September 25, 2006 12:00 PM

For all that has been said about her sometimes-complex private life, Anna Nicole Smith has had one steady guy by her side for the past two decades: her son Daniel. Divorced as a teen, widowed at 27, Smith regularly treated Daniel “to the Cheesecake Factory, or some pizzeria, or Magic Mountain; they loved going to Magic Mountain,” says her good friend and interior designer Bobby Trendy. More recently, Daniel was his mother’s frequent red-carpet date, as well as a fixture on her movie and commercial shoots. “Every time we did an event, Anna insisted that Daniel come,” says Alex Goen, CEO of Trimspa, the diet supplement that Smith has promoted for the past three years. “She would always go out of her way to convey to me the importance of getting him great accommodations, because he was incredibly important to her. He was her life.”

No wonder then that Smith wanted Daniel there for a particularly special event. Having flown to the Bahamas, she had settled into her recently purchased Nassau home and was awaiting the arrival of her second child. “She was looking forward to having Daniel there with her for the birth,” says Smith’s friend, All My Children star John James, who visited Smith in Nassau in early September. “She was totally fired up.” Also on hand was Smith’s lawyer and confidant Howard K. Stern. She checked into Nassau’s Doctors Hospital and on Sept. 7 delivered via cesarean section a daughter, whom sources say she named Hannah. (She has never identified the baby’s father.) Two nights later Daniel, a student at L.A. Valley College, arrived at the hospital to celebrate. Smith even arranged for an extra bed to be placed in her hospital room so that he could be by her side. It was “one of the happiest days of Daniel’s life,” Goen says. “He was happy that after a difficult pregnancy, Anna was doing well, the baby was healthy and was going to have a great life.”

And then, the unthinkable. That night Smith, 38, and her son, 20, went to sleep in their private room on the second-floor maternity ward in Doctors Hospital. At some point “Daniel got up to make sure she was comfortable,” says friend David Giancola, director of Illegal Aliens, which stars Smith. “Then they both went back to sleep. When Anna got up the next morning, she found him not breathing.”

A hospital witness says that when Smith discovered Daniel, she tried desperately to revive her son, to no avail. At a press conference, hospital president Barry Rassin explained that when doctors found Daniel unresponsive, “they initiated CPR. Resuscitation efforts … continued for 22 minutes without response.”

“It was absolutely heartbreaking,” says Trendy, who received a call in L.A. with the bad news. “She was in hysterics. I could hear her screaming in the background. She sounded awful, almost suicidal.”

But what could have taken such a young life? Friends of the Smiths’ report that Daniel had recently suffered some health issues. “He had problems with his heart racing and had been in the ICU a couple of times, and no one diagnosed anything,” says Giancola. All coroner Linda Virgill could confirm to PEOPLE was “the cause of death is not natural.” At press time final results from the autopsy and toxicology reports had not been released, and the Bahamian police had opened an inquiry, as is standard in unexplained deaths. Says police press officer Walter Evans: “He is a 20-year-old male, and not many people die that young of a heart attack.” Until all the reports are in, Virgill adds, Smith will not be allowed to take Daniel’s body back to the U.S. for burial.

None of the many friends who saw Daniel in recent years and spoke about him to PEOPLE believes that drug abuse was a factor. By all accounts Daniel was a straitlaced young man who “you wouldn’t believe [was] spawned by Anna Nicole,” says one acquaintance affectionately. Some may have questioned Smith’s decision to have him participate in The Anna Nicole Show, her often-bawdy reality series that aired on E! Television from 2002 to 2004. “But even her most vehement detractors reluctantly admitted that she was a good mother,” says Gabriel Rotello, who directed a 2003 Showtime documentary about Smith. “Daniel was just a really well-adjusted, smart kid.”

An 18-year-old waitress married to 17-year-old fry cook Billy Smith when their son was born, Anna Nicole was divorced from Billy in 1987 and left Daniel with her mother, Virgie Hart, while she scraped together a living as a single mother. Speaking outside his Mexia, Texas, home, Billy Smith says he hasn’t seen his son since he was 2 and only learned about Daniel’s death “when my brother read it on the computer.” Still, he says, he has “no hard feelings” toward his ex-wife and adds that his memories of Daniel are fond ones: “He was a good baby, well-loved.”

Smith saw to that. Although her parenting skills were, at times, unconventional (she drank with him when he was underage, saying, “I want to be with him the first time he’s going to do it, because he’s going to do it anyway,” recalls E! senior vice-president Jeff Shore, who created her reality TV show), she also strived to give him the tender moments she wished she’d had. “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.”

Smith’s fortunes changed in 1991, when she met billionaire oilman J. Howard Marshall II while she was a stripper at a Houston men’s club. Smith went on to land modeling gigs for Guess? jeans and as a Playboy cover girl; in 1994 she and Marshall wed. (She was 26; he 89.) But when the groom died 13 months later, Smith found herself locked in a vicious battle with Marshall’s son E. Pierce over a $1.6 billion estate. E. Pierce died in June, but the fight continues thanks to a May decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Smith to pursue her suit in Federal Court.

But that good news paled in comparison to how she felt when she learned she was pregnant again. For years “she had a hope chest with girls’ clothes in it,” says Eric Redding, a photographer who helped launch Smith’s modeling career. “She always talked about if she had another child, she would want it to be a girl.”

Now friends are hoping that the new baby will give Smith the strength to pull through. “I can’t imagine what she’s going through,” says Goen. “But knowing her, she recognizes that she’s going to have to pull herself together because her new baby girl needs her mom.”

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