From strip-joint to the Supreme Court: Anna Nicole's last stand

A trash-TV star's claim to her dead husband's fortune will be decided by America's top judges. Andrew Gumbel reports from Los Angeles
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The Independent US

That, in itself, might explain why the eight justices - soon to be joined by their new chief, John Roberts - have decided to take up the case of Anna Nicole Smith, the former Playboy centrefold turned trash-TV reality star, and her decade-long pursuit of the estate left by her improbable husband, the geriatric oil tycoon J Howard Marshall II of Koch Industries.

It's just possible, of course, that the razor-sharp intellects on America's highest court are interested in the case because of the questions it raises about the respective jurisdictional powers of the Texas probate courts and the federal bankruptcy courts, each of which has issued contradictory rulings on the matter over the years.

On the other hand, it's much more enticing to think that what the Supremes really want is to establish a legal precedent on what does or does not constitute shameless gold-digging by a poor, white Texan girl lucky enough to attract the attentions of a fabulously wealthy octogenarian in the twilight of his life.

To recap: Ms Smith - real name Vickie Lynn Hogan - might never have come to the world's attention at all were it not for the fact that the ageing Marshall saw her perform at a Texas strip club in 1991 and took her under his wing. In those days, Ms Smith was so down on her luck that she couldn't even get a spot on the prime-time evening floor shows and was reduced to performing during the day.

Marshall, meanwhile, had recently lost both his wife and long-time mistress, who was also a stripper. (She died on the operating table while undergoing a facelift.) In the opinion of his domestic staff, he needed a new blonde in his life to lift his mood.

As Ms Smith herself recalled in court, the ageing oilman was looking noticeably forlorn that day and was slobbering a little - whether from excitement or senility we will never know. Before long, he was buying her cars and jewellery and paying for the artificial breasts that launched her career as a retro vamp in demand from the likes of Playboy and Guess jeans. In 1994, he asked her to marry him and she didn't hesitate to love him until death did them part (as it happened, a brisk eight months later).

The marriage drove Marshall's son, Pierce, to something close to total distraction - not least because he had long complained about being the neglected member of the family who did not even merit a mention in his father's autobiography. What happened next is a matter of considerable legal dispute, but the upshot was that Pierce did everything in his power to cut Ms Smith out of the family money, obtaining a favourable ruling from the Texas probate courts to back him up.

Ms Smith, meanwhile, took the case to a bankruptcy court in California, where the justices took a strong dislike to Pierce, who had a habit of not showing up, and ruled in her favour to the tune of almost half a billion dollars.

The argument since then has been about which court is right. The federal appeals court felt that what happened in Texas should stay in Texas, and annulled Ms Smith's settlement. The Supreme Court may or may not take a different view. One argument likely to be raised in Washington early next year, when the case is due to be heard, is that the Texas courts may have allowed themselves to be swayed by the money and power of the Marshall family.

It's a safe bet that Anna Nicole herself will not be making an appearance before the Supreme Court justices. She doesn't make the most persuasive of cases on her own behalf, to put it mildly. Since her husband's death, she has gone through phases of binge-eating, drinking and prescription-drug abuse. On her reality show, she spends a lot of time rambling incoherently and complaining that she doesn't get enough sex.

That said, she has lost a lot of weight recently, and taken to disporting herself in glamorous outfits at celebrity get-togethers such as the Live8 concert. Will candid shots of her be appended to the Supreme Court justices' case files, as Exhibits A to DD? Don't count on it.

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