February is the month of true love; that’s why it’s the shortest month of the year.
Valentine’s Day has been a day of romance since the 14th century. The holiday originated in Europe with the belief that birds began to mate February 14. It seemed like a swell idea. Medieval men and maidens began choosing a “valentine,” or special loving friend, for the day. Now the holiday embraces hearts, flowers, red, poetry, cupids, and candygrams.
In commemoration of February, here are some of Oklahoma’s most famous love and marriage stories—complete with all the lacy trim from adultery and alimony to punches and gunshot wounds. “Till death do us part” is easier said than survived.
True love is sweet, but it’s no piece of cake. As humorist James Thurber wrote, “Love is blind, but desire just doesn’t give a good goddamn.”
That “Other” Woman: Jake Hamon was a politician with only “one fault—women.”
Jake Hamon, oil millionaire and Republican national committeeman for Oklahoma, had just helped Warren G. Harding become president. Kinship strengthened the political ties; Mrs. Hamon and Mrs. Harding were cousins. The White House, illicit romance, and Lillie Langtry’s pearl-handled Colt clashed in Ardmore in 1920; a love story ended and a murder trial began.
Jake expected to become Secretary of the Interior. He was rich, powerful, 45, and on his way to Washington. The only cloud on the horizon was his very personal secretary, Clara Barton Smith, 29. They shared adjoining rooms in the Randol Hotel in Ardmore. He called her “my sweet little brains.” She said she made him what he was. President Harding said to leave her in Oklahoma and prepare to live a respectable family life. Mrs. Harding and Mrs. Hamon smiled.
Jake, who began his career as Lawton’s first city attorney, had grown wealthy with leases in the rich Healdton oilfield.
In 1911, he met Clara, 19 and “strikingly pretty.” He sent her to college in Missouri for a year, then took her to New York to stay at the Waldorf Astoria where they met circus magnate John Ringling and laid the groundwork for a railroad into the oilfields and more millions.
Clara was a “brainy, jam-up secretary,” Ringling said. “She’s a good sport to go with my gait,” Jake said. Mrs. Hamon and children moved to Chicago.
For 10 years Jake and his financial secretary prospered. Then they began drinking. She was rebellious; he was giving her the brush-off for politics.
The Saturday of the shooting, November 20, 1920, Jake met with state and national politicians planning his Washington move. Clara was excluded. That night, Clara stormed into the hotel dining room in a rage and threw the dinner duck in Hamon’s face. He threatened to have her arrested for disorderly conduct. Their fight moved upstairs. In 10 minutes, Jake staggered out of their suite clutching his right side. He’d been shot by a .25 caliber Colt automatic his bodyguard had obtained from English actress Lillie Langtry. “Clara didn’t do it,” Jake said. “It was an accident.” He walked two blocks to the hospital.
Jake stuck to his story. Of course it was accidental, his business manager said. “The idea of trying to kill anyone with so small a gun is absurd.” The bullet had pierced his liver and lodged near his spine. Although the wound was painful, the doctor said it wasn’t serious. For five days the doctor announced that Jake was “on the road to recovery and completely out of danger.”
Unfortunately, the patient died.
Clara stood trial for murder wearing a blue serge suit, a blue sailor hat, and black silk stockings. She testified that Jake had kicked her, choked her, slapped her, and threatened to slit her throat with a gold knife. The gun discharged accidentally when he hit her with a chair, she said. Jake was cruel, snarling, and dominating, Clara said. “I hated him, and yet I loved him.”
Mrs. Hamon attended the trial and denounced Clara as a “terrible” woman. “Every married woman and every mother should pray for her punishment,” the widow said. “I want to see her in the electric chair.”
After deliberating 40 minutes, the jury found her not guilty. “I start life anew with the scarlet letter of shame branded on my breast,” Clara said, “but I am going through life with my head up.”
When President Harding heard of Jake’s death, he wept. The president, not yet dishonored by his own affair with Nan Britton, said, “What a wonderful fellow he was. Too bad he had that one fault—women.”
