The Magazine

Liquid Assets

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

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By WINSTON GROOM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.