THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Total Pageviews

Monday, June 30, 2014

THE BIG RICH: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough






I’ve been on a Texas binge lately.  I’ve always found the state, its history, and its people to be intriguing.  And the politicians?  Is there a state that can compare with Texas when one begins to list the people who have served as governors of that state?  Well, maybe next-door neighbor Louisiana comes close.


I read one time (and I would give credit to the source, but I don’t remember who wrote it) that, paraphrasing now, Louisiana governors had three primary responsibilities.  Listed in the order of their importance they are: 1). to entertain; 2). to govern; and 3). to stay out of jail.  (Piyush “Bobby” Jindal seems to have missed the memo.  He only seems interested in number 2.)  But, I digress.


Texas governors include the likes of Sam Houston and “Pa” Ferguson and “Ma” Ferguson and “Pappy” O’Daniel and John Connally, and Ann Richards, and George W. Bush and Rick Perry.  Top that, Louisiana.


And of course, there is the giant that overshadows them all: Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Never a governor, nevertheless he is one of only four people to serve in all four elected federal offices: Representative, Senator, Vice-President and President.  LBJ’s impact on American politics has been so great that it has taken Robert Caro five volumes to write his biography. 


And that’s where I began my recent Texas marathon, by re-reading Caro’s first two volumes (if I live long enough I plan to read the other three) as well as Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, written by young Doris Kearns, before Goodwin was added to her name.


Next came the Texas novels written by Billy Lee Brammer and Edwin “Bud” Shrake, especially Shrake, and a great study of those two writers and four of their fellow Texans in Steven L. Davis’s Texas Literary Outlaws. 


And I recently finished The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes.


Shrake’s Strange Peaches is a novel set in Dallas just before and just after the assassination of JFK.  When I read his descriptions of almost continuous parties, elaborate pranks and other excesses all fueled by booze, pot, and hard drugs, I thought that Shrake was probably guilty of employing his novelist’s license to embellish in order to punch up the story.  Wrong, again.  After reading Texas Literary Outlaws and The Big Rich I now know that practically everything he described actually occurred.
  


Bud Shrake
 I just read Shrake’s But Not For Love: A Novel About Men, Women and Money.  Well after all, it is about Texas.  I am currently reading Phillipp Meyer's multi-generational Texas epic, The Son.  Furthermore, Minutaglio and Smith's autobiography of Molly Ivins is in the hopper. 


The Big Rich is a recounting of the life and times of four Texas oil wildcatters -- Hugh Roy Cullen, Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison and H.L. Hunt.  Burrough writes, “If Texas Oil had a Mount Rushmore, their faces would adorn it.  A good ol’ boy.  A scold. A genius. A bigamist. Known in their heyday as the Big Four, they became the founders of the greatest Texas family fortunes, headstrong adventurers who rose from nowhere to take turns being acclaimed America’s wealthiest man.”


Hugh Roy Cullen, later a Houston wildcatter, grew up poor in San Antonio, and dropped out of school in the fifth grade.  After becoming a wealthy man, he would become an early champion of and contributor to ultraconservative causes.

H.R. Cullen
He was “stern, humorless, and a bit of a scold…a man who detested communists, pinkos,” and especially Roosevelt “and whose favored politician was the red-busting Joe McCarthy.”


Sid Richardson and Clint Murchison were lifelong friends from Athens, sixty miles southeast of Dallas. According to Burrough, “[d]espite their common backgrounds, they were a mismatched pair.  Murchison was energetic, impatient, independent, and like many country boys before him, intellectually insecure….Murchison was shy and would remain so all his life.  If he didn’t absolutely have to talk to someone, he avoided it.


In sharp contrast, Richardson presented himself as the essence of the Texas good ol’ boy, joshing, laughing, and cursing in a thick backwoods accent.”




Clint Murchison

Sid Richardson

As outrageous as the conduct of these three, and their progeny, could be at times, neither they, nor their progeny, could hold a candle to H.L. Hunt or his progeny.


Burrough writes, “At a time when itinerant wildcatters like Sid Richardson couldn’t find time for a wife let alone a family, Hunt would build three, two in secret.  If they made a movie of his life, no one would believe it was true.”


The only non-native in the group, Hunt was born in southern Illinois, about seventy miles south of St. Louis.  “He was 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 may have been right; in the annals of American commerce there has never been anyone quite like Haroldson Lafayette Hunt.”

 


H.L. Hunt


 The subtitle of the book, The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, is appropriate.  The “Rise” was accomplished by the Big Four; the “Fall” was engineered by the progeny, particularly that of Murchison and, especially, Hunt. The fall is a story of family feuds, lawsuits, scandals and bankruptcies – and it isn’t pretty.


I do recommend the book even though it is marred by inexcusable typos and misspellings (“Edmund” Murrow being only one example) and unexplainable factual errors.  The typos and misspellings could have and should have been corrected by a proofreader and Burrough and his editor certainly should have avoided the obvious factual errors.


How could he have possibly written the following: “… the champion steer, an eight-hundred pound heifer…?”  Huh?  Shouldn’t Burrough have known that a steer is a castrated male and a heifer is a young female?  How could a Texan be so confused about bovine gender? And shouldn’t he, a Texan, have known that The Longhorns, written by J. Frank Dobie, the prominent University of Texas professor and folklorist, was not a novel, but a work of nonfiction?


But here is the most egregious error of all:


McCarthy’s subsequent ascension to Martin Dies’s old chairmanship of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and HUAC’s ensuing crusade against communist ‘infiltrators,’ transformed the senator into a polarizing figure across the country.”


Holy separation of powers!  A senator chaired a committee in the House of Representatives?


I still recommend the book even though it is impossible to overlook the errors.  They might have been understandable if the book had been published by some vanity press, but it wasn’t. We should be able to expect better from The Penguin Press.


Bryan Burrough earlier co-wrote a big best-seller titled Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco and was the sole author of Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934.  The description on the Big Rich book jacket erroneously (imagine that) describes him as a native Texan.  His family moved to Texas when he was seven-years old, but he was born in Tennessee.  In his introduction, he mentions that some of his young classmates referred to him as a carpetbagger.

 


Bryan Burrough





No comments:

Post a Comment