Vivia: The young Fort Gibson lieutenant shot dead the man who “done” her wrong.
For many years, a grave in the officers’ circle at Fort Gibson National Cemetery was marked only “Vivia.”
Her story, part fact and part legend, is that of spurned love and murder.
Vivia Thomas was a society girl in Boston, engaged to a young man who left her (almost at the altar) to seek a life of adventure. He joined the army and was stationed at Fort Gibson.
Vivia followed him and arrived at the fort in the late 1800s masquerading as a young lieutenant. While he kept company with an Indian girl, two mysterious attempts were made on his life. The third effort succeeded.
Nobody suspected Vivia of the murder until she confessed on her deathbed two facts that jolted the fort: “I am a woman and I did kill a man who jilted me.”
Dismayed army officials wired Washington headquarters for advice. “Bury,” the reply said, “and say nothing.”
Recently, Texas visitors to Vivia’s grave revealed a new footnote to the story. They said she was pregnant when she arrived in Fort Gibson, begging the soldier to marry her. They claimed to be descendants of Vivia and the mysteries man who done her wrong.
Vinnie: For the son of a Cherokee leader, Vinita was a work of the heart.
Several Oklahoma towns are named in memory of women: Miami for a wife, Idabel for two daughters, Ramona for the heroine of a novel. The story of Vinita is the most romantic.
Colonel Elias C. Boudinot was a mixed blood, the son of a Cherokee leader and the nephew of Stand Waite.
After his father’s death in Indian Territory, Elias was educated in the East by the prominent relatives of his white mother. He grew to be an accomplished musician, orator, and lawyer.
Despite his noble blood tied with the Cherokee Nation, Elias’ career as an undercover railroad agent was alien to tribal interests; he campaigned for white settlement and territorial government.
In 1871, Elias, 34, followed the railroad into the heart of Cherokee country. There on the bald prairie, where two railroads met, he fenced off a two-mile square area and named the new townsite Vinita to honor the most fascinating woman he knew—Vinnie Ream.
Vinnie, 24, was a beautiful sculptor in Washington, D.C. She began her artistic career at 17 by charming President Abraham Lincoln to sit for her. He first refused, but after he heard more about the struggling young sculptor he relented, saying, “So she’s young and poor, is she. Well that’s nothing against her. Tell her she can come.” She came for five months, sketching him 30 minutes a day. The sittings happened to be the last months of the Civil War and of his life.
The Lincoln bust was so well received, Congress commissioned her to do a full-scale marble statue of the martyred president. She was the first woman to receive a federal art commission. The statue she did of a melancholy Lincoln now stands in the west entrance of the Rotunda.
A federal commission to a girl unleashed a hornet’s nest of disapproval. Mary Todd Lincoln was furious. A journalist wrote that it was Vinnie’s feminine wiles, and not her talent, that won her the job.
Although she could be “ingratiatingly coquettish,” Vinnie won hearts wherever she went. In Washington, congressmen were overwhelmed with her dark curls, brown eyes, and her girlish charm. In Paris, Munich, and Rome, artists and critics flocked to paint and praise her. Everywhere men scrambled over one another to sit for her—General George Custer, Horace Greeley, Franz Liszt.
In the West, a smitten Elias Boudinot named a territorial town for her. When Vinnie died in 1914, she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Her grieving husband, Brigadier General Richard Hoxie, set a bronze replica of her statue Sappho on her grave, inscribed, “Words that would praise thee are impotent.”
Vinnie’s last work of art, completed shortly before her death, was a statue of Sequoyah, commissioned by the state of Oklahoma.
Whether young Elias Boudinot found true love after losing the hand of the dashing Vinnie Ream is not known. Whether Vinita remains a monument to his lasting love is not clear.
Miss America and the Millionaire: When mother moved in, even his millions could not buy peace of mind.
Thomas Gilcrease spent his millions and his life collecting beauty. He even collected beautiful Miss America for a bride. The marriage ended in one of Oklahoma’s ugliest divorce trials.
