Authors: Evan Ratliff
In the summer of 1972, when Judith Adams
was 16 years old, a strange woman knocked on the front door of the
shotgun house where she lived with her mother, on the south side
of Baxter Springs, Kansas. Judith opened it. The woman was small
and thin, a brunette, and Judith detected an angry edge, as if she
were in a hurry to get somewhere and the teenager now in front of
her was standing in her way. She demanded to see Judith’s mother.
“Mom!” Judith shouted back to the kitchen. “There is someone here
who wants to speak with you.”
Sue Adams stepped past Judith onto the front porch, pulling the
door closed behind her. It was a small deck, just wide enough to
set out a couple of chairs when the weather was nice, looking out
over a flat little front yard with a maple tree and a driveway that
ran up the side. Judith heard the women raise their voices and
tried to peek through the little window in the door. Her mother
glanced back at her, then reached her hand up to block the glass.
Moving to the living-room window, Judith saw three men at the end
of the driveway, next to an old black pickup truck. What stuck with
her most, remembering the moment decades later, was the way the men
stood with their backs to the house.
After a few minutes, the strange woman stormed back to the
truck. She and the three men climbed in and drove away. “What was
that?” Judith asked when her mother came back inside.
“It was nothing,” was all her mother would say. A few days
later, however, she sat Judith down for a talk. “If a lady ever
pulls up in a car and tells you to get in with her,” she told her,
“don’t go with her.”
“Why?” Judith asked.
“That woman that came the other day said she was your mother,”
Sue Adams said.
Judith had known for most of her life
that she had been adopted. Sue and George Adams had thought she
should hear the truth as soon as she was old enough to understand
it. But they’d never said who her birth parents were, and Judith
never asked. Her early childhood had been hard; she was born with
scoliosis, forced to wear a Milwaukee brace to straighten out her
spine. Sue and George had helped her through it, been the only
parents she felt she needed, even after they divorced when she was
13 and she and her younger sister had stayed with her mother.
Judith’s friends always laughed about how Sue could be
overprotective to the point of paranoia—how she kept Dobermans in
the yard and guns in the house, and waited for Judith in the
parking lot when she attended school dances and went roller
skating. Sue had a thing about strange cars, always telling Judith
and her friends to watch out for them. Her sister was also adopted,
but it was Judith whom Sue seemed to worry about the most.
In 1989, Sue Adams was terminally ill
with heart disease. Judith was 33 then and working at a collection
agency in Joplin, Missouri, just across the state line. She got a
call from her father, George. “I need to talk to you about
something,” he said.
When Judith arrived at his house, her adoptive father told her
that he’d just heard from a woman named Ethel Louise Williams.
Williams, he told Judith, was her birth mother. “I didn’t want to
hold this back from you,” he said. “I want you to make your own
decisions. I’ll give you this number and stand behind you whatever
you do.” Five days later, Sue Adams died.
The timing of Judith’s biological mother’s appearance was
unfortunate, even cruel. Judith couldn’t imagine what the woman
wanted with her now, three decades after she’d given her up and
just days before her adoptive mother’s death. But after a couple of
days, curiosity got the better of her. She called up Williams and
agreed to meet at the home Williams shared with her husband in
Baxter Springs, just a few blocks from the house where Judith had
lived as a child.
She drove over from Joplin the following afternoon. When she
knocked on the door, a small woman with graying brown hair opened
it. “You look just like your father,” she said.
Judith followed Williams inside. “I’ve got something for you,”
Williams said, “and I’ve been holding on to it for a long time.”
She handed her daughter a clutch of papers. “A lot of people want
this transcript, but I told them that nobody gets it but you.” It
looked like a typed letter, and contained in its pages, Williams
said, was the story of Judith’s birth. Then she proceeded to tell
“Your father is a very important man,” she began. His name was
M. A. Wright, and he was an oilman in Texas—not just any oilman but
a wealthy and prominent one who had run Humble Oil and Exxon, two
of the most powerful companies in the world. And he was still
alive, down in Houston.
Judith stared at the papers. Though she didn’t yet realize it,
the woman in front of her had forever divided her daughter’s life
into two parts: the time before she knew, and everything that would
Five years ago, I was visiting New York
City from out of town and sat down for lunch with my literary
agent. Or at least he was an agent who generously allowed me to
think of him as my agent, despite the fact that it had been years
since I had sold a book to a publisher, a book that was purchased
by only a few thousand people. But this agent had been loyal in the
way you’d hope agents would be but most probably aren’t. He always
made time for me amid his successful clients.
