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Lady of the House
The Marland Mansion in Ponca City, once home to oil magnate and former governor E.W. Marland and his wife Lydie, was designed by Tulsa architect John Forsyth Duncan and completed in 1928. Its 55 rooms comprise more than 43,000 square feet. PHOTOGRAPH BY LORI DUCKWORTH
Ponca City’s Marland Mansion is a much-loved memorial to a mythic Oklahoma love story—and the mystery that followed it
By Preston Jones
Published January/February 2018
As the histories of buildings go, the Marland Mansion’s is more gripping than most, sounding like something ripped from the pages of a romance novel or a prime-time soap opera. A wealthy man takes a woman nearly thirty years his junior as his daughter, but after a decade, they seek an annulment of the adoption so they can become husband and wife. That was the story in 1928, when Ernest Whitworth “E.W.” Marland, an oil magnate who served as a congressman and governor of Oklahoma, married his adopted daughter, Lydie Roberts. He was fifty-four years old at the time; she was twenty-eight.
It’s not exactly the kind of thing students read about in Oklahoma history class alongside Jim Thorpe, Will Rogers, and the Land Run. Nor is it as salacious as it seems at first. But now, the historic Ponca City home where this unusual couple lived in the early twentieth century stands as a monument to a tale as little-told as it is unforgettable.
“It’s such a unique story,” says David Keathly, executive director of the Marland Estate. “It’s not something you can make up. It has to be a true story just because of all the twists and turns.”
The life of E.W. Marland is a fascinating and uniquely American tale. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 8, 1874, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan’s law school a few months shy of his twentieth birthday.
E.W. lost his original fortune—made first in the coal-leasing business and then in oil—in the Bank Panic of 1907. Determined to rebuild, he came to Oklahoma at the suggestion of his nephew, Army officer Franklin Rockefeller Kenney, who’d been stationed at Fort Sill. He later sent for his wife, Mary Virginia, and Kenney introduced them to the Miller brothers and their famous 101 Ranch.
“A partnership with the Miller brothers was very beneficial to all of them,” writes biographer Kim Brumley in her 2010 book Marland Tragedy: The Turbulent Story of a Forgotten Oklahoma Icon. “The Millers were interested in expanding their fortune and empire. . . . Taken by [Marland’s] pitch, the brothers agreed to form the 101 Ranch Oil Company with Marland responsible for drilling.”
The Marlands moved out of their original Oklahoma residence in the Arcade Hotel when they built their first large house on East Grand Avenue in Ponca City. Now known as the Marland Grand Home—it was purchased in the mid-1930s by local businessman Jay G. Paris—the two-and-a-half story Mediterranean Revival-style house was designed by Oklahoma City architect Solomon Layton and completed in 1917.
During the home’s construction, E.W. and Virginia, in an effort to ease the financial burdens of Virginia’s sister Margaret and her husband, decided to bring their niece and nephew, Lydie and George, to Oklahoma from Pennsylvania. They formally adopted sixteen-year-old George and fourteen-year-old Lydie and later sent Lydie to an expensive finishing school.
“I want the kids to grow up here in the great Southwest, where there’s freedom and space to develop in,” E.W. is quoted as saying in John Joseph Mathews’ 1951 biography Life and Death of an Oilman: The Career of E.W. Marland. “They’ll have a chance out here.”
Indeed, life was grand for the Marland family until Virginia succumbed to an illness in 1926.
The dining room at the Marland Mansion—paneled with Pollard oak from the royal forests of England—is the first stop on public tours. PHOTOGRAPH BY LORI DUCKWORTH
The timing of Virginia’s death was tragic for many reasons—not least because she never got to live in the home that bears her married name, on which she and E.W. had broken ground the year before.
The Marland Mansion was designed by Tulsa architect John Duncan Forsyth and completed in 1928. The 43,561-square-foot home, known as the Palace on the Prairie, stands as testament to the economic boom of the late 1920s. Influenced by a visit E.W. made to the Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, Italy, it was designed in the Italian Renaissance style and constructed from limestone blocks that were quarried on-site. The three-and-a-half floors—lit by 861 light bulbs—feature fifty-five rooms including ten bedrooms, thirteen bathrooms, seven fireplaces, and three kitchens. Italian sculptor Ernest G. Pellegrini created many of the more notable architectural touches including sculptures of E.W.’s four hunting dogs. This motif repeats throughout the home, recalling the fox hunts E.W. famously held on the grounds during the mansion’s heyday. The home remains one of the largest residential buildings in the southwestern United States.
While constructing his mansion, E.W.—who by this time controlled one-tenth of the world’s known oil, according to some estimates—was breaking ground in another, more polarizing sense. Two years after Virginia’s death, he moved to have his adoption of Lydie annulled. In July 1928, the pair wed in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, much to the shock of their contemporaries, and embarked on a cross-continent honeymoon train trip that took them through Canada and out to California before they returned home to Ponca City. The marriage was something of a national scandal.
