Rich Man, Poor Man
As Tom Stanley lay dying, his heart worn down by time, Lillian Stanley searched for ways to console her husband. Each day he spent at Presbyterian Hospital in January, she would gather family and friends around him--those who had loved him and those who had wronged him--so Stanley, 83, could make his peace. Many nights she would refuse to leave his side, sleeping lightly in the chair by his bed, stirring with his every moan.
Theirs had been a grand life, for most of it anyway. Tom had risen from penniless farm boy to master architect, his signature skyscrapers, hotels and high-rise apartments dotting the cityscapes of downtowns across the country; Lillian had dedicated her life to her husband, schmoozing the wives of property owners and developers, serving as goodwill ambassador for her husband's concern.
At one time in the late '60s, Time magazinerecognized Tom Stanley's Dallas practice as one of the largest architectural firms in the country. Hard-driving, work-obsessed, unerringly ethical, Stanley won commissions most architects only dream about: First National Bank in Dallas, the Gulf & Western building in New York City, 30 North LaSalle in Chicago. His smaller local projects were some of his best: Lovers Lane United Methodist Church, the Atlantic Richfield campus, the American Airlines Flight Academy. Developers couldn't resist his buildings, which were designed to make them money but were splashed with enough classical elements to give them the feel of art. After all, Stanley was an artist, a sculptor, a piece of work himself. Remembered less for his architectural drawings than his architectural drawing power, he presented himself as an odd oxymoron of folksy humility and flamboyant hubris, Southern gentility and urban hustle.
"More than good architecture and design," says his former employee and Dallas architect Dennis Axberg, "Tom Stanley sold Tom Stanley."
His wife worshipped him, his four children were in awe of him, and for 30 years he seemed invincible, but for the three open-heart surgeries from which he recovered with Dick Cheney-like speed. In the mid-'80s, however, he stumbled hard, investing in his own project, squeezed mercilessly by the real estate crunch and the savings and loan debacle. He fought off his creditors until 1990, when he had little choice but to file bankruptcy.
The story of Tom Stanley is the story of the Texas rich, those can-do entrepreneurs who have so much confidence in their own abilities that they think they are above the laws of supply and demand. It's the story of a Dallas society that allows entry based on merit as well as name, where new money can buy the same access to privilege as old. It's the story of the bitter dysfunction in the family of a man as he completes the circle of his life from rags to riches to rags again.
The way Lillian tells it, she and her husband had downsized their lives so completely by 1994 that their eldest daughter, Jill, stored most of her parents' possessions--furniture, antiques, paintings--in a warehouse maintained by her husband, Larry Meletio, a businessman and sometime musician. Along with other items removed from their home, this property, allegedly worth more than $1 million and constituting her most precious memories, somehow found its way into the Meletios' North Dallas home.
When Jill came to visit her ailing father at the hospital, Lillian says she noticed her daughter wearing the diamond wedding ring Lillian had inherited from her mother. "When this is over, I'm going to get our things back," she told Jill, though not nearly as firmly as the demand she would make in the lawsuit she filed after her husband's death.
Through their lawyer, Jill and Larry Meletio have declined to comment for this story because of the pending litigation, believing that it would be "extremely unfair and harmful" to their "due process rights" if the Dallas Observer published an article prior to a judge or jury reaching a decision. In court records and depositions, however, both have adamantly denied Lillian's allegations, claiming among other things that Jill purchased the property from her sister Mamie Stanley, a recovering heroin addict who lived with her parents when she wasn't in prison.
Gracious to a fault, Lillian was never one to make a scene, and certainly not at a hospital. With Tom so weak, her only concern was to make his final moments as comfortable as possible. To that end, she asked Jill if she would bring to the hospital the model of the Napoleonic coach Tom had built as a boy. It was the first prize he had ever won, the first time anyone had publicly acknowledged him as an artist and part of the property Jill had allegedly moved into her home.
"I said, 'Do me a favor,'" claims Lillian. "'Bring Daddy's coach so he can see it one more time.'" But Jill insisted it was too fragile and instead brought a photograph of it, which was buried with Tom Stanley when he died January 23.
