Larger Than Life
Until about five years ago, there lived in this town at least one grasping old man with an enormous appetite for pretty young women. His name was J. Howard Marshall II, and for many years, he lived respectably, doing something dull with oil. At last, he diversified his interests. He is chiefly remembered today as a most astounding old lecher.
When he died, he left behind a grasping blond widow 62 years his junior, who had an enormous appetite for just about everything. Her name was Anna Nicole Smith. She was nearly six feet tall with blood-red nails and blood-red lips and a 42-inch double-D-cup chest. Her essential communication was "Feed me!" and she looked like the most god-awful Hollywood gold-digger predator of all time.
Her in-laws came forth and inquired about her appetite. Just what did she want? Oh, she was terribly hungry, she told them. She had lived on a diet of new cars and houses, jewels and cash. Her food bill alone was $4,000 a month. It was the least the old man could do for her. She had been very good to that old crustacean. She had satisfied his needs and had always been faithful, and in exchange she would like half of a billion dollars, please.
The fortune is torn now between two courts. In Los Angeles it became the focus of bankruptcy proceedings last month, whose outcome may set the tone for the probate case that begins in Houston in January.
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Anna Nicole Smith stomps again into the spotlight. Gossips say that Howard Marshall's wife, in addition to everything else, also consumed the nanny, the bodyguard, the driver, two actors and a director. Now comes the woman who's known obscurely in court documents as "The Potted Plant Lady." She has never spoken publicly of their affairs and feels like an idiot doing so now, she confesses. But also, it's kind of fun. East of Dallas, in a quiet apartment on Main Street in Winnsboro, Texas, Sandi Powledge reaches into a cupboard and withdraws her photo album.
Their love triangle, or octagon, or whatever it was, began circa the first implants, in the fall of 1991 in Houston. The old man's last topless dancer mistress had just died during a facelift, and he had discovered in her will another lover. Howard was suing her estate for every penny of all the millions he had given, when he was wheeled into another topless bar to meet another dancer. This one was even more stacked than that one. "I'll buy it!" he decided. And Anna "became Mr. Marshall's reason for living," the court papers say, "as well as the focus of his intense love, desire and considerable means."
If Anna was less committed, it was perhaps the inherent problem with the titty dancer commodity, or with any 23-year-old dating an octogenarian. Anyway, shortly after she met Howard, Anna sashayed into an unlovely gay-and-lesbian bar on Kuykendahl called the Hill. A current went through the darkness, Sandi remembers, "and all these old butch dyke girls began going, 'Oh! oh! oh!' and even the gay guys were saying, 'Oh, I could change my ways.' "
No one like Anna had ever been seen in that place. Sandi observed the frenzy from a distance. When she had fortified herself with tequila, she waded through the crush and asked Anna to dance.
They cut an odd figure on the floor -- Anna the Amazon image of abundance, and Sandi so much shorter, in baseball cap and sweatpants. They had both come of age in small towns. Anna had grown up on food stamps in a house without heat, stealing toilet paper from local restaurants. The experience had left Anna hungry, but Sandi was content making $6 an hour at the garden supply store. Sandi was warm and smart and funny and utterly without ambition. By the time their dance was over, she had sobered to the conclusion this big woman was out of her league. But when she let go, Anna held on.
Anna courted Sandi as men had courted her. Whenever she spotted Sandi at the Hill, she would send a drink. Later, she sent roses and plied her with gifts. For their first formal date, Anna picked Sandi up in a limousine. They ate at Del Frisco's Steak House and then dispatched to Anna's humble apartment. Their night together was marred by only two outbursts -- the first from Madison when Sandi kicked him out of bed, and the second from Anna, who squealed, "What did you do to my pig!"
Anna, thereafter, began showing how she could be all things to all people. During the day, she dined with Howard at the River Oaks Country Club, and at night Anna would do her thing with Sandi at the Hill. Such fun she was. Anna would laugh uncontrollably at jokes and then lean over and whisper, "What did that mean?" She flirted with everyone. Sandi began siccing her on exes. After writhing against a woman, Anna would ask, "How'd I do?" And Sandi would say, "Great! You crushed her!" Sandi grew secure with Anna, because at the end of the evening, they were always together. The owner recalled finding them entangled in the bathroom stall.
"It was nothing," said owner Ann Kellas. "Everyone does it."
Anna Nicole once told an interviewer that she initially thought stripping was sinful. Then someone told her that God loved her naked body, and after that she thought stripping might not be a bad way to get to heaven. All she knew about heaven was that it had golden floors.
For her 24th birthday, Howard gave Anna a Toyota Celica, in which she and Sandi had many a fine time. One afternoon in January 1992, they drove down to Stop N Go, where Anna laid a 12-pack on the counter and asked for the current issue of Playboy.
"Do you know who I am?" she said to the clerk. When she held up the magazine to show him, he refused to believe her. Howard, for his part, was very proud to see Anna making something of herself, according to court papers. Sandi grew boastful, too. She had always found prettier girlfriends than her brothers, but they were awestruck when they opened Playboy.
