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Big oil, big money, and Texas-sized tales.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By WINSTON GROOM
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The Big Rich

The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes

by Bryan Burrough

Penguin, 480 pp., $29.95

Growing tired of the rich these days? Bored with greedy Wall Streeters' multi-million-dollar bonuses and mansions in the Hamptons? Fed up by Gatsbyesque jerks with Lear jets and Gulfstream IVs, yachts the size of Puerto Rico, and trophy wives sporting enough jewelry to turn you into a Communist?

Don't you long for the good old rich of yore--the days when they hunted grouse in plus-fours and dressed for dinner, and men all talked like Cary Grant while lighting their ladies' cigarettes? Wasn't that your idea of what the real rich were about?

Well, hold onto your hat, Mabel--you ain't seen nothin' yet! Here on parade, straight out of Texas, are the Hunts, Murchisons, Richardsons, Cullens, and a whole dadburn slew of others suddenly-rich-enough-in-their-day to make the Duponts, Mellons, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts look like a bunch of pikers! The Big Rich, they were called, the Serious Rich, or "Oilionnaires" who took America by sturm und drang in the mid-20th century before imploding like a gaggle of gasbags, leaving behind precious little but some oil refineries and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

But in their time they were giants to be reckoned with, and poked fun at, and ultimately held up as examples of how not to be rich, and so when somebody--especially somebody who writes for Vanity Fair--puts out a book called The Big Rich it's perfectly reasonable to suspect it's going to be another hatchet job on folks who had the good luck to make a little money in the awl bidness but were unlucky enough to hail from Texas--yep, that Texas: nemesis of labor unions, wolfsbane of (gasp) income taxes, and home of the dreaded Dubya.

Naturally, this reviewer's suspicions were correct. The author exposes the Big Rich for what they were, which in most cases was grasping, inept, bigger-than-life parvenus who didn't dress for dinner or talk like Cary Grant, and if they ever tried to light a lady's cigarette, they'd probably set her hair on fire. But since the author is Bryan Burrough, whose venerable Barbarians at the Gate earns him legitimate credentials, let's see what it's all about.

Meet, for instance, H. L. Hunt, serial bigamist, professional gambler, and, for a while, the richest man on earth, whom even William F. Buckley Jr. said "gave capitalism a bad name"; Hugh Roy Cullen, another World's Richest Man, fifth-grade dropout, geologic genius, and "Faulkneresque figure in a white summer suit, who detested 'Communists,' 'pinkos,' and especially Roosevelt." Then there was Sid Richardson, one more billionaire wildcatter who, "a few days before Christmas 1955 . . . flew to Washington in one of his DC-3s laden with steaks, quail, and ducks" for his pal President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in an effort to persuade him to drop Richard Nixon as his vice president in favor of one of Big Oil's closer friends. And consider Clint Murchison, who enjoyed the thoroughbred racing in Southern California so much that he built a swank private facility, the Hotel Del Charro in La Jolla, for himself and his friends to enjoy during the racing season. It quickly became a gathering spot for movie stars, East Coast politicians, and, of all people, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who arrived in 1952 with his companion Clyde Tolson, and freeloaded each summer thereafter, meals included, for the next 20 years.

The Big Rich were self-made men who, by dint of savvy, guts, finagling, and chutzpah, primed the great Texas oil boom in the early 20th century. Any similarity to the staid WASPy rich of New England, the Atlantic Coast, or even Chicago, was purely coincidental--with the arguable exception of Hunt, who carried his lunch in a brown bag and drove himself to work every day, yet built (at least for one of his several families ) a replica of George Washington's Mount Vernon.

These guys had more money than God and didn't care who knew it--in fact, they reveled in it. Murchison gave his trophy wife an engagement ring worth a million in today's dollars and bought 38-mile-long Matagorda Island off the Texas Gulf Coast in its entirety. Not to be outdone, his running mate Sid Richardson acquired nearly-as-big neighboring St. Joseph's Island, where he built a hurricane-proof house resembling a large mechanical factory.