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Smith's messy death eclipses her wacky life

“Dying is a very dull, dreary affair,” the late British author W. Somerset Maugham has oft been quoted as saying. He obviously didn’t live in the Anna Nicole Smith era.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Dying is a very dull, dreary affair,” the late British author W. Somerset Maugham has oft been quoted as saying. He obviously didn’t live in the Anna Nicole Smith era.

It’s been two weeks since the aspiring heiress, reality star and just plain famous-for-being-famous Smith died in the aptly named town of Hollywood, Fla. But her strange tale has far from died with her. Instead, the messy, convoluted aftermath of her death seems to have eclipsed even her wackiest moments on earth.

Turns out all those references to Smith’s “train wreck” life were premature. The real wreck has been unfolding this week with the unseemly dispute on one coast over paternity of her baby, and, on the opposite coast, the bizarre hearing over where her body will ultimately rest. That six-day proceeding ended Thursday with the judge, already compared to a reality show host for his oddly jocular behavior, breaking down and weeping as he granted custody of Smith’s remains to a guardian for her baby daughter.

And all the while, Smith’s body has been decomposing in a morgue — more rapidly than expected, according to the medical examiner. It’s as if even the publicity-friendly Smith was tiring of the attention and wanted to get it over with.

Meanwhile, the blanket coverage continues, particularly on cable news channels, leading to that chicken-or-egg question: Are people really so interested in this story? Or, is it the media that’s telling them they’re interested, with its nonstop coverage? CNN host Jack Cafferty couldn’t seem to hide his skepticism when, handing off recently to Wolf Blitzer, he asked, “Is Anna Nicole Smith still dead?”

But the story has its genuine newsworthy elements: a fight over a defenseless baby, the race for millions in potential inheritance, the tug-of-war between a mother and a (maybe) lover.

‘People care about it’“We’re covering this story because we think people care about it,” says Larry Hackett, managing editor of People magazine, which put Smith on last week’s cover. “On the one hand, the story on so many levels is depressing and sordid,” he says. “It’s difficult to find somebody to root for” — except, of course, the baby.

But on the other hand, he says, “this is someone you know. You saw her as that Guess jeans model, as the woman who married the rich husband, the woman who slurred her words on TV. So you’re repelled by it, but still, it was someone you knew.”

From the moment news of Smith’s death broke, it was clear this was going to be a death like few others. A hint was those frantic moments when medical workers tried to revive her by massaging her heart; the tape is still viewable on YouTube.

Immediately there were questions about her 5-month-old daughter, Dannielynn, who could inherit millions. There were the dueling paternity claims by Howard K. Stern, her longtime companion, and ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead, the boyish photographer — and then the strangest one, from none other than Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 59-year-old husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt.

With the paternity case continuing in California, there was Smith’s tearful mother, Virgie Arthur, facing off against Stern in that Florida courtroom in a hearing sprinkled with details of Smith’s active sex life and insinuations from sparring attorneys that all sides were profiting from the deaths of Smith and her son.

And there was the heartbreaking detail that Smith wanted, according to her mother and Birkhead, to be interred near Marilyn Monroe, whom she emulated in life. And that, according to Stern, she was afraid that bugs might get into her grave.

Even Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin was a larger-than-life character in this made-for-cable passion play. A former cab driver, he peppered the proceedings with jocular comments that made one analyst, Dan Abrams of MSNBC, compare the hearing to an episode of “Seinfeld,” and others predict that he’d be the next judge to host a reality show.

“Money is the root of all evil, am I right?” the judge commented at one point. At another, he discussed the outfit he used to wear to play tennis. He called the lawyers “Texas” and “Los Angeles” and Smith’s mother simply “Mama.” He called the medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, “Dr. Pepper.”

And his tears flowed freely as he made his ruling, then longingly expressed hope that Smith would be buried in the Bahamas, next to her son. (Dannielynn’s guardian said shortly afterwards that Smith would indeed be interred there.)

How breathless has the media coverage been? A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that on the day Smith died and the following day, she consumed fully 50 percent of cable news coverage. And even though the story broke at the end of the week, it was the number 3 story for the week in all media combined — newspapers, online, network TV, cable and radio. If it had broken earlier in the week, it might have edged out the Iraq war.

“The numbers were phenomenal,” says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the project. he compared them to celebrity deaths of past years like John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Princess Diana.

“I don’t think her life was ever considered that newsworthy or impactful,” he says. But he can’t come up with any deeper meaning in what draws people to the story. “I’m not sure it’s anything more than raw voyeurism,” he says.

For another news analyst, it’s not particularly discouraging that people are watching — only that they’re watching so much, pushing out more meaningful stories. And clearly, they’re watching: “If people weren’t, somebody at these cable networks would say, ’let’s dial it back,”’ says Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Hackett, of People magazine, doesn’t necessarily see the story sustaining huge interest once the remaining issues — paternity, cause of death — are resolved. “I’m not sure how much further it goes,” he says. People sold 1.6 million copies with its cover on Smith — a good number, but nothing like the 2 million-plus it sold with the Pitt-Jolie baby or the death of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin.

And now, he says, there’s something else that’s eclipsing Smith, at least for the moment: the newly shaven Britney Spears, who’s on the magazine’s current cover. “Right now,” he says, “that’s blotting everything else out.”