To other family members, Jill appeared to have more of a relationship to her parents' things than her parents, rarely seeing them over the last several years. That's why her brother Hutch found her tears at the hospital so disingenuous, almost as if she were scripting her grief, he says. After their father suffered a major stroke in his hospital bed, his body paralyzed, the end near, Hutch recalls Jill railing against medical personnel whom she accused of being inattentive.
"Don't you know who he is?" she scolded. "Don't you know what he's done?"
If Tom Stanley needed a good example of how to raise his kids, he certainly wouldn't get it from his own parents. They abandoned him when he was 5 years old, leaving him on the porch swing at his Aunt Mamie's, who maintained a small cotton farm in South Carolina. His was a meager existence; there was never enough money and never enough time--not when there were hogs to be slopped and corn to be shucked and lessons to be learned. His aunt was a strict disciplinarian, keeping Stanley on a short leash, though he always had some kind of promotion going--selling candy to the kids at recess, apples to the blacks in "colored town"--anything to make money.
Stanley was a natural-born artist, easily teaching himself how to draw, paint and carve. What was harder was cobbling together enough cash to buy art supplies. At 13, he entered a competition sponsored by Fisher Body Co. to replicate the carriage that Josephine took to Notre Dame for her wedding to Napoleon. Since he could not afford the kit that Fisher required of its entrants, he designed the coach from scraps around the farm--corncobs, metal, swatches of velvet and leather. Winning the contest was more than just a source of pride, it was a harbinger of the way he would practice architecture: finding economical ways of expressing himself artistically.
Although college seemed financially out of the question, his aunt insisted he use his savings ($198) and go. He attended Clemson College in North Carolina, majoring in architecture ("I meant to check off agriculture," he would tell his children). Overachieving both in school and out, he was the cartoonist for the college newspaper and the art editor of the yearbook; he taught art classes, painted business signs--whatever he could do to keep himself in food money. At the time, Clemson had a military bent that would serve Tom well when World War II broke out. A bombardier and a flight instructor, at 26 he became the youngest person at that time to obtain the rank of major in the Army Air Corps, says his son Hutch.
Stationed at Ellington Field outside Houston, he fell in love with Texas, its bigness, its brashness and its economic opportunity. To him, Texas was full of action-oriented entrepreneurs and developers, "men of a certain unusual type," he would tell the Dallas Times Herald in 1964, who had the optimism and courage to implement their vision even in difficult economic times. Clearly, Tom Stanley wanted to be one of those men.
Upon his discharge from the Army, Stanley went to Houston and applied for a job with the largest architectural firm he could find, the only one that used bold letters in the phone book, or so the family mythology goes. He literally ran into the firm's renowned owner Wyatt C. Hedrick, who looked at Stanley's drawings and hired him on the spot. Hedrick was quite a showman in his own right, using his farm-fresh demeanor to land big commissions such as the Shamrock Hotel in Houston and the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth. Stanley molded himself after Hedrick, who would get to work every morning by 6:30. Tom Stanley would be there at 5:30.
By 1951, Stanley had moved to Fort Worth as a partner in the firm of Hedrick-Stanley. There he serviced Hedrick's rich clientele of oilmen, ranchers and bankers. There he met his wife, Lillian, a genteel, arty divorcee whom he married 90 days later. From a prior marriage, she had two children--Edward, 5, and Jill, 2,--both of whom Tom adopted. To complete his family, two more children, Mamie and Hutch, would follow. Edward (Thomas E. Stanley III) always knew he had been adopted, though he seldom spoke about it; Jill, however, was never told, nor were the other children. Perhaps, as Lillian insists, "It was just our way of not showing partiality toward any of our children." Or perhaps Stanley, ever the Southern gentleman, believed that a good family name was a necessary credential--one that he had been denied but had dedicated his entire working life toward attaining. "Never forget you are a Stanley," he would tell his children.
