Texas town remembers Anna Nicole Smith with ambivalence
MEXIA, Texas - The convoys of TV trucks, bristling with antennae, started rolling into this small town as soon as the news broke last week. Reporters were desperately seeking someone, anyone, with the slightest connection to Anna Nicole Smith.
The 39-year-old starlet, who collapsed and died suddenly, always claimed that the rural East Texas community, 90 miles southeast of Dallas, had played an essential role in the story of her life.
She fled Mexia in her late teens for a new life as a big-city bad girl. In Houston, she became a topless dancer, a Playboy centerfold, designer jeans model and bride of an oil billionaire more than 60 years her senior.
But many of the 6,700 residents of Mexia (pronounced Muh-HEY-uh) appear to be just as desperate to put a distance between their city and the celebrity.
They want no part of this passion play.
Mexia, like many small towns, would like to attract more attention - but not this kind. Residents would like to see more businesses moving in. Young people would like more things to do. Everybody would like to feel that life isn't passing him or her by.
That ambivalence with the spotlight was most evident in Steve Hughes, owner of Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken. Ground Zero for the media, the fast-food restaurant is where Smith - then known as Vickie Lynn Hogan - worked in the mid-1980s and met her first husband.
It's unclear how long Smith lived in Mexia. She was born in Houston on Nov. 28, 1967. Hughes and other residents say she came to Mexia during her high school years after her parents divorced. She lived with a maternal aunt for only a few years.
Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur, had asked her daughter why she overstated her small-town roots in Mexia.
"She said, `Mom, nobody wants to read books or see people on TV concerning, you know, middle-class girl found a rich millionaire and married him. There's not a story in that,'" Arthur recalled on Good Morning America. "She said, `The story is I come from rags to riches, and so that's what I'm going to tell.'"
A tall, skinny teenager, Smith was nice and unassuming, Hughes said. Nothing, including her brunette hair and average bust-size, revealed a glimpse of the ersatz Marilyn Monroe she became.
"She was just another teenager working in a fast-food restaurant," Hughes said. "Only a handful of people in this town really knew her."
Hughes, a trim and youthful 44, bought the restaurant from his father, an Air Force veteran, in 1986.
Already a popular restaurant, Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken became even more so late last week. Media vans and trucks jammed the perimeter of the property, the main business route through town. By Friday morning, Hughes was on guard to keep the media cameras at bay, permitting only a Fox TV crew in the door.
But his face and voice betrayed his tension when he was asked yet again what Smith's life was like when she worked at Jim's.
"Take a look around," he said. "She was a teenager like everyone else in here."
Then he added: "She had nothing and nobody really. She didn't have any roots here."
The phrase - "She had no roots here" - was often repeated around Mexia.
Some exasperated residents said the media were looking in the wrong direction. There were lots of other famous people from Mexia. Former NFL coach Ray Rhodes starred at football and helped integrate Mexia High School in the late 1960s.
And then there was Cindy Walker, the prolific songwriter and charter inductee to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. She wrote hits sung by Bob Wills, Bing Crosby and Roy Orbison, among others.
For most of her life, Walker lived half the year in Mexia and the other half in Nashville. After she died in Mexia in March 2006, Willie Nelson released a tribute album of her songs: You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker.
The man to see about Cindy Walker, an old friend of hers, was another famous Mexian: Dicky Flatt.
Flatt was something of a media creation himself, becoming a household name in Texas in the early 1980s.
In nearly all of his political stump speeches, then-Texas Sen. Phil Gramm said he decided on every government-funding proposal by applying his "Dicky Flatt Test," looking at whether the government program was worth taking money out of the pocket of his old friend, the epitome of the average, hard-working businessman.
Flatt's parents moved here in the late 1930s and opened a printing business.
With the discovery of the East Texas oil fields, Mexia had boomed in the early part of the 20th century. Oil derricks blossomed all over town like mushrooms after a rainstorm. But by the late 1930s, the oil gushers had slowed to a trickle. The Depression had hit Mexia hard.
The Flatt family persevered, and Flatt, 64, now runs the printing company along with his two adult sons. It includes a bustling stationery shop on McKinney Avenue, an oasis of activity in the old, mostly empty downtown.
Tall and lanky, with boundless good humor, Flatt resembles a bespectacled scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. His office is cluttered with paperwork, bric-a-brac, framed photos of relatives and a few others of him posing with Sen. Gramm.
Giving a reporter and photographer a tour, Flatt passed through downtown with its boarded-up storefronts. He hoped one day to see it reinvented and luring back the shoppers who left a few years ago for the big-box retailers, like Wal-Mart, up on U.S. Highway 84.
He drove through older neighborhoods, with two-story, Victorian wood frame homes dating back to the oil boom era, when the town was triple its current size. Some houses looked well maintained, while others appeared abandoned long ago.
Flatt pointed to a vacant lot where he went to the old Ross Elementary School and then to a well-kept cottage home, where a woman once tutored him in algebra. He noted the old high school, now an administration building. He proudly announced that the new athletic field was one of the few in the region to have a roof over the stands.
On Brooks Street, he stopped at a two-story, white frame home. Thick bushes and crepe myrtles blocked the view. Cindy Walker, the songwriter, was a recluse in her later years, he said.
She liked her privacy, spending most of her time in her second-floor studio. On a quiet day, if you were passing by, you could hear her playing guitar or piano and singing.
Like Anna Nicole Smith, Walker also left Mexia as a teenager, heading one summer to Los Angeles with her parents. There she started pursuing her songwriting career, boldly seeking out stars, insisting that they sing her songs.
But unlike Smith, Walker remained connected to her small town roots through such songs as "Dusty Skies," "Cherokee Maiden," "In the Misty Moonlight," and perhaps her most famous song, "You Don't Know Me."
"Stardom didn't go to her head," Flatt said.
But some young people think folks in Mexia are living in the past.
Krystle Wilson, 21, never heard of Cindy Walker. Anna Nicole Smith was her hero. She followed Smith's career closely and watched her reality TV show.
"Young girl goes off to the big city - that's every girl's dream," said Wilson, a mother of two preschoolers. "I kind of looked up to her. She wanted to get out of here, and a lot of young people would like to get out of here."
On her way to apply for a job at Cefco, a convenience store next to Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken, she said Mexia doesn't offer much for young people.
"No movie theaters. No excitement. The same routine every day."
Down the road at the Drilling Rig restaurant, Danny Fortson, 51, understands. He practically lived on the road for 25 years as a country and blues musician. But it's not all that it's cracked up to be, he said.
"People look for fame and fortune and think it's going to be a good life, and it turns out to be their demise," he said.
Fortson is married to Shelli Milam, 33, who owns the Drilling Rig with her brother. For most of Friday, she was doing the mundane but necessary business of welcoming customers, working the cash register and making peach cobbler.
She and many others in Mexia High School's Class of 1993 left town. "There wasn't much to do around here," she said. She went to Dallas, stayed about two years and then came back to be close to her family.
From a parent's point of view, Mexia is a good place to raise children, she said.
"Everybody knows your business," she said. "You don't like that when you're growing up, but it's good when you're a parent."
One customer, Kelly O'Hare, 43, who renovates houses, said that, as a youth, he liked cruising "the drag" in his 1965 Mustang, from the Dairy Queen to the old traffic circle.
He has three daughters, ages 18, 16 and 11. But he can't find many lessons for them in Anna Nicole Smith's death - or the perils of leaving for the big city.
"You can't prepare them," he said.
He'd just as soon see them stick around. Good or bad, Mexia is not much different from any other small town, he said.
"It's Anywhere U.S.A."