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October 5, 2009updated 10 Jan 2016 3:57pm

The Big Rich

By Spear's

The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes
Bryan Burrough
Penguin Press

Review by Christopher Silvester

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IN THE EARLY 1940s, when Gulf Oil’s Jay Adams tried to buy out Sid Richardson’s leases on the Ellenberger Lime oil field for $8 million, the independent oilman declined the offer. ‘Sid, that’s more money than you’ll ever know what to do with,’ said Adams.

‘No, I want to be big rich!’

‘You wouldn’t know what to do with any more money,’ Adams persisted.

‘Oh yes, I’d just be like the rest of these rich bastards and have me some foundations.’

The first two rich lists published by Forbes in 1957 chose Sid Richardson, whose fortune was later bequeathed to his nephews, the Bass brothers of Fort Worth, as the wealthiest American, with a fortune of $700 million. If his oil reserves were counted he was richer than J. Paul Getty.

In the 1950s Texas oil millionaires became the archetypal wealthy Americans, just as Greek shipping tycoons became the archetypal wealthy Europeans. In 1970s London it would be Arab oil sheikhs who came to dominate popular perceptions of the super-rich; in the 1990s it was Russian oligarchs. Presumably one day they shall go the way of the Texas oil millionaires.

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The title Bryan Burrough has chosen for this whirlwind saga of four families — the Hunts, the Basses, the Murchisons and the Cullens — is reminiscent of The Big Spenders, the title Lucius Beebe gave to his study of the robber barons of America’s Gilded Age. Like Beebe’s book, Burrough’s is a riot of colourful characters who personified an era and whose headlong decline is as entertaining as their rapid elevation.

Burrough, you may remember, wrote Barbarians at the Gate: the Fall of RJR Nabisco, which was the pioneering — and remains the quintessential — takeover book. Though born elsewhere, Burrough grew up in Texas and therefore has a special affinity with his subject here.

The first Texas oil boom that followed discovery of the Spindletop field near the Gulf coast in 1901 gave birth to the US oil industry, but it also resulted in the pioneers selling out to eastern interests. It was the second generation of Texas oilmen that transformed the identity of Texas itself. These independents, known as ‘wildcatters’, were ‘businessmen who made their money in other realms — cotton or cattle or dry goods — and looked upon oil as a sidelight.’

But it was not until the period of 1930 to 1935, with major discoveries in East Texas, that the great Texas oil fortunes were created. ‘The magnitude of wealth initiated in those sixty months would not become apparent for years and remains underappreciated today… [It] ranks among the greatest periods of wealth generation in American history, in size perhaps the largest creation of individual wealth between the Gilded Age and the Internet boom of the 1990s’.
BURROUGH EXPLAINS HOW H. L. Hunt, a former professional gambler, persuaded a landowner to sell him a crucial lease while receiving secret drilling reports that he chose not to share with the vendor, thus snatching ‘East Texas from beneath the noses of the slumbering majors’ without using ‘a cent of his own money’; how Clint Murchison built his drilling, pipeline and gas-supply empire based on other people’s money, being the first to tap credit from Dallas banks and later New York banks, and how he persistently smuggled ‘hot oil’ in defiance of federal quotas designed to control the oil price; and how Sid Richardson performed stud services for two female telephone operators who told him about long-distance conversations between agents of the major oil companies exploring in West Texas and their head offices.

World War II was partly won by American oil, which meant Texas oil. ‘Between 1941 and 1945 the Axis powers produced an estimated 276 million barrels; in the same time span, Texas produced more than 500 million, 100 million from Hunt’s East Texas fields alone.’ When urban America switched to natural gas in the post-war period, it represented ‘found money’ for Texas oilmen.

For the oldest of the Big Four, Roy Cullen, the late 1940s was a time for philanthropy. He endowed local hospitals and the University of Houston to the tune of $160 million ($1.7 billion in today’s money), eventually giving away 93 per cent of his fortune. The others of the Big Four were not so swift to dig into their pockets.

1948 was the year when the national media discovered the secret fortunes of the Texas oil millionaires. The man who crystallised this interest was the moustachioed wildcatter Glenn McCarthy, who, as Burrough points out, might have joined the ranks of the Big Four if only he had ‘stuck to oil’. Instead, he became obsessed with building a world-class hotel in Houston called the Shamrock, a vainglorious project that dissipated his $50 million in the space of a few years.

By 1954 McCarthy’s empire had been broken up and sold off to appease his creditors while he had returned to oil prospecting in the Bolivian jungle. With Glenn McCarthy had been born the iconic figure of the Texas playboy, but the person who defined the absurd self-regarding extravagance of the Big Rich was ‘Silver Dollar’ Jim West, who inherited a $70-million fortune from his father (Roy Cullen’s early partner).
AN OBESE, COWBOY-ATTIRED, pistol-toting prankster, he once broke a strike at a Houston parking garage he owned by scattering silver dollars from a second-story window. He carried these coins everywhere, jingling when he walked, and handing out plastic ‘cartwheels’ of dollars as tips. ‘He kept the coins in massive racks in his basement,’ says Burrough. ‘It was a Negro servant’s daily duty to dust them.’

Burrough identifies 1955 as the turning point beyond which the Big Rich were on the defensive, not only from competing outside interests, whether in Washington or the Middle East, but also from within their own deeply dysfunctional families. H. L. Hunt had actually spawned — the spreading of his seed formed part of his self-maximising philosophy — no fewer than three families, the first two semi-bigamously.

An arch-sinner in terms of conventional morality, he became belatedly religious and increasingly eccentric, obsessed with health foods and his new, preferred exercise activity of creeping. ‘I’m a crank about creeping!’ he would tell visitors to his office as he circled his desk on all fours.

Sid Richardson Bass, Perry Bass’s oldest son, pulled off one of the greatest coups of all in 1984 when he used his oil fortune to buy control of the Walt Disney Company — by the early 1990s the Basses’ $500-million stake was worth $2.8 billion, and all in all, Sid Bass and his business partner Richard Rainwater had increased the Bass family fortune from $50 million to $5.5 billion. His was the happiest ending of the Big Four families.

Burrough’s enthralling book has something for everyone. The student of entrepreneurship will enjoy the earlier chapters, the analyst of political manipulation will enjoy the middle chapters, and the connoisseur of family in-fighting will savour the later chapters.

There is tragedy — H. L. Hunt’s misgivings about permitting the lobotomisation of his eldest son Hassie, for example — and tragi-comedy — as with the Dickensian saga of litigation involving the Baron Ricky di Portanova, the elder son of Roy Cullen’s ‘lost’ daughter Lillian, who survived a murder attempt by interested parties in the 1970s but died in 2000 before the largest probate case ever brought in the US could be resolved.

The exploits of the Big Rich may have brought ‘true national power to the state of Texas’, but just as importantly they added to the gaiety of nations.

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