Sarah tells Mike how a poor Texas girl made herself into an icon and America made her into a punchline. Digressions include massage technique, “Death Becomes Her” and (obviously) “The Godfather.” Mike sounds even sicker than he did last week.Support the show
Anna Nicole Smith
Sarah: Do you ever think about how much of reality TV also is the music? It's always, like, the very light caper music and it's telling you, like, “This is funny. This is light” and you're like, “Aren't I really watching a bunch of people decompensate?”
Mike: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the podcast where we save people from what everyone else remembers about them.
Sarah: Oh, I love that. That gives me feelings.
Mike: That's kind of what we're doing today, right?
Sarah: Oh, yes. That's so very and extremely much what we're doing today.
Mike: I'm Michael Hobbs. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I am Sarah Marshall and I have decided that I'm going to stop saying the names of various publications that I freelance for extremely sporadically, because I am a writer working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
Sarah: Yeah. It occurred to me that our listeners should know about this because they're really smart and are out there knowing and doing things all over the place, and I bet a lot of them know some things.
Mike: Yes. Also, I look forward to doing a sequel to our previous episode about the Satanic Panic and you can talk about what you were wrong about, which is always the process of writing something long.
Sarah: Yes, you're right. I feel like writing a book ideally is like having a little you're wrong about with yourself. So, speaking of that for today, we're revisiting the subject of an article that I wrote two years ago and it's one of my favorite things that I've written because today we're talking about Ms. Anna Nicole Smith.
Mike: Yes. And your article is one of my favorite things that you've ever written.
Sarah: Thank you for appreciating my writing on maligned women and for reaching out to me over that so many years ago because I just feel like everything good in my life has come to me in one way or another because of Tonya Harding because the first piece I ever wrote that was just being like, “Look, everyone just sees a joke and I see a tragedy” was about Tonya Harding and then this piece about Anna Nicole Smith, which was in Buzzfeed, was the same thing and in the process of writing it I just became so furious on her behalf, which apparently is the only writing process that I know how to have.
Mike: Yeah. Or there's just a lot of historical figures where that's an appropriate response.
Sarah: Yeah. This, to me, is one of those hidden in plain sight stories. We're just like, we made this into a comedy, or we pretended that it was a comedy when, on the face of it, we knew that it was a tragedy and we knew that we, the American people, on top of whatever else had happened or was happening to her were also abusing this woman.
Mike: Should we talk about the myth you wanted to debunk? I mean, I've already read your article so I'm not coming into this as fresh as I do with most of our episodes.
Sarah: No, you're not a newborn lamb. You're like an older, streetwise lamb.
Sarah: I mean, tell me what, you know. Tell me what you feel like you observed during the time that she was in tabloids and on the news. This is also two distinct eras. I'll start with that. She became famous in the early nineties and then she became famous for being a train wreck in the early 2000s. So she had these two moments.
Sarah: Yeah. She was the Guess Jeans girl. It was a big deal.
Mike: Yes. She was like– she was the shorthand for “beautiful woman” the way that we used Cindy Crawford for years and we met her again, I don't know, ten, twelve years later when she was too human. The American public hated her for gaining weight. She was slurring her words. I mean, I remember watching her reality show on Bravo or whatever it was.
Sarah: It was on E! It was the top rated show on E!
Mike: And it was so weird.
Sarah: It was so upsetting.
Mike: Her lawyer was one of the main characters on it. Her son was this weird, spectral presence.
Sarah: Like the little boy ghost in Three Men and a Baby.
Mike: Yeah. There wasn't really a plot. It was just her being her and saying, “LOL, look how stupid she is as she goes about her life and says sorta dumb-blonde type comments.”
Mike: And that was the extent to which we dealt with her as a person, like this silly, dumb blonde who said funny things every once in a while.
Sarah: And they were trying to sell it as, you know, “Isn't it kind of pre-Laguna Beach? Like, isn't it funny? Isn't it, you know, she's so tacky. She's so kooky.” You watch it and you're like, this is a woman whose life was falling apart and you're just watching it and it's like watching a cliff crumble into the sea and they do segments where they take her to, like, Morning Zoo shows where the DJ is just like, you know, they're like, “Anna, you used to be the most beautiful woman in the world, but then you gained a tremendous amount of weight” and she’s like, “I didn’t gain a tremendous amount of weight.”
Mike: Seriously? People actually said that to her face?
Sarah: Yeah! The thing where you’re profiting off of, like, a shameless figure is that you have to, in some way, be putting them in the stocks and showing your audience that they're superior to them and that's what that show is about too. Yeah. So those are the two zeniths of her fame. She was first this beautiful Amazon glamazon and then she came back as this universal figure of derision and then she died in 2007. I remember seeing it in the news and thinking like, “Yeah,” and not because I really knew anything about her life but because I knew that she was a kind of out of control figure who you just expect is eventually going to die of some kind of an overdose or a suicide or just something, because there is this whole class of women that the entertainment industry has essentially chewed up and spit out.
Mike: So, should we go back and do the Anna Nicole Smith story, the real Anna Nicole Smith story?
Sarah: Okay. So we're talking about addressing the central myth that always comes up in our tales of maligned women, which is the myth of female public figure, not human being. My argument is always female public figure, in fact human being after all.
Sarah: But also, specifically, I want to talk about the story of Anna Nicole Smith as the archetypal gold digger.
Sarah: What do you know about her marriage?
Mike: There was this dude toward the end of her life who, I think, was in his nineties, who she married, and I think he died before she died and there was a whole thing with the family and, I mean, she was the archetypal gold digger or at least that was the way that she was framed.
Sarah: Yes. And I also feel like when you look at the relationship that Anna Nicole Smith had with her husband, his name was J. Howard Marshall – I think people were drawn to that story because they had that exact thought of like, “Obviously we know that these people are only marrying each other, you know, for one reason. He wants her for sex. She wants this money” and inevitably it was more complicated than that because it was a human relationship and it also, I think, was arguably one of the better relationships in her life.