The president of Guess? Jeans, Paul Marciano, actually thought Anna might look better in clothes. He signed her to replace Claudia Schiffer as the Guess? model, and after that, Anna took off.
Coming home from shoveling manure all day, Sandi would find mail from exotic ports. There was Anna in a leopard-skin cloth, roaming the wild plains with a stuffed tigress; Anna in a mermaid getup, coming out of the waves; Anna in jewels, blowing a kiss. She sent many pictures home but few words. Usually, on the back of the postcards, she wrote only ''Dido," which was her way of spelling "ditto," the word a character in the movie Ghost used to express his love. "Hey girl," she wrote otherwise. "I do miss ya. Call you soon. Are you okay financially? Let me no [sic]. Your fairy God mother."
Anna's image began appearing in magazines and on billboards around the world. She became the most supercharged sex symbol of the day, everything she had ever wanted to be. And Sandi felt she had a place in the dream when Anna asked if she would come live with her in New York. Sandi rushed out the door. She didn't slow down until she was met at the airport by the makeover crew. They put her in a dress and a more feminine wig, and painted her face with cosmetics. Anna had just been named Playmate of the Year, after all; she was a heterosexual sex symbol and could not be seen with butch companions.
For two months Sandi wore the wig and served officially as Anna's personal assistant. She paid bills, screened calls and cast malevolent looks upon any man gazing covetously at Anna. At last, she left. Sandi realized she couldn't be someone she wasn't in New York. Anna, conversely, couldn't return to who she had been in Houston.
Anna came after Sandi, but now when she visited the Hill, it was in the company of straight men. She threw drinks. She fell drunk out of her chair. Fights broke out on the night she began dancing naked. Owner Kellas told Anna to leave, and Anna's reply was, "I could buy this fucking place!"
She was only just emerging as the beautiful star she would become. She told People magazine during this time that she had given enough of herself, and "maybe it's my time to receive." Just as Anna was supposed to serve Howard, Sandi soon began serving Anna.
Howard had installed Anna in a large brick house outside of Tomball, behind an iron gate. Anna installed Sandi in a small tin-roofed bungalow nearby that had engine parts strewn across the front yard and the smell of garbage in the air. Whatever charm the interior possessed was owed directly to Anna, who blotted the walls with great pink impressions of her bosom.
They called this place the Love Shack, but no love was conducted there. Sandi always came to Anna, who was usually found in bed, topless, watching television. It was a king-size four-poster bed, and for the bliss Sandi initially experienced there, she referred to it as "the Pearly Gates." But now the bed was simply where they sat as they watched comedies through the night. It became Sandi's job to rub Anna's feet and to braid her hair. When Sandi nodded off, Anna would elbow her awake and give her a pill. There were pills to stay awake and pills to go to sleep. Anna rewound to the last joke, and life went on.
For servants, Anna had hired her aunt Elaine and uncle Melvin. At all hours of the night, she would call for them, and sometimes she wanted them to get drunk with her, but more often than not, she wanted food. Usually she craved something Elvis would have liked. Her favorite food was mashed potatoes and brown gravy, which she ate from the pot. She'd order pizza with everything, eat all the toppings and leave Sandi the crust. Anna liked pickles and salt, fried bologna with cheese and whole packages of biscuits. Her bedspread was covered with stains from Colossus burgers. After devouring one of these, she would crush the paper into a ball and say, "I gotta throw up now."
Her method of weight control was liposuction. Anna's faith in her sex appeal never wavered. In the same way a golfer might practice his swing, the model would throw off her shirt and strike a pose. She flopped her breasts down over the piano. She cradled them in her arms like fat chickens. As she lolled topless on the horse, Aunt Elaine snapped pictures, while Uncle Melvin held the reins and stared at the ground. Anna's breasts became larger and harder, the nipples moving from here to there. They were more pleasing to the eye than to the touch, said Sandi, but Anna felt she owed everything to her breasts, and everyone in the house was expected to pay their respects.
One evening in December 1993, Sandi and Anna were lying in bed when Anna rolled over and said, "Why don't you get my face tattooed on your back?" Okay, said Sandi. And she marched off to do it.
"How big is it?'' Anna asked from New York.
Big, said Sandi -- takes up the whole shoulder.
"Shoulder!'' said Anna. "I wanted your whole back. Go do it again.''
Sandi stood firm for once. The tattoo hurt. But Anna really wanted a human billboard, and she turned to her blood relations, who proved reliable. An aunt Kay took Anna on the back, and a niece got branded on the ankle.
Anna was thrilled. Tattoos were no asset for a model, but she couldn't help herself. On February 27, 1994, according to Sandi's diary, Anna, too, drove up to a small strip mall on Aldine-Westfield and walked into Bubba's Skin Pin Studio. Sandi stood over Bubba as he worked his craft upon Anna Nicole's shaved pudendum. He recorded there a symbol that might be mistaken for a dollar sign -- an S with a line descending from the lower loop, forming the initials SP. Then, beside a likeness of two cherries, he slowly etched the words "Pawpaw's heart."
