Divorced as a teen, widowed at 27, and now dead at 39, Anna Nicole – or Nikki, as people in her hometown of Mexia, Texas, first called her – lived a life worthy of a soap opera.
When she was only 17, she married 16-year-old Billy Smith, who worked with her at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken. The short-lived marriage produced a son, Daniel, who, after his parents’ divorce, was left by Anna Nicole with her mother, Virgie Hart, while she scraped together a living as a single mother.
Fiercely driven, Anna Nicole in 1991 sent nude photos of herself to Playboy, which featured her as 1992’s Miss May. That led to a Guess jeans contract and a ticket out of Mexia.
Also in 1991, she met billionaire oilman J. Howard Marshall II at a Houston men’s club where she was working as a stripper. They wed in 1994. She was 26; he 89.
When Marshall died 13 months later, Smith found herself locked in a vicious battle with his son, E. Pierce, over a $1.6 billion estate. E. Pierce died in June 2006, but the fight continued after a May 2006 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Smith to pursue her suit in Federal Court.
While her behavior – on her eponymous E! reality show and in her appearances as a spokesmodel for TrimSpa – was often labeled outlandish, no one ever doubted that she was a loving mother to Daniel.
The holidays were particularly important to her. “I don’t have any good memories from Christmas when I was a girl,” Smith told PEOPLE in 2004. “So I tried to make them special for Daniel. We never missed a trip to the mall to see Santa to take pictures.”
But on Sept. 10 of last year, the unthinkable happened. Daniel, then 20, died suddenly in a Bahamas hospital room, three days after his mother had given birth there to a to 6-lb. 9-oz. daughter.
The death sent a shattered Smith into seclusion, despite her joy at the birth of her new child, Dannielynn Hope. “She’s overwhelmed,” her Bahamian attorney, Michael Scott, told PEOPLE shortly after the tragedy. “She’s trying to come to grips with the depths of her despair.”
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a private coroner hired by the Smith family, told PEOPLE that Daniel’s death was the result of a lethal combination of medications including methadone, Zoloft and Lexapro. The death will be investigated by a Bahamian court in an inquest due to begin March 26, Chief Magistrate Roger Gomez tells PEOPLE.
But after Daniel’s passing, Smith’s story only got more complicated. On Sept. 26, Smith’s U.S. attorney and confidant, Howard K. Stern, 38, announced on Larry King Live that he was Dannielynn’s father – despite a paternity claim by Los Angeles photographer Larry Birkhead, 34.
Then, on Sept. 28, Smith and Stern held a commitment ceremony on a catamaran off the coast of the Bahamas’ Paradise Island.
By late October, Smith was ready to talk about Daniel, telling TV’s Entertainment Tonight, “I don’t understand why God took him and didn’t take me.” She also said of daughter Dannielynn, “She looks like Daniel.”
But life showed no signs of calming down. This week, Smith and TrimSpa were sued in a class-action lawsuit alleging their marketing of a weight-loss pill was false or misleading, and on Wednesday a judge ordered that Smith and Dannielynn submit to a DNA test to determine the infant’s paternity.
But even before this week’s developments, the drama had clearly taken its toll. Entertainment Tonight correspondent Mark Steines, writing on the show’s Web site, said that when he interviewed her in October, she seemed different than she had when he’d met her in the past. “She seemed calmer, sadder,” he wrote. “A bit broken, yet she looked quite beautiful.”
Visit PEOPLE.com for continued coverage of Anna Nicole Smith as the tragic story continues to develop.