The Marlands’ Mysterious Legacy
Lydie Marland Was The Daughter Of The Richest Man In Oklahoma When Work On Her Statue Began In 1926. By The Time The Sculpture Was Finished, She Was No Longer E.W. Marland’s Daughter, But His Wife, And His Wealth Had Been Swept Away Like Dust On The Prairie.
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The Old Chief Foresaw The Future With a Two-Word Prophecy.
It was uttered in sadness on a summer day in 1911, near a long sloping hill dotted with scaffolded platforms holding the wrapped bodies of Ponca tribe’s dead on Oklahoma’s northern plain.
E.W. Marland, a lawyer from Pittsburgh who had moved to Kay County to search for oil, finally had won permission to drill on the Ponca hallowed ground. It was the allotment of 19-year-old tribal member Willie-Cries-For-War. Marland promised $1,000 a year for the lease and 12.5 percent of profits from the 160 acres.
It was with a heavy heart that Chief White Eagle approved the deal. Then 71 years old, he had led the Poncas in their last war against the Sioux before the tribe’s forced relocation to Indian Territory in 1877. He was seen as open-minded, still hoping for the best despite repeated disappointments. But he was also the tribe’s medicine man and religious adviser, and had a bad feeling about disrupting the sacred site.
White Eagle told Marland that the venture would poison both of their lives. He asked him to reconsider, with a succinct warning: “Bad medicine.”
Marland was undeterred. He was a wildcatter, tapped out after three years of drilling dry wells and reduced to leaving his gold watch as collateral.
In July 1911, he found what he was looking for near Bodark Creek. Drilling at 1,500 feet in the well that came to be known as Willie-Cries Number One, a gusher of oil sprayed skyward. Droplets fell as a fine black rain, and the stench of sulphur blanketed the Plains.
Marland rejoiced. Bad medicine or no, he was in business.
The rise and fall of the house of Marland is part “Great Gatsby,” part “Citizen Kane” and part “Grey Gardens” … an epic American tale with a Southern Gothic patina.
The story begins, as stories often do, with a boy and a dream.
The only son and youngest of eight children, Ernest Whitworth Marland was named for his great-grandfather Ernest Whitworth, head of the Whitworth School for Boys near Manchester.
E.W.’s father, Alfred, had big plans for his heir. His goal: Ernest Whitworth Marland, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ernest, however, had other ideas. He graduated from law school at the age of 19, but his heroes were not judges. He admired financial titans: Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan. He wanted to be rich beyond comprehension. He wanted to be an American prince. He wanted to live in a castle. He wanted to make his mark. To be remembered.
And so it came to pass.
In the decade following the oil strike at Willie-Cries and the warning from Chief White Eagle, E.W. Marland of Ponca City would become a multimillionaire. Everything he touched turned to gold. Within 15 years, he would control 10 percent of the world’s known oil reserves.
Along the way, the childless E.W. Marland and his wife, Mary Virginia, adopted their nephew and niece, the eldest son and daughter of Mrs. Marland’s sister, Margaret.
Around the time that George Roberts was 13 and his sister Lyde was 10, they traveled by train with their Aunt Mary Virginia to Oklahoma. They had been brought up modestly in Flourtown, a suburb of Philadelphia. Their father, George Frederick Roberts, eked out a living selling vegetables from a pushcart. His children’s lives would be different.
After moving in with their aunt and uncle, the new Oklahomans were treated to parties and ponies and private schools. Their adoption was finalized in 1916, when Lydie (as she liked to be called; rhymes with tidy) was 16 and George 19. They became George Roberts Marland and Lydie Roberts Marland, heir and heiress of an oil baron.
E.W. Marland reveled in his new role as a member of the American aristocracy. He spent money on luxury European tours, vacationing on his yacht, the Whitemarsh; sightseeing in his private railroad car, The Ponca City; building a golf course and a pool that was open to all of his workers. His love of all things English inspired him to form a Ponca City polo league and to introduce the formal fox hunt to Oklahoma, complete with red-coated riders, baying hounds, imported horses and frightened foxes.