Mike: What do we know about that marriage?
Sarah: Well, let's start from the beginning.
Sarah: Anna Nicole Smith was born Vicky Lynn Hogan.
Mike: Wow. That's, like, a better model name.
Sarah: It is, but, you know, sometimes you just want to distance yourself from your birth name. She was born to a sixteen year old mom and to a dad who, according to one account, pled guilty to statutory rape and Anna grew up never knowing him.
Mike: Wow. Single mom? Single, 16-year-old mom?
Sarah: Who married a few other times and so Anna grew up with her in Houston and then was sent to live in Mexia, Texas with family. Mexia is two hours west of Houston. I've been there. It's very flat and it's very dry. This is a quote in a really wonderful article about Anna Nicole Smith that Dan P. Lee wrote for New York Magazine. It's a quote from Anna when an interviewer asks her about her childhood. She says, “You want to hear my child life? You want to hear all the things she did to me? All the things she let my stepfather do to me or let my brother do to me or my sister? All the beatings and the whippings and the rape? That's my mother.”
Mike: Holy shit.
Sarah: So we know she was someone who grew up suffering abuse. She also grew up extremely poor, at times in her childhood had to steal toilet paper from restaurant bathrooms because her family couldn't afford to buy any.
Mike: What was your mom doing for work?
Sarah: She was a deputy with the Harris County Sheriff.
Sarah: Yeah, cop mom.
Mike: So she made that little money working as a cop?
Sarah: Well, she also wasn't necessarily consistently with her mom. So she went to live in Mexia as a teenager. She dropped out of Mexia high at the end of ninth grade, got in a fist fight with another girl, which may have contributed to her leaving school. So she was, like, fifteen, started working at Jim's Crispy Fried Chicken and worked there as a waitress, and met a fry cook and they got together and got married and had a baby.
Mike: So she also became, like, a sixteen year old mom.
Sarah: She’d been talking about how she wants to be a model. You know, she has this dream of being a model and she was kind of an ugly duckling. Like, if you look at pictures of her as a teenager, it's hard to recognize her. If you have, like, the Guess Jeans girl in your head and it's partly just that she hadn't grown into her face and her figure yet, but it's also that you realize looking at pictures of her when she was a teenager that the person we know as Anna Nicole Smith was a very consciously constructed persona. She made her body, and she made the character that she was.
Mike: How so?
Sarah: So, when her son Daniel is three months old, she packs up the car and moves to Houston and says that her husband has been abusive and when she gets back to Houston, she gets jobs at Walmart and Red Lobster, but she's not making enough money and so one day she goes into a strip club and ask if they have any jobs waitressing and they say, “No, but why don't you dance?”
And so she starts dancing and she's not very good. She gets put on day shifts. She's, like, not a very good dancer. She has small breasts. She's considered, like, way too flat and she's tall. She's almost six feet tall and she's considered big boned. People actually, after she became the Guess Jeans girl, refer to her as “Anna Nicole Smith: big boned Guess Jeans model.” This is, like, lobbed at her as an insult.
Mike: No way. Wow.
Sarah: And like, as a person with big bones, like, look, it's a thing and what she figures out is that there's not that much money, you know, working the day shift and what kind of places are going to hire her with small breasts? This is in the late eighties. So, it's also the golden age of the silicone breast implants.
Mike: Oh, right.
Sarah: So, I have a video for you. So this is Anna Nicole Smith's video centerfold, which Playboy released after she became the Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1993. We're flashing forward a little bit, but we're looking at the end result of Anna's creation of her body.
Mike: Oh yeah, there it is. So, she's in black and white. We've got a camera zooming in on her face. She's in a bed sort of rolling around. Oh, she has really big boobs. Wow. Who would watch something like this for 35 minutes though?
Sarah: Straight men.
Mike: I guess. Sure.
Sarah: And so her original plan– it appears that there's a hierarchy of strip clubs in Houston and there's the kind of places like where she starts out working and then there's a place like Rick's, which is where the high rollers go, and Houston is a city of tycoons and oil men.
Sarah: So if you're dancing at a gentlemen's club where the gentlemen are coming and like, brokering their deals and having their good old boy scotches together, then like, there's money in those hills. Right?
Sarah: And so what she realizes is that she has to cultivate a look. So, she gets the blonde hair, and she starts saving up for breast implants.
Mike: Oh, so the blonde hair was not real?
Sarah: Oh, no. No. She had brown hair. She had lovely brown hair. And so her breasts ultimately take multiple surgeries to create and, according to the New York Magazine piece, contains three pints of fluid.
Mike: Three pints!?
Sarah: Yes. Like, think about how much that weighs and then think about walking around with that.
Mike: I mean, if we had the metric system this would be easier, but yeah. It's like a backpack full of books on the front of you all the time.
Sarah: It's exactly like that and so she has health issues because of this for the rest of her life. She has pain issues. Later on, one of her implants ruptures one day and so her nipple splits open.
Mike: No way. Ew.
Sarah: She has to be rushed to the hospital to fix it. At one point, she develops various lumps in her breasts that might be related and turn out to be benign, but she has to undergo surgery for that.
Mike: How does she afford them?
Sarah: You save. You work hard. She would, like, you know, she would work at the club that employed her regularly and then go pick up other shifts at other clubs and take whatever work she could get. You know, she hustled. It's really quite a Horatio Alger story. She came to the big city and she scrimped and she saved and she saved up all her dollar bills until she could afford huge boobs.
Mike: An investment in her future earnings.
Sarah: Yes. Like a property, essentially or a first business and then she got a job at Rick's.
Mike: So she made it.
Sarah: She made it. She made it to the big time strip club, and this is where she meets J. Howard Marshall.
Mike: Oh, so she met him years before all the other stuff?
Sarah: She met him when she was first starting out. She met him when she was a struggling single mom.
Mike: Oh wow. Okay.
