Hugh Roy Cullen was a fifth-grade dropout who used his millions to joust with politicians from Wendell Willkie to Dwight Eisenhower. (Dmitri Kessel/time & Life Pictures/getty Image)
Review of THE BIG RICH
By Bryan Burrough
Penguin Press. 466 pp. $29.95
By Jonathan Yardley
February 1, 2009; Page BW15
"The mass media's discovery of ultrawealthy Texas oilmen in 1948, and the resulting caricature of flamboyant, jet-setting billionaires popularized in Giant, introduced the country to a new regional archetype -- funny, silly, harmless Texans who rode ostriches, wooed Hollywood stars, and scattered silver dollars on the sidewalks of Houston and Dallas like so much pocket lint. It was as if American had acquired an exotic new animal for the national zoo, Texas oilicus."
The stereotype persisted for years, indeed is widely believed in to this day, though it has expanded to include
Like most stereotypes, this one contains elements of truth as well as exaggeration and condescension. It is one of Burrough's aims in The Big Rich to separate truth from stereotype, a task he performs meticulously and occasionally amusingly. A native Texan, former Wall Street Journal reporter and co-author (with John Helyar) of Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, he is slightly defensive about his home state but sufficiently clear-eyed to recognize wretched excess when he sees it. His chronicle begins in the 1920s, when people started drilling for oil in Texas in a serious way; follows the development of the great oil fortunes through the ensuing four decades; then chronicles their decline "as their industry withered" and the Middle East became the greatest of all the world's gushers. It's a cautionary tale about the evanescence of wealth and glory, but it's also first-class entertainment.
Burrough's focus is on four men who by the early 1930s had presided over one of
To say that all four men are now almost completely forgotten outside Texas would be an exaggeration, but not by much. Cullen,
As Burrough says, "In the first years after World War II," these four "had emerged as a handful of the richest men in America -- and no one knew it. It wasn't just that few people understood how wealthy they were. Beyond the insular world of Texas oil, almost no one knew they existed." By 1948 "the Big Four had garnered precisely three references in the nation's newspaper of record, the New York Times." Then in that same year, Life and Fortune magazines published articles about the Big Rich that "triggered a seismic shift in the way America viewed Texas, especially its oilmen." The Big Four weren't especially eager to cooperate with the press, but in a fifth oilman, "many writers found exactly the kind of Texan they were looking for." Burrough continues:
"The stereotype of the raw, hard-living, bourbon-swilling, fistfighting, cash-tossing, damn-the-torpedoes Texas oil millionaire did not exist before Glenn McCarthy rocketed into the national imagination in the late 1940s. Yet McCarthy was all that and more. Little remembered today, it was McCarthy, and his quixotic dreams, who, more than H.L. Hunt or Roy Cullen or his wealthier peers, introduced Americans to the changes oil had brought to Texas. The distilled essence of swaggering Texas id, McCarthy rubbed elbows with Howard Hughes and Hollywood stars, drank and brawled his way from Buffalo Bayou to Sunset Boulevard, and, at the peak of his fame, adorned the cover of Time. No Texas oilman ever rose so high or fell so hard."
McCarthy, who was the model for Dean's Jett Rink character in "Giant," was, in the words of another oilman, "possibly the best practical oilman the country had produced, an improviser who could drill with junk [and who possessed] a knack for finding oil he couldn't explain because it came installed in his system like an antenna." He amassed a huge fortune in the 1940s, blew it, amassed another, blew that too. He built a great hotel in Houston and staged a garish opening party that was the model for the movie's climax, then gradually faded into obscurity, reappearing from time to time to refurbish his image as "the Lone Star playboy, the swinging oilman who romances starlets between trips on his airplane to see his next gusher." Eventually, though, he stayed away from the spotlight, and at his death in 1988 few remembered him.
A considerably more lasting presence in American life has been big oil's
That's fine as far as it goes, but another explanation lies in the frontier mentality that has always characterized Texas and much of the West as well, the passionate belief in individualism combined with deep suspicion of government and any other large outside agency. In league with the "Southern strategy" that Richard Nixon employed to exploit racial fears in the Old South, Texas radicalism completely transformed the Republican Party, replacing Robert Taft and Everett Dirksen with Strom Thurmond and Tom DeLay. Whether this radicalized "base" will be able to continue its dominance of the GOP after the 2008 election remains unclear, but its influence on the country has been disproportionate to its actual size.
The Texas oilmen who helped spawn it are long since gone, and their fortunes have been diminished for many reasons. Burrough is right to insist that they weren't quite the caricatures that Easterners found amusing or frightening, but his forthright, unsentimental book leaves little doubt that the caricatures had their roots in reality. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.