And business was booming. Between 1900 and 1935, more than 906 million barrels of oil flowed out of Oklahoma, worth $5.28 billion, and Marland extracted his share. In New York, the financial wizards E.W. idolized had caught the scent of money flowing into Marland Oil. J.P. Morgan Jr., son of the original J.P. Morgan, suggested his firm buy stock in Marland Oil and also offer financial advice. E.W. was flattered to be invited to the table with a banking titan.
For $12 million, Morgan and Company became large stockholders and earned three of the 15 seats on Marland’s board of directors. As E.W. flitted between projects, the bankers plotted how to wrest control of the company.
In the meantime, E.W. began his masterwork: an epic palace on the prairie, inspired by the Palazzo Davanzati in Florence. It would cost $5.5 million and employ dozens of European craftsmen, featuring wood from the royal forest of England, a throne from Germany, chandeliers of Waterford crystal, gargoyles carved from stone and ceilings gilded by Italian artists. There would be secret tunnels, stainless steel kitchen countertops, an electric sauna, a safe for the silver, an elevator lined in buffalo leather. Crates of classic artwork and antique furnishings were gleaned from around the globe, earmarked for the Marland Mansion.
But old artworks were not enough. Powerful men in history often commissioned top artists to create a lasting image, one that would memorialize them for centuries to come. E.W. wanted the same for his family. There would be three statues, sculpted of French limestone. E.W. wrote “a check too big to ignore” to a reluctant Jo Davidson, an American artist working in France, to create life-sized sculptures of Lydie and George and E.W. The models for the three statues would be sculpted in clay over the course of several months in Oklahoma, then finished in Davidson’s studio in France and shipped back to the estate.
There were no plans to sculpt a likeness of the ailing Mary Virginia, who had been diagnosed with cancer and become more isolated from her husband and children.
Mary Virginia died on June 6, 1926, one month before her 50th birthday. Within the week, E.W. and Lydie headed to the East Coast and an extended European vacation, returning at the end of August.
By 1927, 550 Marland Oil stations were operating in 11 states. E.W. had planned their design to the smallest detail, with each building shaped like a triangular English cottage, reflecting the company’s logo.
E.W. and Lydie returned to Pennsylvania to have her adoption annulled and clear the way for marriage.
The national tabloids had a feeding frenzy. Even The New York Times ran coverage of the scandalous relations over two columns of its front page, January 6, 1928, including the reaction of Lydie’s mother: “News of the engagement of her daughter, Miss Lydie Miller Roberts, to Ernest W. Marland, oil millionaire, came as a shock to Mrs. George F. Roberts, who refused to discuss the coming marriage, at her home on Old Mill Road, in Flourtown, late today. She broke down and wept when she learned of their engagement, regretting particularly Mr. Marland’s reference to the adoption of the girl. She refused to discuss her daughter’s reasons for leaving her parents.”
In the meantime, the financial outlook for Marland Oil became more uncertain. The economy was shifting, and the price of crude oil tumbled from a high of $3.07 a barrel at the beginning of the 1920s to as low as 65 cents. Supply outstripped demand. Marland Oil was heavily invested in expansion at a time when there was already an oil glut.
But money continued to flow into the mansion. The 43,561-square-foot castle was fortified with steel beams and featured 55 rooms, including 12 bathrooms, three kitchens and adjoining bedrooms for the soon-to-be newlyweds. Lydie chose the slab of pink marble in Italy that would be carved on site for her bedroom fireplace. E.W. spent nearly $80,000 on the gold leaf for the ballroom ceiling, and designed air vents crafted with gold nuggets fused into the cast iron. A secret passage near the fireplace off the downstairs Hall of Merriment led to a secret poker room where a working safe opened, for those who knew the combination, to a steep staircase leading to a cavernous room filled with cases and cases of Prohibition-era whiskey and spirits. Upstairs, above the fireplace in the ballroom, was a portrait of E.W. flanked by larger-than-life oils of George to the left and Lydie to the right, dressed as Carmen. By the time the paintings were installed, the portrait of E.W. had a much darker background on the left, behind the chair where he was seated. The consensus was that the work had originally included Mary Virginia, but was later blacked out. Lydie’s portrait shows her dressed as the operatic heroine Carmen, with slithering snakes at her feet to symbolize wisdom, as popularized in paintings of Queen Elizabeth I.