Sarah: Yeah. So there are conflicting accounts of this because Dan P. Lee's excellent account says that he meets Ana in 1992 when she's twenty four, but Mimi Swartz writing for Texas Monthly actually puts their meeting earlier, has him coming into a club and meeting her earlier than that. But the issue is that until 1991, he has both a wife with advanced dementia and a longtime mistress who is also a legendary Houston area stripper named Jewel Dean Walker, also known as Lady.
Mike: Busy guy.
Sarah: Yeah, I know. He’s also working. In 1991 when his wife dies, he's 86 years old.
Sarah: He looks like the medieval knight who was guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like, he looks like he needs to be taken care of by professionals.
Sarah: And he got rich in the oil industry and then he got extremely rich because he was an early ally of the Koch brothers and so in the sixties, he ended up with a 14.6% share of Koch industries.
Mike: Okay. So he rode that into a much larger investment.
Sarah: Yes. So his fortune is estimated at about 500 million in the sources I read at the time that he marries Anna and a billion a few years later. So these things fluctuate, but he's incredibly wealthy and he's also regarded as a savvy businessman in the Houston business community. Like, he's one of the legendary deal makers. He's one of the pioneers of the oil industry. It's not just that he's wealthy. It’s that he's a captain of industry. He's the kind of person who, in America, is seen as having earned his money.
So in 1991, his wife dies and Lady, who is 51 at the time and who he's spent millions of dollars on especially in the years since his wife has essentially become unavailable to him, dies on the table while receiving a facelift.
Sarah: So he's 86 years old and he's lost, in the span of a few months, both his wife and his mistress.
Sarah: And he's devastated and drinking, which, like, if you're 86 years old and emotionally devastated, like, you can't really go on a bender because…
Mike: Your body can't handle it.
Sarah: You don't have a good bender margin. So what does he have to do but fall in love? And so, because he's so frail he can't go out at night, but his driver takes him to a strip club, some say GG’s, some say Rick's and any case, either he goes to a strip club where he sees her for the first time and falls hard for her or he's suddenly able to focus all of his energies and passions on her and all of his money.
And what everyone says later on, this is pretty unambiguous even when a lot else is, is that he's just incredibly effusive about how in love he is with her. He loves her. He loves her. He loves her. She is his lady love. She is his precious package. She calls him Papa. He apparently adores her breasts because they were bought to be adored, you know, and they go to Red Lobster and are sexually intimate with each other, to the extent that that's possible. He just is utterly effusive and adoring and affectionate and tells her about how he wants to take care of her and her son and make sure that they're provided for forever and he immediately starts proposing marriage, but she's like, “No, like, I'm not going to marry you.” He begins lobbying for her to marry him and works at her for two or three years
Mike: Oh, wow. Okay.
Sarah: Before she finally says yes and that, to me, was so surprising when I was first researching this because I was a kid in the nineties. I grew up with Anna Nicole Smith as someone who was– there was always like a VH1 special about her. She was like the emblem of white trash.
Sarah: She appeared on the cover of New York Magazine in 1994 as the cover girl for an article about how the epidemic of galloping sleaze was taking over America. She’s the poster girl for this.
Sarah: Yeah. You know, once we start looking at that for more than half a second, it just becomes hard to sustain any of this as a joke, because I think the assumption I always had, just going on the cartoons that I was offered and that I never cared to elaborate on because I was busy learning algebra or whatever, is that, you know, she found this frail, little husk of a man and, like one of the vampire broads in Dracula, just preyed on him and sucked the life out of him like a Siamese with a baby. That didn't happen. It was more like he saw her and fell in love with. I can see that if I were 86 years old and I were old and could feel the snuffer coming down on the candle of my life with every day, I would just want to, like, pay the biggest, bustiest, most beautiful woman I could find to, like, put her body next to mine as much as she possibly would. That's not a bad use of several million dollars.
Mike: Right. Do we know what she saw in him, or did she write or speak about?
Sarah: Oh yeah. Well, first of all, he's spending a ton of money on her. The day after they meet, they get together and eventually she says, “Well, I have to go to work” and he gives her a thousand dollars and says, “You never have to work again, my lady love.”
Mike: Oh, wow.
Sarah: This is a girl who grew up in a cold house, getting abused, not having any money, any resources, any way to make a better life for herself, aside from a very strategic plan of surgical alterations.
Sarah: And, you know, not just the money stuff, I mean, that's huge, but like, someone wants to take care of her and here's this guy who's also like, he can't hurt– he's too frail to be any kind of a threat to her.
Mike: Huge win. Huge win.
Sarah: If you’re a woman in America, knowing that the person you're marrying physically is incapable of turning abusive at some point is like, it's a consideration worth thinking about.
Sarah: Especially for her. You know, it's funny, I was thinking about this and just, you know, what did we want her to do? What would have been the virtuous path that she's a single mom trying to make a better life for her kid and find some stability and she's stripping and she's working all the time and she started taking Xanax and she started taking Benzos and she started, you know, developing dependencies on prescription drugs because she doesn't like her job. She doesn't like the work that she's doing, but she has to do it because it's by far the most lucrative field she could possibly be working in.
So, her dependency issues have already started. Her work has already started taking a toll on her health, both mentally and physically and here's someone who wants to lift her out of the coal mine. Did Americans look at Anna Nicole Smith in the nineties and say, “Well, if it were me and if I were this struggling, single mom, stripper, you know, working at a bunch of different clubs, driving around Houston, strung out on Benzos and some old, frail, millionaire tells me that he wants to take care of me and my son for the rest of my life and buy me jewelry and buy me clothes and tell me how beautiful I am, like, am I supposed to say, “No, you can't. I can't take advantage of you like that.”
Mike: “I'm going to go to coding academy.”
Sarah: Right? Like, what did people want her to do?
Mike: It feels like it's also really nice to just be adored by somebody.
Sarah: Yes, it is nice.
Mike: Even without the money. Just having someone who is just really attracted to you and really into you and thinks you're really special sounds pretty good.
