It is no secret that scandal follows money. Whether it can be attributed to jealous accusations, the magnifying effect of the limelight, or the simple probability that enough spare time will inevitably yield some hours spent in an errant pursuit or two, the wealthy invariably fall victim to wayward whispers. Sometimes, however, reality proves to be far more curious than anything the rumor mill could create on its own. Such is the case in the tangled history of the inhabitants of Oklahoma’s Marland Mansion.
A lawyer, amateur geologist, and high stakes gambler in the game of oil speculation, E.W. Marland was a man destined for greatness. Though he had already won and lost his first fortune in the oil fields of West Virginia by the time he was thirty three, Marland’s entrepreneurial spirit remained unaffected. In 1911, he arrived on the dusty streets of Oklahoma’s Ponca City armed with little more than a letter of credit, a leased tract of land, and a stern to determination to succeed, yet within ten years, he controlled one tenth of the entire world’s oil reserves. Unable to have children of their own and desperate to share the spoils of their success, Marland and his wife, Virginia, adopted Mrs. Marland’s niece and nephew, Lydie and George. The children were brought up in a world of ostentatious extravagance: exclusive educations, lavish trips and all the luxurious leisure activities of the upper crust, including parties, polo matches and fox hunts with animals imported specifically for the purpose.
In 1925, inspired by the staggering splendor of Davanzati Palace in Florence, E.W. enlisted the expertise of architect John Duncan Forsyth to help him build what would become his most enduring legacy, a veritable palace on the prairie. The Marland Mansion, 43,561 square feet of unrivaled indulgence, featured muraled ceilings, hand-shaped wrought iron doors and rails, Waterford crystal chandeliers, 24 karat gold leafed ceilings, and an elevator lined in buffalo skin. Though his wife would not live to see the home’s completion—Virginia passed away two years into the construction—Marland was not destined to walk the gilded halls alone. Upon the completion of his home in 1928, E.W. sent shockwaves of scandal through the city of Ponca when he boarded a private railway car with his twenty eight year old adopted daughter, and returned, weeks later, with the very same woman as his wife.
Whether pacified by Marland’s glowing reputation—he was a man ahead of his time in both philanthropy and worker’s benefits—or Lydie’s enchanting presence, the people of Ponca soon forgave or forgot the lascivious undertones of the Marlands’ complex relationship. The couple’s marital bliss was doomed to be short lived, however; a brief two months after their marriage, a hostile board of directors wrested the control of Marland’s company from his hands, and the stuttering halt of cash flow left the couple unable to even pay the mansion’s utility bill. Only months after the home had been completed, it was sealed back up, its opulence entombed, and its occupants moved to a more moderately sized cottage adjacent to the property.
The following years would see the mansion would go through brief spates of use, serving as a campaign headquarters for Marland’s ten year run in Oklahoma’s politics or as the occasional gala venue, yet eventually, the economic strain of maintaining the palatial abode proved to be too much. What had been built and furnished for 5.5 million dollars in 1928 was sold thirteen years later for a mere 66 thousand dollars, and a heart condition took the embittered Marland only six months later. The limelight of loss proved to be too much for Lydie; after a brief attempt to remain in the cottage that she and Marland had shared, the former first lady of Marland Mansion packed all of her worldly belongings into the back of her Studebaker and slipped into the night, disappearing for twenty-two years. Only after the mansion had passed through multiple incarnations—monastery, college of philosophy, convent, and high school—and was under eminent threat of being lost to neglect did Mrs. Marland return. In an open letter to the people of Ponca, Lydie implored the city to purchase the Marland Mansion and return it to its previous splendor. Whether it was in the memory of her late husband’s contribution to the city or the public’s enchantment with the one-time ingénue herself, the Mansion was preserved.
Today, thanks to the thoughtful care and maintenance of the City of Ponca, the Marland Mansion continues to delight and enthrall, remaining in all the richness of its original grandeur as a tourist destination and special events venue. Whether drawn by the sumptuous extravagance of this architectural wonder or by the sensational history of its inhabitants, visitors from around the world flock to marvel at E.W. Marland’s palace on the prairie.