HOUSTON â€“ Sex, money, family rivalry. The battle over the fortune left by the late oilman J. Howard Marshall II headed to court this week with all the elements of a Texas-sized soap opera.
Former Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith, 32, who became Mr. Marshall's third wife 14 months before his 1995 death, is battling Mr. Marshall's two sons, both in their 60s, over an estate valued at up to $1.2 billion.
Adding spice: Sons J. Howard Marshall III of Los Angeles and E. Pierce Marshall of Dallas aren't on the same side.
Both J. Howard III and Ms. Smith accuse Pierce Marshall of conniving them out of fair shares of the fortune. Pierce Marshall says they've received plenty of money already and he's just honoring his father's written will.
"There's greater public interest in this case probably than any other I've had," said Harris County Probate Judge Mike Wood, who has made special arrangements for media, including a television camera in the courtroom.
More than a dozen lawyers were in court Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday arguing pretrial issues. Starting Friday, they'll choose a jury. On Thursday, the trial, originally set for February, begins with opening arguments. It could last months.
The judge has issued a gag order, but it's probably too late for many already sick of a story that at times has revealed more than most people want to know.
Earlier this week, Ms. Smith, whose married name is Vickie Lynn Marshall, explained on a morning network television show that one reason she telephoned Mr. Marshall regularly was "in case he needed me for safe sex."
By contrast, the brothers, who until 1995 lived relatively quiet lives, have kept low profiles. Pierce Marshall has hired a publicity agent and given a few interviews. J. Howard III has declined interview requests.
"We just try to live our lives without sensation and hype," Pierce Marshall said in an interview last summer.
Pierce Marshall has even complained about "wild exaggeration and incompetent speculation" about the fortune, which he estimates at $48 million to $60 million. Forbes magazine in its 2000 wealth rankings released Thursday came up with the $1.2 billion figure.
Under the judge's order, nobody involved is supposed to discuss any of the evidence with the media until the jury has heard it. But the basic story has been repeated over and over.
"He loved me, and I loved him. He promised me half of everything," Ms. Smith has said.
J. Howard III acknowledges that he and his father had a falling out in 1980, but his petition claims that Mr. Marshall "promised to ... treat his sons, Howard and Pierce, equally as regards ... estate planning and property."
Still, neither Ms. Smith nor J. Howard III is mentioned as a beneficiary in any of the 13 most recent wills, codicils and other documents relating to disposition of the estate, lawyers for Pierce Marshall have said.
"Dad knew what his will said. Dad made the money. Isn't it dad's to do with as he chose?" Pierce Marshall has said.
The legal battle began before Mr. Marshall died.
Ms. Smith went to court demanding financial support from trusts controlled by Pierce Marshall. Each accused the other of improperly influencing a vulnerable old man. She later filed for bankruptcy in a highly publicized case still pending in Los Angeles.
It even took a court order to divide Mr. Marshall's ashes to accommodate separate funerals.
In life, Mr. Marshall, born in 1905 to Quaker parents in Pennsylvania, enjoyed a measure of good fortune. A childhood bout of typhoid fever left his left leg crippled, but he became an overachieving athlete, student, lawyer and oilman.
The best deal he ever made was to help found a natural resources company that grew into the giant Koch Industries, based in Wichita, Kan. At the peak, Mr. Marshall reportedly owned 16 percent of the multibillion-dollar concern that says little about its assets or earnings because it is privately held.
Along the way, Mr. Marshall married and had two sons, J. Howard III, born in 1936, and E. Pierce, born in 1939. From time to time, he gave his sons shares in Koch and other interests.
One son, Pierce, graduated from college and, after a few other business ventures, went to work with his father. The other, J. Howard III, earned a doctorate in physics and founded a measurement device manufacturing company he still runs.
In 1980, there was a battle for control of Koch in which J. Howard III took sides with dissident Koch family members. His father, angry, bought back the Koch shares he had given his older son for $8 million.
Pierce Marshall said that at the time his father decided to disinherit J. Howard III to avoid future problems. But J. Howard III argues that in addition to giving him $8 million, his father promised him a fair share of the estate.
J. Howard Marshall II divorced his first wife in 1960 and married his longtime assistant. After she became ill and incapacitated, gossip columns linked him to another woman, Lady Walker, on whom he lavished jewelry and other gifts.
When he found out she had another lover, he went to court demanding return of the gifts.
Meeting Vickie Lynn
After his second wife and Ms. Walker died within months of each other, Mr. Marshall's chauffeur took him to a topless club, where he met Vickie Lynn Hogan, a.k.a. Anna Nicole Smith, according to court documents.
The tall blonde â€“ Playboy listed her as 5 feet 11 inches and 140 pounds when she appeared as a centerfold in 1992 â€“ was a high-school educated, single mother working as a dancer to support herself and her young son.
Mr. Marshall began lavishing gifts on her and, she says, proposing marriage. Pierce Marshall contends the gifts she received â€“ including houses in Houston and Los Angeles, a ranch, cars and jewelry â€“ amounted to more than her fair share of his estate.
Ms. Smith says she put Mr. Marshall's marriage proposals off for three years while he helped her rise from topless dancer to model for Guess? jeans and sometime movie actress. She says her delay in accepting his marriage proposal discredits descriptions of her as a gold-digger.
Finally, though, she married him, in a ceremony at the White Dove Wedding Chapel in Houston. According to accounts, he came down the aisle in his wheelchair. She wore an elaborate, deeply cut wedding gown that she later wore at her version of his funeral.
If it was a match made in heaven, Mr. Marshall didn't leave Ms. Smith forever happy. Tabloids since his death have chronicled a life that sometimes appeared out of control, including a trip to the hospital after a drug overdose and battles with weight.
Lawyers say she's doing better, modeling clothes for Lane Bryant, retailer of clothes for larger women, and taking care of her son, now in high school and expected to be in court supporting his mother.
The marriage also set the stage for the current court battle.
Lawyers for Pierce Marshall say the written documents and Texas law are on his side.
But much could depend on whom jurors like: the younger son who wants to keep all the money, the older son who once threatened to undermine his father's biggest business achievement or the sexy young widow who claims that she loved a frail old man for more than his bank account.