Anna Nicole Smith’s small town beginnings ran counter to her eventual rise as a sultry starlet in Tinseltown. A high school dropout, Smith worked the topless bar circuit in Houston before she answered a newspaper ad for Playboy models. Months after, she would grace the cover of the magazine and would ultimately be handpicked by Hugh Hefner as the 1993 Playmate of the Year.
But dreams of following in the footsteps of her childhood idol Marilyn Monroe would end much like they began: in a flurry of twisted theater. Like Monroe, Smith’s bubblegum sex appeal won her fame as easily as it won her tabloid headlines. When she wasn’t marrying 89-year-old oil tycoons, she was fighting off the ridicule of late night comedians who picked on her frenzied behavior.
A long legal battle saw Smith fighting for her share of her late husband’s billion-dollar estate. With countless prescription drugs in her system, she would die from an overdose before she saw the financial outcome. Unfortunately for Smith, tragedy beset her in a deeper way when her 20-year-old son Daniel died in 2006. Smith would ultimately be survived by her baby daughter Dannielynn, but a madhouse legal dispute surrounding questions of the child’s paternity would ensue.
As devastating as the circumstances were, Anna Nicole Smith cemented her Hollywood legacy by having it end so tragically as many sex symbols before her.
Let’s take a look back at some of Hollywood’s most historical tragic sex icons.
Jayne Mansfield – A blonde bombshell Anna Nicole Smith was often compared to, Jayne Mansfield was a drop-dead beauty that was also blessed with brains. Boasting an IQ in the 160 range, she was a member of MENSA, and had many other talents to complement her smarts. When not on Broadway or recording music with guitar god Jimi Hendrix, the star had a commendable career as an actress in movies like Too Hot to Handle.
Her career was on the wane when tragedy struck in 1967. While en route to a TV interview in New Orleans, her car crashed into the rear of a tractor-trailer, killing her instantly. Although there were rumors that Mansfield had been decapitated by the accident, autopsy reports proved those to be false; she did, however, die from severe head trauma. Due to the brutality of the incident, the Traffic Safety Administration instated a safety guard on all tractor-trailers to avoid a similar incident in the future.
Dorothy Dandridge – As the first black woman to make it on the cover of Life magazine, Dorothy Dandridge was projected to take Hollywood by storm. Beautiful and charismatic, she had the singing chops to hold her own as a cabaret singer at grade-A nightclubs.
After Dandridge was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, her career took a downward spiral. After dealing with widespread racial prejudice, financial calamities, and alcohol addiction, Dandridge died alone in her apartment in 1965. The cause: bone particles from a broken foot entered her bloodstream and eventually found their way into her brain and lungs. Her bright career was forever marked by seemingly random bad luck.
Veronica Lake – With a big screen-ready name, Veronica Lake was a 1940s seductress with a bankable hairstyle. Born in Brooklyn, she won her fame after starring in Sullivan’s Travels and was captivating enough to win over the heart of vintage stud Marlon Brando. Unlike other beauties of the time, she drew crowds of eyes with refined sophistication—not with defined curves.
Though she was once a hot commodity in Hollywood, her fame would be short-lived. Besides her eventual four failed marriages, Lake would suffer from a declining mental state (schizophrenia), as well as multiple health problems caused by her alcohol addiction. By the 1960s, she was penniless, reportedly hopping from one cheap hotel to the next in New York City and taking a job as a bartender to keep her addiction alive. Lake would eventually die at the tender age of 50, well out of the limelight.
James Dean – The man who could melt steel (and hearts) with his hardened puppy dog stare, James Dean was as talented as he was handsome. In a span of two years, he starred in the cinema classics Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant, receiving posthumous Oscar nominations for the latter two.
A penchant for speed ultimately killed the young star in 1955 when he accidentally crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder into another car along a California Highway, breaking his neck, among many other serious injuries. (Ironically, Dean had received a ticket for speeding just hours earlier.) The actor was only 24 years old.
Natalie Wood – Natalie Wood’s illustrious, Academy Award-nominated career is often overshadowed by the mysterious circumstances of her death. Even after an impressive career as a child actor, starring in films like Miracle on 34th Street, Wood would go on to become an iconic actress who saw her work recognized in films like Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, and Splendor in the Grass.
Strangely, a different kind of splendor would end up being forever entangled with her demise, as she was found floating dead in the Pacific Ocean near her yacht by the same name in 1981. Once deemed an accidental drowning, the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death—her raging inebriated feud that night with husband Robert Wagner, her fear of the water, her bruising which was reportedly incurred before entering the water—have prompted many questions but nothing conclusive. Many, though, have dared to believe that the famed actress was killed.