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Legacy that Refused to End: Even at Age 84, Oklahmoa City Hotelier,
W.B. Skirvin, Was Thinking about the Future
By Steve Lackmeyer, The Daily OklahomanMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Jan. 28, 207 - W.B. Skirvin was ready to celebrate. At age 84, he was an hotelier, again.

For six years, he had been battling his children over control of his landmark Skirvin Hotel, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had reversed an earlier ruling against him that had placed the hotel in receivership of a Dallas hotel operator.

Skirvin still had so many things left to finish. He had always planned to add another 14 floors to the Skirvin Tower. Maybe he could still convince family and friends to pool their resources for one last venture. They had accomplished so much together over the decades, including huge oil strikes at Spindle Top in Texas, starting a town from scratch, and of course, the hotel.

But on March 12, 1944, business would have to wait; Skirvin decided to join his friend, bar owner Earl Saxon, for a celebratory Sunday afternoon drive.

Heading west along NW 63 in Oklahoma City, their excursion was violently cut off by a hit-and-run driver who forced them off the road and into a creek bed near Grand Boulevard. Skirvin went through the windshield, leaving him badly injured with a cracked skull, broken ankle and fractured right arm. Skirvin's daughter, the internationally renown "hostess with the mostest," Perle Mesta, rushed back to the city and discovered the old man stubbornly confident in his recovery.

"When I get out of this damn-fool place, I'm going to head straight for Arizona and get into the cattle business," Skirvin told Mesta and sister Marguerite Tyson three days after the crash -- according to Mesta's biography. Marguerite responded that a ranch was for sale next to one she owned along the Hassayampa River in Arizona. Skirvin's face brightened and he quizzed his son, William, about the property's geology. Maybe they would pool together their resources, and strike oil one more time.

Throughout his life, Skirvin was a risk-taker.

Skirvin was a farm-implements salesman from Michigan who created a new town, Alta Loma, about 18 miles north of Galveston. According to a published family history, Skirvin distributed pamphlets showing a big red strawberry to friends and families in "frozen" Michigan, inviting them to "the sunshine in Texas."

Skirvin sought similar opportunities in Oklahoma Terrority when it was opened to settlement. He and his brother-in-law Orrin Shepherd boasted they rode "on top" of the first train car into Guthrie and staked some of the town's first lots.

"Father's 300-room hobby"

Just as Oklahoma was becoming a state, life for the Skirvin family was about to be turned upside down.

Skirvin's wife, Hattie, died and Perle was forced into the position of taking care of her younger siblings, Marguerite and William. And a call from Col. Ned Green, son of a New York financier, prompted Skirvin to consider venturing into the hotel business. Green had surveyed all of Oklahoma City and determined four lots owned by Skirvin at First (now Park Avenue) and Broadway would be the ideal site for a hotel.

"The offer was substantial and father was almost ready to agree to the sale when Green happened to mention that his mother planned to build the biggest hotel in Oklahoma City on the land," Mesta later wrote. "When father heard this he immediately turned down the offer."

"That Hetty Green is no dumbbell," Skirvin told his daughter. "If she thinks that's a good site for a hotel, then it probably is."

Skirvin called a friend, architect Solomon Layton, and within a week they were working on plans for a six-story hotel.

"One night in September, father went over to Sol Layton's office to celebrate the completion of the fifth floor framework," Mesta wrote. "One drink led to another, and Sol kept insisting that at the rate Oklahoma City was growing, a six-story hotel would be far too small. By 3 a.m., father thought so, too, and the next day he increased his order to obtain enough of the Malakoff brick to cover eight stories."

Several weeks later, the pair celebrated again with similar results. When the hotel opened, it was 10 stories high with two towers and 300 rooms.

Family strain

As time passed, Skirvin continued to add onto the hotel, increasing it to 14 floors and adding a third tower. Meanwhile, his daughters went abroad to seek their own fortunes while son William stayed close by to help oversee the hotel and oil interests.

Perle married wealthy businessman George Mesta. Marguerite went to New York and drew positive reviews as a stage and screen actress before abandoning acting and marrying Robert Adams. When that marriage ended in divorce, Marguerite returned home and lived at the hotel for several years with daughter, Betty.

"Granddad had a marvelous sense of humor," Marguerite's daughter, Betty Ellis, said last week from her Maryland home. "He was always in the lobby, or in the coffee shop. He would say to run a hotel, it's important to know your guests."

When Mesta returned to visit, the head-strong socialite sometimes clashed with her equally stubborn father.

"He referred to her as 'the General,' which she didn't like at all," Ellis said.

It was also Perle Mesta who filed the first lawsuit. The pair had invested together in oil fields in Oklahoma City in 1930 and discovered wells that had the potential of producing up to 40,000 barrels a day. But in 1944, Skirvin wanted to again expand the hotel -- this time with a new tower across Broadway. He envisioned a 28-story tower, but construction was delayed years and the building was capped off at 14 floors as the economy worsened in the depth of the Depression.

Mesta wrote the lawsuits began with "heated and prolonged" arguments over Skirvin's desire to reinvest proceeds from their oil properties. He resented Mesta hiring an attorney to settle their disputes.

According to a 1949 Time article, heirs may also have been concerned that Skirvin had plans to divert their inheritance to a personal secretary. Skirvin lost the first round of court battles, and the hotel was placed into receivership while the dispute was to be heard at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Time reported one judge lectured the entire clan: "You Skirvins ought to be ashamed of yourselves."

The 10th U.S. Circuit judges' ruling, issued on March 11, 1944, rejected arguments W.B. Skirvin, and his advanced age, was responsible for the hotel's misfortunes a decade earlier, and noted the entire economy was depressed throughout the 1930s.

"Age alone of an owner or manager of a property is not enough to warrant the appointment of a receiver or the continuation of an existing receivership," the judges stated. "W.B. Skirvin is more than 80 years of age and if the properties are restored their owners, he may again become the active manager."

Lying in his hospital bed, Skirvin showed no animosity toward the children he just vanquished in court. Mesta's biography said she begged for forgiveness, her sister, Marguerite, and brother William at her side.

"I've forgiven you," she quoted him as saying. "There's nothing but love in my heart for all three of you children; you're all I have."

Two weeks after the crash, Skirvin was dead. Despite never having taken an interest in religion, he had struck up a friendship with William Alexander, the minister at First Christian Church. The minister spoke at the funeral of Skirvin's generosity, his spirit and wit. And he shared how Skirvin -- dying -- demanded a nurse help him shave so he could take her out for a night on the town.

"As Reverend Bill told the story, many of the people in the chapel nodded their heads," Mesta wrote. "Yes, indeed, this was their old friend Bill Skirvin speaking -- himself to the end."

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Daily Oklahoman

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