From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Anna Nicole Smith arrived at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., looking like she was in need of more than just some R&R. As the still-grieving mother–her 20-year-old son Daniel died Sept. 10, three days after her daughter Dannielynn was born, making headlines worldwide–walked through the hotel lobby on the evening of Feb. 5 with her companion Howard K. Stern, "she seemed a little woozy," says one witness. "She was walking straight but was being held up by Howard."

Just three days later, at age 39, the woman who forged stardom out of her uniquely American, stuff-of-soap-operas journey–from Texas-bred teenage mother to Playboy Playmate to billionaire's widow and beyond–met a premature end similar to that of her idol Marilyn Monroe. Now, the sad fate of the woman who was born Vickie Lynn Hogan has led to myriad mysteries, in which her secrets are peddled for money and her loved ones (and those who claim to be) wage brutal battle over what was hers.

The coveted prize is a delicate thing: Smith's baby daughter Dannielynn. The name Howard K. Stern is on the girl's birth certificate, but in Anna Nicole Smith's final months, she and Stern fought off a demand for a paternity test by her former boyfriend Larry Birkhead. And in a nearly unbelievable twist, Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, is claiming the child might be his. Of course, whoever ultimately assumes responsibility for Dannielynn may also share in the fortune that Smith went all the way to the Supreme Court to claim and was still fighting for when she died–a share in deceased husband J. Howard Marshall's estate, estimated at $1.6 billion.

HER LAST DAYS

Even before Smith touched down in Florida on Feb. 5, she appeared to be in poor health. According to Stern's sister Bonnie, Smith had been fighting an ongoing battle with pneumonia "for months" and also had the flu. In fact, she had developed such a high fever that "a day or two before [her death], they put her in an ice bath," says Bonnie. "Anna wouldn't let them take her to the hospital. She knew it would be all over the media."

That could explain why Smith's entourage in Florida included a private nurse as well as her usual bodyguard. After their arrival at the hotel, Smith stayed hidden in her two-bedroom suite while Stern tended to a recent purchase: a 40-ft. used yacht, which the couple had already christened The Cracker, perhaps a winking reference to Smith's modest roots in Mexia, Texas. "She liked the fact that there were two separate bedrooms and a forward deck to sunbathe," says Ned Bruck, general manager of Reel Deal Yachts in Miami Beach, whose company sold the couple the vessel and who puts the cost at less than $500,000. Stern was preparing for the boat's send-off to the Bahamas when he got the call on Feb. 8 that Smith was in serious trouble. "He had left [the hotel] two hours prior, and she was fine when he left," says Bonnie Stern. "She wasn't near death as far as he knew."

Amid the swirl of rumors around Smith's demise, this much is known: At 1:45 p.m. a Hollywood fire-rescue unit arrived at the Seminole Hard Rock in response to an emergency call from hotel security, who had been alerted by Smith's nurse that Smith was unconscious. Just before hotel security's arrival, "[Smith's] bodyguard was administering CPR," says a hotel spokesman. Despite resuscitation efforts by paramedics, "unfortunately, the patient was virtually dead upon arrival [at Memorial Regional Hospital]," says Dr. Joshua Perper, the Broward County medical examiner.

HOW DID SHE DIE?

After her death, speculation about a possible drug overdose quickly hit the airwaves, and a cloud of suspicion formed over Stern. A Feb. 9 autopsy immediately ruled out physical injury (such as a stab wound or lethal blow) and police searching Smith's room found no evidence of "illegal drugs, only prescription medicines," said Seminole Police Chief Charlie Tiger. Perper reported that there were no signs of drug injections and that there was no sign of pills in her stomach–though he stopped short of saying pills might not have been involved.

Complete results might not be available for another month or so, but revelations in the Bahamas have shifted the spotlight onto a new potential culprit: liquid methadone, a highly addictive prescription painkiller (see box). On Feb. 12 Ford Shelley–the son-in-law of South Carolina developer G. Ben Thompson, who is fighting Smith's estate over ownership of the $900,000 Bahamas home where she had been living–revealed that he had entered the home on Feb. 9 and found liquid methadone in a refrigerator. (Lawyers for Stern say that photos of the alleged refrigerator and its contents were staged.) If Smith was indeed using methadone alone, or in combination with other prescription drugs, the effect could mirror the lethal cocktail that authorities determined killed Daniel.

Smith's long-estranged mother, Virgie Arthur, 55, concluded on Good Morning America, "She had too many drugs." Arthur joins a growing list of Smith relatives and friends, including onetime friend Jackie Hatten, who blame drug abuse for her death. "She always said she would O.D. like Marilyn Monroe, but I don't think she really wanted to," says Hatten. Smith's ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead has claimed to have seen her take drugs while she was pregnant. Although Smith's personal physician Dr. Sandeep Kapoor concedes "it was obvious that she had substance abuse issues," he also notes that "she knew the baby was her biggest priority." He says that she took no dangerous prescription drugs during her pregnancy.

