In the minds of most people, she was the most famous gold digger in America. . . .
She had gotten under our skin, and taken on a role we didn't quite realize was so big in the history of marriage, money and sex.
"Courtesan," which in a different age is probably what she would have been labeled (even though she was married), is a category we don't have much use for anymore. The woman who makes sexual alliances for money, who was less than a blushing bride but not so fallen as a prostitute, was once a vigorous cultural type, at least through the 19th century. Courtesans were the essential heroines of our greatest operas.
But the idea of the courtesan has all but disappeared, and with it much of the nuance about our analysis of sex and marriage.
It's difficult to believe in such a mechanistic model of marriage -- two biological entities with very different agendas, looking for the best deal they can find -- without bringing back a lot of cynicism about marriage. That cynicism is nothing new. The 19th century had a far more trenchant view of the very contractual nature of most marriages. Tolstoy, in his novella "The Kreutzer Sonata," condemned marriage wholesale, as a societally sanctioned form of sexual servitude. In "Dombey and Son," Dickens analyzed the marriage of a beautiful, accomplished, independent woman who marries (at about the last moment before she will no longer be sexually marketable) a man of great wealth and no personal charm. To the outside world it seems a brilliant marriage, an alliance of grace and beauty with wealth and power. But she has contempt not just for her husband, but for herself and the whole system of marriage. That contempt cleaves her soul.
We never really knew what motivated Anna Nicole Smith's marriage. Perhaps it wasn't so crass and calculating as it seemed from the outside. But she was clearly unhappy. Now she seems merely a sad and pathetic creature, rather like her forebears in the world of courtesans, Manon (Abbe Prevost's doomed courtesan) and Violetta (Verdi's hooker with a heart of gold) and Proust's Odette. We are at the end of the opera, the wandering woman is dead, and now the clown is the victim. Neither category really does her justice, and so the false tears and moral clucking will sound together -- a reminder that we have eliminated yet another sexual category that allowed for contradiction and ambiguity.
It goes a little too far in romanticizing the whole thing, but I thought I should at least bring it to your attention. I mean, who'd have thought her death could sound so . . . literary.