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Glitz, scandal, fame, loss -- and death at 39

February 09, 2007|Carol J. Williams and Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writers

HOLLYWOOD, FLA. — Anna Nicole Smith had always made it clear: She wanted to be just like Marilyn Monroe. She struggled mightily to make herself into a platinum-tressed sex symbol. And though she never gained the acting credibility of Monroe, her death at 39 on Thursday in a Florida hotel poignantly echoes that of her idol.

Smith's roller-coaster life of fame, fortune, weight battles, legal entanglements and loss proved irresistible fodder for the tabloids, entertainment TV shows and blogs that focused on her obsessively.

She became a teenage mother, a topless dancer, a Playboy centerfold and a Guess jeans model, all before marrying a man old enough to be her great-grandfather.

After he died 14 months into their marriage, she fought his grown sons for her share of his estate, then declared bankruptcy, starred in her own train-wreck of a reality show, became a spokeswoman for a weight-loss supplement, won a precedent-setting Supreme Court case, and lost her grown son days after giving birth to a daughter last year.

Smith was in South Florida with her partner and attorney, Howard K. Stern, to shop for a yacht when a nurse traveling in her six-person entourage found her collapsed in the two-bedroom suite of the luxury Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla.

A call for emergency medical help was made from Smith's sixth-floor room at 1:45 p.m., and a police officer was dispatched along with paramedics, said Seminole Police Chief Charles Tiger. An "unresponsive" Smith was taken to Hollywood Memorial Regional Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Her 5-month-old daughter, Dannielynn, was not with her at the hotel, said Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bittner.

The cause of death for Smith, who had been complaining of flu-like symptoms since checking in Monday, was unknown.

Broward County Chief Medical Examiner Joshua Perper planned an autopsy today but cautioned that toxicology work could delay determination of the cause of death for days or weeks.

Born Vickie Lynn Hogan in Texas, Smith had been bathing in a media spotlight for almost 15 years. It had intensified in recent months with the death of her 20-year-old son, Daniel; a paternity battle over Dannielynn; and a lawsuit alleging deceit in selling the TrimSpa weight-loss formula, for which she was a spokesman.

Smith's death casts uncertainty on a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge's order issued Wednesday that she and her daughter undergo paternity testing by Feb. 21. The test was ordered after Los Angeles photographer Larry Birkhead filed a lawsuit saying he is the father of Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern, who was born in the Bahamas on Sept. 7. Stern, Smith's most recent romantic partner, has said he is Dannielynn's father.

The Los Angeles attorney who had been representing Smith in the paternity matter, Ronald A. Rale, said Thursday evening that he would be in court today responding to an emergency motion from Birkhead and his attorney, asking Superior Court Judge Robert A. Schnider to order that a DNA sample be obtained from Smith's body.

Though she experienced early success as a model, Smith's high-profile life became a self-perpetuating media machine. Within hours of her death, CNN's Larry King made a telephone appearance on Wolf Blitzer's "The Situation Room" to offer his memories. The Biography Channel announced a special at 8 p.m. Saturday, "Biography Remembers: Anna Nicole Smith."

Smith, a topless dancer in the early 1990s, became a Playboy cover girl after entering her photos in a contest. Within a year she was 1993 Playmate of the Year. She modeled Guess jeans for television ads, magazines and billboards before landing the role that would propel her into the ranks of the truly rich and famous.

Oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II had frequented the Houston strip club where Smith had worked the early shift since 1991. According to bankruptcy court records, she was too "big-boned" for night work. Marshall was too old to stay out late and frequented the club on the early side.

They married in 1994. He was 89, she was 26. Fourteen months after the wedding, Marshall was dead, and the still-unresolved fight over his vast wealth had begun between Smith and his sons.

Smith was often maligned as a gold digger. Court records suggest that Marshall was madly in love with her and had intended for her to be financially secure.

Smith went to court in 1999 asking for half of her husband's $1.6-billion estate. Several legal rounds later, she prevailed in federal bankruptcy court, where, in 2000, she was awarded nearly $450 million. After more legal skirmishing, that amount was reduced to $89 million. In 2006, she won a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that sent the case back to a lower court. The case is pending.

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