Stern himself has been accused of enabling Smith's drug habit. Stern's camp vigorously disputes all such accusations. "He was in love with her, why would he kill her?" says Bonnie Stern. "My brother never fed her a drug in her life. Never! Howard couldn't control the situation. It was up to Anna. When someone wants to do something, you can't stop them."

Stern has his own theory on what killed Smith. His sister says he blames all of the compounding stresses in her life–Daniel's death and the upcoming inquest, Birkhead's paternity suit, the dispute over ownership of her home in the Bahamas. "Howard thinks she just finally gave up the will to live. Her body just couldn't take it anymore," says Bonnie. "The heartbreak of Daniel's death was devastating. She was having nightmares about Daniel." In her final interview, filmed this month with Entertainment Tonight, a distraught Smith said she feared that Daniel was trapped in purgatory.

THE BATTLE OVER DANNIELYNN

For the time being, Dannielynn remains at the home where Smith was living in the Bahamas, oblivious, of course, to the fight over who will raise her. On Feb. 10 Stern was reunited with the baby in front of TV cameras from Entertainment Tonight and The Insider. "She is so happy," says Bonnie. "She's turning over but not crawling yet. She laughs. She loves to play with hair. She loves it when you talk to her, and then she coos. She is such a sweetheart."

Less than a month after Dannielynn's birth, Birkhead filed papers in a California court to obtain legal custody of the child and establish paternity. But since Smith was based in the Bahamas at the time, she wasn't legally compelled to respond to a suit so long as she remained out of California. Following Smith's death, a judge refused to order an emergency DNA test (made at Birkhead's request) on Smith's corpse but asked that her body be preserved until Feb. 20, when another hearing will be held. (Birkhead's lawyer Debra Opri explained that they wanted Smith's DNA to make sure that the baby being tested was really hers and not a substitute slipped in to fool Birkhead and authorities.)

But in the days following Smith's death, the mystery around Dannielynn's paternity became deeper—and more bizarre (see sidebar). The eighth and current husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Prince Frederic von Anhalt has pledged to file a paternity challenge of his own. (Yet another man, Alexander Denk, who once worked as Smith's bodyguard-chef-trainer, told Extra on Feb. 12 that he could be the father as well.) And finally Virgie Arthur, Smith's mother, who flew to the Bahamas seeking protective custody of the baby, has since teamed up with Birkhead to try to claim Dannielynn. Stern, however, had a warning for Arthur: "Anna, she just despised that woman. As long as I have one breath left in my body, that woman will not see Dannielynn," he told ET coanchor Mark Steines.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Stern also told ET that Smith did have a will drawn up in 2001, leaving all her belongings to Daniel. "But now Daniel's gone, and Dannielynn is an only child, so everything goes to Dannielynn," Stern said, adding that he is the executor. Stern also said that he and Smith had planned to get married on Feb. 27. Although the pair exchanged vows in a September commitment ceremony in the Bahamas, "we were going to make everything legally binding," he said.

Going forward, whoever is designated representative of Smith's estate may have the right to press on with her claim against the estimated $1.6 billion estate of Marshall. (The case–which has gone on for more than a decade–is awaiting action in California's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.) If anything is collected in that claim, Dannielynn could be the first in line for any payments. But the man who is determined to be her true father could have substantial say in the use of Dannielynn's assets. Despite their longtime partnership, Stern "may not benefit from [Smith's] death," says Los Angeles family law attorney Mark Vincent Kaplan. "If the child receives everything and Birkhead were to become decreed the father, Stern is left out in the dark."

Amid all the questions and ensuing drama, this much is certain: Smith is no longer around to watch her daughter take her first steps, say her first "I love you" or ride her first bicycle. "I'm sad she's gone, but I was telling my husband the other day, 'Her spirit is free, and she has found her home and she is up there with her son,'" says Smith's friend Denise James. "She'll be able to protect her daughter now as an angel."

  • Contributors:
  • Linda Trischitta/Hollywood,
  • Fla.,
  • Jon Warech/Hollywood,
  • Fla.,
  • Siobhan Morrissey/Bahamas,
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan/Los Angeles,
  • Frank Swertlow/Los Angeles,
  • Howard Breuer/Los Angeles,
  • Ken Lee/Los Angeles,
  • Lorenzo Benet/Los Angeles,
  • Johnny Dodd/Los Angeles,
  • Wendy G.