Though the sun glints off her rhinestone-studded sunglasses and her scarlet lips form a camera-ready Cupid's bow of a smile, Anna Nicole Smith, 31, is clearly in pain as she enters and exits the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in downtown Los Angeles. The statuesque waitress turned model turned actress walks slowly, supported on either side by her son Daniel, 13, and one of her attorneys. Joan Spangler, who manages Smith's modeling career, says the 1993 Playmate of the Year recently suffered a herniated disk. But Smith, who is no stranger to melodrama—at 26, she married J. Howard Marshall, 89, a wheelchair-bound Texas oilman who died just 14 months later—might prefer gawkers to think that hers is the pain of a grieving widow forced to fight for her fair share of her beloved's estate. Perhaps histrionics wouldn't be out of place, though. At stake is an estate estimated to be worth a staggering $1.6 billion.

From the moment J. Howard Marshall died of pneumonia in August 1995 at age 90, Smith and the oil tycoon's son, E. Pierce Marshall, 60, have been locked in a battle that gets nastier by the day. The opening shot featured dueling memorial services and a court-ordered division of Howard's cremated remains. Pierce, who earlier had severed Smith's $50,000-a-month allowance, then unsuccessfully maneuvered to prevent her from receiving title to the million-dollar ranch in Cypress, Texas, where she was living with Daniel, her one asset from a short-lived teen marriage.

The debt-saddled Smith, who has since moved with Daniel to a small apartment outside L.A., responded by filing suit in bankruptcy court. Her trial, which opened Oct. 27, seeks protection from creditors and attempts to lay legal claim to Howard's millions. She charges that Pierce, who controls the estate, should pay her between $535 million (which represents half the assets that Howard accumulated during their 14-month marriage) and $802 million (roughly half the worth of his estate).

As the trial got under way, Pierce's attorney Joseph Eisenberg aimed to show that the former Guess? jeans model was a gold-digger, not a "loyal and dutiful wife." He intimated that Smith had committed adultery during the brief marriage, a charge that she barely had time to deny before Judge Samuel L. Bufford shut down the line of questioning as irrelevant. Next, Eisenberg observed that Smith had misstated her wedding date. "Maybe I'm confused about a lot of things," she said. Then Eisenberg grilled her about Howard's remains. "In the four-plus years since he was cremated," he demanded, "have you retrieved the ashes?"

"Absolutely not," Smith said.

"You just left them [in a Texas courthouse]?" Eisenberg persisted.

"Yes."

During questioning from her attorney Philip Boesch, Smith explained. After the Solomonic decision was made to split the ashes, she said, "I couldn't deal with it." Eisenberg then asked what Howard, a Quaker, would have wanted. "He. didn't care," she answered tearfully. "He wanted to make me happy. My wishes were his command."

If only it were that simple. Howard, who first met Smith in 1991 when she was a topless dancer in Houston, neglected to mention his bride in his will. Pierce contends Smith is therefore entitled solely to the gifts Howard bestowed during the marriage: $6.6 million worth of homes, cars and jewelry. But the couple lived in Texas, a community-property state; that ensures Smith at least some part of the estate.

As the bankruptcy case in L.A. winds down, Smith seems well ahead on points. In May, Judge Bufford penalized Pierce Marshall for improperly destroying documents and refusing to testify at depositions. Then the judge issued a series of orders and ground rules affirming that Howard had instructed Pierce to share the proceeds of his estate equally with Smith. The real battleground for dividing the estate, though, is expected to be the Harris County probate court in Houston. "The state in which you have your permanent home when you die is in charge of probating your estate," says law professor Gerry Beyer of St. Mary's University in San Antonio. Last week Judge Mike Wood, who will preside over the January probate trial, questioned what the L.A. bankruptcy court was up to. "If this were a bankruptcy court in Texas," he told the various attorneys, "that judge would send you back to probate and say, 'Let me know when you are finished.' " The sudsy plot, in other words, thickens.

Jill Smolowe
Edmund Newton in Los Angeles and Bob Stewart in Houston

  • Contributors:
  • Edmund Newton,
  • Bob Stewart.