Thomas E. Stanley II opened his doors in Dallas by 1959 and quickly gained entry to the corridors of power and business, which in Dallas were often the same. His closest friends were mostly business acquaintances: insurance industrialist Carr P. Collins and real estate men J.L. Williams, John Eulich and Henry S. Miller Jr. At the lightning speed he conducted business, there was rarely time to make an acquaintance of any other kind. Partly through his association with Collins, Stanley became one of two architects chosen to design the First National Bank building on Elm Street, which after its completion in 1965 was the tallest building west of the Mississippi at 52 stories. As the first glass box high rise in Dallas, it set the standard for the rest of downtown. It became his signature building, elegant with its classical use of white marble arches and columns, yet modern with its dark glass materials.
Suddenly Stanley was much in demand. His bank and office towers graced downtowns in Oklahoma City, Omaha, New Orleans, Chicago and New York. He was registered to practice architecture in 28 states. The same year he was completing plans for the First National Bank building, he was also designing the massive downtown Sanger-Harris retail store (now the DART headquarters), high-rise apartments in Mexico City, Malta and La Jolla, California, and hotels in the Bahamas and Monterrey, Mexico.
Corporate developers loved his classical elements--that touch of class, which Stanley told them was his way of putting "a little romance in their buildings." What they loved even more was the structures he designed made money for their owners. His buildings were built to lease.
"Attractive design was important to him, but it's not what he was known for," Axberg says. "His true mark was being able to build very efficient buildings. Some developers wanted Tom's name involved in their projects because his reputation with lenders made it easier for them to secure money."
While no architect was more developer-friendly, it was the personal magnetism of the man that closed the deal.
To meet with developers across the country, he would travel on his private jet accompanied by his two pilots wearing red blazers bearing the Stanley family crest. He was always impeccably dressed--pin-striped suit, monogrammed shirt and diamond cufflinks. Although he never drank a second cup of coffee out of the same cup, in his folksy South Carolinian drawl he was the most humble man in the room. Owners were wowed by his high style and down-home homilies--the way he would pull out his felt-tip pen, and a dozen napkins later, have designed them a building with the right blend of economics and "romance" to sweep them off their feet.
"He went into these meetings believing he was going to win," says former Stanley employee and architect Hardy McCullah. "And he generally did."
By the early '70s, Tom Stanley was at the pinnacle of both his professional and personal life. He had an architectural staff of nearly 90, refusing to develop a more corporate structure because he was the business, its sole rainmaker. He had an apartment in New York, a 375-acre horse farm outside McKinney and a Rolls Royce in his driveway. He retained a governess for his four children, a housekeeper to cook and clean and a full-time carpenter just because he could. When he would come home exhausted from his 12-hour days, Lillian, if she hadn't traveled with him, would be standing in the doorway, a cocktail in hand, looking freshly coiffed and playing his favorite Al Jolson standards. Together they might retire to the bedroom and eat dinner, behind closed doors and apart from the children.
If Stanley had kept practicing architecture, not only might he have died a rich man, he could have died a happy one.
There was simply not enough of Tom Stanley to go around. Everyone wanted a piece of him--his clients, his employees, his wife, his children--and everyone came up wanting. "He used to tell me he was spread thinner than piss on a platter," says Bob Sallee, who managed his office. "Either he was chasing business, or the business was chasing him."
Although Stanley was only a phone call away from his children and intimately involved in any crisis, his hectic schedule limited his family time. He also tended to be strict with the children--after all, that was how he was raised. Edward, the eldest, was strong-willed and had a problem with authority, particularly his father's. Military school was Stanley's response to his son's lack of self-discipline. Jill, on the other hand, "never gave us any problems," Lillian says. She made good grades, acted responsibly, though other family members insist she was territorial and emotionally distant. Hutch worshipped his father but seemed starved for his attention, begging their governess Lucille Ledbetter not to quit because he was afraid his parents might send him to boarding school, which they did.
"I never doubted for a minute they loved their children," Ledbetter recalls. "But the children didn't feel the love they needed to feel. Mr. Stanley was so busy, and Mrs. Stanley was so foolish about him--she really was...I just know they weren't together enough as a family."
