Muse, Marion Lamar (1920–2007)

By: Cynthia Marshall Devlin

Type: Biography

Published: May 27, 2021

Updated: June 1, 2021


Marion Lamar Muse, aviation industry executive and innovative marketer, son of Hiram Marion Muse and Nannie (Urquhart) Muse, was born on June 4, 1920, in Houston, Texas. He grew up in Palestine, Texas, and regarded the East Texas community as his hometown. His father was a railroad locomotive engineer. Muse, who went by his middle name of Lamar, attended Palestine High School. A saxophone player, Muse and school friend Hal Holland traveled around to hear various big bands and formed a musical group of their own called The Texans. They performed at high school dances. Muse graduated from high school in 1937 and attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, on a music scholarship. After two years he transferred to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth but left school in his junior year and never graduated.

In 1941, on his World War II draft card, Muse listed his occupation as a cashier at Lehr Baking Company in Houston. On June 21, 1941, he married Iona Juanice Guinn in that city. They later had three children. By the time of his enlistment for military service on September 8, 1943, he was working as an accountant for Price Waterhouse. He served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in France. Muse returned to Price Waterhouse after the war, but his accounting skills and marketing instincts led him to the burgeoning commercial aviation industry.

In 1948 Richard Earl McKaughan, owner of fledgling airline Trans-Texas Airways (TTA), hired M. Lamar Muse as the treasurer of the company; he later became a vice president. Muse’s novel budget systems and savvy business sense enabled the airline to profit, thereby ensuring the company’s growth and stability.  Trans-Texas in 1948 had a dismal load factor, an airline term defined as the ratio of used capacity to available capacity, or the ratio of occupied seats to the number of available seats over a specified time. Muse figured out a way to make the airline successful through shrewd marketing campaigns and the operation of a robust freight business. He knew that customers had to be courted and won. Therefore, he promoted the route system as a “vacationland,” and the company advertised fun in the sun on the Galveston beaches, mountain climbing near Alpine, hiking in the Big Bend country, and horseback riding at West Texas dude ranches. Muse devised two methods to make a profit each year: a tightly-controlled budget and a permanent subsidy rate for mail pay. The airline continued the permanent mail rate and earned a profit each year from 1948 through 1960. The relationship between Muse and McKaughan, however, fractured in 1960 over a disagreement about money and how much should be spent to upgrade to a new type of airplane. Muse was reticent to spend huge amounts of cash too quickly on new aircraft that would require the company to carry large debt and had conducted a business deal with American Airlines to purchase a set quantity of airplanes at a particular unit price that would include all auxiliary parts. When McKaughan wanted more negotiation on the price and refused to back down, Muse walked out.  

After leaving TTA, Muse moved to New York City and went to work at American Airlines as assistant vice president of corporate planning. In 1962 he became vice president and chief financial officer of Southern Airways in Atlanta, Georgia. He returned to Texas in 1965 to be chief executive officer (CEO) and president of Central Airlines, which was based out of Fort Worth’s Greater Southwest International Airport. In 1967 Central Airlines merged with Frontier Airlines, and Muse left to be president and CEO of Universal Airlines in Detroit, Michigan. Universal operated as a cargo group in Detroit and served the automobile industry with eighty aircraft. The outfit suffered financial losses until Muse turned the company around to make a $4.5 million profit by 1970. He decided to leave in 1969 when the owners insisted on the purchase of the new Boeing 747, which he vehemently opposed because the aircraft’s operation costs were too high. Ultimately, the company went out of business because of the purchase of the new aircraft.

 By 1970 Muse returned to the Lone Star State and settled in Conroe, but his early retirement was short-lived. San Antonio business leader Rollin King, with his new carrier, Air Southwest, wanted to start air service between Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, because driving took too long and other carriers charged too much. He and co-founder Herb Kelleher were embattled in lawsuits with other carriers who used the legal system to thwart the aspiring carrier Air Southwest from ever getting off the ground. Muse was hired as CEO and president and strongly suggested that Southwest Airlines sounded better, therefore the name change took place. He brought in talented, innovative staff, and, via a public offering and private investment, he raised about $7 million dollars to purchase aircraft and equipment needed to begin flying.  The airline purchased the same type of aircraft that ensured uniform maintenance and uniform training for pilots and hostesses. For Muse, the beginning was a family affair. His wife Juanice helped design the hostess uniforms consisting of a new fashion trend that included hot pants made by Lorch of Dallas and white go-go boots. His daughter Debbie flew as a hostess and graduated in the first class. He insisted on superior service and created a family atmosphere at Southwest Airlines where he introduced profit sharing instead of a pension plan that ensured some employees became millionaires. 

