He called her “the light of my life.” She called him “Paw Paw.”
In the pantheon of big, over-the-top Texas love stories, few could achieve the flamboyance of the courtship and marriage of Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall.
She, as any tabloid reader knows, is the oft-described “busty model” from the pages of Playboy and the ads for Guess jeans--"a sweet girl” to residents of her small hometown of Mexia. She also is recalled fondly by former colleagues at Rick’s Cabaret, the Houston topless club where she once sashayed across the stage.
He was a billionaire--or at the very least, a multi-multimillionaire--master of an immense oil fortune, upstanding member of the country club, proof that age does not necessarily dim one’s fantasies and pursuits even when sitting in a wheelchair.
She was not yet 30; he was pushing 90. And when Marshall died Aug. 4, Smith was thrust into her unlikeliest role to date: the grieving, troubled widow, forced by her husband’s son, Pierce, to enter a nasty court fight over who gets what, including the cremated ashes of the late tycoon. Lost somewhere in the tabloid hullabaloo, her attorney says, is the very real pain of Anna Nicole Smith.
“He was not only her husband, he was her best friend, and he had taken care of her and provided for her every need for several years,” says Houston lawyer Diana Marshall (no relation).
“The important thing people miss is that this was a long-term relationship. J. Howard Marshall discovered Anna before Guess jeans did; he knew her before any notoriety, any word of publicity, before a single modeling contract. He fell in love with her when she was unknown to the world and they loved each other deeply, and anybody who was around him will tell you Howard really lit up when she was in the room.”
Surely Smith, 28, acknowledged the debt she owed the elegantly spoken old gentleman. At the funeral with the all-white motif that she held for him in Houston on Aug. 7--not to be confused with the more conventional affair staged later by the Marshall family--Smith paid a special tribute to her departed love. Wearing a white gown with a deeply plunging neckline, she sang the inspirational song made popular by Bette Midler, “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Teddy bears sat near the coffin as the widow wept.
In Mexia (pronounced Muh-HEY-a), population 7,000, people tend to take a kindly view toward the adventures and tribulations of the former Vickie Lynn Hogan. She is still remembered as the friendly waitress with the heart-shaped face at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken on U.S. 84.
“I remember her when she was flat chested; that tells you how long I’ve known her,” says Larry Henson, the manager of a small store down the road from the chicken place. “They’re proud of her around here. Everybody wants their hometown people to do good, no matter who they are or what they are.”
So it is that residents of Mexia, a prairie town 40 miles east of Waco, are largely pulling for Smith as she faces a tough probate court battle over her husband’s estate, estimated at somewhere between $500 million and $3 billion. At the very least, they know, she is entitled by Texas law to half his earnings during their 14-month marriage, still a respectable haul.
“If it’s in the tabloids today, we buy it and we read it,” says Henson about Smith’s regular appearances in the Star, Globe and National Enquirer, not to mention her 1993 reign as Playboy’s Playmate of the Year, which the local Jiffy Mart sold out of in five minutes flat.
“Back when they got married, everybody said, ‘What is she doing marrying that old goat?’ But it was a good move. If he’s got as much money as they say he had, she’ll be filthy rich,” Henson says.
Although filled with friendly people, Mexia, with its used-car sales and its Snoball Palaces offering icy drinks on dog day afternoons, did not afford many opportunities to fulfill the dreams of someone young, pretty and yearning. So, after an early marriage to a co-worker at Jim’s and the birth of her son, Daniel, now 9, Smith headed to Houston, where she began working as a dancer in a series of nightclubs. It was an auspicious move; eventually, she would meet J. Howard Marshall in the lunchtime crowd at Rick’s Cabaret.
Marshall, a Philadelphia native and Yale Law School graduate who arrived in the Oklahoma oil fields in the 1930s, had long since made his fortune. He had divorced his childhood sweetheart and the mother of his two sons in 1961, married his assistant, Bettye Bohanon, whose nickname was “Tiger,” then was devastated when Tiger Marshall fell ill with Alzheimer’s disease and could no longer be at his side.
