual outcome of the case, fresh money had to be made. In the past few years she has completed a lucrative stint as spokeswoman for a diet system and its products called TrimSpa, a gig for which she incidentally shed 69lbs. Even better, in 2002, the E! Entertainment cable channel gave her her own reality television series. Labelled by some as the most relentless gold-digger America has ever seen, she had the chance to relaunch her professional career. Who knows, maybe she would make a play for a touch of respectabilty. (It wouldn't have hurt in front of the judges, after all.)

You can change your breast-size but not your spots. The reality series became a weekly exposition of Anna Nicole Smith. So far-fetched were her antics - in one scene crawling around her home on all fours in deep conversation with her boobs - that the show's audience quickly shrivelled and it became cult viewing only among those who think inane is amusing. In 2004, the series was dumped. In the same year she was seen muttering almost incoherently about her body while presenting the annual American Music Awards.

Few of us have experienced as much personal trauma as Ms Smith. Surely, September 2006 was the moment for her to put family and soul before headlines. But that, apparently, just isn't her style and the Anna Nicole circus is still playing, whether we care to watch it or not.