“The [Sunday supplements’] text flirted with libel in its attempts to inspire the sluggish but willing imagination of its readers,” Mathews writes. “The rumors circled and sailed and dipped, rising and falling on motionless wings, casting disgusting shadows like vultures’, but never quite settling to the feast.”
But the couple’s joy was short-lived. The same year he married Lydie, E.W. lost his fortune again when the company he founded, Marland Oil—which later would become the energy behemoth known as Conoco—was acquired in a hostile takeover by financial giant J.P. Morgan. In 1930, the Marlands, no longer able to afford the upkeep on the mansion or salaries for its staff, moved out of their palace, relocating to the artist’s studio and guesthouse on the grounds.
E.W. Marland was far from finished, however. Two years after he and Lydie vacated their namesake mansion, his support of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal earned him a position as a congressman from Oklahoma. The couple relocated to Washington, D.C. for two years, and in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, E.W. was elected the tenth governor of Oklahoma.
Now ensconced in the Oklahoma Governor’s Mansion and looking to replicate Roosevelt’s New Deal on a smaller scale, E.W. proposed what he called the “Little New Deal” for Oklahoma, a policy program he hoped would create jobs and support struggling families and communities in the state. He did not enjoy wide-scale support from the state legislature, however, and the Little New Deal never matched his ambitions. However, he is known for, among other achievements, creating the seven original state parks, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, and the State Planning and Resources Board. He also increased school funding and worked with the Works Progress Administration to create jobs for more than 90,000 Oklahomans.
For her part, Lydie kept a low profile during her time in the Governor’s Mansion. A story about her death in the Oklahoman noted that she “was known as a beautiful but reclusive first lady. It was said she seldom entered the state Capitol, and when she did, it was shyly and almost always behind sunglasses, preferring to leave the limelight to her husband.”
The couple’s finances suffered during E.W.’s time in office. In 1941—after an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate—he sold the Marland Mansion and most of the surrounding property to the Discalced Carmelite Fathers of Mexico. Not long after that, he died, leaving Lydie to retreat into seclusion in the guesthouse.
Lydie Marland was a subject of public interest due to the unusual circumstances of her marriage to the man who’d once been her adopted father. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OKLAHOMA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Lydie Marland was, by all accounts, shattered by E.W.’s death, which left her a widow at the age of forty-one, and her life after that is almost entirely shrouded in mystery. She continued to live in Ponca City until 1953, when one day, she loaded her green 1949 Studebaker with clothing and a few paintings and tapestries—which she later consigned in New York—and simply vanished.
Because she’d been something of a celebrity in her time—her unusual marriage, the lavish parties she and E.W. had thrown at their mansion, and her own unique character had made her an object of curiosity for many—speculation was rampant. Some reports claim she worked for a time as a maid in Missouri; others say she lived in New York just off Central Park or in San Francisco. A breathless 1958 profile in the Saturday Evening Post by John Kobler asked, “Where is Lyde [sic] Marland?” She reportedly was identified in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s as part of a protest against the conflict in Vietnam.
In 1975, Lydie’s attorney, C.D. Northcutt, alerted her that the Marland Mansion was being sold by the Felician Franciscan Sisters, who had bought it from the Carmelite fathers in 1952 and operated a school and nunnery on the premises. She returned to Ponca City just in time to convince citizens to vote for the city to purchase the property and preserve the home and its sprawling grounds for future generations.
She never explained to anyone where she’d gone, why she’d disappeared, or what she’d been doing in the twenty-two years since she’d left town. She had continued to pay taxes on the guesthouse at the mansion, and after her return, that was where she lived as a recluse until her death in 1987.
In the years since, she has inspired biographers, playwrights, and filmmakers. In 2011, Shawnee author Bob Perry adapted his novel The Broken Statue—about a sculpture of Lydie installed at the Marland Mansion—into a play that premiered at Oklahoma City’s Jewel Box Theatre. A 2007 script titled The Ends of the Earth was slated for production with director David O. Russell and Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence of Silver Linings Playbook fame attached, though the project remains stalled and may never see the screen. And in 2016, a documentary by Tulsa filmmaker Scott Swearingen titled High Stakes: The Life and Times of E.W. Marland attempted to untangle the couple’s life together.
“It’s a story of great highs and lows,” Swearingen told the Oklahoman in 2016. “To me, Marland is an example of someone who, though he made a lot of money, spent a lot of money and lost a lot of money, he still wanted a better life for people . . . and that needs to be remembered.”
And yet, so much of Lydie’s life remains a mystery. But thanks to her return to Ponca City in 1975, the city purchased and preserved the Marland Mansion. In 1976, it was named a National Historic Landmark. Today, the building attracts more than 30,000 visitors annually, some of whom undoubtedly come to get a sense of the mysterious, controversial couple who’d lived their unconventional American romance within these walls and the woman who left very little trace of herself after her death.
“There are very few letters, very few pictures, and her contemporaries are deceased now,” says Keathly. “There’s a lot of speculation, but I don’t think we’ll ever know the entire truth—it went with Lydie when she died.”
The Marland Mansion is open to visitors Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. 901 Monument Road in Ponca City, (580) 767-0420 or marlandmansion.com.