The Punch Line

In death, as in life, Anna Nicole Smith is a joke. Which is less than she deserves—but not that much less.

MY FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD CALLED ME FROM SCHOOL to tell me that Anna Nicole Smith had died, and he was laughing. I happened to be at Universal Studios in Burbank, working on a story, when I got the news; once it ricocheted from multiple BlackBerrys to the makeup trailer to the set courtesy of CNN, ABC, and the like, people there were laughing too. My guess is that the news broke a record for the shortest time between the registration of shock and ensuing black humor. “No joke, Anna Nicole Smith DEAD,” reported on February 9, at 8:22 a.m., revealing a clear grasp of the problem. For some bizarre, best-unexplored reason, Richard Nixon came to mind; on that first morning I could hear him saying that we wouldn’t have Anna Nicole to kick around anymore.

I was wrong about that, of course. In no time, her death from as-yet-undetermined causes was mirroring her life, which is to say it was an unmitigated disaster: The words “train wreck” conjoined with “Anna Nicole Smith” turned up 135,000 hits on Google a week or so after she was gone. Highlights included the ever-growing list of potential fathers for her then-five-month-old daughter, Dannielynn, and the melodramatic fight over a burial site between Anna Nicole’s enervated mother, Virgie Arthur, and Anna Nicole’s omnipresent faux spouse, Howard K. Stern, while her body lay rotting at the medical examiner’s office. There was some good news: Wal-Mart was interested in a bulk buy of Great Big Beautiful Doll, a biography of Anna Nicole written by Eric and D’Eva Redding, her former manager and his wife, a hair and makeup artist. Others who’d had their piece of Anna Nicole rallied just as quickly. In a story headlined “TrimSpa Moving On Without Anna Nicole,” the CEO of the diet pill company, Alex Goen, admitted that Anna Nicole had “helped to catapult the brand” to fame but that its success was “not simply the result of Anna Nicole Smith.”

Within days, otherwise intelligent, highly sophisticated people—the kind who visit modern-art museums and read complicated books and know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis—were obsessively floating theories that could make you dizzy enough to beg for Dramamine. One friend speculated about a link between Anna Nicole’s death and that of Lady Walker’s, the late J. Howard Marshall II’s first stripper-lover, who, you may or may not recall, died on a Houston operating table during cosmetic surgery, in 1991. “These were not nice people,” my friend said ominously. Another sent me a clip on Anna Nicole’s embalming, suspiciously querying, “Why did they need to embalm? She was in a cooler in the morgue.” My favorite, however, came from an Austin therapist, who passed on her hairdresser’s suggestion that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the father of Anna Nicole’s daughter was Anna Nicole’s twenty-year-old son, Daniel, who died last fall. It was as if Anna Nicole had provided so much entertainment value over the years that no one could let her go—the slug for the news of her death on the Houston Chronicle’s Web site was, in fact, “Entertainment.” The only idea that didn’t hold much appeal was taking Anna Nicole seriously. I had the feeling that if she had ever succumbed to the temptation herself, it might have killed her even sooner.

LIKE A LOT OF TEXAS JOURNALISTS, I had the pleasure of writing about Anna Nicole Smith in the early days, when her life had more twists and turns than a tangled Slinky. My opportunity came in 1994, the year she married wizened, rheumy 89-year-old J. Howard Marshall II. There was a frantic need on the part of almost every man, woman, and child on the planet to understand something that wasn’t really all that mysterious, which was how and why a poor 26-year-old girl from a small Texas town managed to ascend from stripper to Playboy centerfold to Guess Jeans model to sometime actress to wife of a very rich and very old man. (Hint: She was a nearly-six-foot knockout, and she knew how to work it.) Back then, Anna Nicole ignored my requests for an interview, so I never met her; I didn’t see her in the flesh until nine years later, after Marshall had died and she was locked in a lawsuit/death struggle over the billionaire’s fortune with his son Pierce.

There are a couple of salient things I remember from that trial, which took place in a windowless courtroom of the old Harris County Family Courts building. The first was a mammoth, satiny black bra that I found stuffed behind a toilet paper dispenser in a restroom stall. Had Anna Nicole taken it off to look sexier in court, I still wonder, or had it just been … uncomfortable? That question was soon eclipsed by Anna Nicole’s performance on the witness stand, for which the county could have sold enough tickets to finance dozens of new libraries, hospitals, and community college branches.

Anna Nicole was heavy then but appeared to have dressed in what passed for appropriate in her mind: a tight skirt, stilettos, and a sweater so taut over her massive chest that she seemed in danger of suffocation. Maybe, in fact, it was cutting off circulation to her brain: As accounts of the trial frequently mentioned, Anna Nicole lolled her head, rolled her eyes, scratched her strange arrangement of platinum pin curls, nodded off, wept, smudged her mascara, smeared her lipstick, stared into space, and generally had difficulty staying present. She had trouble following questions too, particularly from Pierce Marshall’s attorney, the boyish but deadly Rusty Hardin. Anna Nicole accused Hardin of being “sick” and “perverted” when he asked intimate questions about her marriage to the elder Marshall; at one point she even retorted, “Screw you, Rusty!” in open court, providing trial followers with a punch line to just about anything and everything for most of the next week. On so many levels, Anna Nicole seemed not to know

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