Darkness on the Plains

For decades, Stanley Marsh 3 was Amarillo’s most famous citizen, a wildly creative eccentric who charmed everyone he met (including me). Now his world is crumbling amid sordid allegations of sexual abuse of teenage boys. How could we have all been so wrong?
Photographs by Wyatt McSpadden

I first met Stanley Marsh more than thirty years ago, when I was a young newspaper reporter on assignment in Amarillo. He was in his early forties then and one of the most celebrated men in Texas. Reporters from all over the country loved to catalog his quirky eccentricities and mischievous pranks. A natural showman, Marsh had emerged as a supremely savvy and flamboyant (and wealthy) trickster in a time of great tricks. In 1973 he had made President Nixon’s enemies list after he wrote Mrs. Nixon to request that she send him dresses from her wardrobe to fill up the entire first floor of a Museum of Decadent Art he was planning. The following year, in what would become his most celebrated stunt, he paid a group of San Francisco artists to plant ten tail-finned Cadillacs in a field alongside Route 66 outside Amarillo, all of them inclined at the precise angle (52 degrees) of the sides of the Great Pyramid. And just in case anyone hadn’t noticed him yet, in 1975 he attended former governor John Connally’s bribery trial in Washington, D.C., wearing wacky Western clothes—including a pair of purple chaps—and carrying a bucket of cow manure, into which he carefully dipped his boots before entering the courtroom. 

A member of a prominent Amarillo oil family that had been in the Panhandle since the 1860’s, Marsh believed that the rich should behave differently than the rest of us. He often came to his office dressed in a loud black-and-white-checkered suit, and he’d sit in a matching black-and-white-checkered upholstered chair, with his pet lion at his side. In the back of Toad Hall, his baronial estate at the edge of town, he built a rustic menagerie and filled it with such creatures as a Clydesdale horse, a zebra named Spot, peacocks, cats, buffalo, Longhorn cattle, ostriches, a two-hump camel, and a hairless Chinese dog with green wings tattooed on his sides—“in case he wants to fly away one day,” Marsh liked to say. 

By the time I met him, Marsh was most well-known for the Cadillac Ranch. It had become one of the country’s most popular roadside attractions, a kind of Pop-Art Stonehenge. Magazines held fashion shoots there and bands shot music videos (Bruce Springsteen even sang a song about it). But it was far from his only major project. Marsh commissioned artists to create other impressive public art installations, including Floating Mesa (a section of a flat-topped hill wrapped in metallic screens, which made it appear as if the top of the hill were floating in the air) and World’s Largest Phantom Soft Pool Table (a 180-by-100-foot rectangle of dyed green grass with oversized billiard balls and a 100-foot-long cue stick), both on Marsh’s ranch, about twenty miles north of Toad Hall. He erected a billboard-scale sign on his property that read “Actual Size,” and he created a gargantuan necktie, 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, which he placed around the chimney of his mother’s home. At one point, he decided to become a filmmaker and began shooting a movie (which he never finished) about Lady Godiva, for which he persuaded his pretty wife, Wendy, a prominent rancher’s daughter and graduate of the esteemed Smith College and the University of Texas School of Law, to don a flesh-colored leotard and ride on horseback through the streets of Amarillo. 

When I had the chance to meet Marsh at his downtown office in 1981, he was dressed in jeans, a billowy barberlike shirt, a red vest, and a bowler hat that didn’t even begin to contain his unruly white hair. The lion wasn’t around, but standing proudly next to Marsh’s desk was Minnesota Fats, a pet pig that had died from eating too much chocolate and had been stuffed and mounted. Marsh stared at me from behind thick glasses that made his eyes look twice as big as normal and said in his exaggerated West Texas twang, “You’re from Dallas? Now, why would you live in a place like Dallas when you could be living it up in rootin’, tootin’ Amarillo?”

I couldn’t have been more charmed. He talked about the philosophers, novelists, and poets he had read, then showed me the window that he periodically opened to drop water balloons on unsuspecting pedestrians. He kept me laughing, explaining how he wanted to collect the boots of dead cowboys west of the Mississippi and build a giant boot hill on his ranch, or describing a party he once threw for a group of Japanese businessmen, to which he invited only men who were at least six feet four in order to reinforce the stereotype of the tall Texan. There were other people waiting to see him, but he seemed to have all the time in the world for me. Finally, as I was heading for the door, he reminded me that although his official name was Stanley Marsh III, he preferred to be called Stanley Marsh 3 because he thought Roman numerals after one’s name were pretentious. I could have turned around, sat back down, and talked to him for the rest of the day.

In 1995, about fifteen years after that first meeting, I briefly saw Marsh again when I returned to Amarillo to write a Texas Monthly story about what appeared to be another comic chapter in his life. Marsh, who was then 57, had put up hundreds of diamond-shaped street signs throughout the town with peculiar slogans like “Ostrich X-ing,” “You Will Never Be the Same,” “Lubbock Is a Grease Spot,” and “Road Does Not End.” Ben Whittenburg, the teenage son of another oil-rich pioneer Panhandle family, had apparently stolen one of the signs, leading Marsh and his employees to hunt him down and lock him in a chicken coop for about fifteen minutes. Incensed, Ben’s father, George, a proper, rock-ribbed conservative Amarillo lawyer, filed a lawsuit against Marsh, claiming that he had brandished a hammer and verbally threatened Ben during the chicken coop incident, which

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