The Magazine

Liquid Assets

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

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