In 1982, according to an article last year in Texas Monthly magazine, Marshall became close to a dancer in Houston named Jewell Dianne Walker, who went by her childhood nickname, “Lady.” He proceeded to lavish jewelry and cash presents on his new friend. But it was Lady Walker’s destiny to die on the operating table in 1991, reportedly while having a face lift, and Marshall found himself lonely again. (His wife, Bettye, had also died.)
The big blond dancer at Rick’s Cabaret apparently cheered him up.
“I was aware of Anna Nicole Smith, but she only really stood out because I had to comment on her weight to the management, make sure she worked on daytime rather than nighttime. We have standards,” says Robert Watters, the president of Rick’s, which has supplied 22 centerfolds to Playboy and Penthouse magazines in the past dozen years. “She was pretty plump, a big girl; everybody else was sylphlike. So she wasn’t allowed to work nights.”
Without really meaning to, Watters had paved the way for the couple to meet. Marshall, in his wheelchair, could come out only during the day.
The ceremony on June 27, 1994, was held at the White Dove Wedding Chapel in Houston, and owner Pat Walker will never forget it: the bride-to-be in curlers, scared to death someone would recognize her and alert the news media; the beaming groom in his white tuxedo, waiting happily to be bedazzled; the 22-carat diamond ring.
“It was different, it was so different,” Walker recalled recently. “I had Hollywood, or better yet, Las Vegas, on the one hand, and then I had this elderly gentleman with sparkly eyes. He was nice.
“He said, ‘I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve made a lot of money.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah?’ I didn’t know who he was, or who she was either. He said, ‘If I can make her happy, I’ve made her happy today.’ ”
The service was the standard package deal. Walker played “The Wedding March,” the bride entered wearing a white, beaded gown, the groom laughed with glee. After sipping a little champagne and nibbling a bite of cake, the couple went outside to release a pair of white doves. But next thing Walker knew, the new bride had donned a pageboy wig and a yellow going-away suit and was waving bye-bye to her new husband; a photo shoot beckoned in Greece.
“She was throwing kisses, saying, ‘You’re the only one I love,’ calling him ‘Poopsie baby’ and all that,” Walker says. “He just sat in his chair and looked at her and cried.”
A few months later, other forces intervened. When Marshall fell seriously ill in January, Pierce Marshall moved to be appointed his father’s legal guardian, and a shocked Smith hired Diana Marshall to give her legal advice. Under the guardian arrangement, Smith was allowed to visit her husband for only 30 minutes at a time, Diana Marshall says, denying Smith her marital rights. Although Pierce Marshall was successfully challenged, things did not change until a few weeks before the older man’s death.
“I think it was sad and very tragic that they were kept apart, as if there could possibly be anything wrong with a husband and wife who enjoyed each other’s company spending time together,” Diana Marshall says. “She had been with him round the clock when he was sick before, days on end, and indeed, the nurses had commented that she was good with him, and they praised her for her care and her loving kindness.”
A secretary for the Marshall family’s attorneys said neither Pierce Marshall nor the family would comment. When Howard Marshall died last month, the warring parties agreed to separate funerals so “there could be a focus on this great man,” Diana Marshall says, instead of on the enmity between his survivors.
The first real fight, however, came over the cremation, which Pierce Marshall wanted and Smith initially opposed, and the question of who would receive the ashes. After a visit to court on Aug. 14, Smith and Pierce Marshall agreed to divide them equally.
What happens next remains to be seen in Harris County probate court; it is unclear if Howard Marshall even left a will. “We’re in a quiet stage,” says Diana Marshall, “but we don’t know if it’s the quiet before the storm or the quiet before the settlement.”
As the tabloid world keeps watch, people in one small Texas town are hoping this will also be a quiet time for their own “Marilyn Monroe from Mexia.” They’d hate for Smith to become one of those sad stories of tender lives wrecked in the fast lane. Even so, they probably gobbled up a recent edition of the Globe, which reported that Smith and her pet piglet dined together in front of the TV and detailed some ugly reminiscences from an alleged ex-boyfriend.
“Well, personally, I think the lifestyle she’s living, the fast set, people who live like that don’t live very long,” Larry Henson says. “You’ve got a clock ticking away, and if you wind it too tight, it’ll break. If we don’t read about her for a while, that’ll be just fine--give it a rest.”