For a few hours last week, Hollywood, Florida, was the center of the universe. The death of Anna Nicole Smith at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino brought a big, churning scrum of reporters from national news organizations loud, pushy people who wanted... needed... to know the story behind the story. The casino and nearby Hollywood Memorial Hospital resounded with the clatter of news crews popping tripods into place and hooking up videocams. Sudden glimpses of key law-enforcement or hospital spokespeople set off machine-gun volleys of shutter clicks from the paparazzi brigade.
Casino folks like to say that the Hard Rock had already become a celebrity hang-out. Big names like Prince and Bob Dylan have performed there, and, yeah, that was Magic Johnson hosting a celebrity poker tournament at the place during Super Bowl week.
But this was something else, Tailpipe thought. Here was a high-profile person all right, a celebrity doing something real. Death has a gritty reality that celebrities playing poker don't even come close to matching, and the entertainment media know the difference.
While the news last Thursday that Anna Nicole was, indeed, dead was just hitting the wires, New Times dispatched its own team of newshounds to the scene. They got to the hospital to find, naturally, a media circus.
With three helicopters throbbing overhead, they pushed their way past dozens of police officers and even more reporters and camera crews into the hospital itself, where about 20 actual sick people sat in a waiting room.
A single television tuned to WSVN (Channel 7) reminded patients what the fuss was about: The former stripper/child bride/reality-TV star/diet victim and nationally adored train wreck had been brought to the hospital in full arrest, and somewhere on the premises, her famously bodacious body was awaiting a body bag for a trip to the medical examiner's office.
Outside, a batch of microphones was set up in front of a hospital sign, including ones from Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition. CNN was live on the air, and at least six Miami Herald reporters and photographers worked the crowd. The Associated Press and the Sun-Sentinel reporters did much the same, and freelance photographers and writers were already there, hoping to gather enough information about the former Playboy Playmate of the Year to make a few bucks for themselves.
One photographer bitched that an amateur had been in the right place to snap a shot of Smith's body on the gurney as crews wheeled it into the ER. "Easy money," he said. "$200,000, $250,000."
Not even close. Try $500,000, which is what Los Angeles-based Splash News & Picture Agency reportedly paid for a freelancer's photos of Anna Nicole on the gurney.
While the media hounds looked desperately for a bone to chew on, a gray-haired man leaned on the hospital sign and watched the frenzy. He had driven to the hospital after hearing the news because, he said, he and Smith had had a moment together last month when the two were at the casino for a January 6 boxing match.
"She looked right up at me for 60 seconds," said Don Hanson, 57, a retired airline machinist. "I could see her eyes through her big, thick sunglasses, and we connected. I felt a connection, I really did."
He was concerned for her then, he said, because she couldn't get up or sit down on her own.
"I think her body was just giving out," said Hanson who doesn't consider himself a fan.
Back inside the ER waiting room at 4:40 p.m., most of the sick folks were watching Channel 7's live coverage of the news conference at the Hard Rock. A few slept through it; another man holding onto a bag of prescription bottles wrapped in a plastic bag paced the linoleum muttering about the pain he was in.
While Seminole Police Chief Charlie Tiger stumbled through his remarks, saying that it was too soon to know what had happened to Anna Nicole, an older patient wearing an FSU ball cap bellowed, "I know what's wrong with her."
To no one in particular, he announced: "She's a junkie. Everybody knows you can't take pills and mix them with alcohol."
Another patient said Memorial doctors hadn't done enough to save Anna Nicole.
"The hospital didn't do anything wrong," said a woman who was waiting with a man in need of stitches on a bandaged finger. "She was dead when she got here."
Back outside, local television crews hustled to set up their live shots for the evening news. It was starting to become clear that the news conference with doctors wasn't going to happen. On the hour at 5 and 6 p.m., news helicopters came back to hover for their live shots.
Rush-hour drivers crawled by on Johnson Street, gawking and open-mouthed.
A reporter on her cell phone waved at one of the choppers as she spoke to someone inside it a few hundred feet in the air.
Nothing going on down here, she said, cutting through the hive of her peers.
Meanwhile, back on the rez, most employees of the Seminole Hard Rock were oblivious to the fact that Anna Nicole Smith who, according to Tailpipe's sources, was actually in town to buy a boat had been staying there this week (she had checked in Monday). And they would hardly have raised an eyebrow if they'd seen her. "She's always here," a female employee said, "ever since she filmed a TrimSpa commercial out by the big Hard Rock sign about two years ago." Smith would rarely gamble or party in public at the hotel. "She would just go to the restaurants and go upstairs to her room."
One young employee said he had been working at a retail shop near the Hard Rock restaurant when he saw the paramedics wheeling a gurney by, but "I didn't think anything of it. It happens all the time all the old people, you know. I thought someone won the jackpot and had a heart attack."
Another staffer, who had helped in maintenance during his two years on the job, said that he didn't see Smith this week but that he wouldn't be surprised if her death were attributed to a drug overdose. "Last time she stayed here, her room was closed for two months because we had to remodel there were razor blade scratches in all the tables. We had to replace the furniture, fix the stereo, paint the walls they were all stained. We had to change the carpet it smelled in there." He would not be surprised if Smith's death occurred on the 12th floor home of "what we call the live-like-a-rock-star suites." (Actually, she'd been staying on the sixth floor. But then, Anna wasn't exactly a rock star.)
But death and debauchery are not new to the facility. "Do you have any idea of how much shit happens that people never hear of because it never makes it out of here? Homicides, suicides. People lose all their money and kill themselves," the female employee claimed. She said that because the Seminole nation doesn't have to report incidents in the hotel because it's on the reservation, arrests, drug use, and even deaths were going unnoticed by the larger public. Managers, they said, "treat you like shit," and the turnover is so high that there are "two new people every week."
So why stick around?
Said the young woman: "I meet celebrities all the time. I've seen every single celebrity zooted out of their head." Just this week, she said, she met Dennis Rodman, R. Kelly, Pauly Shore, and Magic Johnson. And besides, "the money is amazing." When she worked as a server, "I made $500 a night."
At 4 p.m., there had been a shift change, so many of the employees were just learning the news as they got to work. Mumbled a dealer manning a poker table: "They don't tell us much. She's always here, though."
A worker in the food court said she saw paramedics wheeling Anna Nicole through the lobby. But she didn't know anything more Thursday was her first day of work. Four other people we questioned said the same thing.
A Hooters waitress was saying that she had never seen Anna Nicole when her manager appeared, got right in her face, and said, "Why were you 20 minutes late tonight?" She blamed traffic.
In front of the fancy seafood place Bluepoint, a teary, hand-wringing waitress was singled out for an outdoor upbraiding from her boss. He was pointing at her. Pacing. Swearing. Screaming. A New Times writer made eye contact, and her whole face trembled with embarrassment.
Guests, meanwhile, were chattering about the news, many talking into cell phones.
A pair of pierced and tattooed young punks was discussing Anna Nicole's drug use. "It's not crack if you're rich, dude," one admonished the other. "It's called freebase!"
What all of this meant, Tailpipe surmised, was that a troubled little South Florida city with more than its share of overdevelopment and corruption has now graduated to a kind of post-millennial media Valhalla, where paparazzi hungrily prowl for celebrity sightings, familiar faces are unmasked in unflattering mug shots, and reality-television stars come to die of drug overdoses.
As told to Edmund Newton
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