The Big Rich, a vivid tale of the great 20th-century oilmen, offers timeless lessons on the value of confidence, grit, and guile
The Big Rich:
The Rise and Fall of the
Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes
By Bryan Burrough
The Penguin Press; 466 pp.; $29.95
In The Big Rich, Bryan Burrough has produced an elegantly interwoven chronicle of the lives of mid-20th-century independent oil barons and their families. These outsize characters—the inspiration for such movies as Giant (1956), featuring James Dean—helped shift political power and wealth away from the East Coast establishment and deeply affected the American psyche. Yet they are largely forgotten.
Burrough is out to change that. A Texas native and co-author of Barbarians at the Gate, the classic saga of the late-1980s RJR Nabisco takeover, Burrough mines his own reporting, old newspaper clips, court records, and earlier books to conjure up the experiences and careers of Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison, Sid Richardson, and H.L. Hunt, known in their day as the Big Four.
Burrough's book offers a number of lessons, including the importance of perseverance and stubborn self-confidence to entrepreneurial success. All of these men except Murchison, the son of a small-town banker, came from modest backgrounds. They were willing to sleep outside by their oil rigs and to risk everything to drill the next well.
They triumphed in part because, in the early days of the 20th century, they just about invented an industry. With little formal literature on oil geology available to him, Cullen, a fifth-grade dropout, won renown as a "creekologist," tapping into dips and holes that simply looked promising. Cullen also figured out that there were richer pockets of oil below abandoned, shallow fields. Working all night with his drilling crews, he perfected techniques to penetrate the so-called heaving shale that ordinarily froze drill bits at about 3,500 feet below the surface. The reward: At one point, Burrough figures, Cullen was richest man in the U.S.
Guile rather than technical skill landed others on top. According to legend, Sid Richardson finally began making real money in the 1930s after seducing two telephone operators who let him listen in on calls placed by executives of Gulf Oil. Richardson, the story goes, bought up leases where Gulf was drilling and eventually created the Keystone Field, the basis of a fortune that made him pals with such top politicians as President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Hunt, who started his winning ways playing professional poker under the moniker Arizona Slim, was ruthless in business, too. In 1930 he bought a massive East Texas oil field from fellow wildcatter Dad Joiner for a song: just $30,000 up front, plus $1.3 million to come from later revenues. Hunt had quietly bought intelligence that the field was worth much more, but Burrough says he didn't share that information with Joiner.
Bad times can work in your favor. The Great Depression was essential to the independents' fortunes, argues the author, as cash-drained oil companies such as Humble and Gulf grew cautious. "Their wholesale retreat from exploration...allowed men like Hunt to amass fantastic oil reserves," Burrough writes.
What the author calls "among the greatest periods of wealth creation in American history" gave the Texans not only the means to build mansions and marry Hollywood actresses but also the power to influence U.S. politics. These self-made men instinctively hated big government programs and, says Burrough, variously bankrolled "everything from mainstream Republican think tanks to Senator Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting campaigns of the 1950s to extremist groups." More pragmatically, they also put their petrodollars behind fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, hoping he'd do their bidding in Washington.
For the most part, the Texas empires didn't last, although large chunks of wealth remain. Beginning in the 1950s, oceans of cheap oil from Saudi Arabia eroded the Texans' role. And reckless, squabbling offspring proved ruinous to most of the family fortunes.
With the fading of the Big Four, Texas has become "just another state," says Burrough, lacking the promise and glamour of the era of The Big Rich. Perhaps their most important legacy is the conservative movement they helped found. "No doubt their hearts would have warmed to see the White House run for eight years by a true conservative, and a Texas oilman at that," the author concludes. On the other hand, George W. Bush's Presidency may prove to have damaged their cause.