Only upon his daughter Mamie did Stanley lavish his attention, their shared love for horses drawing them close. They would spend time together at Sycamore Farms, riding in the open fields and winding paths that the Stanleys owned near McKinney. Stanley built an equestrian center there and would often accompany Mamie when she competed in horse shows.
Mamie was their rebel child. Untamed and mischievous, she hated school and began drinking and drugging at an early age. Her criminal history dates to 1976, when at age 22 she was arrested for assaulting a police officer outside a bar. During the next several years, she was convicted of either delivery or possession of a wide assortment of drugs from marijuana to barbiturates to amphetamines. Yet Tom and Lillian were always there for Mamie, handling every drug crisis with their traditional grace, paying for bondsmen, lawyers and drug rehab programs. They backed her in the car stereo business, as they did Edward; they bought her a town house, often in denial about the full extent of her drug use.
Mamie says her father's second open-heart surgery in 1978 "fed my addiction. The fear of losing him scared me to death." It also may have caused Stanley to rethink his life. The pinch of the credit crunch in the mid-'70s made new business harder to find. Perhaps this was the right time to slow down.
Stanley searched for a new revenue stream, turning his firm's direction toward development. He partnered with actor John Wayne, who owned one of Stanley's sculptures, and a wealthy rancher from South Dakota to build a hotel-casino in Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Palace seemed a natural: The rancher committed $65 million, John Wayne lent his name, and Tom Stanley would design and develop the 1,000-room hotel from production drawings to groundbreaking to finish-out.
Six years of litigation later, all that was built of the Palace was its foundation. The Sierra Club and the state of California took the position that the hotel would be an environmental nightmare and convinced a court to halt its construction.
Although Stanley had no money in the project, it sapped the resources of his firm, which he was forced to downsize to a staff of seven. In the process, Stanley sold his Oak Lawn office building and moved his firm into a Turtle Creek high rise. He leased more space than he could use, optimistic he would see better days. He still had one more project on the drawing board--a resort hotel on Mustang Island in South Texas. In the mid-'70s, he had purchased several tracts of land on the beach, believing the island both underdeveloped and undervalued. He designed and built villas and a 42-unit condominium whose sales were intended to help finance the construction of the El Cortez, a 12-story hotel. Unfortunately, with oil prices plummeting in the early '80s, a depressed Texas economy interfered with his plans. The units just didn't sell. Yet Stanley believed in his vision so wholeheartedly that he dipped into his personal assets to keep the project afloat.
At the same time, he began converting Sycamore Farms into a master-planned residential community called Brookgreene Estates that he intended to market as one-acre lots to busy professionals looking to escape city life. But in 1986, in an effort to save El Cortez, he borrowed $4.3 million from Southwest Savings, putting up what was left of the Brookgreene (200 acres) and 15 units of the Mustang Island condominium as collateral. Then came the real estate crunch and not far behind it, the savings and loan scandal, which would eventually put Southwest Savings into receivership. Interest payments alone were close to $1,200 a day, which Stanley paid out of his own pocket.
"It's kind of ironic," Hardy McCullah says. "For so many years he had done architecture that worked well economically, and here he invests all his resources in a project that's just not economically feasible."
By 1988, Stanley could no longer make the payments, and he traveled across this country and Europe, looking for new sources of funding. With no new money, with his land worth less than half its original value, with his personal assets nearly depleted, Southwest Savings finally posted the property for foreclosure. To stave off financial ruin, he filed for bankruptcy in March 1990, hoping to reorganize his debt. Before it was over, he had lost almost everything, with no way of getting it back.
He had just gotten old at the wrong time in his life.
It was tough enough being the son or daughter of Tom Stanley in the best of times. He was so certain, such a captivating presence, that none of his children could have equaled him. "Because he was this powerful figurehead," McCullah says, "the rest of his family would have trouble with their own identity."
