Flamboyant oil-and-gas heir Stanley Marsh 3, who was celebrated for commissioning the famed Cadillac Ranch art installation in Amarillo, Texas, but whose life story turned dark when he was charged with sexually molesting teenage boys, died Tuesday. He was 76.
Marsh had been hospitalized for weeks with "various health issues," said his longtime attorney, Kelly Utsinger. The lawyer declined to give a cause of death but said it was "natural."
Although Marsh, sometimes dressed in colorful outfits, was himself an attraction in the Amarillo area where he owned several businesses, he mostly stayed out of the public eye in recent years. In 2012, after being sued for allegedly having sexual encounters with underage boys, Marsh was determined by a court to be incapacitated because of a series of strokes and other health problems.
Those civil suits were eventually settled in a confidential agreement. But also in 2012, a special prosecutor filed criminal charges against Marsh, alleging sex acts with teenagers. Marsh denied the allegations, and no trial date had been set, according to the Associated Press.
Utsinger said Cadillac Ranch, which is one of the best-known public art works in the country and was immortalized in a Bruce Springsteen song, is on land owned by a trust. "It will continue; nothing will be done to it at all," he said.
Marsh was responsible for several other art projects in the Amarillo area. He installed a 180-foot-long mock pool table on his ranch, complete with giant billiard balls, and a billboard sign that simply said, "Actual Size."
He commissioned Amarillo Ramp, an earthwork by renowned artist Robert Smithson. (Smithson was killed in a plane crash in 1973 while surveying the site; the work was finished by his wife, Nancy Holt.) And in the 1990s, Marsh had numerous diamond-shaped street signs installed across the area that bore sayings such as "Bring Back Public Hanging" and "Road Does Not End."
But the project that brought worldwide recognition to Amarillo — and Marsh — was the lineup of 10 vintage Cadillacs, each partly buried hood-side down at an angle supposedly the same as an Egyptian pyramid. The lonely lineup of the big-finned cars resisting full burial, not far from Route 66, served as an all-American homage to days gone by.
Springsteen's 1980 song "Cadillac Ranch" paid tribute:
James Dean in that Mercury '49
Junior Johnson runnin' thru the woods of Caroline
Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am
All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch
He was born Stanley Marsh III on Jan. 31, 1938, in Amarillo, later changing his name to substitute a 3 for the Roman numerals he thought pretentious. His grandfather had struck it rich in the Texas oil boom of the mid-1920s, according to a 2013 profile of the family in the Amarillo Globe-News.
As a young man, Marsh was known to be the life of the party, but he was also a serious student. He graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania with a master's degree in economic history, then returned to Texas in the late 1960s to oversee the family business. He bought a local TV station that was struggling in the ratings and turned it around, enhancing his wealth.
In the 1970s his outdoor art, as well as his antics (he carried a bucket of manure into the 1975 bribery trial of former Texas Gov. John Connally), began drawing attention. He had little interest in art confined to museums or galleries. "Art should be two things," he said in a 1978 Los Angeles Times interview. "Surprising and hidden from people. Art has to get you out of your mental rut."
In 1974 he commissioned an art collective called the Ant Farm to create Cadillac Ranch. One of the group's members, Hudson Marquez, said it was not what the artists had in mind when they first contacted Marsh in 1971, seeking funding for a film they wanted to make about a political convention. "Stanley wrote us back saying, 'Sounds nice, but I don't have nothin' to do with nothin' that ain't in Amarillo, Texas.'"
But they stayed in touch and eventually settled on an installation that would recall a time in post-World War II America when Cadillacs were a symbol of freewheeling possibilities. "They are a monument to the American dream," Marsh said in a 2004 interview with the Amarillo Globe-News, "when we all thought we could hit the road, get a blonde, break the bank in Las Vegas and be a movie star."
The cars, bought over several weeks from various sources including junkyards, were secured in concrete and formally inaugurated in June 1974. The installation was supposed to be temporary. "I thought I would take them out at the end of the summer," Marsh said.
But word spread, and the artwork that was supposed to be somewhat hidden in a remote area popped up on magazine covers and on TV. "Suddenly, it was just extravagantly popular. Everybody liked it," Marsh said.
"If I knew how to do it again I would do it."
Marsh's survivors include his wife of more than 40 years, Wendy, and five children.
Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.