Don't be fooled: she may be rich but she's a victim

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The Independent Online

The devil has all the best tunes, and the former stripper with the short-lived marriage to the oil tycoon nearly four times her age has all the best bankruptcy judgments. Yesterday, Anna Nicole Smith was awarded $449m, or $1m per day of marriage, when a Los Angeles bankruptcy judge found that her stepson (now 61) had deprived her of an expected inheritance.

The devil has all the best tunes, and the former stripper with the short-lived marriage to the oil tycoon nearly four times her age has all the best bankruptcy judgments. Yesterday, Anna Nicole Smith was awarded $449m, or $1m per day of marriage, when a Los Angeles bankruptcy judge found that her stepson (now 61) had deprived her of an expected inheritance.

Really one ought to wrinkle one's nose with distaste at the continuing fall-out from the death of Mr J Howard Marshall in 1996 and swiftly move on. But the characters involved are so unbelievably stereotypical, and the sums of money they are fighting over so mesmerically vast, that only the most dour of curmudgeons could fail to recognise that here is a fantastic, irresistible, spectacle of human frailty.

First there is the dead tycoon himself. He met Anna Nicole Smith in the Houston strip club where she worked when he was 89 and she was 25. His wife, Betty, and his mistress, Dianne, had both recently died. (He had met Dianne in a Houston strip club, and she left $5.8m in her will.) He showered Anna Nicole with expensive gifts (including three houses, one worth £500,000) and with marriage proposals. They wed in 1994, and the wheelchair-bound oil man lasted another 14 months. He had made no provision for his young wife in any of his six wills.

Then there is Anna Nicole Smith. From humble beginnings in Mexia, Texas, she became pregnant at 17 and has a 14-year-old son, Daniel, from her first marriage. A single mother when she met Marshall, she carried on working as their relationship continued, becoming a Guess Jeans model and a Playboy playmate of the year.

Marshall lavished much time and money on her career development. She also appeared in the Coen brothers' film The Hudsucker Proxy, and was hyped as the new Marilyn Monroe. Despite the vast wealth she accrued as Marshall's mistress, then his wife, she filed for bankruptcy protection in 1996 after losing a $850,000 judgment brought againsther by a former employee alleging sexual harassment.

Her argument in that case, that she could not pay up as she had not been given any of her late husband's estate, has led to this latest judgment. Anna Nicole maintains that she loved her husband deeply and is not a gold-digger. She is blonde with a powerful embonpoint, and now lives with her son in a small apartment on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She is claimed to have "turned to alcohol and prescription drugs".

Then there is Anna Nicole's surprising ally. This is Marshall's eldest son, J Howard Marshall, now 63, who was cut out of his father's will in 1980 after a business dispute. He decided to join forces with Miss Smith after the sexual harassment judgment. Another trial in Texas is now commencing, in which Miss Smith and Mr Marshall are suing 61-year-old E Pierce Marshall, a younger son, for their share in Marshall senior's £1.6bn estate.

E Pierce Marshall is cast as the villain of the piece, which is remarkable in itself as upstanding morality does not shine particularly brightly in the conduct of any of the participants.

He stands accused of having plotted against Miss Smith to gain control of his father's fortune while he was still alive. He is said to have visited his father's lawyer 24 times shortly before he signed everything over to his younger son. Miss Smith's lawyer also claims that Pierce did not follow Marshall's instructions to a different lawyer to set up a "catch all" trust for Miss Smith which would have given her a majority, if not all, of Marshall's estate. Instead the late Marshall signed papers which did not include these instructions.

Pierce tops everyone by pleading poverty, insisting that his father's estate is not worth a reported £1.6bn but that assets represent a mere $40m, or maybe £60m. Anyway, he contends that his father was suffering from senile dementia when he married Miss Smith (and therefore also when he handed over his estate to Pierce, one is forced to conclude). In previous hearings he angered lawyers by failing to turn up for court proceedings. As a result, the Los Angeles bankruptcy court has nullified his legal claims, so the dosh is there for Miss Smith's taking now.

So there they are - the young woman with the rich dead husband, the angry disinherited elder son, and the inadequate, conniving younger son, all unable to reach the decision that maybe there's enough for all three of them. What motivates people to grab as much as they can of such improbable sums? Surely such avariciousness is beyond sanity.

Not only are the twists and turns involved in the settlement of this vast estate rather nutty, they are also in direct contradiction to every traditional idea about how inherited wealth ought to be distributed. The wife and the first-born son have joined against the younger son to claim the money. Their next move will surely be to prove to us all that money cannot buy happiness. This curiously old-fashioned lack-of-morality tale is bound to run and run.

For beyond the hype, for Miss Smith, there is a more desperate tale. While as part of her hype-driven identification with Monroe, Miss Smith rented the villa in which she died on Helena Drive in Los Angeles, she also found herself being rushed to hospital one night from a Beverly Hills hotel. Her publicist claimed the dash was occasioned by a migraine. Other friends say Miss Smith has a drink problem.

The sexual harassment case which precipitated this latest judgment is even sadder. Miss Smith's former nanny, Maria Cerrato, won her action for sexual harassment with her claim that Miss Smith said she loved her and wanted to marry her, and "pounced" on her in drunken binges. Now, with her fortunes restored, Miss Smith intends to set up a company making "sexy movies in a Fifties-style non-explicit way".

Miss Smith sounds like an awful mess. She sells herself as a sex kitten, but appears not to like men very much. There is every possibility that she felt gratitude to Mr Marshall, not just for his money and attention, but also because of the lack of physical demands he was making on her. She says her first husband, when she was a teenager, abused her, although others say this is not true. She never knew her own father, of course, and was brought up by a working mother who could spare little time for her. While her rich-old-man-assisted rise has been spectacular, she did no different from many young Texan girls in heading for the oil capital and older, wealthy men.

Anna Nicole Smith is a special kind of female victim, who seems hard and exploitative and in control, when she is actually the opposite. She is vulnerable, she is exploited (even by herself), and she is very much a woman who is out of control. She identifies herself with Monroe as if this is something to be desired, while in fact it is far from desirable to live and die in such a manner.

As for the fabulously rich man who launched her into her limited fame, and whose fortune she has belatedly captured, well, he was just the sort of man who would enjoy such a woman. He liked lavishing gifts on her, and was flattered like the fool he was by her attentions. But the lack of provision for her in his will suggests that he had no real respect for her, or interest in a future in which she would no longer be entertaining him. The jealous younger son, so contemptuous that he didn't even bother to turn up in court to fight her, has clearly inherited his father's stinking attitudes.

That's why Miss Smith's story, despite its brassy modern accoutrements, is such an old-fashioned one. History is littered with pretty, desperate young women, who think that they can use sex appeal to manipulate men. However much money the courts nowadays award them, they never, ever play that game and win.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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