FOR A QUARTER OF A CENTURY, STANLEY MARSH 3 has reigned as Texas’ merriest prankster, the Puck of the Panhandle. Whether burying tail-finned Cadillacs in the ground near old Route 66 or throwing water balloons out of his twelfth-floor office window in downtown Amarillo, the 58-year-old Marsh, scion of one of West Texas’ most prominent oil and gas families, has devised a myriad of “stunts,” as he calls them, “to get people out of their mental ruts.” He showed up at John Connally’s bribery trial in Washington, D.C., wearing Western dude clothes and carrying a bucket of cow manure. He hired an Italian dwarf to accompany him to a large society wedding dressed in an Aunt Jemima outfit. He sent letters to Pat Nixon asking her to donate her finest clothes to what he said was his Museum of Decadent Art.
With his teddy bear body, Mark Twain— like mustache, and shirttail hanging out of his pants, Marsh looks like a genuine Mad Hatter, and he loves playing the part. (He calls himself Stanley Marsh 3, pronouncing “three,” because he thinks Stanley Marsh III is too pretentious.) For the past two years he has been decorating Amarillo with diamond-shaped street signs with images of the Mona Lisa and killer bees and such bizarre messages as “Road Does Not End,” “Ostrich X-ing,” and “You Will Never Be the Same.” His goal, he once said, was “to encourage art for art’s sake and use it to fight back the ever-rising flood of philistinism.”
But when a teenager named Ben Whittenburg, one of the youngest members of another famous oil-rich Panhandle family, stole a Marsh sign that pictured a rabbit with the word “Rapid” written underneath it, Marsh hunted down the young Whittenburg and, according to Ben, threatened to hit him with a hammer, called his family “poor white trash,” and locked him in a chicken coop. Ben says Marsh screamed, “The goddam Whittenburgs. Everyone hates your dad. He’s just an arrogant f—er. Your granddad was a scum. Y’all used to have money, but you don’t anymore.”
Around Amarillo it was no secret that the flamboyant Marsh and the proper Whittenburgs were not friendly toward each other, but no one expected such a fierce feud. This past August, Ben’s father, George A. Whittenburg II—a no-nonsense, churchgoing Amarillo lawyer whose own father, Roy, was one of the most powerful businessmen in town in the fifties and sixties—filed a lawsuit against Marsh, charging that Marsh not only had inflicted “severe emotional distress” upon Ben but was using his signs “as an attractive nuisance to lure and then compromise and threaten teenage boys into doing his bidding.” In his most scandalous charge, Whittenburg told reporters he had evidence that Marsh, who is married and the father of five adopted children, had engaged in sexual misconduct with a few of the young men who had come to work for him.
Before Marsh’s lawyers advised him to stay silent to avoid causing more controversy, Marsh told a Dallas Morning News reporter that he was “appalled and dismayed by the ridiculous, untrue allegations” and said the Whittenburg lawsuit was merely an attempt to get money from him. Marsh’s friends insist that Whittenburg was simply using the lawsuit to restore the Whittenburgs to a position of influence in a city that had never appreciated them. “George knows that Stanley has been snickering at the Whittenburgs for years,” says Charles Rittenberry, one of Marsh’s attorneys. “He’s obsessed with destroying Stanley.”
But the 51-year-old Whittenburg, a trim, self-confident man who usually puts in fourteen-hour days at his law firm, says he feels obligated to investigate certain lurid rumors circulating about Marsh. “I want Stanley Marsh removed as a factor in the lives of young people in Amarillo, especially teenage boys,” he says. “For too long, people have been afraid of taking on Stanley Marsh because of his immense wealth and power. Well, it’s time for the truth to come out.”
To many amused citizens of Amarillo, the fight between George Whittenburg and Stanley Marsh 3 was like an old-fashioned range war—only this time, in modern-day Texas, the battle between two proud Panhandle clans was over street signs instead of cattle and oil wells. Marsh was playing the role of the frontier cowboy, accountable to no one; Whittenburg, acting like an angry Judge Roy Bean, was intent on getting his revenge. This past December, however, the chuckling over the case came to a halt when an Amarillo grand jury indicted Marsh on felony charges of aggravated assault and kidnapping in the chicken coop incident. Not content with suing for monetary damages, George Whittenburg had gone to the district attorney hoping to have Amarillo’s biggest celebrity put in prison. It became obvious that in this fight, both sides were playing for keeps.
OUT-OF-STATE REPORTERS invariably describe Ama-rillo as dull—which it most certainly is not. Though the city itself hardly looks glamorous, Amarilloans are a quirky conglomeration of old-timey cowboy types, Bible Belt Christians (there are five religious radio stations on the FM band alone), millionaires who have been educated in private schools, and what one longtime resident calls “a bunch of eccentric nuts who live on ranches.” On one side of town is the Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant, which is practically a parody of the Jett Rink, Cadillac-driving Texas lifestyle: If a customer can eat a 72-ounce steak within an hour, he doesn’t have to pay for it. On the other side of town is a fully stocked Barnes and Noble bookstore, complete with a coffee bar that serves latte. Just outside of town is Pantex, the nation’s controversial nuclear-weapon-disarmament plant.
Despite its evolution, however, Amarillo remains Texas’ last truly Western city. The stockyards and great ranches