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The death of a centerfold

Even in death, Anna Nicole remains an object of fascination, speculation and sympathy. Natalie Morales reports.
Anna Nicole Smith poses for photographers after arriving for a movie premiere Feb. 14, 2005, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.
Anna Nicole Smith poses for photographers after arriving for a movie premiere Feb. 14, 2005, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Danny Moloshok / AP

She rose from a tiny Texas town to become one of the most well-known women in the world.

But for many, Anna Nicole Smith will be remembered for being over the top, out of control, often seeming precariously close to a very public implosion.

And then on Thursday afternoon, that implosion finally came, in a suite at a Florida hotel and casino.

With her unexplained death at age 39, the comparison to Marilyn Monroe that Anna had courted her whole life seems more apt than ever.

But Anna Nicole was an extreme version.  If Marilyn was "a candle in the wind," Anna was more like "a matchstick in a hurricane."

Anna Nicole’s life was marked by a series of dramatic transformations—unlikely triumphs followed by painful setbacks. All in a quest for attention that ultimately brought as much heartache as it did satisfaction.

Paula Froelich, New York Post: I think she got what she wanted. she got the fame, she got the money and then she got there and she just kind of said, “now what?”

Tonight, the latest on the questions surrounding her death, exclusive information about where her baby girl could be now... and the whole story of Anna Nicole Smith from those who worked with her, those who grew up with her, and those who were with her during those times when everything was falling apart.

She grew up Vickie Lynn Hogan in Mexia, Texas, raised by her single mom, a deputy sheriff.

Gail Harrison, Anna’s first cousin and friend: We struggled, our whole family did. We weren’t what you would call “dirt poor” but we were not what she became.

Anna dropped out of high school and found work at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken. She found love with the fry cook, Billy Smith, who became her first husband. She was 17. He was 16. Their son Daniel was born a year later.

Harrison: He was her pride and joy. You could look at thousands of pictures and you could tell how she loved him and he loved her too.

The marriage didn’t even last until Daniel’s second birthday. Anna was now a young single mom with little money and little education to fall back on. But Anna was about to make her first big transformation.

She moved to Houston, started sending out photos to modeling agencies and magazines. To pay the bills, she worked in a strip club.

Harrison: A lot of people didn’t approve but it was her life, it was her choice.

That’s where she met oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall the second. If opposites attract, the pull between Howard and Anna must have been powerful. She was 23. He was 86.  She was barely making ends meet. He was worth 1.6 billion dollars. 

Harrison: I don’t believe she was after him for his money. I think it was a two-way street. She enjoyed his money and he enjoyed giving it to her.

Things were starting to look up for Anna’s career too. The small town girl with the big time body caught the eye of Hugh Hefner at Playboy magazine. She was a cover girl in 1992, a centerfold in 1993, and playmate of the year.

Ray Manzella, manager: A lot of people can be photographed and they can be beautiful. I think what Hefner had seen, is the amazing way that she could go after the camera. 

Personal manager Ray Manzella, had hoped to strike a deal with Anna Nicole.

Manzella: I mean, I think Marilyn Monroe even said it once. Something like “making love to the camera.” I mean, she owned that camera. 

The people at Guess? Jeans thought so too. She became the face—and body—for a major ad campaign.

The rising model married her wheelchair bound soul mate in a small ceremony at Houston’s White Dove Wedding Chapel in 1994.

Some called her “a gold digger.” She called herself “a woman in love.”

And Anna seemed to be thriving on her newfound celebrity.

But trouble at home would soon overshadow her burgeoning fame. Marshall died of pneumonia just 14 months after they said their “I do’s.” At the funeral, the widow wore white.

J.D. Heyman, People Magazine: Whether or not these publicity stunts helped her is an open question. They just went to this idea that she was an erratic person who would do anything for publicity.Natalie Morales, NBC News: But was she did she drive the attention to herself or was it more the tabloids looking for that? Heyman: Well, I think Anna had a very strange relationship with the media. She craved the attention.

It was around the same time that Ray Manzella noticed she had undergone another one of her transformations. And it wasn’t a good one.

Manzella: She had come into my office and I was shocked that it was the same person, because she had put on so much weight.

Weight problems and substance abuse would become an ongoing theme for Anna. During her marriage, she’d been hospitalized briefly for an overdose of alcohol, Vicodin, and Xanax.

And now, Anna was headed for the first of many long, downward slides.

After the death of her billionaire husband J. Howard Marshall, Anna Nicole Smith should have been living her dream in vivid Technicolor—the one about being Marilyn Monroe, blonde, beloved and seriously bejeweled.

But the glide down easy street quickly hit a pothole.  Her late husband’s family said the gold digger should get nothing.  It kicked her and her son out of the family mansion.  She was broke and humiliated. 

