On Feb. 8, 2007, Anna Nicole Smith died in a Hollywood, Florida hotel room. By May, her story was an episode on TV’s “Law & Order.”
In between, South Florida became a media circus, as newspapers, magazines and tabloid TV shows flocked here. They covered press conferences on autopsy results. They covered court hearings to determine where to bury the reality TV star and former Playboy Playmate of the Year. They breathlessly awaited DNA results to determine who was the father of Smith’s 6-month-old daughter.
An unknown Broward County jurist became briefly famous for his from-the-bench commentary. And in the midst of this, a little known Web site called ‘TMZ’ made a national name for itself scooping the competition on details surrounding Smith’s death.
It was a whirlwind four months in South Florida 10 years ago, and Palm Beach Post reporters covered it all. Here’s how it began in a front-page Post story on Feb. 9:
For 10 frantic minutes in a posh two-bedroom suite at the Seminole Hard Rock Resort and Casino in Hollywood, a nurse and a bodyguard tried to bring back tragic tabloid character Anna Nicole Smith from the brink of death Thursday.
The voluptuous former Playboy model, who parlayed a gig in an upscale Houston strip joint into a marriage to an elderly billionaire, was pronounced dead shortly before 3 p.m. at Hollywood’s Memorial Regional Hospital. She had collapsed on a bed in the sixth-floor suite about 1:38 p.m., a hotel spokeswoman said.
A source at the hospital who asked not to be identified said Smith was brought in by Hollywood Fire-Rescue. But hospital staff didn’t even attempt to revive her.
“There was nothing we could have done,” the source said.
Smith’s death thrust the Seminole Hard Rock hotel into a spotlight it wasn’t thrilled about, as the Post reported:
“It’s too early to gauge the effect of this incident,” said hotel spokeswoman Julianne Carelli. “This happened to have taken place here at the hotel. But I’m sure it could have happened anywhere… She was a valued guest caught in an unfortunate situation.”
Two days after her death, the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office was announcing that it didn’t know yet why she died:
Dr. Joshua Perper, chief medical examiner, said, “Usually we don’t do these types of news conferences. I wanted to prevent rumors from spreading.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s body could not be released for burial because of an ongoing court dispute over who was the baby’s father. More DNA samples were ordered taken from Smith’s body, so that there would be enough that the body wouldn’t have to be exhumed later: “When we bury her, I want it to be forever,” said Broward Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin.
The dispute over who was Smith’s daughter’s father — Smith’s lawyer Howard K. Stern or photographer Larry Birkhead — continued making headlines throughout February. Even Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband said he had an affair with Smith and the child might be his.
Stern, described in many press reports as Smith’s “lawyer-lover,” wanted her buried in the Bahamas, where she owned a home. Smith’s mother, described in many press reports as “estranged mother,” wanted her buried in Texas.
Meanwhile, in the Bahamas, a government official resigned after pictures came out showing him fully clothed in a bed with Smith.
As the media angled for any salacious Smith tidbit, it was a small website that was beating them to the punch, as the Post reported:
The world’s major news organizations have dispatched reporters to South Florida and the Bahamas to dig up dirt on Anna Nicole Smith.
Yet, from a small newsroom in sleepy Glendale, Calif., a crew of young whippersnappers from an upstart Web site keeps scooping them all.
On a shoestring budget and with just 25 employees, TMZ.com has broken story after story about the pinup’s life and death.
Harvey Levin, managing editor of TMZ.com, described the Smith coverage this way:
“It’s like Michael Jackson on steroids,” he says. “It’s a real tragedy, but it’s a freak show.”
Levin says this is just the beginning for TMZ.com. This fall, a TV version of TMZ.com will air. And there is more to come.
“We’ll be expanding our reach into different areas,” he says. “We’ve got some plans.”
By Feb. 20, lawyers in South Florida and Los Angeles were wrangling over paternity issues and where to bury Smith, but naturally the weirdest moment happened here, as the Post reported:
Broward County Medical Examiner Joshua Perper interrupted the proceedings in the Fort Lauderdale circuit courtroom of Judge Larry Seidlin with an extraordinary cellphone call warning that the pinup’s body was decomposing “much faster than expected,” even after being embalmed. The delay in embalming the body accelerated the deterioration, he said.
Further delay, he testified via speakerphone, “might create a problem.”
Blindsided by the news, the man fighting to bury Smith’s body in the Bahamas — her lawyer and lover Howard K. Stern — erupted in sobs on the witness stand.
As Judge Seidlin dealt with competing lawyers and versions of the truth, he began to make some strange pronouncements from the bench, which the Post duly compiled:
“So we have father, we have another man who may be the father, or if he’s not the father, at a minimum he’s acting as the father, and we have grandma.”
“There’s black. There’s white. And there’s a lot of gray in this case.”
“It’s not who talks louder, but who signs the report card.”
Seidlin eventually ruled that Smith could be buried in the Bahamas next to her son, who had died reportedly of drug-related causes the previous September. Smith’s mother got a stay of the order, but the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach lifted the stay.
Smith was finally buried on March 2 in the Bahamas, wearing a tiara, her coffin covered in a “rhinestoned-studded blanket.” People in the crowd cried out, “Anna! Anna! We love you!”, the Associated Press reported, and Slash of Guns ‘N’ Roses was among the mourners.
By late March, the Post reported that Smith died accidentally from having nine prescription drugs in her system and ingesting too much of the rarely used sleeping syrup chloral hydrate. “She didn’t suffer, she went to sleep,” the medical examiner said.
On April 10, DNA tests showed that photographer Birkhead was the baby’s father: “I told you so!” he said.
And by May 8, Smith’s thinly-veiled story was the basis for an episode of “Law & Order.”
Reporting for this story came from stories by Palm Beach Post staff writer Kevin D. Thompson and former Palm Beach Post reporters Michael LaForgia, Mark Schwed, Larry Keller and Jose Lambiet, as well as accounts from the Associated Press.