HOUSTON – It's been a long and colorful journey for a girl from a small Texas town.
Anna Nicole Smith went to work in a Houston strip club and wound up as the trophy wife of an aging multimillionaire, setting up an 11-year-long legal war over his estate that now has traveled all the way to the highest court in the land.
The fight over the fortune of oil entrepreneur J. Howard Marshall II between the one-time Playboy Playmate of the Year and Marshall's youngest son, 67-year-old E. Pierce Marshall, goes before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The case is remarkable in part because of the number of zeros involved — the estate has been estimated at as much as $1.6 billion in 2000. But Smith has added colorful and sometimes raw speech and some unusual fashion statements for a grieving widow, including a T-shirt with "Spoiled" spelled out in rhinestones across her ample chest.
"I have to smile with fondness for our system, that says that our highest court will look at legal issues no matter who the sponsor is," said Rusty Hardin, one of Pierce Marshall's attorneys.
Smith and Marshall married in 1994 in Houston. The bride was 26; the groom was 89 and died just 14 months later.
Since then, the case has been through a succession of courtrooms, starting with a state probate court jury in Houston, which ruled in 2001 that Marshall did not leave any of his estate to Smith. A federal bankruptcy judge sided with Smith, another federal judge reduced the award and a federal appeals court ruled that federal courts should never have gotten involved.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday focused solely on the narrow question of whether federal courts can decide cases involving state probate proceedings. The Bush administration has filed briefs favoring federal court jurisdiction.
Smith, born 38 years ago as Vickie Lynn Hogan, grew up in Mexia, Texas, a town of about 7,000 people located 86 miles south of Dallas. She married at 17, had a son, divorced her husband and moved to Houston.
Smith met her wealthy husband-to-be in 1991 at Rick's Cabaret, an upscale strip club.
"She was a good dancer. She was a really friendly person," said Eric Langan, chief executive of Rick's. "That's part of the emphasis at Rick's, having entertainers who really engage their customers in conversation. She took it to a whole new level."
Marshall had built his fortune on 40 years in the oil business. He divorced his first wife, and outlived both his second wife and a mistress, who also was a stripper.
Marshall showered Smith with $6.6 million in gifts that included two homes, $2.8 million in jewelry and $700,000 in clothes, and she contends that he also promised her half his estate.
However, Pierce Marshall said various wills and trusts his father had prepared over the years named him sole heir.
"For Anna Nicole Smith, it's pure simple greed," said Pierce Marshall's spokesman, David Margulies. "I don't think anybody thinks she was in love with J. Howard."
Smith's appellate attorney, Kent Richland, said his client was the victim.
Even in a city that practically invented the notion of trophy wives for aging oilmen, the probate trial had entertainment value.
Smith accused Pierce Marshall of killing his father and attempting to kill her. One of her husband's nurses testified that Smith bared her breasts to the bedridden old man as part of her effort to get an inheritance.
She and attorney Hardin bickered bitterly when Smith testified. When he questioned her about the nurse's allegation, she retorted in a Texas ladylike twang: "Mr. Hardin, you're a pervert."
But when Hardin accused her of acting on the witness stand, all vestiges of the demure Southern belle disappeared as she fired back with a vulgar epithet. The phrase became so iconic in Houston that Hardin said people have shouted it to him as a greeting.
"It never occurred to me to get offended by anything that came from her. I think of her as a woman of excess who gave me a trial that was a hell of a lot of fun," he said.
If the Supreme Court doesn't help Smith, she is always welcome back at Rick's, said Langan.
"Who knows," he said, "she might meet her next husband."