J.D. Heyman, People magazine: I think it was a personal slight to her that she felt that they were kicking her to the curb—sort of the opportunistic—you know, country girl who came and took this old man for a ride.

But People magazine’s J.D. Heyman says the treatment stoked a fire beneath that so-called dumb blonde exterior. Anna Nicole took the family to court, claimed her husband had promised her money.  Her lifestyle, she said, demanded a certain budget.  

Since Anna Nicole wasn’t mentioned in her late husband’s will, the court sent her home without a dime.

But she kept fighting: winning and losing court battles.  Gaining and losing pounds too.  At times she seemed to delight in throwing her weight around for a hungry paparazzi and public.

That and her insatiable hunger for the spotlight timed perfectly with a rising pop culture phenomenon – reality TV.

It seemed-tailor made for the one-time stripper.  “The Anna Nicole Smith” show debuted in 2002 on E! Entertainment Television. With her negligees and ditsy personality, she gave new meaning to the term “boob tube.”

She was working with her lawyer Howard K. Stern and trying to mother her devoted teenage son Daniel. 

Paula Froelich, New York Post columnist:  She did everything for her son and she needed to go to work because her son needed her. And I think having Daniel there kind of kept her straight and narrow, in the straight and narrowest way she could be.

Viewers took to the show like bystanders at a car crash.  The show was a hit.  But with the ratings came ridicule.  Her bizarre behavior and weight became fodder for tabloids.

Suddenly, the girl who seemed so comfortable in her own skin was cringing.  She started shedding pounds and raving about a diet pill called Trim Spa.

In 2003, she became its spokesperson, reportedly losing more than 60 lbs.  Along the way she also seemed to be losing a little self-control.

At the 2004 American Music Awards she offered the memorable line, “like my body?”

People wondered were drugs and alcohol taking over? 

And then in 2005 a stunning announcement: the Supreme Court would weigh in on the case of Anna Nicole’s lost millions from her late billionaire husband.

NBC Legal Analyst Susan Filan: What did that prove? I think it proved you can’t laugh at her anymore you’ve got to take her seriously.

Better yet the justices agreed with her: Anna Nicole’s case, they said, deserved a new hearing. And for fans of her Web site, there was another happy announcement.

Anna (on video on her site): Let me stop all the rumors. Yes, I am pregnant.

The father, she later said, was her former lawyer and reality show co-star Howard K. Stern. She gave birth in September of last year in a hospital in the Bahamas to Dannielynn, a baby girl that friends said she had always wanted.   And there at her side was her 20-year-old son Daniel. 

It was rare moment of joy... and fleeting, too. 

The news sounded incredible when Daniel had died in the hospital room where she had just welcomed a daughter into the world. Suddenly Anna was no longer a favorite kooky celebrity—she was a real mother inexplicably torn between loss and life.  It seemed to drain that fiery spirit.

Natalie Morales, NBC News: At what point did her fight end? When did she stop fighting?J.D. Heyman: It’s clear that when Daniel died, the fight went out of her.

A pathologist hired by the family said Daniel had died from a lethal drug combination.There was instant public sympathy for the grieving mother and—a few weeks later—utter confusion, when some photos came to light.

Snapshots of Anna Nicole and her new prince charming, in a pseduo-wedding ceremony, jumping into the sea.   But it may have been a last splash for the paparrazzi. After that, she was seen less often in public.  One reason may have been a paternity fight.

An old boyfriend, Larry Birkhead, had surfaced claiming he— not Stern— was the biological father of her new baby.  He was demanding a paternity test. She seemed to be in hiding.

Then, earlier this month, the other glass slipper dropped:  word that she and Trim Spa were being sued  for misleading claims about those diet pills.  The company told NBC the allegations were ridiculous.

Froelich: She lived with law suits for, I don’t know, seven or eight years already. And then here’s another one. I think she just kind of felt it was never-ending. And that every phone call she got was another law suit. 

Looking back, it’s hard not to see the danger sign, up ahead, screaming in neon. 

As the year began, Anna Nicole Smith was keeping—for her—a low profile in the Bahamas with her baby Dannielynn and her ex-lawyer, turned constant companion, Howard K. Stern.

Alex Goen CEO of Trim Spa, is a business associate and close friend of them both. He said Anna Nicole was still trying to come to terms with the loss of her son.

Alex Goen, Trim Spa CEO: Typically, there wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t have at least one episode in which—she was—crying for maybe an hour to three or four hours. 

Anna Nicole and Stern’s recent visit to Florida was supposed to be for pleasure. They were closing the deal on a 39-foot powerboat. The papers were signed, the boat cruising back to the Bahamas.

There was no clue on Thursday that a very public life was about to meet an equally public end.

That afternoon at 1:38 p.m., a private nurse traveling with Anna Nicole called the front desk at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel to report finding Anna Nicole unconscious.

