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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.

Edna Ferber took it all in and wrote a potboiler about the Texas oil rich phenomenon, which she entitled Giant. It became a hit movie starring James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor, and featured the grand opening of an oil baron's swank new hotel, suspiciously similar to Houston's famous Shamrock built by the flamboyant wildcatter Glenn McCarthy.

As might be expected, that kind of money wielded enormous political power, and not just in Texas; then congressman Lyndon Johnson was bought and sold by Texas Big Oil, a feat that was apparently not so hard to accomplish. Likewise, in the days before campaign finance reform, Dwight Eisenhower owed a great deal to Big Oil, in particular from investing in wells drilled by his new best friend Sid Richardson.

As Burrough relates it, through "an old family friend":

There's an old game in oil, you know, where your friends, they only invest in your good wells, not the bad wells? You understand? It was that way with Eisenhower. You never could prove it. But he did it. I know he did. Sid told me.

It was apparently the same with J. Edgar Hoover, who invested in wells drilled by Clint Murchison. Murchison, however, was not sufficiently awed by Hoover to keep him from expressing himself when the opportunity arose. On one of Hoover's free visits to his Hotel Del Charro, the FBI director was seated quietly beside the buffet while Murchison had drunk just enough bourbon to suddenly turn to his guest and shout at him in front of the entire poolside crowd, "Goddamnit, Hoover, get your ass out of that chair and get me another bowl of chili!"

Another frequent guest at the Hotel Del Charro was Sen. Joe McCarthy who, at various times in the early 1950s, had become a favorite with most of the Big Oil Rich until he made himself obnoxious. This caused more widespread embarrassment as McCarthy became increasingly unpopular with the Eastern press, and the Washington Post took it upon itself to investigate McCarthy's relationship with Big Oil. This, in turn, caused the beginnings of a backlash against the oilmen, including skepticism by their fellow Texans through their own home town newspapers, "from which [they] never really recovered."

But the damage had been done, and the image of the uncouth, loudmouthed, right-wing Texas oilman became stock fodder for novels, movies, political cartoons, and television, probably reaching its apogee with the TV series Dallas. Eventually, time and the fates began catching up with the Big Rich; by the 1970s most of the original wildcatters had died, and Texas oil had begun to die with them, victim of cheaper imported oil from the Middle East. The scions, for a time, managed to keep up appearances, but soon cracks began to appear in the fa §ade. The Cullens, for instance, "harbored a secret, and to their dismay it arrived on their doorsteps," a few years after Cullen's death, in the form of Baron Enrico "Ricky" di Portanova, who was the son of the family's "lost daughter" Lillie, who had gone crazy years earlier and become a 400-pound bag lady in New York.

Early on, many of the Big Rich, Murchison included, had sent their daughters to Europe in hopes of snagging some kind of nobility, or even royalty. France was the preferred destination for meeting count-no-counts, or Italy, since the English royals were still wealthy and not in need of Texan commoners for wives.

In any case, di Portanova, then in his thirties and a minor jet-set playboy, had been on a $5,000-a-month "allowance," but after Cullen's death, he smelled a fortune and went to Houston to lay a claim. The mortification of a lawsuit soon produced credible suggestions that the Cullens had attempted (and failed, with the wrong man murdered) to have di Portanova assassinated; in the end Baron Ricky got a very small part of what he had sought, which was still enough to make him an extremely wealthy man.

Clint Murchison's two sons, John and Clint Jr., had gone to Yale and MIT, respectively, and seemed poised for a spectacular career managing their father's money, but it did not turn out that way--at least not in the long run. They began a hugely successful real estate development business, as well as other diversifications such as the Dallas Cowboys football franchise--which quickly became the sport's biggest earner--and a restaurant chain called Tony Roma's. But the culture of the 1960s and '70s proved as damaging to the Murchisons as it had to practically everyone who bought into it: Clint Murchison Jr. became so addicted to drugs, booze, and sex that he quit flying in his own plane to Cowboys games so that he could seduce the stewardesses of Dallas-based Braniff Airways.

In the end, the Murchisons lost it all, and Clint in his final years was evicted from his mansion, his possessions sold at auction, and spent his final days in a little house in the suburbs "not much bigger" than his former living room. H. L. Hunt's problems, as well, increased as he got on in years, first in the form of a lawsuit wrought by his multiple bigamies. Upon Hunt's death the bulk of his wealth went to the wife in his first bigamous affair, but then a third woman and her children turned up from Atlanta and sued for their share of the estate. It was finally settled for millions, but not without considerable embarrassment to the original family. And Hunt himself had nearly bankrupted his vast estate.

However, Hunt's three sons, Herbert, Lamar, and the porcine Nelson Bunker Hunt, seemed poised to outdo even this most famous of all the Texas oilmen, until greed, stupidity, and sloth intervened. First came the 1973 Arab oil embargo in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, followed by the fall of the shah in Iran, which set off a huge Texas drilling boom that saw the price of oil rise 2,000 percent. Suddenly the Hunts were again making money hand-over-fist--literally billions--until they got the bright idea to corner the silver market. Silver, like gold (and oil, for that matter), is considered a good hedge against inflation, which was certainly a factor in the late-'70s economy. The Hunts first bought small amounts, but then the fever seized them and soon their accumulations, along with a cabal of their friends, accounted for some 77 percent of the world's private silver stock.

As silver prices soared from $1.50 to $50 an ounce in consequence of their buying, the Hunts began to squander their newfound wealth. Bunker acquired a stable of 700 thoroughbred racehorses, as well as millions of acres of cattle ranches, tens of millions in rare coins, and other playthings. Then it all came crashing down. The Hunts had been borrowing money to buy their silver but suddenly--to stem inflation, or so he said--Fed chairman Paul Volker ordered banks to quit lending money for "speculation" in commodities and metals. This forced the Hunts to sell in order to meet margin calls, which in turn caused the silver bubble to burst all the way back to $10 an ounce, which prompted Bunker (always good for a quotation) to remark, "A billion dollars isn't what it used to be."

Sid Richardson had no offspring but he had brought along his nephew, Perry Bass, as a kind of ward or surrogate son, and upon the old wildcatter's death, Bass inherited much of the remains of his huge fortune. Unlike his other second-generation cohort, Bass did not fritter away his money, and the investment empire built by him and his sons continues to flourish.

Bryan Burrough has written a fascinating, page-turning, informative, and (mostly) honest book about these people, except when he feels a need to scrape to the Vanity Fair crowd with a zinger about somebody hating Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman. Hell, a lot of people hated Roosevelt or Truman, but it didn't necessarily make them despicable! However, I do wish that Burrough had refrained from writing that Senator McCarthy was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or that Colonel (later General) Jimmy Doolittle was a naval aviator. It would have made for smoother sailing.

Like the dinosaurs, the Texas Big Rich have mostly vanished, and it's unlikely that we'll see their kind again. There were quite a few of them besides the ones described here: gamblers to a man, and borrowers to the hilt, even after they'd struck it rich. A lot of them lost it all, or at least most of it at one time or other--and some even more than once. But they played out their lives as if they were in a high-stakes game of poker, and losing didn't seem to make them bitter.

Still, it's ironic that, according to Forbes's latest list of wealthy Americans, the richest person in Texas isn't even an oilman anymore; it's the computer whiz Michael Dell.

Winston Groom is the author, most recently, of Vicksburg, 1863.