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A Legal Perspective on Anna Nicole Smith

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY To DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

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I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up: We all think of the queen of England as a stoic, dignified, a stiff upper lip. So exactly how do you write a movie that humanizes her? The DAY TO DAY interview with Oscar nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan.

BRAND: First though, the curious and tragic case of Anna Nicole Smith who died yesterday at the age of thirty-nine. This morning in Florida coroners conducted an autopsy on her body. Meanwhile, at the same time an emergency paternity hearing was being held here in Los Angeles to try and figure out who exactly fathered Anna Nicole's baby daughter. A judge there refused to order an emergency DNA test of Anna Nicole's body as part of the paternity suit. And depending on that suit, Smith's daughter could be heir to a fortune. NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK: In life, Anna Nicole Smith's existence was a tangle of lawsuits and court cases, a public that sort of loved her and also looked down at her all at the same time. And yet in death, somehow, kind of amazingly, things have managed to get even more complicated.

Professor CHARLES RHODES (South Texas College of Law): That's exactly right, and I'm kind of upset that you're stealing one of my lines that I've been using.

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BURBANK: Charles Rhodes is a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston. He's been following Smith's various legal wranglings.

Mr. RHODES: If anything, the soap opera that was Anna Nicole Smith's life is going to continue.

BURBANK: Starting with her five month old daughter, Dannie Lynn.

Mr. RHODES: We're not even sure who is the father.

BURBANK: There are two men who claim to be the baby's father. Howard K. Stern, Smith's longtime attorney, who she sort of married recently on a boat in the Caribbean, although it's not clear if that ceremony was actually legal or not. And then a Los Angeles photographer named Larry Birkhead. He and Smith dated at one point and he's always maintained he's the real father.

Mr. RHODES: Which is obviously going to have a huge impact on the ability of that individual to manage that child's estate.

BURBANK: And quite an estate it could be. Which brings us to the next legal mess that Smith left behind, her claim on the $450 million dollar fortune of her late second husband, Texas oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall. The case has too many twists and turns to even get into here. Parts of it even went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but suffice it to say even if years down the line Smith's daughter does inherit some money, there are other lawsuits to contend with.

Mr. RHODES: One of which of course is that Anna Nicole Smith and TrimSpa have recently been sued with respect to alleged false advertising and false marketing.

BURBANK: Smith's third and, it would prove, final act was as a pitch person fro TrimSpa, a diet pill. She lost a bunch of weight on the stuff but apparently some others didn't, and those unhappy customers decided to sue the company and Smith herself. If that suit doesn't eat up any possible inheritance, there are myriad other questions. Where did Smith actually live when she died? Most recently it was the Bahamas. Did she have a will? What did it say?

Mr. WALTER CURRAN (Novelist): You know, I didn't learn a lot about life from watching Anna Nicole Smith.

BURBANK: Walter Curran is a novelist who wrote a profile about Smith for "Vanity Fair" a few years back.

Mr. CURRAN: But you did get to see a very vulnerable, very troubled individual in the middle of crisis, perpetually, it seemed like.

BURBANK: Whether it was her legal woes or weight fluctuations, Smith lived her life in the public eye. Curran says the coverage of Smith's misadventures was so pervasive, you found out about her whether you wanted to or not.

Mr. CURRAN: It's a cautionary tale about a very big phenomena right now, which is this saturation celebrity. Somebody asked me the other day if I'd been following the Anna Nicole Smith story, and I said no, it's been following me.

BURBANK: Here was Smith in her own words on her reality TV show back in the '90s.

(Soundbite of "The Anna Nicole Smith Show")

ANNA NICOLE SMITH: From morning till night I'm always on stage. I have to deal with these agents, the lawyers, oh god, do we even have to mention those uptight jerks? Then there's the tabloids. Writing all those lies about me. Well, I guess they're not all lies.

Mr. CURRAN: You know, she was seen as somebody who was playing the media like a fiddle.

BURBANK: Walter Curran.

Mr. CURRAN: But ultimately it seems it played her and it played her in a very disastrous way.

BURBANK: You get the sense that growing up in small town Texas, Vicky Lynn Hogan figured things would be a lot better if she could just get famous, and she did, changing her name to Anna Nicole Smith, posing for Playboy. But when she got there she found herself in a sort of limbo. She was a celebrity, but one who was harried by the press. She was loved by strangers but at odds with her own biological family. And now even in death that limbo seems to continue. A judge ordered today that Smith's body be preserved for at least 10 more days as both sides fight over her baby daughter. Luke Burbank, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.