Monday, February 02, 2009

Bryan Burrough's 'The Big Rich': gossipy, engrossing

'Barbarians at the Gate' author's latest book examines the rise and fall of the great Texas oil men

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Who do Texans have to thank for the Super Bowl, the rise of political conservatism, and our reputation as rootin'-tootin', Cadillac drivin', larger-than-life caricatures?

Easy answer: H. L. Hunt, Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, aka "The Big Four." These men are "quickly passing from headlines into history," laments Temple native Bryan Burrough, author of "The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes." "But they did more to cement the public perception of Texas and Texans than anything in our history."

Burrough knows a good story when he hears one: A special correspondent for Vanity Fair, he began his career with The Wall Street Journal in Houston and Dallas, and has authored or co-authored five books, including the blockbuster "Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco," which is now in its 22nd edition. Reached by phone at his home in New Jersey, it's immediately clear Burrough hasn't gone native. He speaks with a distinct Texas drawl and immediately pours on the charm. "As soon as my last child is off to college, I'm moving to Austin," he says, "It's the best city in America." He also points out that his wife is a former Statesman editor.

Despite Burrough's Texas roots, he didn't come up with the idea for "The Big Rich." In 2004, he'd just published "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34," (which, incidentally, will be released this summer as a movie starring Johnny Depp), and his editor suggested his next book cover Texas oil.

"I knew immediately how to do it. It had to be about the four families," says Burrough. "These men were the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gateses of their day. But at the same time, they were the original Beverly Hillbillies."

He continues, "Not one of these men graduated from college. They were the first shirtsleeve millionaires."

Though Burrough found no proof that "The Beverly Hillbillies" was based on any of the Texas oilmen, there was one show that was - "Dallas," which was loosely inspired by the querulous clan of H.L. Hunt.

Hunt, who hailed from Missouri, transformed himself from "a gentleman planter into a professional gambler and then, finally, at the age of thirty-five, into a successful oilman," writes Burrough. The year was 1924, when Hunt controlled about $7 million worth of oil. By the early 1950s he was a billionaire and considered, with the possible exception of Sid Richardson, the richest man in America.

In Burrough's depiction, Hunt is far more complicated than you might expect: A "strange man, a loner who lived deep inside his own peculiar mind, a self-educated thinker who was convinced - absolutely convinced - that he was possessed of talents that bordered on the superhuman." He was also a covert bigamist, with three families, who became an influential backer of political conservatives and such a vocal critic of John F. Kennedy that he was suspected of orchestrating the president's assassination. (One of his sons, Lamar, dreamed up the Super Bowl. After seeing his daughter playing with a Super Ball, he thought it would be a good name for the first championship game in 1967 between the recently merged NFL and upstart AFL, which he helped to establish.)

Hunt was not alone in willingness to leverage wealth for political clout. Burrough recalls how, in the 1950s, Clint Murchison used his "personal retreat" - the Hotel Del Charro in La Jolla, Calif. - to curry favor with Joe McCarthy, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, who liked it so much, he returned every summer from 1952 until his death in 1972.

"The oilmen's legacy is the type of Texas conservative that has been so successful in Washington in recent years," Burrough says. "George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey ? I don't know how many of them would have existed today were it not for the money and influence of the oilmen back in the '40s and '50s."

Of course, with Barack Obama now in the Oval Office, things are starting to look different.

"Sure, you still have people like T. Boone Pickens who can get himself heard, " says Burrough, "but that only means he has the money to buy ads, not real influence."

Diminishing influence

Aside from politics, the other significant legacy of the oilmen is one of conspicuous consumption, something best embodied by the story of the Shamrock Hotel, Burrough's personal favorite tale in a book full of decadent tales.

"I was shocked there wasn't more written about it already," said Burrough. "It really deserves its own book."

The Shamrock Hotel was the dream of oilman Glenn McCarthy, a mustachioed, bourbon-swilling, fist-fighting Houstonian who got his start running gas stations, struck oil, and palled around with Howard Hughes and John Wayne. He served as the model for Jett Rink, the oilman in Edna Ferber's 1952 novel "Giant," later played by James Dean in the 1956 movie of the same name.

In the late 1940s, McCarthy embarked on his dream project, a hotel so lavish he hoped it would turn Houston into an A-list destination, and as a consequence make him "The King of Texas."

The Shamrock Hotel (the name was chosen through a newspaper contest) had 1,100 rooms, a 10,919-square-foot dining room, parking for 5,000 cars, the world's largest pool and a neon sign that could be seen from miles away. It cost $18 million, and the opening party, held on St. Patrick's Day, 1949, cost another $1.5 million. That event, recounted in detail by Burrough, was a star-studded affair; McCarthy chartered a train to bring in movie stars - Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner and Edgar Bergen among them - from California. It was probably worthy of its place on the pantheon of great parties next to Truman Capote's "Black and White Ball."

Of course, like the power and influence of Texas oil itself, the party didn't last. Overextended, within five years McCarthy lost the Shamrock to his investors. Later converted into a Hilton, it remained open, much diminished, until June 1, 1987, when the first wrecking balls smashed into its fa├žade.

"If I had to pick a date," says Burrough, "that would be when the era of the Big Rich came to its end"

Tellingly, what replaced the Shamrock was a parking lot for the burgeoning Houston Medical Center, which has become almost as synonymous with the city as oil. Of course, much of the Center's funding came from another of the Big Four, Roy Cullen.

Though the influence of Texas "oilionaires" might not be what it used to be, it's still an integral part of our economy and history, one Burrough believes is central to any Texan's identity.

"Sure, as a political and cultural animal, Texas never quite fulfilled its potential," says Burrough. "But people forget that when these people burst onto the national stage in 1950, Americans thought of millionaires as Vanderbilts and Astors, guys in distant mansions. Here, for the first time, were a bunch of ordinary Joes who came into an astonishing amount of money. We're so used to it now, with the Internet millionaires, but then it was a new thing. In fact, there were so many Texas millionaires and billionaires it began the whole process of those wealthiest Americans lists.

Adds Burrough, "Anyone who calls themselves a Texan has an obligation to know and remember them."

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