Train Wreck

By staff April 1, 2007

I was in a rural bar in central Florida when I received the news of Anna Nicole Smith’s death. The patrons were riveted. You would have thought a world-shaking event had occurred. Everyone knew her story, with all its little twists and turns, and everyone had a theory. You could only wish the general public were as well-informed about Iraq as they were about Anna Nicole.

Why? What made her so fascinating? Even the rich, sophisticated citizens of Sarasota dropped everything and ran to the TV. What was going on here? The media was quick to notice the enormous shock the country felt and to try to explain why. She was the new Marilyn Monroe, desperately searching for love. No, she was the ultimate publicity hound, "famous for being famous." No, she was a pathetic drug addict. No, she was a joke. She was all these things, of course, but she was also more than the sum of her parts.

She was the current female experience in America, magnified to the nth degree. She faced just about every issue women face in our society, and did it in ways that illuminate the way women are thought of. Of course, you say, she didn’t face the issues of talent or intellectual accomplishment—and died, ironically, on the day Harvard appointed its first woman president—but I would argue that her lack of talent and intellectual achievement only made her more a woman in society’s warped eyes.

She was, first and foremost, the ultimate expression of female sexuality in our society. Her physical presence blinded you. She was so over the top and so exaggerated that in artistic terms she would be considered a "grotesque," in the same category as Quasimodo and Norma Desmond. I suggest that if you haven’t already, you rent a movie called Skyscraper, which was the height of her oeuvre as a performer. In it she plays a helicopter pilot and has various action adventures and seems to always be taking off her clothes. This way you get a good look at her amazing breasts, which were, of course, largely artificial and always being fiddled with, going up a size, or—more rarely—down a size. The operations were painful, and things were always going wrong and getting infected, and this was most likely the origin of her drug problem. At any rate, the breasts are worth some serious study, if only as "found objects," and this movie is the best way to study them and thereby better understand her mystery.

Her two marriages also provide insight into the feminine experience. The first was to a fry cook, the second to a billionaire. That’s running the gamut. Similarly, her experiences in motherhood, Woman’s highest calling, are also extreme. Her children were born 20 years apart. Thus she was able to experience the trials of teenage single motherhood and the miracle of midlife conception. One was born in wedlock, the other illegitimately, so illegitimately that no one has any idea who the father is; and the list of candidates is both lengthy and broad. She suffered through every mother’s worst nightmare—the drug-related death of a beloved child—and apparently suffered so badly that the grief—or guilt—sent her into a downward spiral that led to her death. And she hated her own mother. She had terrible problems with her weight. She took drugs, she drank. Yet she held semi-official titles of accomplishment: Playmate of the Year. Guess Jeans model. She was the train wreck of femininity.

But what solidifies her place in American popular culture is the arc of her incredible life. It was a storyteller’s dream, stranger than fiction, so extreme and pushed to the limits of human experience, so full of clichés, that it proves that every once in a while life comes up with something that fiction could never even aspire to. I think this is the real reason people are so fascinated. They are responding to her amazing story.

She was born poor, of course, but not just poor—she was white trash, about as low down the social ladder as you can get. Her ticket out was about as simple and basic as it can get: her looks. Every once in a while those white trash genes can click in an astonishing way (think of Elvis Presley), and the result can be an animal sexuality untainted by the subtleties of class and demeanor. Like Elvis, she had a sneer. Sometimes it was sexual, sometimes it was contemptuous, but its message was always clear. Don’t mess with me; I’m the terror of the trailer park.

It was a strange twist of fate, a bolt from the blue, that changed everything in her life, and of course I’m referring to her meeting with Howard Marshall—at the strip club where she was working. Did she love him? Of course! There is no one easier to love than an 89-year-old billionaire. I’m sure she loved everything about him. And good for him, to pursue the relationship. He should buy a little present for himself at his age, a glorious reward for a successful life. They were the perfect couple.

And good for her, to try to get her hands on his fortune. She was his widow, for God’s sake. A bizarre widow, perhaps, but I’m sure even the Bible would agree she was entitled to a big chunk of money. Of course, only Anna Nicole would fight all the way to the Supreme Court for the biggest chunk possible, but it is this act that validates her life and makes her more than a mere celebrity. Now she’s a part of the history of American jurisprudence and thus demands study by the nation’s scholars. It put her on a whole other level.

At the moment, of course, much of the country’s fascination with her is the result of her unusual death. It completes her journey and defines her myth. It’s the classic one that never misses: beauty, fame, fortune, self-destruction. But in a twist that such stories usually lack, it leaves behind a riveting mystery. Who is the father? All over the country normal, well-educated people who should be working and getting on with their lives are debating this. I certainly am. My theory—it’s the photographer. I don’t trust that Howard K Stern one bit. I just don’t like his looks. Of course, I don’t like the photographer’s looks, either, but I don’t like Howard K. Stern’s more. And Zsa Zsa’s husband! And the crazy judge! What have we the public done to deserve such entertainment?

But what’s entertainment for us is, of course, actually tragedy. Anna Nicole is dead and her poor daughter, one senses, has a difficult life ahead of her.

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