Florida Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin, a former taxi driver with a strong Bronx accent, cried four times yesterday over the fate of Anna Nicole Smith's corpse.
He was telling the court of his decision to grant custody of the body of the former Playboy model to her 5-month-old baby girl. This made more sense when you realized that he was also putting the baby girl under the supervision of a court-appointed guardian.
But it was the crying that people couldn't stop talking about. This day in Fort Lauderdale may have been some sort of judicial landmark: He succeeded in channeling California's O.J. Simpson judge, Lance Ito, for theatrics -- and trumped the guy.
In the grandest of American traditions, Seidlin grabbed a little piece of the action for himself.
"The candlelight, the flame is going out," Seidlin said dramatically, presumably speaking of Smith's soul and not his own 15 minutes of fame.
He turned to Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur, who had been feuding with Smith's lawyer and companion, Howard K. Stern, for the right to bury Smith's body.
"I'm just telling you, mama, I feel for you. . . . I have suffered with this. I have struggled with this. I have shed tears for your little girl and your grandchild."
A few minutes later, Seidlin, 56, choked back more tears before imploring everyone in the courtroom to remain "dignified."
Righto. It is fitting that Smith's death should be as undignified as her life. Her baby, her money -- and until yesterday, her very body -- have been snared in a maze of legal matters. Those who knew her are snarling and fighting over her corpse. They want crumbs of an estate she may or may not be entitled to, by dint of a marriage she made at age 26 to 89-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall.
Along with judicial tears, Smith's death has stirred the muck in her life just as surely as someone poking a stick at the bottom of a river. Even those who watch her case obsessively would need flashcards to keep everything straight.
Will Smith be buried in the Bahamas, as the baby's guardian announced yesterday? Or will Arthur mount a successful appeal? Did Smith really own that house in the Bahamas, and if not, will baby Dannielynn be kicked out? How bad was Smith's drug problem? How lucid was she? Did Stern manipulate her into calling him the father of Dannielynn? And if he isn't the father, who is? At least three other men have claimed they could be the father of the baby, including photographer Larry Birkhead, a man who was Smith's bodyguard and Zsa Zsa Gabor's current husband. (We won't even get into the other theory about the dead billionaire's frozen sperm.)
And most important: Who will get control of the baby and perhaps the baby's money?
In Judge Seidlin's defense, it seems he managed to find the single person associated with the court hearing whose interests appear not to be tainted. Appropriately, it's someone who never met Smith or traveled in her orbit. His name is Richard Milstein, and he is the attorney now serving as the baby's guardian.
Before the judge gave his decision yesterday, he rambled, offering anecdotes about himself (he called them "antidotes"), as he has throughout the hearing. He spoke about how he feels about funerals (he "can't stand" them), about his chambers ("like my living room"), about his worldliness ("I travel. I talk to everybody") and about his efforts to bring this case to a "spiritual" close.
And most of all, he spoke about how the death of Anna Nicole Smith -- famous for her love of a camera, any camera, just so long as it was trained on her -- had affected him personally.
"This thing wore me out," he said. "I'm going to take a while to regenerate."
A little later, Seidlin signed an order. Then he cried again.