It is rare that Zief Brief has a chance to deflate an urban legend, especially one that involves the object of ongoing media frenzy. The story all started with a simple reference question and it ends with our questioning the accuracy of the ultimate in print journalism – the New York Times.
Some background: Anna Nicole Smith’s original claim to fame was her brief marriage to a J. Howard Marshall, II a man who made billions in the oil business. The fact that he was also 63 years her senior coupled with Anna Nicole’s profession as a stripper attracted the attention of tabloid journalists across the country. When Mr. Marshall died the resulting will battle between Anna Nicole and other heirs to the family fortune made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At some point in reporting the ongoing kerfuffle between Anna Nicole and the Marshall heirs it was widely reported that J. Howard had been a professor at Yale law school and that he taught trusts and estates. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when Mr. Marshall’s teaching expertise became public knowledge but it is stated in the Brief for Respondent in the US Supreme Court case that J. Howard was “… a lawyer and former Trusts and Estates professor at the Yale Law School…” (see 2006 WL 189694 at page 3.)
The thought that an expert in wills and trust had left behind such a messy, contentious estate was the source of much humor. For example, in a February 19th 2007 Newsweek article, Anna Nicole is described as “flirting with J. Howard Marshall II, an octogenarian who – only in America – had taught trusts and estates at Yale law school.” This supposed “fact” about Mr. Marshall taught trusts and estates is of special interest to law professors who teach the subject. One such professors, William Bassett is a giant in the field and author of dozens of books, including the authoritative treatise California Community Property Law.
Professor Bassett asked the Zief Reference Librarians if they could verify whether Mr. Marshall did actually teach wills and trusts while a professor at Yale. While the Yale law school wasn’t able to say what courses Marshall taught, a query directed to the reference staff of Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale University Library hit pay dirt. They promptly consulted their records and located the Yale University School of Law Catalogue for the years that Marshall taught. They determined that in the 1931-1932 academic year he taught "Business Units II (Management)", "Procedure II (Code Pleading)", and two honors and graduate courses entitled "Problems in Business Unites II (Management)" and "Some Legal and Business Aspects of Origination and Syndication". In the only other year he taught (1932-1933) he is listed as teaching "Procedure I", "Business Units I (Losses)", "Taxation", "Business Units II (Management)", and two "Seminars in Business Units": "I (Losses)" and "III (Finance)". Needless to say, none of these courses look anything like wills and trusts.
Urban legends like these have a way of persisting even after someone takes the time to debunk them. One wonders where the staff of fact checkers were when in a Febuary 9th 2007 article titled “Anna Nicole Smith Is Found Dead at a Florida Hotel” the New York Times stated in she had been married to “…J. Howard Marshall II, a Texas oil billionaire and former professor of trusts and estates at Yale Law School…”