One of them, as it happened, was Dominick Dunne, the well-known
writer of sordid crime stories. It was because of this fact that
the agent had recently received a phone call, out of the blue, from
a woman who introduced herself as Judith Wright Patterson. She was
from Missouri or Kansas—the agent wasn’t sure. The story of her
life, she’d insisted, was the kind of tale that Dunne should write
magazine. Her story seemed rather
convoluted, but as far as the agent could make it out, the woman
had discovered in midlife that she was the daughter of a wealthy
oilman in Texas who’d quickly disowned her. Now she was trying to
prove it, but the oilman was dead and her mother’s family had
turned against her.
At the time, Dominick Dunne was working on a novel, and my agent
thought he was probably too busy to tell her story. Dominick Dunne
probably heard a dozen stories as crazy-sounding as this one, every
day. But the agent took down Judith’s number anyway. Over lunch, he
recounted the story to me. “Actually, that sounds kind of
interesting,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “maybe you should call her then.”
A few days after I got home from New York, I dialed Carthage,
Missouri. Judith picked up after the first ring—she is without
question the fastest phone answerer I’ve ever met—and I introduced
myself as a reporter. I told her that I’d only heard the outlines
of her story but that it sounded remarkable.
“Evan, I’m going through a living hell,” she said. “I need your
She then spoke for a half-hour, maybe. I interjected rarely,
typing notes as she talked; she spoke slowly and carefully, so it
wasn’t hard to get everything down. Later, when I met her in
Missouri, I found that this deliberateness carried over in person.
She was a natural storyteller, a presenter of the highest order.
Her hair was always permed, her eyelashes curled, and her makeup
touched up before I arrived. She walked gingerly due to lingering
back problems from her scoliosis, which only served to enhance her
sense of purposefulness. She had almond eyes and a
can-you-believe-I’m-telling-you-this smile that exposed a set of
Five years after that first call, I am faced with hundreds of
pages of notes describing dozens of hours’ worth of conversations
with Judith Wright Patterson, in which I have dutifully recorded
her telling and retelling a story as complex as it is strange. For
most of that time, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. But I
kept returning to Judith’s tale, I realize now, because I was
seduced by the question at the center of it: If a stranger suddenly
appeared in your life and offered you the chance to become someone
else—to rewrite your own history and possibly your future—would you
The story that Ethel Louise Williams told
Judith began in 1955. That spring, Williams—then Ethel Louise
Harris—took a Greyhound bus headed south out of Baxter Springs
bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking for a new start. Her life so
far had been one set of troubles after another. She was 21 years
old and already had three children: two
daughters, Diana and Roberta, and a son, Rickey. At 17, she
had married a local man named Robert Harris and moved to California
with him, but he had abused her and so she’d moved back home,
though she had left Roberta with him. Now Louise, as people would
later come to call her, was heading south to find a way to support
the two children she had left.
Somewhere on the way to Tulsa, she noticed a man asleep in the
backseat of the bus. She didn’t pay him much attention until there
was a commotion and she looked back to find that he’d rolled off
the seat and onto the floor. The passengers around him laughed,
realizing that he hadn’t been asleep but rather stone drunk and
passed out. Something about his expensive-looking suit caught
Williams’s eye, though, and she took the water bottle and washrag
she’d brought for her kids, helped him back into his seat, and
started washing his face.
He reeked of alcohol and drunkenly introduced himself as one M.
A. Wright. As the bus rolled on to Tulsa, he told her that he
worked in the oil business and was headed to Oklahoma from New
York. He said that he’d just traveled to Peru and Venezuela, where
he’d been scouting property.
When the bus arrived in downtown Tulsa, she started to take him
over to skid row, thinking that he’d find a place among other
down-on-their-luck folks. But Wright insisted that they walk
around. When he was on his feet, she noticed how handsome he was in
spite of his oversize ears, with olive skin and brown hair just
graying at the temples. And he was tall—tall enough that Louise
could stand under his arm.
They wandered around, her two kids in tow, while he tried to
find his bearings. He kept saying over and over that he was looking
for a suite. “I’m sweet,” she said, flirtatiously.
