The Big Rich

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The Big Rich:
The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes
By Bryan Burroughs
556 pages; Penguin

The Gist:

Luck, salesmanship, and a good deal of hubris. This is how four Texans rose from humble origins to become some of the richest businessmen in American history. Along the way The Big Four also helped facilitate the growth of U.S. industrialism, not to mention modern American conservative politics. In his tome on the Big Four — Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison, Sid Richardson and H.L. Hunt — Burroughs, author of Barbarians at the Gate, offers a Hollywood-worthy story that's equal parts political investigative journalism and dramatic family history. Think oil wells gushing black crude hundreds of feet in the air, the pitfalls of billions in new money, and family scandals that include bigamy, ungrateful children, trust funds and professional sports teams.

Highlight Reel:

1. On "wildcatter" Ray Cullen's efforts to convince a man named Judge R. E. Brooks to invest in drilling for crude in 1920: "That the judge couldn't find oil in a barrel didn't matter to Cullen; all that mattered was that Brooks and a dozen other leading Houston citizens had committed money to this drill site. Cullen politely suggested Judge Brooks pick the spot to break ground, and he did. When Cullen realized they had nothing to mark it, he walked to a mound of what Texans tastefully call "cow chips," pick up a few dry chunk, and piled it on the ground — which is how the man who would become Houston's greatest wildcatter came to drill his first actual oil well beneath a pile of handpicked cow manure."

2. On what happened when Cullen decided to drill deeper into ground others had determined to be dry: "[B]y midnight, when Cullen lay down by the derrick to grab some sleep, they had penetrated the slushy, oil-bearing sand underneath...Four hours later Cullen heard Brown shout: "Wake up, Mr Cullen. I think she's coming in!" In the dim predawn light Cullen rose to see oil and gas spewing so violently from their hole that the four-inch flow line, which connected the well to a storage tank, had come loose and was wildly slashing the air. Cullen dashed to the storage tank, leaped atop it, and held the thrashing line until his crew could tie it down."

3. On how Texas oilmen flaunted their new wealth: "[O]ne oilman wore a hundred-dollar bill as a bow tie; when asked, he would take it off and throw it in the air, then tie another. Another took to riding a pet lion to meet the mailman; yet another tried in vain to keep penguins in a walk-in freezer. One wrote Pablo Picasso asking to buy ten paintings; he didn't specify color or type, just the size of his wall. A Houston oilman's wife wrote to the Smithsonian to ask whether the Hope Diamond was for sale. Then there were the two oilmen who loved playing practical jokes on each other; the high point of their duel came when one took a European vacation and his rival erected a full-size roller coaster in his front yard."

4. On Clint Murchison Jr., who invested his father's oil money in a myriad of ways, many ill-fated: "[C]lint sank millions into deals on handshakes, on napkins, at urinals, risking vast amounts on investments he seldom too time to study...A solid 8 or 10 percent bored him. By the mid-1970s, he simply couldn't be bothered with any investment that didn't promise tripling his return or more. Ttere was the ten million he threw away on an Oklahoma plant that was to convert cattle manure into national gas. Clint named it the Calorific Reclamation Anaerobic process, CRAP for short. It never worked."

The Lowdown:

These four families rose fast and fell hard. Meticulous research culled from courthouse records, archives and interviews with descendants of the Big Four make The Big Rich a page-turning tale with well developed characters that seems boxed up and ready for the silver screen. It's impossible to read this book and not think of the 2007 film There Will Be Blood, which put the ruthless business of land rights and oil drilling into sharp focus. Burrough's tome, though, is broader and explores not just the greed, wealth and risk of early twentieth century American oil prospecting, but also what it meant for the rest of the country beyond Texas. Lyndon Johnson, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush are just three of the politicians who found themselves entangled with Texas oil dynasties chronicled in The Big Rich.

The Verdict: Read