Muse aggressively competed with Braniff International and Texas International in the 1970s. He exercised a bifurcated sales plan to court business passengers along with leisure travelers. As a takeoff from Dallas Love Field, the Texas triangle (Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio) became the LUV Triangle. Free name-brand liquors became available on flights, along with peanuts, called “Luv Bites.” Muse engaged in fare wars, lowering ticket prices to increase load factors. He introduced the ten-minute turnaround and two-tiered ticket prices for peak and off-peak service, while his competition sat on the ground for thirty-minutes or more while the aircraft was deplaned, fueled, cleaned, and the galley serviced. This proved a plus for business passengers eager to use valuable time wisely, and the airline did not have to add new aircraft by managing the ground time. Muse moved the airline from the new Houston Intercontinental Airport (now George Bush Intercontinental Airport) to the closed Hobby Airport that facilitated easier parking and access by business customers and vacationers. In Dallas, Southwest chose to stay at Love Field instead of the new Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport (now Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport) for the same reason they chose to serve Hobby Airport; the travel time to both airports was far less than the new airports that positioned themselves away from the business core of both cities. Under Muse’s guidance Southwest Airlines gained traction, the passengers came in huge numbers, and the airline earned its first profit by 1973.

The relationship between founder Rollin King and Muse soured over time and was triggered by varied causes that led Muse to force the board of directors at Southwest to choose which of the men would vacate their position. The meeting took place on March 28, 1978. Muse had submitted his resignation, and board member John Murchison announced as the meeting began that the resignation would be accepted. Muse walked out. One of the disagreements between King and Muse surfaced when Muse insisted on his plans for a new startup (Midway Air) at Midway Airport in Chicago. While Muse launched Midway Air, he wanted his son Michael L. to be a senior vice president at Southwest and eventually take over at Midway. Southwest’s board failed to agree to the Muse plan.  

Out at Southwest, Muse established Muse Air in 1980. He had made his first million by 1976, and he and his son Michael amassed Southwest stock that earned them the funds to start Muse Air. Investment firm E. F. Hutton underwrote a stock offering raising about $40 million.  Muse indicated that he was going to have fun while son Michael did the hard work. The inaugural flight from Dallas to Houston took place on July 15, 1981. The airline operated with two aircraft flying the Dallas-Houston shuttle, with low fares and what the airline described as “beautiful service” with light meals and free cocktails. Muse offered the first non-smoking flights in the U. S.  He stepped down and allowed his son to run the airline, but timing proved untenable as an air traffic controller’s strike hampered the new operation. After two more unprofitable years the airline courted a business merger. Harold Simmons of Amalgamated Sugar Company came to the rescue, however, the offer demanded that Michael Muse step aside and Lamar Muse take the lead. The airline continued to struggle, and Southwest Airlines on June 25, 1985, absorbed the company. Southwest operated the airline as a separate entity under the livery of TransStar Airlines. Muse became vice chairman of the board but was removed from active management. The airline ceased operation in 1987.  

Muse had a history in aviation that spanned half a century. His financial savvy helped revolutionize the industry because he successfully implemented low cost travel that made flying available to many more Americans. Eventually other airlines around the globe emulated the Muse fiscal paradigm. Described as a “cantankerous genius” by Southwest Airlines cofounder Herb Kelleher, Muse was known as both blunt and charming and effected a strong work ethic. His philosophy may be summed up in his own words: “There’s a story I love to tell, about a man who ran a hamburger stand, whose children wanted to open up a fancy restaurant. He took them aside and told them, ‘Boys, remember this: feed the rich, and grow poor; feed the poor, and grow rich.’ That’s really what we’ve done. We’ve made airline travel available to the average person.”  Later in life, Muse carried a business card that stated, “M. Lamar Muse, Unemployed Chief Executive Officer.” He shared his knowledge with students by speaking at various universities, including Harvard University Business School in 1978 and Stephen F. Austin State University in 2005. Still connected with his hometown of Palestine, toward the end of his life he funded construction of a new YMCA building there and named the facility after his parents.

Muse lost his wife Juanice to cancer in 1974. Later that year he married Barbara Deese. They had a daughter. They divorced in 1997. M. Lamar Muse died of lung cancer on February 5, 2007, in Dallas. A reception in his honor was held at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field in Dallas on February 11, 2007. Under the “Big P” on the rocks in Waddington Channel, British Columbia, his ashes, according to his wishes, were spread.   

Cynthia Marshall Devlin, From the Lone Goose to the Golden Tail: A History of Trans-Texas Airways (M.A. thesis, Stephen F. Austin State University, 2005). Dallas Morning News, October 11, 1967; February 10, 11, 2007. James Fallows, “The Great Airline War: Flying the not-so-friendly skies of Texas,” Texas Monthly, December 1975. A. J. High, Interview by Cynthia Devlin, March 17, 2005, Hobby Airport, Houston, Texas. Greg Jones, “Is Big Daddy Really Back?” D Magazine, November 1981. Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2007. Christopher H. Lovelock, “Southwest Airlines: Interview with Lamar Muse, January 1978, Video,” Harvard Business School Video Supplement 883–510, October 1982. Lamar Muse, Interview by Cynthia Devlin, February 23, 2005, Nacogdoches, Texas. Lamar Muse, Southwest Passage: The Inside Story of Southwest Airlines’ Formative Years (Austin: Eakin Press, 2002).

Categories:

  • Aviation and Aerospace
  • Business
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Company Founders
  • Transportation and Railroads

Time Periods:

  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cynthia Marshall Devlin, “Muse, Marion Lamar,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/muse-marion-lamar.

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May 27, 2021
June 1, 2021

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