Thomas was one-eighth Creek and the oldest of 14 children. The family had moved near Eufaula from Louisiana to claim their land allotment. Thomas’ 160 acres happened to lie in rich Glenn Pool.
By 1912 he was a 22-year-old millionaire. He had just bought a homesite and a romantic painting, “Rural Courtship.” Both purchases were the start of the greatest museum of Western art in the world. The home, now the location of the Gilcrease Museum, overlooked the Tulsa skyline; “It was the only picture that cost me nothing,” he said.
When he married Norma Smallwood in 1928, Thomas, 38, was soft-spoken and cultured. He was widely traveled, well read, and multilingual. She was a 20-year-old beauty from Bristow.
Norma had won her first beauty contest when she was just one year old. At 18, she was named Miss America of 1926. She collected her prizes—a $5,000 gold cup, a $1,000 watch, a $1,000 wardrobe, and a many-dialed radio—and accepted a contract for $1,500 a week to headline on the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit.
Norma was a sharp contrast to the flappers’ angular figures and bobbed hair. She was 5’4” and nicely rounded (33-24½-33½). She had classical Grecian features and “Mona Lisa looks.” Her brunette hair was “long like God and nature intended,” a Tulsa newspaper rhapsodize, and it was worn in buns over her ears. She’d won both bathing suit and evening gown divisions in Atlantic City, and she loved to ride, swim, and play tennis.
She and Thomas were married quietly one evening at a judge’s home in Tulsa. Norma wore an imported brown velvet gown, brown-gold hat, slippers, and a $7,000 diamond (measured 4.5 carats) the groom had given her. Or, as later disclosed, loaned her.
They honeymooned for a month in Thomas’ Big Bear Lodge near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then moved into the redecorated home in Osage County overlooking Tulsa.
Norma had forsaken stage and screen career for marriage. For two years they were harmonious and happy. Their daughter Des Cygne L’Amour was born.
Then in 1929 Norma’s mother moved with them and the trouble began. When Thomas filed for divorce in 1933, he charged that Norma’s mother had alienated the affections of both his wife and daughter. She had persuaded Norma to establish separate living quarters in their home and had encouraged her in refusing to eat or sleep with him.
From the age of six, Thomas had vowed never to smoke, drink, or swear, but in his absences on business trips, Norma and her mother entertained men in the home, he said. He had found cigar stubs, liquor bottles, and other evidence of disorderly parties. He wanted a divorce and he wanted custody of their four-year-old daughter and he didn’t want to pay for the nose to get them.
Details of a pre-nuptial contract emerged during the sensational divorce case. It had provided Norma with $1,000 cash at the time of the wedding, and, in case of divorce, $5,000 a year for a period equal to the years they lived together as man and wife. The 4.5-carat diamond, the contract specified, was hers only as long as she was his wife.
When the fiery trial ended, the court awarded her $72,000 on the condition that she not remarry. She settled instead for a permanent allowance of $15,000 (and remarried). They both appealed the settlement in court for years. Gilcrease got custody of the daughter. Tulsa eventually got the art collection. I don’t know where the diamond is.
Her Heart Belonged to Daddy: In the East, it was love not oil that put Ponca City on the map.
Other Oklahomans had stunning wedding or scandalous divorces, but the most shocking marriage was that of E.W. Marland, flamboyant oil millionaire, and his adopted daughter Lydie.
He was 54 and she was 28 when they were married in 1928. Lydie was childlike, slender (5’4’’ and 107 lbs) and as shy as a doe. In the silken cocoon of Marland’s money, “Princess Lydie” had grown up in sheltered luxury. She attended fashionable Eastern schools, traveled in a private railroad car, cruised the Gulf Coast in the magnificent yacht “Whitemarsh,” and devoted herself to horses and hounds.
She and her brother George, the niece and nephew of the first Mrs. Marland, had lived with the Ponca City oil millionaire and his wife from the time they were teenagers. Mrs. Marland was the former Mary Virginia Collins of a prominent Philadelphia family. She had been an invalid for many years—tabloids insinuated she was mentally unstable and alcoholic—before her death in 1926.
