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  • February 22nd, 2011

Faulkner in Ponca City

Note: My computer went to Pixel Paradise so I’ve been offline for a few days.  Apologies for not savaging the right wing and otherwise offending folks.  I’ll try to do better from now on.

By Joel M. Vance

I’m not a big believer in ghosts.  Once participated in a psychic investigation in an allegedly-haunted mansion and felt or saw nothing.  Only once have I been uncomfortable in a place with the feeling that there were unquiet and also unseen entities.

That was in Ponca City, Oklahoma, at the Marland Mansion.  It was a hot summer day, so there was no reason for me to be cold, but I was chilled and uncomfortable in the place and felt unwelcome.  If ever there was a place that SHOULD be haunted, it’s the Marland Mansion.

E.W. Marland was Oklahoma’s first oil baron.  At his peak in the 1920s, he was among the richest men on earth.  Later, he was both a U.S. congressman and a New Deal Democratic governor.

Marland oil made Ponca City, today a trim community of 35,000 in north-central Oklahoma, near a good fishing lake, progressive and the epitome of Clean City, USA.  The Marland Mansion is the town’s pride, along with the statue memorializing Pioneer Woman that Marland commissioned.

Marland was a high roller.  He loved to fox hunt and play polo, drink and gamble with his friends.  His initials were on everything he paid for.  Elaborate carved friezes in the mansion commemorate his favorite bird dogs.  At one time he controlled one-tenth of the world’s oil supply.

At the peak of Marland Oil a third of Ponca City’s citizens worked for him and even today, seventy years after Marland died, townspeople are careful not to speculate on his shortcomings, as if he might return from the grave and take it all back.

His mansion, completed in 1928, took three years to build and had 55 rooms.  It had a leather-lined elevator as well as other refinements that were state-of-the-art at the time.

It also had, for me, a chilly and gloomy feeling, as if the unhappy people who lived and died there still were around.  But maybe that’s my hyperactive imagination at work, reacting to the weird story of the Marland family.

The mansion, today owned by the town and open for tours, features a ballroom with a gold leaf  ceiling that cost $80,000 when it was fashioned, and a pair of Watford crystal chandeliers whose original price tag was $30,000.  It had air conditioning when that was virtually in the experimental stage, and an indoor swimming pool.

The grounds had five lakes, an artist’s studio and a formal garden that required the services of 85 gardeners.

But the Marland family’s personal life was the stuff of Greek tragedy.  Marland’s first wife, Mary Virginia, was childless, so the couple adopted a niece and nephew of Mrs. Marland, George, 12 years old and Lydie, two years younger.

Naturally, the blood family was delighted to have the proverbial rich uncle give the kids everything—their father was a pushcart peddler, a long way from an oil magnate.

It wasn’t long before Marland and Lydie were inseparable.  He doted on his adopted daughter and she on him.  In the careful words of a Marland Mansion tour guide today, “They grew closer.”  How much closer can only be speculated on, but the rest of the story sounds like a scenario for a Faulknerian novel of Southern decadence.

E.W. moved Lydie’s bedroom next to his.  His wife took a bedroom far removed in the  mansion, then became ill with cancer, finally became more reclusive and morose and took to the bottle and drugs.  She died in 1926.  Two years later Marland had Lydie’s adoption rescinded and he married her.  Years later, a woman named Mrs. E.L. Cloyd, claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Marland and Lydie, born in 1927, before their marriage.  Evidence indicates the claim was true, but Mrs. Cloyd didn’t press it.

At her marriage, Lydie was as old as the century, a quintessential flapper of the Roaring Twenties.  Marland was 54.  He doted on her.  There is a huge painting in the mansion of Lydie, a very pretty woman…which features a dark snake at her feet.  The snake is unexplained, but symbolists could have a field day.

Lydie's portrait

Almost as if their marriage had triggered some dark fate, Marland’s world began to disintegrate.  He lost an estimated $85 million in Depression dollars to the J.P. Morgan banks and the government and before the 1920s ended, there was no more Marland Oil (today it is Conoco).

Embittered by his losses he ran for Congress in 1932 and much of his campaign oratory was directed at the “money trust” bankers who had done him in, especially financier J.P. Morgan.  Marland served one term in the House of Representatives, then ran for Governor of Oklahoma in 1934 and won.  He later lost two campaigns for the U.S. Senate.

He and Lydie returned to Ponca City in 1939, but couldn’t afford to live in the mansion so they remodeled the chauffeur’s house and lived there.  In 1941 Marland sold the mansion to the Carmelite order.  It had cost $5.5 million and the sale price was $66,000.

E.W. Marland died at 67 in 1941.  The Marland money was largely gone.  The town forgot Lydie, now a middle-aged widow.

But Lydie was not one to let her home town want for scandal.  In 1953, she vanished, rumored to have run off with a 34- year-old meter reader with the city water department (who, for a time, was suspected of murdering her).

Some in town knew where she was for the next 22 years.  Her taxes always were paid and the estate drowsed on without her.  It came to light later that she had lived in New York and on the West Coast and had taken part in anti-Viet Nam and pro-civil rights protests in Washington.  In 1975, she came home, the last of the Marlands (her brother, George, had died in 1957 during her lost years).  Lydie chose to live in an outbuilding on the mansion grounds.

She was reclusive and increasingly erratic, though those who knew her characterize her only as “sad” or “unhappy.”  One says, “She said once, ‘they’ve all forgotten me.’”

Still–she began to dress more and more bizarrely and sometimes would be seen on the estate grounds dancing with invisible partners.  The Mansion was dedicated in 1975 as a city project but there are no photos of Lydie, nor was she involved in the celebration.  Perhaps that was by choice, for by then she was rarely seen.

Lydie Marland died in 1987, ending the often sad and often bizarre story of the Marland family.

-30-

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4 Comments

  1. David Powell

    March 1st, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Reply

    I read most everything you wrote for the MO Conservationist, sometimes more than once. I’m so glad to have found your writing again.

    I’m big on outdoor stuff, but my second line is history. The piece about the Marland’s was nice to read.

    I’ve recently retired after 30 years of work with the KCMO Water Department Engineering Division. I’m ready to live or relive all of the great MO outdoor adventures.

    And eventually maybe make some gas money writing about it..

  2. Michael Patrick

    March 11th, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Reply

    That is a fascinating story. Thanks for publishing it. It is worthy of Faulkner.

    • joelvance

      March 11th, 2011 at 2:21 pm

      Reply

      A truly spooky place, at least to me.

  3. Shelley

    September 8th, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Reply

    Actually, Lydie did participate in campaigning Ponca City to buy Marland Mansion by writing a letter to the editor of the paper and petitioning for signatures. And of course they did because it is owned by the city today.



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