Thomas Gilcrease And His Western Museum

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Age apart, Gilcrease was a difficult man, self-absorbed, secretive, and painfully sparing with words. His wit was keen but sardonic, as when he described a bullfight in Madrid as “bulls, matadors, picadors & horses all mixed up together. They all got the worst of it.” His temper was sharp and caustic. When someone asked him, “How did you get your money?” Gilcrease curtly replied, “I didn’t get it; it came to me.” He was, says Milsten, a withdrawn and puzzling figure who “often lived in an imaginary country of his own.” As the Texas historian J. Frank Dobie was to say of Gilcrease, “The longer I knew him, the more he gave me the impression of having made not only long journeys to lone places on this earth but of longer voyages into deep and lone places within himself.” Altogether he was an uncomfortable sort of person, evidently made attractive to a reigning beauty and her ubiquitous mother by three million dollars in personal assets and an outwardly meek and gentle manner.

 
 
In 1927 Tom Gilcrease fell furiously in love with a beauty queen.

The danger signals went unheeded. Gilcrease was far too infatuated with the teen-aged beauty whom all America, as it were, had chosen to honor. He was infatuated, too, with Pygmalion-like visions of their happy future state: he and Norma living part of each year in Europe steeping themselves in Old World culture and strenuous programs of self-improvement, Norma’s especially. In September 1928 the two were married in Tulsa; nine months later a daughter was born to them, and shortly thereafter the Gilcrease family took up residence in a large, luxurious Paris flat.

The situation held the elements of farce. For his own self-improvement Gilcrease found an informal tutor—and lifelong adviser—in Dr. Robert Lee Humber of North Carolina, who taught him French history while the two men walked through Paris streets, gardens, parks, and palaces. Norma’s program was far more onerous: French lessons from eight to nine-thirty; Spanish lessons from ten to eleven-thirty; art lessons after lunch, “with English studies added in the evening,” she recalled, which ended “around the first of June in 1930,” when she threw over her studies and soon enough much else in her marriage to Gilcrease. While she toured the Continent with her mother, Gilcrease was scourged by jealousy: Who were the two men who assisted her and her mother when their car broke down en route to Geneva? Why, on her return to America, did she have cocktails with the ship’s captain?

From Paris Gilcrease wrote Norma pathetic lovelorn letters, piling question on pleading question: “Do I please you? If so in what manner? Do I displease you? If so, in what manner? Can I do anything to make you happier? If so what is it?” And so on and on, quite in vain. Norma’s response, says Milsten, was “complete indifference.” The couple began living apart for long months at a stretch. Gilcrease stayed mainly in Paris, where he opened an investment company on the Champs Elysées. Norma lived in the stone house on the hilltop, a voluptuous grass widow attended by her mother, who encouraged her daughter to spend lavishly, throw parties, have fun. Gilcrease tried to remove the author of Magic Power—Beauty from his property, but he failed even there. Marriage to the former Miss America became a nightmare of private betrayal and public humiliation. Finally, in October 1933, Gilcrease filed for divorce from his wife on grounds of “extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty,” with his mother-in-law as a secondary defendant. Norma countersued, and the stage was set for a bitter struggle. The Gilcrease divorce trial lasted from April 17 until May 2, 1934; eighty-four witnesses were called to the stand, private detectives included. The whole proceeding was “more sordid than anything you can imagine,” says Milsten, and the local papers, eager to follow the career of Miss Tulsa, reported it in detail.

 

Gilcrease won his divorce and custody of his daughter, but it was the most wretched of victories. He felt himself degraded and disgraced. “My name has been dragged through the courts,” he told his Indian gardener, to whom he spoke more freely than to almost anyone else. When a local preacher denounced him for refusing to donate ten thousand dollars for his church fund, Gilcrease could only conclude that Tulsans, in the aftermath of the sordid trial, regarded him as little more than a wealthy dupe. The whole wrenching Smallwood episode, which took up seven years of his life, “left Tom a very bitter man,” says Milsten. “It left him a mental recluse. I don’t think he had any real happiness after that.”