Sarah: Yeah. And who you can feel in a very real way, like, you are like this vital, beautiful, sexual presence in the life of someone who really, really needs that. Like, you would feel valued.
Mike: What is the nexus of this with her career? What's happening with her career at this point?
Sarah: That’s a very good question. So, 1991-92 is a very big time in the book of Anna. She's also dating a bodybuilder named Clay and also had many intimate and sexual relationships with women throughout her life.
Mike: Oh, I didn't know that. Okay.
Sarah: And J. Howard Marshall apparently knows about this and doesn't mind her having sex with other people and having relationships with other people as long as he comes first. As long as, you know when he beckons her, she comes to him.
Mike: So all of this is happening pre-Guess?
Sarah: Oh yeah. So anyway, in 1991 her boyfriend Clay Spiers sends some pictures of her to Playboy because that's, you know, what boyfriends do. That sounds like I'm saying it sarcastically because that's my regular tone, but they do. Playboy has discovered a lot of women that way.
Sarah: And Playboy's centerfold casting director, Marilyn Grabowski, said that she was immediately just floored when she first saw Anna and that she was hands down the most beautiful woman she had ever seen outside of makeup.
Mike: Wow. Okay.
Sarah: Another thing Anna Nicole Smith doesn't get credit for aside from being a human being, I think she was a great beauty. She was beautiful in a way that made it very obvious that this was not organic. Like, I think if you're looking at a picture of Cindy Crawford, you can be like, “This lady just put on a little lip liner and then showed up in a corn field. She's just a natural ten, right?” Because that's sort of the fantasy and with Anna Nicole Smith, it was like she clearly had built the body and the image that she was in. Like, she had, you know, grown up watching Marilyn Monroe movies and memorized all of her lines and always wanted to be like Marilyn Monroe and to act in movies like her and to play parts like her parts and she had bought a Marilyn Monroe-on-steroids body. I mean, she was discovered, actually, in a very old Hollywood way, because her boyfriend sends the pictures to Playboy. Playboy brings her in and they put her on a cover. She becomes a centerfold.
Mike: So like, immediately? Like, immediately cover? Immediately centerfold? Immediately everything?
Mike: I think you had to, like, work your way up the ranks from, like, page forty-one and then you get on the cover after people know you a bit more, but wow.
Sarah: It was like everything suddenly came together for her. Like, she'd been saving and saving for these breasts and getting all these surgeries, you know, and she got the hair right and she sort of grew into her face because she has, like, a big jaw and a big chin and just has these great, like, dramatic bones. You know, she has sort of a Frank Lloyd Wright kind of a face happening, and she figured out how to carry herself.
She'd been performing for all those years and also something that everyone who worked with her said is that she gave great face. She was a great model. She was skilled at it. She was good at it. She worked very hard for many years and she became very good at all the industries that involve projecting sexuality and projecting– like, figuring out, like, what is the image that the men in the room want me to give them and then I'll do it and I'll do it 50 times and 50 different little ways and I'll do it for hours and hours and I'll give take after take and I'll perform it because I know how to do it.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, being a daytime stripper for years is extremely good practice in faking constant horniness.
Sarah: And that the man that you're looking at or the camera lens that you're looking at is, like, the love of your life and the only person that you want in these satin sheets with you. And so, she's in Playboy. She becomes the Playmate of the Year in 1993.
Sarah: Guess Jeans discovers her through Playboy, and she becomes the Guess Jeans girl and immediately is on huge billboards across the world and, in fact, there is a billboard of her in Norway that is alleged to have caused auto accidents when people are distracted by these huge images of Anna, the beautiful 50-foot woman.
Sarah: And the Norwegian parliament debates whether it should be legal to have a billboard of Anna Nicole Smith so prominently displayed to motorists.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, that does seem slightly overblown, but okay. These are the details that make up these stories.
Sarah: Her sexuality is, like, the strongest, most bewitching. You know, she's killing the Norwegians, Michael. And so at this time, like, she's making her own money. She's starting to be featured on, like, Entertainment Tonight, News Magazine Share. She's the Guess Jeans girl. She's this very sexy, but also very glamorous model and she's keeping it quiet that she has this relationship with this Houston oil man because if people find out about him, they're not going to see her as having made her own way and made her own name and like, excuse me, she did work for everything that she got.
Mike: Yeah, and models always do that. They always make themselves seem single or they're always coy about their love lives because it's part of the fantasy. Right? With a model, they have to seem available in some way.
Sarah: Right. That's true too. And also, J. Howard Marshall is realizing that he's not able to turn her head the way he used to.
Sarah: She is making her own money now and so he starts upping his spending.
Mike: Because he has to compete with Guess now.
Sarah: Yes! He has to compete with Guess and Playboy. Like, there are other men trying to fill Scarlet's dance card. He takes her to Harry Winston and asks her to pick out whatever she wants ,and she buys $2 million worth of jewelry.
Mike: You're kidding.
Mike: Jesus. That's so much money. Okay.
Sarah: Yeah. He starts pitching more woo and, interestingly, she finally accepts. She finally says, “Yes, I'll marry you.” And they got married in 1994 and it's, of course, huge news and she is relentlessly mocked and that's kind of the moment when she shifts from an aspirational figure to a joke. You know, she's not this beautiful, glamorous star anymore. You know, like, when you're getting a massage from someone and because your body is so fucked up, because you're an anxious person, they're just going through levels of tension and then they finally seem to find the bottom of it and they're like, “Oh yeah” and they dig their thumb into it?
Sarah: This, to me, is one of those parts. It’s the question of why were we so focused on making this a story where she was the one who had all the power? She doesn't control the money. Everything she has is a gift from him. It's all at his discretion. What we're essentially saying is that her breasts are more powerful than half a billion dollars.
Mike: Is this the period where she enters the sort of trough between Guess girl and reality TV star? When does the downfall begin?