Two years later, E.W. had the adoption annulled and, to the lip-licking delight of newspapers coast to coast, married Lydie at the home of her natural parents in Flourtown, Pennsylvania.
Then he spent $2.5 million to build her a mansion with 55 rooms and 15 baths. There were Florentine murals, an Elizabethan dining room, Waterford crystal chandeliers, Chinese Chippendale ceilings, polo fields, three lakes, Hampton Court gardens, and a portrait of Lydie as Spanish Carmen.
If E.W. always sought the spotlight, Lydie always ran for shadows. She was a timid first lady to Governor Marland seven years after their marriage, so quiet she would hardly talk at official dinners.
Unfortunately, the Depression was to deprive the two of this incomparable splendor. The Marlands lost their mansion. After E.W.’s death, elusive Lydie with the faraway eyes climbed into a green Studebaker in 1953 and vanished for 22 years. She didn’t return to Ponca City until 1975.
Surprisingly, Marland’s marriage to Lydie caused less of a stir in his own hometown than elsewhere.
The”Perfect” Couple: He was governor; she wanted to be governor. Politics came between them.
Inauguration Day at the state capitol in 1951 was like wedding weather—bright, gay, and forever happy.
Johnston Murray, “Old Bill’s Boy,” wore his Sunday suit to receive the oath of office from his father, crusty old Alfalfa Bill. Willie, the new first lady, sparkled like her red hair in the sun.
When flashbulbs popped earlier in the day, Johnston threw his arms around his wife and quipped, “You wouldn’t shoot a man with a babe in his arms, would you?”
As Johnston posed for pictures, Willie told him, “You look awfully pretty, Sugar.” And to photographers she said, “You know, in some of his pictures he looks just like Fred MacMurray”
It was a perfect day, a perfect marriage, and the start of a perfect term of office. “Isn’t it a wonderful day,” Willie said. Johnston kissed her lightly, saying, “It always is when I’ve got you with me.”
A mean front was moving in on the Governor’s Mansion, though. It would break like a thundercloud in one of the state’s most bitter divorce cases.
Willie was a concert pianist, praised for her charm and intelligence. As a radiant first lady, she opened the Governor’s Mansion to the people; they came to visit in long lines of up to 3,000 every Thursday.
One of the first things the Murrays had moved into their official residence was their woodworking equipment. The hobby was much like their political career; she designed, he implemented. It was Willie’s fire and ambition that had propelled soft-spoken Johnston into office, political observers claimed.
The partnership began to pale as the term wore on. Willie grew more aggressive; Johnston grew more distressed. “Damn it, I got elected, not her,” he said. She said he drank too much; he said she bossed too much. When Willie announced that she intended to succeed Johnston as governor, it was the final straw. In her gubernatorial campaign of 1954, she became the first state candidate to campaign by helicopter. It was the only thing that got off the ground. She lost the election and Johnston filed for divorce, alleging extreme cruelty. After 22 years of marriage, the honeymoon was over.
Willie fought the divorce. At first she filed for separate maintenance, alleging adultery and public drunkenness. He begged for another chance. She named “the other woman”; Johnston said it was a “filthy lie.” She even published his “devotion to divorce” letters. The public eagerly read as Johnston’s affection faded from “Honey Girl” and “Darling Sugar” to the icy “Dear Willie.” (“I’ve grown more and more unhappy except when away from you,” he wrote in the last letter, “and I wanted to tell you how I felt but I couldn’t bear the thought of a scene.”)
After a blistering trial, the divorce was granted to a routine grounds of incompatibility.
Willie got a settlement of $75,000, the Oklahoma City home, the Ford, and the film of her campaign for governor. Johnston got the woodworking tools.
Willie also got the last word. When Johnston changed his political registration and supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower, Willie said, “He never has been much of a Democrat.”
Published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 3, February 1, 2015. Portions of this article originally appeared in Oklahoma Monthly, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 1977.