Anna Nicole Smith's body lies amouldering in her Bahamian grave, but her media presence will go marching on, decelerating slowly. My favourite moment in her life-after-death so far was an interview by Larry King of Barbara Walters (the occasion for which I have forgotten), in which he asked her to explain the enormous attention being paid to Ms. Smith. Ms. Walters said she wasn't following the story and fittingly asked him to explain it himself, since he had been covering it for days on end, with little interruption. Mr. King said he didn't understand it, as if he were just an unpiloted boat being swept along by a tidal wave of popular demand and ratings (possibly, he is). But Ms. Walters defended the attention to the misfortunes of Britney Spears, on the questionable ground that she has talent, unkindly contrasting her to the newly departed soul of Ms. Smith.
There is a good case to be made that this has been the purest instance yet of celebrity culture, because it is so hard to say who Ms. Smith was. She was a kind of Platonic ideal of the phenomenon pointed out in 1961 by the historian Daniel Boorstin in his brilliant book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America: "The celebrity is a person who is known for well-knownness."
She does not lend herself to any of the customary front-end-loaded descriptions: "Bahamas-based reality TV actress Anna Nicole Smith," "Texas born former fried-chicken waitress?," "former Playboy model?" or "litigant and alleged gold digger Anna Nicole Smith" -- none of these is adequate to her. Reporting on her death, the New York Times made a brave attempt in its lead sentence, and refrained from front-end-loading: "Miami, Feb. 8 -- Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy centerfold, actress and television personality who was famous, above all, for being famous" -- the usual restatement of Professor Boorstin's wise saying -- "but also for being sporadically rich and chronically litigious."
Let's see now. Beauty? Nope. Talent? Nope. Achievement? Nope? Inspiration? Nope. Tragedy? Nope.
Can anyone offer an explanation for this? We can’t even craft a good theory of decline out of it.