Sarah: It begins when they get married because this is when she becomes a joke, because she's done something that we can be judgmental of and now we can just wash our hands of seeing her as a human being, because now she's getting a gold digger. She's an archetype. She's a wicked archetype. She's manipulating this poor old man for his money. No one is ever acting as if J. Howard Marshall can take responsibility for his own decisions even though he's still doing business at this time. He's active in finance.
Mike: Yeah. He's still a functioning adult. He's still a person doing stuff.
Sarah: Right. Play it as if it's, you know, either she tricked him or he was so old and infirm or sexually bewitched that he didn't have a choice, but it's like, maybe he made a choice and it was the choice that he'd made before with Lady for 10 years and it was just to launch a charm offensive at a beautiful, big-breasted woman whose affections he could essentially buy for himself and also, you know, who was spectacular and grateful and who I'm sure he saw something in beyond her body, because there are a lot of great bodies in Houston.
Sarah: And as I was thinking about this. I was like, why is the gold digger such a maligned figure? Like, why do we hate that person so much?
Mike: Well, I think it's because it's somebody who's getting money for nothing.
Sarah: Are they, Michael? Are they? I just think that, like, why do we act like it's harder to be born into a family than it is to fuck someone in that family? Sex work is a skilled trade and I do think that's part of this. Like, the Anna Nicole story is also the story of the question of what industry do we believe is more deserving of a big payout, you know, stripping and marrying and having sex for money or being an oil tycoon? I personally think that sex work is harder than oil tycoon-ship and has a much, much less of a negative impact on the world.
Mike: That's probably true to me. I just, to me, I'm not comfortable having any opinion on anybody else's relationships. I think everyone's marriage is a mystery. Fundamentally, to everyone but the two people in the relationship, it is weird, and you do not understand it and that is fine. It is none of my business and so, I think, when you see people that are dating across huge age ranges or across huge class divides or two people that just seem like, “I don't see any reason why these two people like each other”, it's none of my business. That relationship is a mystery to me. My parents' marriage is a mystery to me. Their parents' marriages are mysteries to them. Circle of life. I just feel like, in general, if a thirty-five year old woman marries a 95 year old man. It doesn't affect me in any way. I don't see why I need to have an opinion on that.
Sarah: Thank you. America thanks you. The bimbo community thanks you.
Mike: What happened to her modeling career? When does that kind of completely dry up?
Sarah: I mean, Guess was her big campaign. So, what happens is that they get married. She becomes a joke. A year later, he dies.
Mike: Oh, it was that fast?
Sarah: Yeah. He died a year after they got married.
Sarah: And for six months before he died, his son, Pierce, was very much in the mix.
Sarah: So J. Howard Marshall goes into the hospital because he has stomach cancer. He's suffering from pneumonia. He's just, in general, feeble health and Pierce becomes his guardian.
Sarah: And Anna later argues that Pierce, J. Howard Marshall’s son who's in his fifties at the time, changes his father's will and makes it so that Anna doesn't get anything. And also, she's been living in an apartment that he got for her in LA where Marilyn Monroe once lived, and also a ranch that he bought for her in Texas where she has horses and livestock and sometimes will have a sheep brought to her apartment in Houston when she can't sleep so she can have a sheep around to snuggle with. Which I find very endearing and Marie Antoinette-like.
So Pierce starts basically kicking her out of those properties and also, J. Howard Marshall, for years now, has been taking care of Anna's bills and she is running up about, you know, something in the six figures worth of expenses per month.
Sarah: Yes. It's a lot of money, but for a half a billion fortune. People spend millions of dollars on wine. People spend millions of dollars to own part of a racehorse. Like, I just think that buying an abused, single mom, whatever she wants for a few years is like, in the scheme of things, not a bad idea.
Mike: Right. On the scale of weird, rich people bullshit, it's not a ten. It's like a three.
Sarah: No. It's like a three.
Mike: We have the same rich people bullshit meter.
Sarah: That's great. So Pierce starts essentially separating her from his father's money. He basically gets in as a wedge between them. He makes it so that she can only visit him in the hospital for thirty minutes at a time and then after that she's escorted out by a security guy. And so he starts sending her bills directly to her, which, of course, she can't handle because she doesn't have income. Like, she has the Playboy stuff and she has some Hollywood stuff that's kind of happening and the Guess money, but like, she's not making millions of dollars. And he's told her, you know, probably dozens if not hundreds of times, that he wants to make sure that she's always taken care of and that she and her son will be taken care of forever. And so after he is released from the hospital, she gets in bed with him with a tape recorder and takes her clothes off and says, “Do you miss your rosebuds?”
Sarah: Referring to her breasts and presents him with her breasts, which presumably he has missed, and tries to get him to say into the tape recorder that he wants to provide for her and her son after he's died.
Sarah: But he's not really speaking very well.
Mike: So it doesn't really work.
Sarah: Yeah. And it's like, that moment, to me, is just like, it's playing dirty and it's playing dirty because someone else started it.
Sarah: Another thing I thought of kind of looking at how Pierce Marshall was trying to force Anna out of his father's money, that was kind of a miscalculation on his part, I think, because what happens is that J. Howard Marshall dies. Anna gets nothing and she sues and says that she is entitled to, perhaps, as much as half of the estate and if Pierce hadn't pushed her out and left her out in the cold and not taken care of her, then I don't think she would necessarily have asked for that much. Like if she'd been given, like, $20 million, like a decent lump sum or an allowance or the properties or something, you know, some very small amount of the whole, she very well might never have complained.
Mike: Yeah. She would have been a relatively cheap problem to resolve.
Sarah: Yeah. Pierce has apparently talked to his father about, like, “I really don't think you should marry this girl” and like, “What are you doing?” and his father says to him, “You're just jealous.”
Sarah: Yeah, and so he forces Anna out. And luckily, as it would happen, in 1980, there was a mega feud between the Koch brothers and also within the Marshall family. Sidebar: you just want to research a Playboy Playmate who you love, and you end up having to talk about finance.
