In the fall before her tragic death, Anna Nicole Smith, 38, and lawyer Howard K. Stern, 37, boarded the 41-ft. catamaran Margaritaville in the early morning hours of Sept. 28 and set sail off the coast of the Bahamas’ Paradise Island – and then pledged their love in a commitment ceremony.
During the simple ceremony, Smith and Stern exchanged vows and temporary rings before a Baptist minister and some of the couple’s close friends. Although the high-seas ceremony was not legally binding (and no marriage certificate was issued), a source close to the couple told PEOPLE, the pair “made a commitment before God to be there for one another, to be each other’s strength during this difficult time.”
“Howard and Anna were both crying and kissing and holding hands. It was kind of sad and happy at the same time,” friend and former Dynasty actor John James told PEOPLE. The bittersweet ceremony came, after all, on the heels of the still-unexplained death of Smith’s 20-year-old son Daniel on Sept. 10, just three days after the former Playboy pinup gave birth to her second child, a 6-lb. 9-oz. daughter named Dannielynn Hope.
After the ceremony, the couple literally took the plunge into the balmy waters off the coast of a nearby island. After guests toasted the couple with champagne and apple cider, the pair celebrated in their own special way – with some fresh Kentucky Fried Chicken, ferried to the wedding party by sailboat.
Of the questionable timing of the ceremony, Smith’s Nassau attorney Michael Scott explained, “This was intended to be a lift to steel them for Daniel’s funeral.” And while their relationship came as a surprise to many, Smith’s longtime lawyer and confidant revealed on Larry King Live two days before the ceremony that he had loved Smith “for quite some time,” and that he hoped they would someday marry.
Stern, who also revealed in the Sept. 26 Larry King interview that he (not Smith’s ex, photographer Larry Birkhead, who filed a paternity suit) is the father of Smith’s daughter Dannielynn Hope, has a tender moment with the 3-week-old baby girl.