“I know you’re sweet,” he said. “Boy, I sure can tell you’re
from a hick town. I’m looking for a room with a bathroom in it.
That’s what I want.”
They passed by the Adams Hotel, an art deco building on Cheyenne
Avenue downtown. Wright seemed to know it and decided he’d find a
room there. Louise, not understanding how he’d pay for it but
needing to find a room of her own, took her kids and headed for a
For Louise, Tulsa was bustling with the opportunity that had
been lacking in Baxter Springs, a declining lead-mining town of
several thousand residents whose primary claim to fame was the
historic Route 66 highway that passed through its downtown. Within
a few days, she had landed a job working as a waitress at the
Dutchman’s, a steak house on the east side of Tulsa. But she hadn’t
forgotten the man from the bus. One afternoon, walking down the
street near where she’d last seen him, she ran into him again. She
was pleased to find that he recognized her.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” he said. “Where have you
They were standing next door to the Mayo Hotel, far and away
Tulsa’s finest at a time when the city was awash in oil money;
industrialists, oil barons, and celebrities regularly crossed its
marble floor. Wright told her he’d taken a suite there. “Come on
in,” he said. “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
As they sat in the hotel’s café, several of Wright’s
acquaintances happened by: a pair of sisters who said their last
name was Phillips, accompanied by two men. It was only when the
older of the two introduced himself as Waite Phillips that Louise
realized she was in the presence of one of America’s great oil
families. The Phillips brothers—Frank and L.E.—had built the oil
company of the same name that now spanned the globe. Waite, their
younger brother, had started his own oil company to rival his
brothers’, made a fortune, and sold it to them in 1930. From the
way the Phillipses joked with Wright, Louise could tell they were
She started spending the evenings with Wright. They would eat at
the Mayo and tour around the bars downtown, the meticulously
dressed, 44-year-old oilman in his suits and turtleneck sweaters,
the diminutive 21-year-old beauty wearing the jewelry he’d bought
for her at Vandevers department store. She loved the way his hazel
eyes changed color depending on the light. He smoked cigarettes out
of a little silver case and grabbed nips from a flask he kept in
his boot. Then one evening he invited her up to his room, and they
kissed. She stayed the night.
They fell into an affair, and he moved her into a room next door
at the Adams, paid for her to board Rickey and Diana with a woman
in south Tulsa. He bought Diana a fluffy pink dress and put her in
a private preschool. He told Louise that he’d been married and also
had a daughter. Although she was never quite clear on the details,
she was under the impression that he was divorced. Louise herself
was still married to Roberta and Rickey’s father, but in name only;
she didn’t even know where her husband was.
Wright bought her a set of luggage and a mink stole, a diamond
watch and a diamond bracelet, pearls and earrings to match. He gave
her a glamorous evening gown, made of a metallic-looking fabric,
and squired her to dinners and parties with his wealthy friends. At
a white tablecloth banquet out at the Tulsa Fairgrounds—part of
some kind of oil exhibition, she remembered—she got to meet John
Paul “J. P.” Getty, a real oil baron, the wealthiest industrialist
in the world and one of its first billionaires. He was a jolly man,
she said later, always laughing. The Phillipses were there, among
other oilmen, whose names all ran together. And she certainly
remembered Howard Hughes: He had a thing about washing his hands,
she would tell people when she would recount the story decades
later, and carried a shirt under his arm—an extra, she assumed, in
case he spilled something on himself. When Wright introduced her to
him, though, all Hughes said to him was, “What are you doing,
trying to rob the cradle? She’s nothing but jailbait.” He’d said it
right in front of her.
Spring edged into summer, and they
remained lovers. She talked about getting their engagement
photograph put into the paper; it seemed to her that things were
moving in that direction. But Wright hedged. He didn’t like to have
his picture taken, he said.
He was mysterious with her in other ways she didn’t understand.
For one thing, he hadn’t told her what M.A. stood for. “I want to
know who you are,” she finally told him one afternoon, walking down
the street. “It’s not right for you to do me this way.”
“Marcus Arrington Wright,” he said.
“No, that’s not right,” she said, “because up there at the Mayo
Hotel I’ve heard them call you Mike.”
Wright started to get agitated. “Call me M.A.,” he said.
So she dropped it. And then one night she was in his room at the
Mayo. He put his arms around her and then stopped. She was
pregnant, and he knew it.