E.W. and Lydie were married in Flourtown at the home of her parents July 14, 1928. The bride wore a rose-colored traveling gown, and was given away by her father. She was 28. Her father was 54. Her new husband was also 54.
They embarked on a two-month cross-Canadian honeymoon that swung by California before returning home.
The three completed statues, shipped to Ponca City from Paris, arrived to find a place of honor on the grounds. E.W. was portrayed seated in a chair. George looked jaunty, ready for adventure. But it was the sculpture of Lydie that made the leap from work-for-hire to artwork.
Its milky limestone all but glows from within, showing Lydie poised at the height of the Roaring Twenties with hand-on-hip confidence. Her marcelled hair rests in chiseled waves. The fluid drape of her gown clings to her breasts, skims her waist and cascades into a froth of feathers that looks for all the world like meringue, levitating over delicate shoes. Her left hand holds a wide-brimmed straw hat, ringed with a halo of flowers. Her smile is enigmatic – a modern Mona Lisa.
E.W. installed her likeness in the North Garden, where he could view it from the breakfast room and from the windows of his upstairs suite. They hosted pool parties and polo hunts, and loved to ride their horses around the estate. Lydie’s favorite was Rosenbar, an American Saddlebred; E.W. favored a Tennessee Walker named Tom James. Newspapers reported on Lydie frolicking with their glistening Irish setters, Red and Trotsky.
No detail was too small to escape E.W.’s notice. He requested the Italian stone carver Pelligrini sculpt the heads of his favorite dogs under each of the four corners of the porte cochere. Below the north balcony, he selected a Latin inscription from England’s most famous lawyer and judge, Edward Coke: domus sua est unicuique tutissimum refugium. The phrase is presumed to mean, “A man’s home is his castle.” But E.W. would never be so prosaic. In translation, the words convey a more philosophical sentiment, almost a lament: “Where shall a man be safe if it be not in his own house?”
The guard dogs and the Latin invocation were not enough to keep the world at bay. The newlyweds lived 18 months in the mansion before they realized they could not afford the cost of maintaining the palace, or even to pay the utilities that included electricity for 861 light bulbs. They moved into the estate’s artist’s studio, where the vaulted ceiling featured rough-hewn wooden beams that had been part of the oil derrick that started it all: the Willie-Cries Number One. The big house would only be opened for special occasions.
E.W. was forced out as president of Marland Oil on November 1, 1928. J.P. Morgan had merged the business with the Continental Oil Company. The Marland name was removed from every tanker, rig, truck and service station. The new logo kept Marland’s trademark red triangle but painted in the new company name: Conoco. The stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed erased any hope of a comeback.
As his fortune withered, E.W. Marland embarked on a career as a politician. The mansion would serve as campaign headquarters for his successful runs for the U.S. House of Representatives and for his bid to become 10th governor of Oklahoma. From the North Garden, the statue of Lydie had a view through the windows for the 1935 inaugural ball. During his term as governor, his biographer chronicled E.W. gazing at the statue from his old second-floor suite: “She swirled in formal skirts, as whimsical and challenging as Petrolia – youth and beauty preserved in stone under his window.”
Painfully shy to begin with, Lydie never recovered from the criticism of her marriage and the loss of the family fortune. Though gracious and well-read, she was withdrawn and often hid behind sunglasses when she ventured out. Reluctant to be in the public eye, she opted out of marching in the parade celebrating her husband’s inauguration.
E.W. twice ran for election to represent the state in the U.S. Senate but lost both times, to candidates funded by banking and oil interests that did not want Marland in the Senate with the power to change the mechanisms that had led to the loss of his company.
Before leaving the governor’s mansion in 1939, the Marlands sold some of their furniture – including E.W.’s massive carved bed – at a great yard sale on the mansion’s front lawn. There would be no room for it in the cottage back in Ponca City.
