Big Feud at Cadillac Ranch

For years Stanley Marsh 3 has been sticking it to the up-standing Whittenburg clan. But his latest practical joke could land him in jail, and no one in Amarillo is laughing anymore.

the way a city like Boston embraced the Kennedys. To some people, the Whittenburgs were the Panhandle version of William Faulkner’s hardened, ambitious Snopes family. “Roy was different from Amarillo’s oil fraternity,” says Dorothy Ann Kinney, a well-known Amarillo lawyer who is in her seventies. “If a local oilman wanted to get mineral rights on Whittenburg land, Roy would stare him straight in the eye and demand a one-fourth royalty payment instead of the normal one-eighth.” But the family usually got what it wanted. Because of the huge infusions of Whittenburg money, the Amarillo Times began to dominate the Globe-News, and in the early fifties, the Globe-News’s owner, Gene Howe, finally admitted defeat and sold his publishing company (which also included a television station, two radio stations, and the two newspapers in Lubbock) to the Whittenburgs. Soon afterward, Howe committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. “People loved Gene,” says one Amarillo lawyer, “and they couldn’t help feeling resentful that Roy and S.B. had pushed him out of business.” In a not-too-subtle slap at the Whittenburgs, a former Amarillo newspaperman, Al Dewlen, published a novel, The Bone Pickers, in 1958 about an imperious group of Amarillo siblings managing the huge oil estate left by their father. Dewlen described the family as “fair-skinned, flat-waisted, prominently boned. And tearless.” Amarillo residents bought most of the first 10,000 copies published. Rumors circulated that the Whittenburgs tried to buy the copyright to the book to keep a second edition from coming out. Dewlen himself, now living in Waco, says the book critic for the Globe-News had told him that he had originally written a positive review of The Bone Pickers but was ordered by his boss to make it negative.

IN HIS YOUTH, GEORGE A. WHITTENBURG II rarely laid eyes on Stanley Marsh 3, who was six years older. Marsh spent much of the early sixties away from Amarillo pursuing a master’s degree in economic history from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Whittenburg attended the University of Texas and then moved on to the University of Texas School of Law, where he was the president of his class and an editor of the law review. After graduation in 1968, he returned to Amarillo to begin his law career. Marsh had returned to Amarillo the previous year to help oversee the family’s investments after the death of his father. (Marsh’s younger brother Tom, known around town as the “normal” brother, ran a feedlot and later moved to Dallas to look after part of the family’s oil operations. Marsh’s youngest brother, Mike, attended Columbia University in New York City, where he is now an investor.)

To people’s astonishment, Marsh 3 was a skillful businessman. At the age of 25 he became a director of Tascosa National Bank, and in 1967 he used family funds to buy Amarillo’s money-losing ABC television station, KVII, and soon turned it into the top-rated station in the market. He supposedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars backing Halston, the New York fashion designer, and he once said he had made a small fortune cornering the market in commemorative bar mitzvah coins.

But as Stanley himself would later tell a reporter, he was intent on “legalizing insanity.” His downtown office had eleven television sets but no desk. He wrote business letters on stationery marked Top Sacred. He occasionally conducted business meetings with a pet lion at his feet. On the wall outside his office was a framed portrait of a gorilla and an inscription that read “Our Founder.” When he hosted a party for a group of Japanese businessmen in Amarillo on a trade mission, Marsh invited only those Amarillo citizens who were at least six four so that his visitors would believe the myth of the tall Texan.

In 1967 he married Wendy O’Brien, a prominent rancher’s daughter who graduated from Smith College and received a law degree from the University of Texas (one year ahead of George Whittenburg). Wendy good-naturedly tolerated Marsh’s pranks. She once let him talk her into wearing a flesh-colored leotard and riding through downtown Amarillo while he filmed her for a movie he was making (and later abandoned) about a modern-day Lady Godiva. They built a six-bedroom house at the edge of town and named it Toad Hall, after the rebellious and lovable character in The Wind in the Willows who lived in a very fine house. Marsh bought the entire zoo of Dalhart, save the coyotes, and gave the animals the run of the place. Llamas and yaks stuck their heads in Marsh’s bedroom window; peacocks nested on top of the cars. One winter he hired a woman to play Beethoven on a piano that he had pushed onto a frozen lake behind his house. Marsh loved this world so deeply that when he learned a housing development was planned near Toad Hall, he erected a billboard on land next to the proposed development that read “Future Home of the World’s Largest Poisonous Snake Farm.”

This was a man who would rewrite F. Scott Fitzgerald and say that the very rich should be different from you and me. “He lived in this state of blissful unreality,” says the cowboy poet Ramsey. After seeing a Claes Oldenburg exhibit of pop art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970—an exhibit that included massive hamburgers and giant cars—Marsh created a gargantuan necktie, forty feet long and eight feet wide, which he put on the outside of his mother’s chimney. He built a football field-size pool table on his ranch by painting part of the prairie green and making large billiard balls that looked like bean bag chairs. He labeled this work “The World’s Largest Phantom Soft Pool Table.”

Marsh, who detested museum exhibitions, claimed that art needed to be “surprising and hidden… . The audience I’m designing for are people who will come across it unexpectedly and not know it’s there.” To that end, he commissioned work from famous sculptors to

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week