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A legacy oil heir never wanted

Kin: He fought for father's wish, not own, in estate battle with Playmate

07:58 AM CDT on Saturday, July 22, 2006

By KATIE FAIRBANK / The Dallas Morning News

E. Pierce Marshall and Anna Nicole Smith
During his life, E. Pierce Marshall shied away from attention, while his stepmother, Anna Nicole Smith, clamored for it.

E. Pierce Marshall hated publicity and other people's lawyers.

Yet he willingly spent the last 11 years of his life embroiled in courtroom battles for his father's immense fortune against a pack of would-be heirs, including his disinherited brother and his attention-hungry stepmother – former stripper and reality-television star Anna Nicole Smith.

Why didn't he escape the negative attention, the potential damage to his reputation, and settle the lawsuits and return to his quiet family life in Far North Dallas?

It's quite simple, really, say the people who knew him best. He believed he was fighting a crusade to honor the final wishes of his father, J. Howard Marshall II, who left him his entire estate.

"This was a personal commitment Pierce made to his father, something Anna and her contingency fee attorneys never really understood," his wife and two sons, who have never publicly commented before, wrote this week in response to questions posed by The Dallas Morning News.

Mr. Marshall's personal battle over his inheritance ended June 20 when he died unexpectedly of septic shock brought on by a combination of drug-resistant staphylococcus and streptococcus.

By the time he died, he had spent more than 15 percent of his 67 years in estate litigation, argued before Texas state judges, in California bankruptcy courts and in the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court. He had weathered more than a decade of news stories and tabloid television.

"He had a good private life, but the public life wore him down and put a pessimistic streak in him that I was looking forward to see go away when the suits did. Alas, he did not reach that point," said Robert L. Bradley Jr., president of the Institute for Energy Research in Houston and a family friend.

Fight will go on

Now, the wheels of justice will have to grind on without him. His wife of nearly 41 years, Elaine, will stand in his stead and continue the fight. The case awaits a decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

It's little surprise that the litigation has lasted so long. Aside from the inheritance lawsuits, there have been claims filed by a college and prep school, American Express, Neiman Marcus and the Internal Revenue Service.

There is also a great deal of money at stake – although just how much is under dispute.

Year after year, Forbes magazine listed Pierce Marshall as one of the richest people in America, most recently claiming his net worth at about $1.6 billion. And year after year, he vehemently protested that valuation of his worth, insisting on a disclaimer.

While the Marshall family reportedly owns 8 percent of the secretive, privately held petrochemical giant Koch Industries' voting stock and 16 percent of its nonvoting stock, Mr. Marshall contended that his assets and their value were overstated. His argument: Most of the estimates were based on how much his Koch holdings would be worth if the enormously rich company went public. Attempts to do so in the past have been rejected.

He was sensitive generally about discussions of his wealth, arguing in court affidavits that the family's financial documents shouldn't be open to public scrutiny.

In addition, Mr. Marshall once told a Harris County probate court that his father "was a private man. He would be horrified at the degree to which his privacy already has been violated in this litigation."

'Very regular fellow'

Mr. Marshall played down his wealth in his daily life as well. He and his wife lived in a house appraised at $656,780 – relatively modest amid the mansions and McMansions of North Texas.

In a city awash with millionaires, a high-dollar social scene and billionaires that regularly offer their opinions, Mr. Marshall did his best to stay out of the limelight.

He was so successful that many people in the city didn't even realize he and his wife had lived in Dallas since 1979.

"Pierce to me was a very regular fellow. Private, thoughtful, appropriate. Not much flash; that just was not his style," Mr. Bradley said.

His family could describe him in one word: real.

He regularly declined interviews and was rarely photographed. When he died, the news was kept quiet for days and released on a Friday evening to avoid attention.

Much of his life was spent like many middle-class suburbanites. He flew coach and stayed at modest hotels. He read a lot, was a "doting grandfather," and was fond of automobiles and racing.

Father's legacy

Most people don't recognize his name, and even fewer would have ever heard of him if it weren't for his father, J. Howard Marshall II.

J. Howard was fundamental in helping shape today's petroleum industry by crafting oil regulations and organizing America's fuel supplies during World War II. He also invested in several oil companies and co-founded Great Northern Oil, which later became part of Koch Industries.