In April 1941, he sold the mansion that had cost him $5.5 million to a Carmelite religious order. Price: $66,000.
E.W. Marland died in the modest bedroom of the former chauffeur’s cottage on October 3, 1941, looking out the window toward the mansion. He was 67. His wife was 41, and was alone for the first time in her life.
Lydie stayed in the cottage for a decade after her husband’s death, keeping to herself. Since the Carmelites banned non-religious artwork from the grounds, the statue that Jo Davidson had sculpted was crated up and deposited near the west stone wall by her cottage.
She became a recluse, having little contact with the city that had once adored her husband. Offers of help were rebuffed. As World War II came and went, memories of the Marland dynasty began to fade.
Things changed in 1950. After years of solitude, Lydie became friendly with Lewis Cassel,
a much-married meter reader who came to check her utilities. The former taxi driver and soda jerk was charming – and 19 years her junior. She asked him to fix a few things around her house. Soon, he was driving her around town and on short trips.
Smitten, Lydie started planning a future together. After a while, he suggested she buy a wheat farm outside town. Maybe they could move there together, far from prying eyes. She came up with the $5,000 he needed and handed it over. Cassel quickly resold the property for a profit, using the money to catch up with child support and old debts. The novelty of their relationship had soured,
and he chafed over her demands to keep his word. In 1952, on Grand Avenue in the center of Ponca City, he publicly dumped her before a crowd of onlookers. She was heartbroken, and humiliated.
It was the last straw.
The former first lady of Oklahoma had had enough. Something had to change.
She was 52 years old, twice the age she had been when she sat for the sculptor. The statue remained crated near her cottage, trapped in the Roaring Twenties. She was tired of it, and tired of what it represented.
The decision was made: Smash the face first.
No one knows for sure who struck the blow: Lydie Marland herself or Glen Gilchrist, the man she had asked to take the statue away. But a hammer was taken to the sculpted face, shattering it into four large chunks. The hands and torso were bludgeoned. Gilchrist took the broken pieces and was told to finish destroying the rest. She made him promise she would never see the statue again.
In early 1953, sometime after Valentine’s Day, she backed her green 1948 Studebaker convertible up to the attached garage and loaded it with art: six framed oil paintings, some tapestries and small sculptures, a few personal items and a purse with $10,000 in cash. She left $19,000 in her account at the Ponca City Savings & Loan. Though her eyesight was horrible and she never been issued a driver’s license, Lydie Roberts Marland took to the road. She would be lost in anonymity for 22 years.
On July 31, 1955, her brother/stepson George filed a missing person’s report. That fall, the Washington Post ran an article headlined “Have you seen Lydie Marland? The lovely widow of the former governor of Oklahoma drove away from home early in 1953 – and simply vanished.”
Instead of finding the peace she craved, disappearing had brought her even more attention. Lydie was back in the public eye. The story quoted an unnamed friend who said, “She sometimes spoke of desire for anonymity. It wasn’t that she mourned the past – she just wanted to forget it.”
The reporter found that Mrs. Marland had stayed at the Moonlight Motel near Independence, Missouri, in the weeks immediately after leaving Ponca City. The motel owners, Mr. and Mrs. Chester C. Andes, became friends with their long-term guest. “She hinted to Mrs. Andes of a possible remarriage to a man much younger than herself. ‘I’ve never really been in love,’ Lydie said. ‘Do you think I’m too old for it?’”
Two years later, the Saturday Evening Post ran a front-page article by investigative reporter John Kobler about the saga, describing Lydie as “ward and widow of the prairie Croesus.”
She had become a legend, a shadow of Howard Hughes proportions, seen everywhere, yet nowhere: staying with a priest in San Francisco, standing in a bread line in New York City, protesting the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. The only sign she was alive was the annual arrival of a $100 bill in the mail, an overpayment on taxes for her cottage.
In 1975, Lydie Marland finally responded to a letter sent to the return address on the envelope. Her cottage was falling apart and needed attention. She made a collect call to C.D. Northcutt, an old friend, who corresponded with her for months, and coaxed her back to Oklahoma after her 22-year absence.
