Between Fort Lauderdale and Miami lies the mid-size city of Hollywood, Florida, population 138,412. It’s an unassuming beach-front place in the regional mode. Encompassed are ten or so diners, several miles of coastline, several miles more of T-shirt and puka-shell vendors. Having survived hurricanes and the occasional squabble with neighboring towns, Hollywood’s a can-do kind of place. The mayor’s 2007 municipal plan is accessible online.

In the 1930s the town was christened the Atlantic City of the South; today’s residents have distanced themselves from this claim.

Drive out a bit on U.S. 1 and you’ll see the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, stark against the sky, a white-stuccoed Barcalounger. There are slots in the lobby and something like a lottery, mostly for senior citizens. Mini-bars are stocked. Last Thursday, on the carpet of her sixth-floor, European-style suite, Anna Nicole Smith lost consciousness. Few noticed while medical personnel hustled her body into the sunlight.

My mother watched “The Anna Nicole Show” one summer at the Jersey Shore, every week, despite my father’s complaints and my brother’s dogged attempts to dig up the cable lines. And so I called after I heard the news; she interrupted her first-grade class and started to cry on the phone. “First James Brown,” she said shrilly, between coughs, “then Gerald Ford.”

I waited.

“And now this.”

My mother took Peter Jennings’s death especially hard, because her father also died of lung cancer. Jennings is a rake, she’d announce. Gerald Ford was a dolt—big and cuddly and noble, maybe, but doltish. And Anna Nicole was a conversation piece. Her voice seemed to originate above her head, and her eyes were windows into nothing in particular, always obscured by sunglasses or a cloudiness questioned by no one. She gained weight and lost it and delivered monologues from atop her daybed.

Her death is unsettling. We should be unsettled, I think.

Vicki Lynn Hogan moved around. From Mexia, Texas—home of the Fightin’ Blackcats—to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy headquarters to a hospital room in the Bahamas. And, of course, to Hollywood, Fla. Televisions have erupted, as might have been expected. A flurry of DNA tests actual and promised, talk of the preservation of Ms. Smith’s body. Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband is being mentioned.

She, like all celebrities, exuded a certain victimhood. Whether or not that was a put-on, one can’t know. Despite any well-wishing members of the Playboy family, Anna’s work in the soft margins of adult media took its toll.

My mother says Anna Nicole’s story is distinctly American. She’s not daunted by the triteness of that. I tend to agree with her, putting a slight twist on things. Smith was a facsimile of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield–a facsimile of the washed-up and strung out, the bleached and shellacked and enhanced. Like Louis Napoleon Bonaparte or some-such other tragic (and mostly fictional) figure, Smith seemed so behind the times as to be ahead of them. It’s over a decade since her big magazine splash, and the sex and public-exposure stuff is hardly salient. Ditto the baby-daddy escapades.

By the glow of the television, I just have to wonder. My mom’s holed up with a box of Kleenex. My dad’s asleep in his chair. Are we filling in the gaps of a famous life, one entered into the public record? The story’s exploitative enough, at least a bit engaging. Anna’s late career was calculated. She said, I’m here, I get the joke. And maybe she really did.

But I can’t shake the fact, as I drift off to sleep, that now, at least for a day or two, we should give it a rest. Assume her death would affect her. Tell ourselves, straight-faced, it affects us too. Get up and switch the channel.

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