Playmate became tabloid star

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — 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 yesterday in a Florida hotel poignantly echoes that of her idol.

Ms. Smith's rollercoaster life of fame, fortune, weight battles, legal entanglements and tragedy proved irresistible fodder for the chroniclers of pop culture - the tabloids, the entertainment TV shows, the 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, earned money with her own reality show, became a spokeswoman for a weight-loss supplement, won a precedent-setting Supreme Court case, and lost her grown son mere days after giving birth to a girl last year.


Ms. Smith was in Florida with her partner and attorney, Howard K. Stern, to shop for a yacht when a nurse in her entourage found her collapsed and unresponsive 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 Ms. Smith's room at 1:45 p.m., and a Seminole police officer was sent as well, said tribal Police Chief Charles Tiger. Ms. 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 spokesman Gary Bittner.

The cause of death for Ms. 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 take weeks.

Born Vickie Lynn Hogan on Nov. 28, 1967, in Houston, Ms. Smith had been bathing in a media spotlight for 15 years. It intensified in recent months with the death of her 21-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 spokeswoman.

Ms. Smith's death casts uncertainty on a Los Angeles Superior Court judge's order 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, her most recent romantic partner, says he is Dannielynn's father.

The Los Angeles attorney who has represented Ms. Smith in the paternity matter, Ronald A. Rale, said yesterday that he would be in court today.


Ms. Smith, a topless dancer in the early 1990s, first entered the spotlight as a Playboy cover girl after submitting her photos in a contest. Within a year, she was named 1993 Playmate of the Year. She modeled for 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 III had been frequenting the Houston strip club where Ms. Smith had worked since 1991, and they wed in 1994 when he was 89, she 26. Fourteen months after the marriage, Mr. Marshall was dead, and the still-unresolved fight over his vast wealth began between Ms. Smith and his sons.

Ms. Smith was often maligned as a gold digger, but court records show that Mr. Marshall loved her and had intended for her to be financially secure.

Ms. Smith went to court in 1999 asking for half her husband's $1.6 billion estate, and 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 $88 million. In 2006, she won a unanimous Supreme Court ruling. The case is still pending.

As the share of Mr. Marshall's estate that she claimed was held up in court challenges, Ms. Smith ran into financial troubles, wrestling with drug addiction and weight gain.

Tipping the scales at more than 200 pounds, she landed a contract in 2002 modeling plus-size lingerie for Lane Bryant and began a two-year run of The Anna Nicole Show on the E! network, which often showed her disoriented and incoherent in scenes at her home and around Los Angeles.


Carol J. Williams and Robin Abcarian write for the Los Angeles Times.