Earlier today, I was sitting in front of my computer writing an update about Stanley Marsh III, the legendary West Texas eccentric who in the late sixties and early seventies had become internationally famous for creating whimsical, large-scale works of art, most notably the Cadillac Ranch: the 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. The occasion for this update was the impending fortieth anniversary of the creation of the Cadillac Ranch, on June 21, a date that should be commemorated, but one we couldn’t talk about without addressing the tainted legacy of Marsh. For the last couple of years, his life had turned into a sordid, sick mess. He was facing numerous lawsuits from young men who accused him of sexually abusing them when they were teenagers, plying them with cash, alcohol, drugs, and even cars as compensation for sexual favors. He also had been indicted by a grand jury in the city of Amarillo, where he lived, for sexual assault, sexual performance by a child and indecency with a child.
Then, a couple of hours or so after I had finished my last paragraph, I received a phone call informing me that Marsh, at the age of 76, had just died. I wasn’t sure what to say. Despite knowing what kind of damage he had done to so many young men over the years, I still felt a sense of grief. The truth is, he was a man I once adored.
In a story I wrote for the May 2013 issue of Texas Monthly, “Darkness on the Plains,” I mentioned that I had first met him more than thirty years ago, when I was a young newspaper reporter on assignment in Amarillo. Back then, reporters from all over the country were coming to Amarillo to catalog his quirky behavior, mischievous pranks, and completely unpredictable works of art, like the world’s largest pool table, which was spread out over a cow pasture, and the world’s biggest necktie, 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, which he placed around the chimney of his mother’s home.
He was simply a great showman who once 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 that he said he was planning to open.
As I also mentioned in the article, I heard rumors over the years about Marsh’s sexual proclivities with teenage boys. But I dismissed them. I was too enamored with his latest hilarious escapade, like the 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.
Then, as I wrote, everything I thought about Marsh changed in late 2012 when Tony Buzbee, an enormously successful plaintiff’s attorney in Houston, filed lawsuits against Marsh on behalf of ten Amarillo teenage boys accusing him of sexual abuse. According to the lawsuits, almost all of the sexual encounters had taken place at Marsh’s downtown office, where he had added a bedroom. The boys also alleged that several adults close to Marsh—including his wife and his son Stanley IV, as well as employees of the company that manages his office building and the firm that handles building security—“knew or should have known” about Marsh’s abuse.
“He’s had a stream of boys coming up to his office to do his sexual bidding for a long, long time,” Buzbee told me. I went to Buzbee’s Houston office to interview a couple of the plaintiffs, and afterwards, I wanted to throw up. I knew they were telling the truth. Marsh, his wife, his son, and one of his business associates eventually settled with the ten teenage plaintiffs—he reportedly paid out several million dollars to the plaintiffs—but he never acknowledged any wrongdoing. He also continued to proclaim his innocence regarding the criminal charges against him. Still, I never found anyone in Amarillo who believed Marsh was being unfairly targeted or prosecuted. And to make matters worse, several other young men filed lawsuits of their own against Marsh, also claiming sexual abuse. Marsh seemed destined to live out the rest of his life under a cloud, paying out money to settle cases, and perhaps going to prison.
Marsh’s death was not unexpected. Since 2011, he had suffered a series of strokes. A judge granted his wife guardianship of him after he was hospitalized due to one of those strokes. For the last couple of years, he almost never left his home, the famous Toad Hall. He never returned to his great Cadillac Ranch, which is still visited by hordes of tourists.
A man who knew Marsh well just called me a few minutes ago and said he hoped I would say some good words about his friend. And the fact is there are plenty of good things to say about Marsh. All you have to do is read some of the stories we’ve written about him over the years. Maybe the best of the lot is the one Gary Cartwright wrote in March 1978 (“Playboys of the Western Plains”) when the notorious Cullen Davis murder trial was being held in Amarillo. I dare you to read it and not laugh out loud. Marsh put his stamp on Texas in the way few other people have.
But it turned out that he also did some terrible things to a bunch of boys. And that, sadly, is going to be his legacy. I wish it wasn’t so.