Now in the worst of times, with Stanley vulnerable, less godlike, his children's weaknesses seemed more defined. Edward, who had played off his father's name in business, filed for bankruptcy (though it was later dismissed on his motion); Hutch, who stood by his father during his financial demise, turned first to drink and then God; Jill phoned Hutch at least twice, he claims. "She asked me how much Dad had in the bank. She was obviously concerned if there was going to be any inheritance left." Mamie, who derived her strength from her father's, allowed her addictions to consume her.
Of course, Mamie had her rationalizations: In 1989, she crushed her hip and pelvis in a car accident and was lucky to escape with her life. Surgery did little to alleviate the pain, and she began taking Dilaudid,a morphine derivative, which she abused daily. When her doctors finally cut her off, she took to the streets, mainlining heroin--"my drug of choice," she says. In and out of rehab, busted numerous times for possession, she used heroin to get through the night and speed to get through the day.
Tom and Lillian never abandoned her, garnering their limited resources to help, excusing her addiction as the sad consequence of an unavoidable accident. The main assets the bankruptcy trustee didn't seize and sell were the Stanley home and its contents in old Preston Hollow. But the upkeep on the house was unaffordable, and Stanley sold it himself in 1994, moving into a smaller home in North Dallas. The new home couldn't contain the contents of the old--valuable paintings, antiques, a lifetime of mementos. According to Lillian, most of the furniture was stored for safekeeping in the warehouse of her son-in-law Larry Meletio'scompany, which manufactures electronic parts. Some items were sold or given to family members. Jill and Larry, whose own house and furnishings burned in 1992, received an antique china cabinet, an ornate chandelier and two French wall tapestries. What remained was left unpacked in boxes in the Stanleys' new home.
As Mamie grew more desperate to feed her addiction ("I was living in an opiate cloud," she says), she would pillage these boxes, looking for items she could pawn. Again she rationalized her behavior, deceiving both her parents and herself. "I didn't consider it stealing, not exactly. I convinced myself some of the things were mine. And other things I was just borrowing as collateral for a loan." As soon as she got straight, she would repay the loan and return the property to her parents. Only she never did.
Instead, Mamie says she brought her sister into her scheme. "Jill was family. I thought she would loan me the money and keep the property safe. I never wanted to hurt my parents. When I came up with the money, I trusted her to give me the property back." Only Jill never did.
"She knew what we were doing was wrong. We both did," Mamie says.
In her deposition, Jill tells a different story, describing her feelings after she learned at 37 she was adopted. "I was very upset that I was deceived...It was natural that I was somewhat angry and disturbed." She felt her father had always treated her differently than Mamie and Hutch. "I know he loved me. He just loved his two natural children too much." That is why it was clear to her that the items she "purchased" from Mamie were not taken without her parents' permission. "Anything that was my parents' was Mamie's...That's the way it has always been." Her parents never actually told her that anything they owned was Mamie's; it was just something Jill concluded from their behavior. "Their behavior was apparent to everyone."
Everyone but Tom and Lillian.
Lillian had in her possession two letters written by her husband, where he demanded that Jill and Larry return his property. "My dear Jill," he wrote on May 6, 1997, "I am enclosing an incomplete list of items which were stolen from my home...When you acquired these items, you must have realized that Mamie did not own these items...I plan to have all items in your possession returned to my home... Love, Dad."
Stanley's June 26, 1999, letter to Larry Meletio took a more forceful tone: "I am delivering this letter to you personally and demanding you return our many lovely things and all of LILLIAN's jewelry, now!! When 'B' [a friend] and I stopped by Jill's for a visit I was 'shocked' to see all of our lovely antiques and furnishings!! We believed these items to still be in storage and you have taken these from us without our knowledge or permission and moved them into your home."
At their depositions, Jill and Larry claimed they never received these letters; and Larry testified that any property he stored for his father-in-law was long gone, removed by Mamie, her parents or other family members. Jill said she received a hand-delivered letter from her father in 1998, demanding the return of a few items of property. They walked into her sitting room, she said, and chatted. "He was embarrassed that his daughter Mamie was selling items...But he was happy that they were not pawned or sold somewhere else other than to me..." He left without referring to the letter, she said, or taking any property with him.