So anyway, in 1980 Charles and William Koch are at loggerheads about whether to take their company public. William wants to take it public, Charles doesn't. J. Howard Marshall and his younger son, Pierce Marshall, side with Charles, and William Koch finds an ally in J. Howard Marshall’s oldest son and namesake, J. Howard Marshall III.
Mike: Weird. Okay.
Sarah: And so J. Howard Marshall III teams up with William Koch to try and take Koch Industries public, which doesn't work, but it essentially means that because of this business dispute, father and son never speak again.
Sarah: And J. Howard Marshall buys J. Howard III’s shares in Koch Industries for a few million dollars and then tosses him out. So, after Anna also gets left out in the cold, J. Howard Marshall III says, “Hey, why don't you and I make things difficult for Pierce Marshall and sue for our share of daddy's money?”
Mike: Wow. So it's like a survivor situation. They create an allyship.
Sarah: Yes! It’s called an alliance, Michael.
Mike: Alliance. Sorry.
Sarah: And so this ultimately goes to the Supreme Court.
Mike: No way.
Sarah: Yeah. The case of Marshall v. Marshall reaches the Supreme Court in 2006 and Anna, you know, appears and I just love this description because it's like, if you gave a robot instruction to do a mad lib of a boring legal sentence, this is what it would come up with: “It comes down to the question of whether federal courts have jurisdiction over probate matters, which are normally decided by state. So it is a federal versus state law jurisdiction question.”
Mike: Jesus, I just fell asleep during that sentence. What does that mean?
Sarah: I know! I lost you at the word probate.
Sarah: So, essentially, few wills are contested. Like 1% of wills go to court and probate matters are decided by state courts.
Sarah: But Anna and J. Howard Marshall III ticket to a federal bankruptcy court and so it's a question of who ultimately gets to decide?
Mike: Weird. Okay. And then what does the Supreme Court decide? What's the result?
Sarah: The Supreme Court decides that yes, a federal bankruptcy court can have jurisdiction over a contested will and so they send it down to an appellate court where it then molders until both Anna Nicole Smith and Pierce Marshall die.
Mike: Oh, no way.
Sarah: Yeah. Because they died fairly soon after the SCOTUS decision.
Sarah: And so then this money is still fought over for years. So it goes back to the Supreme Court in 2011.
Mike: You're kidding.
Sarah: And the 2011 Supreme Court decision says, and I quote, “Although bankruptcy court had the statutory authority to enter judgment on Vicky's counterclaim, it lacked the constitutional authority to do so.”
Sarah: What does that mean, Michael?
Mike: Nothing. I have no– those are just sounds. I have no idea.
Sarah: But everyone's dead by now, so it hardly matters. But anyway, there's an article that I read recently about an unfortunate man named Judge Mike Wood, who's a probate judge in Harris County, Texas and, until recently, it was his job to preside over Marshall v. Marshall and so there was basically a lawyer debate over a restraining order involving trust in some way that I don't understand, and Judge Mike Wood said to those assembled in court, “I am going off the handle officially. I am tired of this case. I've told you that from the beginning. I beg you to recuse me. I don't want to deal with you people anymore. This is ridiculous.” And the article I read says, “Judge Wood went on to say, ‘I am not going to spend a lot of time cutting at nits and nats for people that are fighting over twenty billion, ten billion that they didn't earn. They didn't create this wealth. It was created by a third party and they're just fighting over it.’ He then declared at the January 11th hearing that ‘It's just not the way I'm going to spend my life.’ A week later on January 18th, Judge Wood officially recused himself from the case.”
Sarah: Isn't that amazing?
Mike: There's something so funny about people just openly hating their jobs. It's the funniest. It’s always the bleakest thing.
Sarah: That's why I love flying Spirit Airlines.
Mike: Did Anna Nicole get any money before she died?
Sarah: So, after J. Howard Marshall died and she was cut out of the will and she began this legal battle, she declared bankruptcy.
Mike: Oh, she did?
Sarah: Yeah, and declared that she had $9 million worth of debt.
Mike: Oh my God.
Sarah: And then, you know, she got what work she could, which wasn't that much because she had fallen on hard times. You know, if you become favored by an industry for being a hard worker and being able to show up on time and give fifty great faces, you don't have that many years in you of doing that, especially if the industry you're working in is doing things to your psyche that you have to numb yourself too. She ends up living with this B movie director who's supporting her and her son in an apartment in L.A. She attempts suicide. During the time that she's in the hospital after that, there's the possibility that she might have suffered brain damage, I think because of the amount of time that she went without breathing.
Mike: Oh my God.
Sarah: This is a period during which one of her implants bursts. It's almost like a spell in a fairytale, right? Because she came to Houston in the eighties. She got her implants in the late eighties. She, you know, started to rise and she got about seven years’ worth of the thing that she sold her sanity for, essentially, and then it started to all go away. You know? It's like Ariel selling her voice. You know, it wasn't just that she wasn't getting work. It was that she was one of the many women who lived her entire life understanding that the only value she held for the world was being beautiful and being sexy and being fuckable and being fucked.
Sarah: And then if she wasn't able to offer those services, she didn't exist. You know? That was what made her an essential worker, right? Just the incredible anger that the public unloads on women when they become slightly less beautiful or slightly more old, so that it's not just a career. It's this existential thing where, like, if you can't stay at peak sexiness forever, who are you?
Sarah: She writes in her diary apparently about how she just doesn't even like sex. Men are always wanting sex and she doesn't even like it, you know? But like, she does it. This is the profession that has been chosen for her by circumstance.
Sarah: And so her substance abuse issues worsen. She's drinking. She's taking painkillers, anti-anxiety stuff, Later on, like, around the time she died, she develops these infected abscesses because she is injecting herself with weight loss stuff.
Mike: Oh no, really? Oh, that's so sad.
Sarah: It’s like she's one of the women in Death Becomes Her and, like, you broker this bargain to make yourself beautiful and the way that men want, but then it starts falling apart.