Her changed appearance shocked him. The glamorous Lydie had become “a tiny woman whose wrinkled face was framed by iron gray hair. Her upper teeth were missing and two lower teeth were black with decay.”
Northcutt took her out to eat in Bartlesville, where the waitresses eyed her as if she were homeless. Though disheveled, her soft voice and gracious manner was intact, and she and Northcutt visited for two hours. His admiring assessment: “What a complicated piece of human machinery!”
He told of the disrepair of her old house and that the Marland Mansion was about to change hands again, as the nuns who had been living there planned to move. Voters were asked to approve a two-year sales tax to raise half of the money needed to buy the estate and its grounds. Conoco would match the amount raised, for a total purchase price of $1.435 million.
Lydie decided to write a letter in favor of the purchase. Her words, which had been so rarely heard, were published in the Ponca City News that August. She supported the tax, saying of the mansion and of E.W.: “To me, it is a place of rare beauty and artistic integrity. A structure that is an expression from mind into substance, of the quality, the strength, and the heart of a man.”
On September 16, 1975, voters passed the measure.
The city arranged for her to stay in her home, which became known as Lydie’s Cottage. Conoco paid tribute with a $1,000 stipend in honor of her husband.
She would shop for groceries in town, dressed in clothes she would buy from the Salvation Army. On the grounds of the mansion, she would sometimes wear a veil on her head, watching parties and concerts at the mansion from a distance. Occasionally, when the music floated onto across the lawn, she danced near the gazebo with invisible partners.
She died on July 25, 1987 at the age of 87. Only six people, including the minster and the funeral director, attended her private funeral. Northcott said that as he was leaving her cottage for the last time, Lydie grabbed his hand and asked him to keep a secret until after she died: “While E.W. was alive, he told me that he loved me more than anything in this world.”
Six weeks after her death, a letter arrived at the offices of Conoco. It was forwarded to the curators of the Marland Mansion. GlenGilchrist’s family said he hadn’t the heart to destroy the statue, and had buried it by a barn near town.
And so it came to pass that 38 years after it had vanished, the statue again saw the light of day. It was unearthed two feet below the Oklahoma sod, nestled in a shroud of sand amid a nest of Conoco oil pipes. The face, hands and body had been shattered into more than a hundred pieces, but the bottom half was intact. Its remnants were brought back to the estate under a tarp.
A debate raged about what to do. Some argued Lydie’s wishes should have been respected, and that the statue should have remained buried forever. Most disagreed. Funds were raised for restoration, which took place over three months at the Pryse Monument Co. in Ponca City.
Craftsmen mixed epoxy with ground chips from the base of the figure, using old photographs for accuracy. A replica of the statue was created to be placed in the garden, and the original was brought inside to stand near the entrance, next to the statue of George. The statue of E.W. sitting in his chair had been installed near City Hall decades earlier.
Backlit from a cathedral window, Lydie’s sculpture is now bathed in soft buttery light from below and from an electric candelabra sconce on the side. Only the most observant will notice the faint line around her waist, purposefully left visible to show where the statue had been chopped in half.
There is a crack by her shoulder blade, a chunk missing from the folds of her skirt and a divot in her hat. The facial scar runs down her forehead and across the nose, flowing down across her right cheek on one side and up across the left on the other, forming a triangle beneath her eye.
The scar seems a mark of honor, the badge of a survivor torn to pieces and again made whole. Silent and resolute, the face of Lydie offers an enigmatic smile, lips harboring tales not told.
Lydie herself would shy away from the interest. She would be astounded by the works of fiction and non-fiction she has inspired, and baffled by the motion picture that is in the works. She never wanted to be famous, and did not think herself especially interesting. After her return to Ponca City, she was heard to say: “So many people come to me and say, tell me your story. They’d be so disappointed. There’s really not a story to tell.”
E.W., however, would be thrilled. Long after his opponents have faded to mere footnotes in the yellowing pages of forgotten books, the saga of the House of Marland lives on.
Editor’s Note: This is the 21st installment in a continuing series as author and photographer M.J. Alexander chronicles her travels across the state of Oklahoma.