Jill claimed that she had written hundreds of checks to and for Mamie, realizing that by purchasing the property (at pawnshop prices) she might be financing Mamie's heroin habit. She said that her parents also borrowed money from her; they were "in need and at my doorstep." Finally she had to put a stop to it. "They [including Mamie] were constantly coming to me. It was an everyday ordeal." Other than visiting her father at the hospital before his death, she did not see her parents for the last year and a half of his life, she said, and admitted making little effort to be with them.
Lillian denies ever borrowing money from her children; her husband was just too proud. He would rather live off his Social Security check than pester his wealthy friends or family. He had no car. Mamie wrecked one; Edward borrowed the other. He let go of his social connections; he couldn't afford them. "He joked that he had more money coming out of college than he did now," recalls Hutch. Eventually he and Lillian, in love as always, were forced to move into one rundown apartment and then another.
Although Stanley's heart was failing him--pumping at 20 percent of its capacity--his spirits seldom sagged. Unlike his children, he had risen out of poverty on the strength of his personal genius. Despite his age, he believed he could do it again. Hutch, who took a daily interest in his parents' well-being, encouraged his father to sculpt or paint, but Stanley had one last architectural dream--L'Elyse'e--a high-rise condominium he designed and hoped to develop in Turtle Creek. "He wanted the penthouse for him and Mom," Hutch says. "He planned on furnishing it with all the antiques and property that Jill had taken from them." Hutch would drive his father to meetings with developers, bankers, former employees--anyone who would listen.
"Tom asked me to do the production drawings for the high rise," Dennis Axberg recalls. "I could see that he was tired, and I knew the project was never going anywhere, but I gave him a few drawings anyway. I just wanted the opportunity to talk with him one more time."
There was always a chance that Lillian Stanley would never file suit against her daughter and son-in-law. At 78, she felt heartsick at the prospect of losing her husband, fragile from the effects of the two strokes she had suffered. But when her husband requested that Jill not bring Larry to the hospital and he came anyway; when Jill refused to bring her father's prized carriage to his deathbed; when Lillian saw her property--her life with Tom--on display at Jill's house after the funeral, she felt she had no choice.
"It almost killed me when I found out what Mamie was doing," Lillian says. "But I blame Jill for encouraging her...She has taken everything I own."
In February, Lillian attempted to press theft charges against the Meletios, but the police concluded the criminal case was unfounded, which left Lillian the option of pursuing her claims in civil court. Jill and Larry beat her to the courthouse, however, going on the attack by requesting nine depositions in anticipation of litigation. Later they would challenge Lillian's competency; they would accuse her of being under the influence of Edward's former wife and others, who they alleged had, by the "fall of 2000, begun to inveigle into [Lillian's] and Mr. Stanley's personal affairs, which caused Lillian to initiate suit." They also would request Lillian post a security bond to cover court costs.
But Lillian has held firm. She hired Dallas attorney Randall Reed, who filed suit against the Meletios for, among other things, the alleged conversion of her property. In turn, the Meletios have countersued Lillian for malicious prosecution, bringing a groundless lawsuit in bad faith and defamation, alleging that she has maliciously made false statements to "others" claiming the Meletios "had stolen and converted one million dollars of [Lillian's] property." They have also raised 14 legal defenses, including claims that Lillian's lawsuit is barred by the statute of limitations. Much of Lillian's case rests on the testimony of Mamie Stanley, whose credibility might be called into question by her long drug history and her recent stay in the penitentiary. She was released in June after serving a two-year sentence for possession of amphetamines.
Reed isn't foolish enough to predict the outcome of the litigation, but he is impressed by his client's grace under fire. "Here is a woman who has lived a life of grandeur and is now living in an old-age ghetto with furniture that looks like it's from Goodwill. Yet there is no 'oh, poor me' about her," he says. "She just wants her things back. Her memories. It's what Tom Stanley would have wanted for her, too."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.