August 21, 1995
Last summer, bountiful, 27-year-old Anna Nicole Smith – actress, model and former waitress at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken in Mexia, Texas – married Houston oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, 89. (One more time: That’s eighty-nine.) Cynics – whose number, later court actions suggest, includes Marshall’s son Pierce – speculated that perhaps Smith had wed the ailing, wheelchair – bound zillionaire for reasons other than romance. Notso, she protested. “I know people think I married Howard for his money,” she would later say. “But it’s not true. I love him.” Nonetheless, moments after the ceremony at Houston’s White Dove Chapel, Smith kissed her new groom on the cheek and took off, without him, on a modeling assignment in Greece.
Fast forward one year. On Aug. 4, J. Howard Marshall II, 90, died of pneumonia following months of illnesses, and the question of what would happen to his fortune, estimated at more than $500 million, acquired a new urgency. In fact, Smith and E. Pierce Marshall, who was granted power of attorney over his father’s money shortly after the marriage, have been circling each other in court for months – but more about that later. Last week the immediate issue was who would arrange the funeral, and how, and the results illustrate the depth and texture of this Texas-size family feud. Pierce has arranged a dignified, private funeral for Aug. 13. Before that could take place, however, Smith staged a separate, and very memorable, memorial service of her own, on Aug. 7 at Houston’s Geo. H. Lewis & Sons funeral home.
To begin with, the widow wore white – a dress with a plunging back and a neckline that plunged further. She also wore the white veil from her wedding. Her son, Daniel, 9 – from a brief teenage marriage to Billy Smith, a coworker at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken – wore a white tuxedo and matching patent-leather shoes and carried a small black dog. J. Howard Marshall II lay in a burnished wooden casket draped in white roses and lilies, and adorned with a gold – glitter banner reading “From Your Lady Love.” Nearby decorations included two white teddy bears and a framed picture with a label identifying it as Mr. and Mrs. J. Howard Marshall II.
As harp music played, some 30 mourners gathered. Conspicuously absent was anyone who appeared to have known Marshall during his first 89 years of life. Rev. Bruce Noble, a chaplain of Houston’s Methodist Hospital, gave a brief eulogy. Then Smith stood to read a Bible passage, but only managed to recite the words, “The swords of the just are in the hands of God…” before breaking down in tears. When the minister asked if anyone else wished to speak, Smith’s lawyer Diana Marshall (no relation), rose. “I am here today to talk about love,” she said. “I have never known a relationship that embodied love as much as this one. Anna, if Howard were here today, he would say to you, ‘Don’t cry, Precious Package, my Lady Love.’ And in years to come, when you see yourself succeeding, as you will, because you are strong, you will say to yourself, ‘Hello, Howard, I’m succeeding, I’ve got my chin up.’ ”
A burly man with long hair and a beard stood up to say that, although he had only met Howard recently while visiting the hospital with Anna, those few moments “had taught me the meaning of love.”
Moments later, Smith and Daniel attempted to serenade the mourners with the Bette Midler hit “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The minister then read from the good book; when he began intoning a skein of hallelujahs, Smith rose and fled the room, sobbing.
Such repeated public declarations of honorable love – from Smith, her lawyer and her friend – probably came as no surprise to Pierce Marshall. Last July, Howard granted his son power of attorney over the family fortune. (Howard is also survived by another son, J. Howard Marshall III, who has played no public role in the controversy.) In February, after Howard first entered the hospital, a Texas court also made Pierce his father’s legal guardian. From that point on, court records bulge with claims and counterclaims about love, money and consummation.
Among other things, Pierce maneuvered to prevent Smith from receiving title to a million – dollar ranch where she lives with her son; Smith responded that Howard had planned to give her the ranch outright. Pierce, sounding suspicious, asked Smith in another document to identify, “by date and occasion, all instances wherein you and J. Howard Marshall II spent the night in the same home and/or room after your marriage.” Her lawyer responded that “Plaintiff and Mr. Marshall have done so in Los Angeles and at the ranch in Cypress, Texas.”
Pierce severed Smith’s $50,000-a-month allowance and accused her of defrauding Howard “by way of excessive gifts or transfers of community property to strangers of the marriage, with some of whom she has had adulterous affairs.” Smith responded with a letter from her husband that reads, in part, “I don’t object to [Pierce] being guardian for my affairs, matter of fact he runs a lot of businesses and does very good. But he has no business coming between my wife and myself. She is the light of my life …maybe he’s a bit jealous…I have been a successful businessman, and I am not broke. I want my wife taken care of.”
For one long stretch, after a combination of legal wrangling and a doctor’s orders, Smith was not allowed to visit her husband for more than half an hour each day, and never after 8 p.m. “After 30 minutes,” her lawyer complained, “an armed officer indicates it is time for her to leave.
“We were finally successful in getting those restrictions lifted a few weeks ago,” continues lawyer Diana Marshall. “But they lost a lot of precious time they could have spent together.” Pierce –a very private man who is seldom photographed – might be excused for feeling an overwhelming sense of deja vu. On the one hand, J. Howard, born near Philadelphia and educated at Haverford and at Yale Law School, was a creative and driven businessman. In the 1930s he helped write laws that shaped the petroleum industry, and during World War II he organized America’s fuel supplies. After the war he ran numerous oil companies before founding his own, Marshall Petroleum, Inc.
“He’s done a lot of wonderful things for a lot of people, a lot of companies, his government and the universities,” said oilman Jay Grubb, a longtime friend of Marshall’s. Oddities like Marshall’s third marriage, Grubb added, deserve less attention.
Despite business acumen detailed in Done in Oil: An Autobiography, published last year, Marshall could be a fool – a very rich fool – for love. As his second wife, Bettye, began a long, debilitating struggle with Alzheimer’s (she died in 1991), Howard found companionship with a Texas stripper named Jewell Dianne “Lady” Walker, some 40 years his junior. For a decade he showered her with cars, houses and cash; by some estimates she received at least $6 million. It wasn’t until after her death – on an operating table, while undergoing cosmetic facial surgery, in 1991 – that he discovered she had been involved with other men. At that point, he and Pierce sued her estate and got much of the money back.
Howard also first met Anna Nicole Smith while she was dancing topless in Houston clubs in 1988. After her stint at Jimmy’s Chicken but before she became a Playboy playmate, the Guess? jeans girl or an actress (Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult; The Hudsucker Proxy), Smith, who was born Vickie Lynn Hogan, worked as an exotic dancer. Robert Waters, owner and manager of an upscale club called Rick’s, says that she wasn’t quite ready for prime time: “She was rather plump to be working here, so we put her on the afternoon shift.” Even today, there’s an autographed picture of Anna Nicole Smith on the wall of Rick’s. A back view, it is signed, “Remember Sweet Cheeks.”
For now, it seems unlikely that Sweet Cheeks will get a sizable chunk of the Marshall fortune. But if history is any guide, she’ll certainly try. Smith is already involved in lawsuits involving a former housekeeper, who says she was sexually abused (Smith has countersued, claiming extortion) and jeweler Harry Winston (something about bounced six-figure checks. Neither side will talk, and the matter is still being litigated). She settled her suit against New York magazine, which last August ran a cover picture of Smith, scarfing Cheez Doodles, under the headline WHITE TRASH NATION.
Meanwhile, back at the Geo. H. Lewis & Sons funeral home, life is returning to normal. Although the first J. Howard Marshall II funeral was less staid than is customary, an employee noted that it could easily have been even more dramatic. “She wanted to take the coffin out to her ranch and set him up on the patio deck,” says the staffer. “I had to talk her out of it – I could just see him sliding into the swimming pool.”