Mike: Yeah, that's awful. So when is there– is this before the reality show? After the reality show?
Sarah: This is before.
Mike: This is all before?!
Sarah: She led a long life, and she didn't live that long.
Mike: So E! put her on the retainer knowing how troubled she was?
Mike: Oh, that's super bad, dude.
Sarah: Wasn't that always the point?
Mike: So like, they knew she was addicted to pills and that she had a suicide attempt and that she was broke all that and they're like, “Let's just put a camera in her home twenty-four hours a day!”
Mike: Oh, that's so bad.
Sarah: It's dark as hell. It's the spectacle of watching someone barely holding their life together. And at this time her son, Daniel, is in high school, middle school and high school and so his friends are seeing his mom being drunk and out of it and zonked on TV just, you know, dealing with her addictions and with her trauma. They're watching something that only her therapist and her family should see and it's on cable.
Mike: Who was that weird lawyer in the show with her that was with her all the time?
Sarah: Howard K. Stern.
Sarah: They met in L.A. in the 90s and they began this very close relationship that seems like it was something that she– it seems like she was able to trust him because they weren't sexually involved and she kind of had sex with a lot of people without seeming to necessarily want to and they just had this apparently non-sexual relationship where he thought she was beautiful and dazzling and wanted to take care of her and she really needed someone to take care of her.
Mike: So, that was their relationship? Also financial?
Sarah: I don't think he was able to provide for her financially, but, I mean, he was able to broker the kind of work that she could get and, I think, also help escort her emotionally through these soul-damaging industries that were the only ways that she could work at that time in her life.
Mike: Jesus. It's so dark.
Sarah: Cause what the fuck else are you going to do? Right. So you're just, like, selling off little slices of your trauma. It's like a pound of flesh. No more, no less. Right?
Mike: So, what happened with the reality show? I mean, it was a rating success, right?
Sarah: It was at first. I think it was a novelty thing. I think, at first, the novelty of watching this out of control, shameless lady is, like, super fun, but then you sit with it and you're like, “This woman needs help and no one's helping her. They’re just filming her.” So, you know, it's on for a couple of years. It goes off the air and then what she really wants actually is to have a baby. She and J. Howard Marshall tried to have a baby. She very badly wanted to have a baby specifically because Daniel was getting older and getting more distant from her and the show especially seemed to kind of drive a wedge between them.
Mike: I mean, yeah.
Sarah: So, you know, he starts developing his own substance dependencies. He starts, you know, staying out and not coming home and not telling her where he is and they kind of… some distance develops between them, basically, which is really hard because this also was for him, right? Like, most stories are, at heart, The Godfather, I believe, and this is one of them. Like, she sacrificed herself to give him the kind of childhood that she hadn't had, which was just, like, a stable, decent one where you're not hungry and you're not abused, and you feel loved and taken care of and she couldn't do it. Like, she got millions of dollars, but she couldn't make a stable home for her son because no one showed her how or gave her the tools that she really needed to be able to do that. They gave her other stuff, but they didn't give her that.
Mike: Did she ever get into rehab for the pills?
Sarah: Yeah. She went to Betty Ford in the mid-nineties. She got clean for periods.
Sarah: Like, she was on the right track for periods, but just trauma and addiction are ghosts that are very, you know, they never really go away. It's just that ideally, they become very small and sort of friendly and just, like, very rarely tap on your shoulder.
Sarah: It's the choice between the Ghost of Christmas Past and Casper. There were times when things were more stable and there were times when they weren't and so in 2006, she finally gets pregnant and gives birth to the baby in The Bahamas. She is with Howard K. Stern. She named him as the father on the birth certificate, although he is not, and Daniel, who's twenty years old at the time, comes down to meet his new baby sister and spend time with his mom. They have this time together and they reconnect and then everyone goes to sleep and sometime in the night, he dies.
Mike: Daniel dies?
Mike: Oh fuck. Why? How?
Sarah: The cause ultimately named is combined drug toxicity.
Mike: Oh man. Jeez
Sarah: Which is also a way of saying, “We can't narrow it down to one specific cause, necessarily.”
Mike: They’re just like, “Lots of drug stuff.”
Sarah: But I mean, yeah. He's twenty. He's had addiction issues as well. Things seem fine and he just dies in the night and then Anna just goes right after him.
Mike: Like, how much time goes by?
Sarah: So she dies five months after him.
Sarah: From his death, her condition just deteriorates. Like, she had been in this certain– you know, this kind of hard instability. She had this new baby. They had this new family and she just… she gives up. You know? Her son is dead and so she's taking Klonopin. She's taking Valium. She's taking Ativan. She's taking liquid sleeping medication that she keeps in a baby bottle next to the bed. She has a 105 degree fever, which is caused by the infected abscesses that she's developed. It's not so much a specific cause. It’s just her body is like the Blues Mobile at the end of The Blues Brothers. Like, it does what it has to do and then at the end it just falls apart. Like, she just couldn't live anymore.
Mike: Yeah. God.
Sarah: And she dies.
Mike: So what's the actual technical cause of death? Is it an overdose or heart gives out or something?
Sarah: Yeah. The cause of death is listed as accidental drug overdose.
Sarah: You know, and I remember the response in the press just being like, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” And also, like, “You know, we were done with her.” It's like when you're a dog and you have a tennis ball and you love to play with the tennis ball and chase the tennis ball and chew the tennis ball but eventually you've just, you know, gnashed it with your sharp teeth for so long that it just doesn't even look like a tennis ball anymore and then your human comes home with a shiny new tennis ball and you just forget that the earlier tennis ball even existed because you're done abusing it.
Mike: It's super fucked up that we had a TV show that essentially documented the addiction that eventually killed her.
Sarah: When you put it that way.
Mike: And the show wasn't even seen as, like, a hard hitting, HBO, look-at-the-ravages-of-fame, look-how-difficult-it-is-for-people-after-their-fame-goes-away. No, it was like this cute little show. I remember there was, like, funny background music. There were little bits. They had a cute little intro.
