As some of you know, my night editing gig involves surfing the English-language media from pole to pole, looking for stories of interest to our corporate clients. Regrettably, the company hasn’t yet lassoed the Playboy Enterprises account. And so the time I spent reading the Anna Nicole Smith obituaries was stolen time. But it was unavoidable. She was on front pages all over the world.
At one point the New York Times had a story up that I’m kicking myself for not nabbing in some form, as I should have known it wouldn’t last. Sure enough, an hour later the story had a second byline on it and had been stripped of its mocking tone, a subtext that was positively bread-and-circuses. Smith, a bimbo with the figure and IQ of a Holstein, was presented as a figure of wry amusement whose early death was somehow just part of her long-running comedy act: Thank you and good night! There was one line in particular that smacked me between the eyes: “When she was a teenager, she married Billy Smith, a 16-year-old fry cook whose specialty was chicken.” The rewrite put the period after “fry cook.”
But I had to wait until this morning to find the obit I was looking for, predictably in the Washington Post. After noting that Smith was a type of woman whose name we don’t even use much anymore — courtesan — Philip Kennicott writes:
Our continuum of sexual alliances runs from the happy marriage of loving equals, on one end, to prostitution — the pure exchange of sex for money — on the other. The trophy bride, the marriage of youth and beauty to age and power, is the closest we have to the category of the courtesan — but it involves the collective pretense that it isn’t only about money. To see the old category of courtesanship in operation today, you have to travel to poor places around the globe, where sex, love and sometimes marriages are negotiated between wealthy westerners and local girls without either party acknowledging the idea that the exchange is commercial.
The courtesan was rich but not on her own terms, an object of scorn but not completely disreputable, a living reminder of an economy of sexual exchange that we like to pretend doesn’t exist. When Anna Nicole Smith, a voluptuous 26-year-old Playboy Playmate, married an octogenarian oil-rich billionaire, she crossed a line, assuming too high a place in our supposedly mobile society. After her elderly husband died a little over a year later, she stood to inherit $474 million (still in legal dispute), and her name became shorthand for marital opportunism. Her husband went down in the books as the most ridiculous of old goats — but he was dead and beyond the reach of our scorn. Anna had her second and third acts, on television and shilling for diet pills, but none of these chapters ever did much for her dignity.
This is the one you need to read, top to bottom.
But if you’re looking for something snarkier, you could hardly find a better roundup than Defamer’s, which chose to remember the late starlet-or-whatever by rooting through a year’s worth of Anna Nicole posts. My favorite: Anna Nicole Smith’s Wedding-at-Sea Downgraded to Floating Commitment Ceremony. I mean, just cuz it’s funny.
I’m going to go put in my contacts, get out my super-duper sunglasses and go take my lake walk before I chicken out or spring arrives. Photos, maybe, later.