Sandi tried to satisfy Anna with foot rubs, but it was hard to compete with Pawpaw. Anna said no one was as good to her as the old man. After once rolling him into a New York jeweler, she walked out looking $2 million better. Sandi recalls the Christmas that a truck came to the ranch from Neiman-Marcus ("Neiman-Markup," Anna called it) and Anna pointed to what she wanted as models displayed the merchandise.
As a suitor, Howard's drawback was that he wanted to visit. Sandi and Anna would be lolling in bed when the phone would ring and the answering machine would pick up: "Precious?" came the rasp. "This is your man."
Anna would roll over then. Days would go by before she returned his calls. When the messages became more insistent ("if there's someone else, you need to tell me"), she'd pick up the telephone and pacify him with baby talk. Usually she could fend the old man off. Sometimes he could not be denied.
The driver would wheel Howard into the house; Anna would roll him into the bedroom. After what seemed a long time, the door would open, and Anna would say with a sour face: "I don't want to talk about it. Get me a beer."
Coming and going, Howard and Sandi usually exchanged happy greetings. He thought she was Anna's friend and once even paid her way to Bali when he and Anna went on vacation there. Sandi, for her part, was never jealous of him. Anna had been rejecting his marriage proposals for years. It seemed to Sandi that Anna didn't take Howard's proposals seriously until he began getting sick.
Shortly after she was tattooed, Anna turned to Sandi and asked, what do you think I should do?
Sandi did not have to do the math. "I'll never be able to support you like Howard can," she conceded. Anna was just glad Sandi was so reasonable about it. But maybe they could work something out. Would Sandi be interested in posing as the maid? No, said Sandi, she would not be Anna's "damn maid."
The wedding, on June 27, 1994, was a legendary affair at the White Dove Wedding Chapel. The old man arrived at the altar without a prenuptial agreement, and Anna trod over white rosebuds to get to him. When she announced that important modeling business would preclude their wedding night, Howard wept. Don't be sad, Anna reportedly said. "You know it's you I love." And she hurried away with her bodyguard, who would later claim he was ravished.
"I just had them lifted up a little," Anna told Sandi, the last time she saw her. It was about four months after the wedding, and Anna had just gone in for another boob job. Sandi nursed Anna until she began eating again and taking her pills. She took the stitches out around the nipples, and when Anna was healthy enough to begin ravishing her driver, Sandi announced through the bedroom door that she was going home.
"I can't believe you're leaving me when I need you most!" were the last words she heard.
Life, after the wedding, became more complicated for Anna. The old man turned out to have a son named Pierce who didn't share his father's affection for women like Anna. Shortly after the wedding Pierce got the old man to surrender his power of attorney. Pierce cut off the $50,000-a-month allowance and posted armed guards between his father and his father's wife.
Anna insists that she nonetheless managed to perform for Howard what she called her "wife duty." When he expired in August 1995 at the age of 90, he was, by all accounts, a happily married man.
Anna, as she has said, entered a prolonged period of despair. She tried to fill the void in her life with food. She ate Twinkies and Ho-Hos and Dream Pies, and "everything," she told one magazine, "that wasn't trying to eat me." She overdosed a couple of times. She called Hollywood director Oliver Stone a "fucking asshole," waggled a naked breast at Bruce Willis and threw up at Dolly Parton's feet. Her weight went to well over 200 pounds, and from her Guess? contract, she went to Lane Bryant, and from there, she wound up making a lesbian porno movie. Anna consumed virtually everything she had, except a half-billion-dollar claim to Howard's estate. When she filed for bankruptcy, it became the business of the court to determine her wealth.
She arrived in the Los Angeles courtroom last month looking every bit the beautiful victim of grief. She was slimmer than she had recently been, and her breasts had been restrained behind a conservative blue suit. Hobbled by a back injury, she leaned on her lawyers and dabbed her eyes. Pierce's side seemed at a loss. They tried to portray the widow as a gold digger, but she either wept at their questions or professed not to understand. On several points, she was clear. No, she had not retrieved the old man's ashes; cremation was "really disgusting." Yes, she was faithful to Pawpaw. And though she couldn't remember which day she was married, she was sure it was one of the most important in her life.
"I believed when I married my husband that I was entitled to half of what he had," Anna Nicole testified.
There were charges that Pierce had altered documents to save the fortune. There was testimony that Howard was very happy with Anna and very angry with Pierce for his intrusion. The argument, in essence, was that a deal was a deal. He was rich and she was pretty, and their marriage was no different from many high-society marriages. The rich guy was a lot richer, and the trophy wife was more stacked, that's all. It is for the judge to decide now how much it is worth to be probed by 90-year-old appendages.
Anna Nicole put on her dark glasses and walked out of the courthouse, past the gathered reporters. Until the judge rules, lawyers wanted to keep her as quiet as possible and wouldn't let her discuss Sandi Powledge. Back in Winnsboro, though, Sandi can tell things are going to be okay for Anna. She used to hope that Anna would come back and get a job like hers -- "butt-wiper" in a nursing home -- and they could live together like a regular lesbian couple. As Sandi admits now, "that'll probably never happen."
Reporting help provided by Aisha Mori, Los Angeles New Times.
E-mail Randall Patterson at randall.patterson@ houstonpress.com.
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