Moments after that SOS call, Anna Nicole’s bodyguard, the husband of the private nurse and a paramedic himself—reached the scene and attempted to revive her. EMTs arrived at the hotel just after 2 p.m.

Anna Nicole was taken by ambulance to a trauma center where she was pronounced dead at 2:49 pm.

Goen, who spoke to Stern this morning, says Anna Nicole’s companion is devastated:

Goen: First 12 hours or so, he was sobbing—non-stop, having difficulty catching his breath.  I mean, and understand he lost his wife.  He lost someone that he catered to for the last, almost 15 years of his life.

As word of Anna Nicole’s death spread, questions swirled: Could it have been an accidental drug overdose? Suicide?  Or foul play? After the life she’d lived, even those who’d known her the longest, wondered.

Gail Harrison, Anna Nicole’s cousin: I’m shocked about her death but I’m not surprised. She has battled so much lately, I mean she, I’m not sure if she committed suicide. I don’t think we’ll know until all the tests are in. But I do know she was so distraught that maybe and at one point, she didn’t want to be around… or I don’t know.

By mid-day Friday, there were still more questions than answers. Star magazine reported that an unnamed source had seen prescription medicine in Anna Nicole’s room.

Bonnie Fuller, executive editor, Star magazine: The information that we have comes from somebody who actually was in the hotel room and saw it after she was removed.

At least one aspect of the case seemed closed.

Chief Charlie Tiger, Chief of Seminole Police Department:  No evidence has been revealed to indicate a crime has been committed. We found no illegal drugs only prescription medicines.

The medical examiner did report that no significant quantities of prescription drugs were found in her stomach. But it could be three to five weeks before he had conclusive results from the toxicology tests.  

And there will be much more to sort out in the weeks to come, beginning with the fate of her 5-month-old daughter.

In Los Angeles on Friday, ex-boy friend Larry Birkhead went to court seeking an immediate DNA test on Anna Nicole’s body.

His attorney, Debra Opri.

Debra Opri: Larry is the father of Dannielynn and we need that DNA test to prove it, and they won’t give it to us.  And, we will keep fighting in court until we get it. 

The judge declined to mandate the DNA test but did order that Anna Nicole’s body be preserved until a hearing February 20th.

Natalie Morales, NBC News: Why is her DNA even in question here?  Why do they need a sample of her DNA?Susan Filan, NBC legal analyst: Well, in a typical paternity case, and there’s nothing typical about this case, you do it with a triad, mom dad and baby.  That’s just the way it’s done, standard operating procedure. But in a case like this, when there’s potentially a half a billion dollars at stake, you never want a claim of switched babies at birth by accident in the hospital. And when this child is 15 someone says, you know, “that’s not really Anna Nicole’s baby, I’m Anna Nicole’s baby.”

And if the father is neither Howard K. Stern, nor Larry Birkhead, yesterday Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband number 8, Prince Frederick Von Anhalt,announced he’d had a decade long affair with Anna Nicole and was the baby’s father. But even he wasn’t sure.

Frederick Von Anhalt: I’m sure there are other men, there could be easily 20-30 men.

And the question on everyone’s mind today: Where is baby Dannielynn? 

Goen says Stern took action after a break-in last night at Anna Nicole’s home in the Bahamas. 

Goen: Thank God Howard was very clever. In fact, when Anna passed, he recognized that Dannielynn could be somewhat unsafe in the house, even though she was in very good care—told the people watching the baby—who are very close friends of Howard’s—actually family members—to take the baby to an undisclosed location for safety… He made sure Dannielynn Hope was completely secure.

So for now, Goen says the baby is safe and Anna Nicole’s will is safe in Stern’s hands.  

As for the $400 million dollar question: Will her estate ever get a hold of the money, and if so, who are the heirs?  It’s likely they’ll be coming out of the woodwork.

But for a very small child in the Bahamas, it’s about more than money and paternity and the law.

Morales: What are we left with of Anna Nicole?  Filan: What’s left is a 5-month-old baby, who’s got no mother. This baby will never feel it’s mom’s kiss, will never feel its mom’s arms around her, doesn’t know who her father is, doesn’t know what her fate is.

In the end, it was the remains of little Vicki Lynn Hogan, all grown up, that were removed from that Florida hotel room. Death imitating art like some country western chorus to “Goodbye Norma Jean.”

J.D. Heyman, People Magazine:  She really became, sadly, at the end of her life, sort of a caricature of herself.  Not just a caricature of Marilyn Monroe, but a caricature of Anna Nicole Smith. Sort of a copy of a copy of a copy.  And I think that was deeply tragic.

Yet, whatever her shortcomings, just this one last time, we couldn’t take our eyes off Anna Nicole Smith.