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Book Review 267: The Big Rich

February 17, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THE BIG RICH: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, by Bryan Burroughs. 466 pages, illustrated. Penguin, $29.95

The men profiled by Bryan Burroughs in “The Big Rich” were four of the least interesting businessmen America produced.

They did not innovate in business organization, like Rockefeller; or in operations, like the first Howard Hughes; or in research, like Thomas Watson. All they did was find oil or, just as often, manage to acquire rights to oil somebody else had found.

The only thing that distinguished them from a smelly, ignorant prospector tugging his mule through the High Sierras was lots and lots of money. And they may have been even more ignorant, with the partial exception of Clint Murchison, who had some interests beyond oil, cattle and cards.

Burroughs tells their story with zest, although his claim to be a Texan is suspect. He calls a steer a heifer. And there are some other howlers. He has Joe McCarthy, a senator, chairing the House Un-American Activities Committee; and moves Estes Kefauver from Tennessee to Kansas.

We would not be interested in H.L. Hunt, Murchison, Sid Richardson or Hugh Cullen if they hadn't used their money to try to influence politics. Here Burroughs fails his reader, by not putting these Texas yahoos in context.

In “The Big Rich” their ignorant ideas appear to rise from the prairie, fully-formed like a reverse of Athena rising from the head of Zeus; but, of course, they were boys of their time. Their ideas, if they can be said to have had any, came out of the same backwater that produced senator and governor Pappy Daniels and the governors Ferguson.

When, late in life, all four, but especially Hunt, decided to try to influence American political thought, they brought knives to a gunfight. Burroughs says, “America in 1950 had not a single leading politician who could be termed conservative by today's standards.” He overstates, as Senator William Jenner was as conservative as anyone and influential, even if forgotten now.

But it's true that all four did their best to add sludge to public life. That they were largely ineffective was due more to their lack of skills in publicity than to a lack of bad intentions.

It's true that American political discourse is more self-consciously rightwing than it used to be, but the intellectual origins of that change were in the East, not Texas.

Much the most interesting part of the book is the collapse of the second generation of the Big Rich. America has been friendly to money dynasties, starting with the du Ponts. Some families continue to be potent social, political, cultural and, occasionally, even business forces into the fourth, fifth, even sixth generations.

Richadson had no offspring, but the families of Hunt and Murchison attempted to get even richer and failed, while the Davis fortune and influence was dissipated, in part by philanthropy.

In sum, “The Big Rich” is gossipy and fun and not too reliable. What I got most out of it was the resurrection of the career of Glenn McCarthy, who almost made the Big Rich but flamed out.

He was, in many ways, more interesting that any of the four who made it, but he did not have the dinero and American popular culture has thrown him down the memory hole.


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