Sarah: Yes. They had an animated theme song. If they did, like, a Prestige Anna Nicole show on Netflix now, it would win a thousand Emmy’s.
Mike: Yeah! They could use the same footage. You just have to use different background music.
Mike: Ah, so what does all this leave us with, Sarah?
Sarah: Well, I want to go back in time to one of the many legs of the long legal battle of Marshall v. Marshall. So while the case is being decided in Texas State probate court, Pierce Marshall is represented by Rusty Hardin, who has the opportunity to cross examine Anna Nicole Smith. Rusty Hardin is a legendary Houston defense attorney. He defended Arthur Anderson for their role in Enron.
Mike: Oh. Convergence.
Sarah: And according to our heroine, Pamela Colloff, who profiled him for Texas Monthly, he had an unbroken winning streak in felony jury trials when he was a prosecutor. She writes, “His closing arguments were pure theater. At the conclusion of a rape trial, he turned off all the lights in the courtroom asking the jury to consider the victim's fear in the darkness, but his most famous closing argument capped the sensational case of Cynthia Campbell Ray, who manipulated her boyfriend into shooting her parents at point blank range while she looked on. Rusty recreated the terror of Ray’s two young sons who were in the room when the murders were committed then reminded the jury of Ray's callous comment: ‘They're young. They'll get over it.’ Rusty repeated her words in disgust. Writer Clifford Irving, who chronicled the 1987 trial in Daddy's Girl, the Campbell murder case, wrote that Rusty then backed away from Ray ‘as if afraid of contamination.’ Before concluding his case, he hissed, ‘Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.”
Think about someone who learned how to be a lawyer prosecuting violent crimes cross-examining a woman who is guilty of marrying a rich guy who liked her and then expecting his family to keep his word after he dies. And what's the most amazing to me about it is that her testimony is that she loved her husband. He loved her and she loved him and he was always kind to her in a world where people weren't.
Sarah: And she's talking about loving him and mourning him and missing him and Rusty Hardin and says, “Are you taking new acting lessons, Ms. Marshall?” and she says, “Screw you, Rusty.”
Mike: Yeah, that sucks.
Sarah: That becomes “Shameless Vamp Anna Nicole Smith Attacks Man Just Doing His Job.”
Mike: Wow. Wait, so she was the villain in that exchange?
Sarah: Of course she was the villain! Of course she's the villain if she's being attacked on the stand by a legendary prosecutor. Of course she's the one with all the power, the same as she was when she married that billionaire, Michael!
Mike: Oh my God.
Sarah: This is what I want to leave you with, that she was sincerely expressing sadness about someone who had died and who had taken care of her and made her life better and made her feel safe and told her that he would take care of her and make her safe forever and then he died and his family took it all away from her and left her out in the cold and she tried to get what she had been promised and honor the wishes of this person who had cared about her and she is being treated as if she is a murderer.
Mike: God. I thought this was going to be a story about how the modeling industry chews people up and spits them out. I didn't know this was going to be sort of a love story gone wrong or at least a romance gone wrong.
Sarah: Michael, you know that if you told me to research marshmallows for a week, I would find a way to bring it back to being an overzealous prosecutor’s fault or at least an overzealous prosecutor typifying the problem with America.
Mike: True. True.
Sarah: What, to me, is so important about that description of Rusty Hardin and how he wins his guilty verdicts is this idea that he is taking the defendant and hissing the word “shame” at her and backing away from her “as if she's contaminated.” He figured out that that's how you win trials. You win a trial by selling the better story and the better story in this case is that if there's someone who you, as a citizen, feel like being judgmental of, then like, yes. Have a blast. Go for it. And you can apply that to anything. It doesn't have to be a violent crime. It doesn't have to be something morally atrocious. It can be greed or not wanting to be poor anymore. You put the person who you want the people to decide against in the position of representing what they're afraid of seeing in themselves.
Sarah: And you can get people to hate them.
Mike: I mean, the fact that we've done it, like, fifty times, I think is good evidence for that argument. But it's happened to many other people, that they just get chewed up and spit out and then we call them the villain of their own downfall.
Sarah: Right. This is a story also about the endless and undignified and ridiculous legal battle between a group of impossibly rich people who are, as that pissed off judge said, fighting over a bunch of money that none of them earned and we chose to see that not as a story about the absurdity of those people, but about Anna Nicole Smith’s fault.
Sarah: So maybe I'm just going to take my broader points and make them into one big, broad point, which is maybe that every time we, as a society, feel like judging anyone, it almost certainly is either not about them or about things much more complicated than them as individuals. Like, if someone emerges as the focal point for our judgmentalness or our anger, it's probably because they're serving as a clue that there's something wrong with the bigger picture. It's not because they're the problem.
Mike: Or there's a technical legal battle involving the Koch brothers behind it all.
Sarah: But I mean, what do you think of Anna Nicole Smith at the end of all this? Like, how do you see her as a person?
Mike: I mean, as we always find in these stories, she wasn't all that important of a part of it in a way.
Sarah: Like, the Anna Nicole Smith story that we claim to be telling, is not actually about her?
Sarah: Before the country has the ability to abuse her, it's like a story about a woman who is involved with a powerful man who makes questionable decisions and then instead of looking at the powerful man's decisions or assuming that he has any control over his own choices, we blame it all on her breasts. Also like, I think this is a story about how J. Howard Marshall succeeded in every way that a man is supposed to succeed in America and lived the American dream, like, in as out-sized a way as Anna lived the dream of getting boobs and at the end of his life was his life was just miserable and lonely and didn't really like his kids that much and just wanted to have a nice stripper lay in bed with him.
Mike: Seems understandable.
Sarah: If accepting that people want love more than money allows us to stop abusing strippers, then I think we can all let that sink in.
Mike: Do what you want to do. Fall in love with who you want to fall in love with and get everything in writing.