Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Big Read

As the snow falls yet again I'm ready to hunker down and spend the day finishing The Big Rich, Bryan Burrough's account of the rise and fall of Texas oilmen and Texas oil money. In less than a decade, various "independents" or wildcatters amassed incredible fortunes, and in less than a generation most of those men squandered those fortunes. Burrough focuses on four oilmen: Cullen, Murchison, Richardson, and Hunt. It's a fascinating story, and a fun read. In a time when if not fortunes then at least savings have been disappearing, it's a book that can provide solace. No matter how much you've lost in the past year, it wasn't billions, after all.

For a time, these men had enough money to do whatever in the world they wanted. Hunt became a bigamist, with three families. Richardson helped Eisenhower achieve the White House and came close to convincing him to dump Nixon in 1956. A related story is that of Glenn McCarthy, who in five years blew through over $50 million (mid-century dollars - probably a billion today), much of it spent on Houston's Shamrock Hotel, and attempt to make Texas the center of the universe.

Richardson and Murchison enjoyed going to the races at Del Mar in La Jolla, so Richardson built his own hotel nearby where they could stay for the season, having whatever food they liked flown in - BBQ from Tulsa, steak and duck and pheasant from Texas, whatever. These were the first businessmen to own private planes and private islands. These were the men who invented Texas ultraconservatism. For a while, Hunt owned his own mini-media empire, the Liberty radio network, a kind of proto-Fox News. His rabid support of McCarthy led to Liberty's demise, but for a few years he controlled a certain portion of the airwaves.

With the exception of Richardson, whose heirs (the Bass family) expanded the family fortune, the riches disappeared. The post-WW II opening of Saudi Arabian oil fields led to an influx of cheap imported oil, and the federal regulation of natural gas did away with profiteering. The fortunes were lost in part due to economic change, in part to the ineptitude later generations of Hunts, Cullens, Murchinsons. I don't want to give away the plot, but suffice it to say that the undoing is probably more interesting than the building of wealth.

So yeah, I'm quite tired of snow, but as long as I have a big book to read, I'll make do.


tunsie said...

the 3 billionaires that live within2 hours from here live very simple lives.they don't gamble,carouse,or do drugs.those r the big ticket vices.my friend goes 2 the supermarket every week himself,although his neighbors r ignorant of his financial status.he tells me if u r a miserable or unhappy person,all the money in the world will probably make u more unhappy in the long run.i was dating a women,and one nite she asked me how much i was worth,and i thought how much would it take 2 make her happy,and i came upon my friends advice that she would complain about more people and turn up more unhappy.cyril is in heaven watching out for me.i luv u my friend......time is the space between me and you[seal]......tunsie.tunsie.tunsie

J. SPIKE ROGAN said...

I need to read a good non fiction book right now.

I'm in the hunt for "Homicide: a year on the killing streets" David Simon's book the show was based on.

Next in line I'm thinking "1776".