Death of a playmate: The Anna Nicole Smith story

She was a two-bit stripper when J Howard Marshall II spotted her, propelling her into the public eye. Andrew Gumbel reports on the poignant end to a very American soap opera
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Six and a half years ago, Anna Nicole Smith walked into federal bankruptcy court in Los Angeles a washed-up, impoverished, drug-addled former model living in a dingy suburban flat with her 13-year-old son, and walked out - at least on paper - the most improbable of multi-millionaires.

She'd sunk very low in the past, ballooning to more than 200lb and advertising outsize clothing on a home shopping channel. And she was destined to sink much, much lower. But on that day in the autumn of 1999, she had her one brief moment of glory.

Because of a herniated disc in her back, she hobbled rather than walked into court. She was impeccably turned out, with a perfectly coiffed shock of fake-blonde hair and blood-red lipstick to match her nail polish. But she was also clearly a woman on a psychological precipice.

Throughout the proceedings, she looked lost and confused, clearly not understanding a word. She clung on to her son like a frightened child to her security blanket and exchanged brief words with an entourage of burly men in sharp suits.

She was 31 then, and had already survived a childhood of poverty and deprivation in small-town Texas, day shifts at a Houston strip club, the improbable attentions of one of America's richest men, the octogenarian oil tycoon J Howard Marshall II, marriage, widowhood, ostracism from the heady circles in which she briefly moved, and endless lawsuits in her attempt to wrest some of the old man's vast fortune from the hands of his litigious younger son.

The bankruptcy court lavished more blessings on her than she could have imagined, awarding her roughly one-quarter of Marshall's $1.6bn. But the moment did not last. A rival ruling from a probate court in Texas deemed she was entitled to nothing, prompting years of appeals hearings to resolve the question one way or the other.

Meanwhile, Anna Nicole went through tabloid hell and starred in a permanently addled state in her own television reality show. Last September, she gave birth to a baby girl in the Bahamas, only to lose her son Daniel three days later to what the coroner called the ill-effects of methadone and anti-depressants.

Last week, she too died after checking into one of her favourite resort hotels, the Seminole Hard Rock casino in the northern suburbs of Miami. According to her mother, she was drugged up to the eyeballs, though a post-mortem examination has failed to pinpoint cause of death. Indistinct video footage of her being admitted to hospital on a stretcher was the subject of an intense bidding war won by German television for $500,000.

A unusual paternity battle has now broken out, as three men claim to be the father of her baby daughter, Dannielynn, the heiress apparent to any chunk of Marshall money that Smith is posthumously awarded - some talk of $240m.

The men are Anna Nicole's lawyer, Howard K Stern, whom she wed in an unofficial commitment ceremony last year and who is named as the father on the birth certificate, photographer and ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead, and, most sensationally of all, Prince Frédéric von Anhalt. He is 64, the husband of actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, and maintains he had a decade-long affair with Anna Nicole.

But the world would never have heard of Anna Nicole were it not for the eccentricities of J Howard Marshall II who, in his dotage, plucked her from obscurity and gave her more than she could ever have dreamed of. Back in 1991, Vickie Lynn Hogan, as she was then called, was a stripper so untalented she was not even allowed to work the night shift at Gigi's in Houston. Marshall, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically depressed - he had just lost his wife, who had Alzheimer's,and his mistress during face-lift surgery. It was Marshall's driver, Dan Manning, who first spotted Smith and brought her to the old man's attention. Within two months, Howard had given her a car for her birthday, the first in a long series of lavish gifts. He paid for her plastic surgery, set her on the path to being a Playboy playmate and a model for Guess jeans, and repeatedly proposed marriage. He was 63 years her senior.

Vickie, as she was known to her intimates, didn't accept his proposal for four years, while she made a name for herself in the modelling world. When she finally consented, they tied the knot quickly at a Houston wedding chapel, with canned music. The rest of the Marshall family was not informed until the ceremony was over. All hell broke loose. Already, Marshall's two sons, Pierce and J Howard III, were barely on speaking terms, with each other or their father. Pierce immediately set about securing control of the family money, persuading his father to sign the deed of appointment on a new trust he had set up.

A month later, the old man was dead, and the legal battle was joined in earnest. Pierce claimed his motivation for drawing up the document was to protect the family and its corporate concern, Koch Industries, from the predations of a gold-digging stripper. The widow, meanwhile, argued that she and J Howard Marshall II genuinely loved each other and that her husband meant to provide for her after his death.

And so the dispute went. The California bankruptcy court not only found in favour of Smith, it actually issued a public rebuke against Pierce Marshall for failing to respect the court's deadlines or to appear when summoned. Pierce, meanwhile, focused his energies on the Texas probate courts, which ruled in his favour and determined that Smith was entitled to nothing.

The fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, to the delight of the press. Anna Nicole made her grand entrance at the highest court in the land this time last year. And the justices ruled largely in her favour, reducing the original bankruptcy settlement from $474m to $89m.

Smith herself never saw a dime. She had grand ambitions of what she wanted to do once she was rich - setting up a film production company to make 1950s-style non-explicit sex comedies, with herself in roles that, half a century ago, might have gone to Marilyn Monroe. Instead, she became a public figure of fun, often quite cruel fun. Christopher Guest's spoof documentary Best in Show (2000) featured an Anna Nicole-type character, played by Jennifer Coolidge, oozing excitement about the intensely physical relationship she enjoyed with her doddery, drooling, geriatric husband. The raunchy radio host Howard Stern taunted herabout her inability to get laid. Smith didn't help herself when she allowed reality television cameras into her home and made a public spectacle of her seriously messed-up life.

Anna Nicole's last interview was for Entertainment Tonight, which revealed that she almost died a few weeks ago, after being found face down in a swimming pool at her home in the Bahamas. "Everyone in my life has stabbed me in my back," she said. "It's always a battle." Hers was the death of a woman who had briefly tasted both wealth and fame and failed to cling on to either.