Even with the elder Mr. Marshall's education, background and extensive holdings, what made the Houston tycoon well known in Middle America was his penchant for strippers during the last years of his life.

And, of course, his marriage to Mexia-born Texan Vickie Lynn Hogan, better known as Anna Nicole Smith.

"He loved big-breasted women," said family friend and Houston attorney Rusty Hardin. "He had an affinity for them in his later years. At the same time, he thought he could make them someone."

When J. Howard and Ms. Smith married, he was 89 and she was 26. It lasted 14 months and ended when he died of heart failure in August 1995.

During the final years of his wheelchair-bound father's life, Pierce Marshall tried to ignore his peccadilloes, friends say. But ignoring Anna Nicole was easier said than done.

"Pierce had to live through that public embarrassment, but Pierce never tried to judge his father," Mr. Hardin said. "He never tried to talk him out of giving Anna Nicole money."

Meanwhile, Ms. Smith was well on her way into a career of being famous for being famous. She morphed from Playboy Playmate into a Guess model, movie spoof actress and, most recently, a diet supplement spokeswoman.

She has become a pop-culture fixture, the stories about her frequently scandalous but almost always riveting in that way car crashes can be.

She lost a lawsuit to a former housekeeper who accused her of sexual harassment; complained after she was pictured squatting in a short skirt and eating potato chips on the cover of New York magazine's "White Trash Nation" edition; and she pulled down her dress during the MTV Australia Video Music Awards to reveal pasties sporting the television station's logo.

Her body was photographed as her weight ballooned and then chronicled once again as she battled the pounds. She appeared on an awards show dazed and confused. Her atypical, everyday life was recorded for all to watch on a reality TV show.

Meanwhile, Pierce Marshall was dragged in the wake of her public persona.

Committed to plan

But Pierce "never expressed any regrets concerning the decision to defend his father's estate plan. He knew, quite simply, in his heart that he was doing the right thing, and he always had the rest of the family's support and conviction behind him," his family wrote in its response to The News' questions.

Meanwhile, the lawsuits were filled with plot twists.

During a state trial in Texas that began in 2000, Pierce Marshall's attorneys argued that J. Howard had spent $6.6 in million in jewelry, real estate and other gifts for Ms. Smith during their relationship. He did not include her in his will, they said, because he believed he had already taken care of her needs.

Anna Nicole and Pierce Marshall's brother, J. Howard III, were awarded absolutely nothing. Pierce was declared the sole heir.

"During the trial my heart really went out to Pierce and his family," said Kathy Bassir, a school librarian in Houston and a juror in the case. "Sometimes the other side portrayed him as this mean guy, and I thought he was being portrayed wrong.

"He was shown as this monster, but he was a good family man. Now that he's passed away, it's sad. He never had the chance to show the media, the people, whoever, what a great person he was," she said. "He was only doing what his daddy asked him to do."

In Anna Nicole's favor

While Ms. Smith got nothing in Texas, a federal court in California awarded her $474 million in a complicated legal twist that began after she declared bankruptcy. That was later overturned.

Then in March, the U.S. Supreme Court put the case back on the table. The justices ruled that federal courts could have jurisdiction and told the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its merits.

Mr. Hardin said the court soon will be notified that Elaine Marshall is now the estate representative.

And that could create the chance of a settlement, said Kent L. Richland, one of Ms. Smith's attorneys.

"Certainly, there is a fact that there will be a change in personalities involved," he said. "That opens up the possibility there will be a different attitude. Assets change hands. That is often a time when people want to access what is in their best interest."

Ms. Smith declined to comment about the case, and J. Howard III did not return messages asking for comment.

But Pierce Marshall's family members say they won't settle.

"Nothing has changed from the family's standpoint as to how this case should end up and we will handle it as Pierce did, in his honor," they wrote.

Nothing would please Lynn Barker more. A bartender from Baytown and a juror in the original state trial, she said she became very attached to Mr. Marshall.

"I cried for two days when I heard he died. Let everybody know he was a good man. He should have lived a long time. People need to know we lost a very valuable part of our society," she said. "Everybody's all, 'Anna Nicole, Anna Nicole.' "

E-mail kfairbank@dallasnews.com