Is the Era of the Texas Super Rich Over?

Bryan Burrough, coauthor of the classic Wall Street narrative "Barbarians at the Gate," is an astute chronicler of American wealth. His most recent book, "The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes," chronicles the stories of the four richest oil families to come out of Texas—and the rollicking culture that rose and fell along with them. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Gross sat down with Burrough to discuss the rollercoaster tale of Texas oil. Excerpts: (A podcast of their conversation can be heard here.)

NEWSWEEK: Your book chronicles the fortunes of four Texas oilmen. Who were they?
Bryan Burrough: These were the four men who created the image of modern Texas. The one most people might remember is H. L. Hunt, long the richest man in the country, and, as some people may remember, a practicing bigamist. His neighbor in Dallas, Clinton Murchison, is now probably best known because his sons were the founding owners of the Dallas Cowboys—until they lost a lot of money, and the Cowboys, in the 1980s. Sid Richardson is probably best known because of the fortune of his great-nephews, the Bass Brothers, of Ft. Worth. The fourth is Hugh Roy Cullen, of Houston, who died in 1957.

The book has several wonderful passages that describe oilmen hitting gushers. Which is your favorite?
The greatest story is about the first great Texas gusher, Spindletop. People forget that when Rockefeller was finding oil in the 1800s, it just seeped out of rocks in Pennsylvania, and oil was mostly used for kerosene. It wasn't until this trio of fellas down in Beaumont got it into their mind that there might be oil in a little hump outside of town, that they drilled a well. Imagine the classic Hollywood gusher that goes up hundreds of feet and is like black rain, and people yelling, "It's oil! It's oil!" That was Spindletop. It not only created Texas oil, it created the modern oil industry. It made oil so cheap that the world's navies were able to switch from coal to oil.

Those types of gushers didn't happen in Pennsylvania?
Oh, goodness, no! That first gusher at Spindletop produced more than every well in America had up to that moment. And that was just the first gusher of literally hundreds that Texans managed to find over the next 40 or 50 years.

I think the most fascinating character has to be H. L. Hunt. Tell us about his multiple families.
H.L. started his first in the late 1910s and had about six kids. And I guess he got a little bored and around 1925, went down to Florida for a "vacation" and came back with a wife that he set up not far from his own family in Dallas. Between the two families, he ended up with about 10 kids. The second wife ultimately found out the truth and was basically bought off in 1940. He took up with a secretary at Hunt Oil in 1943, which led to another four children. So Mr. Hunt was, uh, a very productive man.

What defined, in terms of monetary value, the Big Rich? And what sort of things did you do once you became the Big Rich?
By and large, once you got over about $500 million in the 1940s, you were in the running to be one of the wealthiest men in the country. These men were the first to dig swimming pools in Texas. During the 1930s, they began to fly by private plane. Murchison bought himself a private island off the coast of Texas called Matagorda Island. And his buddy, Sid Richardson—they actually grew up together—started grumping. "Well, doggonnit, I want an island of my own." So he bought the neighboring island, St. Joseph's, which remains in the Bass family to this day.

From the 1880s on, if you had a good industrial idea, you went to Wall Street to monetize it. It seems like these guys were able to amass vast fortunes without the intermediation of Wall Street.
Yeah, but you're on to something. H. L. Hunt was able to buy into the heart of the East Texas field, the largest oil field ever found in the lower 48. But he couldn't grow. Banks in those days—forget Wall Street, just a regular commercial bank—would not lend on anything they couldn't physically see. Proving oil reserves in the ground was just a guess. It wasn't until Murchison began working with First National Bank of Dallas, and then Republic Bank of Dallas during the 1930s, that Texas banks—and then national banks—began lending on oil.

What were the politics of the Big Rich?
They were serious and stringent early proponents of conservative politics. Often, when business people emerge onto the national stage, like a Buffet or a Gates, it happens gradually. With these four gentlemen, it happened in the blink of an eye. In April 1948, Life Magazine ran a story on H. L. Hunt, who nobody in America had ever heard of, with the headline "Richest Man in the World," and everybody thought it was an April Fool's joke. Suddenly, the Texas oilmen began putting massive amounts of money into politics. By and large it was right wing, and by and large it was pretty damn far-right-wing politics. Hugh R. Cullen was actually the largest single donor to American political campaigns in 1952 and 1954.

The second half of the century was generally less kind to the Big Rich. Who suffered the most precipitous fall?
The Cullens gave most of their money away. The Hunts had the most spectacular fall. Some may remember Bunker and Herbert Hunt's wonderfully harebrained scheme to corner the international silver market in 1979 and 1980. The behavior of H. L. Hunt's sons answers the oft-answered question: What's the quickest way to make $500 million? Start off with $6 billion.

A lot of people still on the scene make cameo appearances here, including George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and T. Boone Pickens. Is the era of the Big Rich still with us?
Boone is the last of the great political oilmen. People were listening to his ideas about wind power for about five minutes last year when oil soared. I kind of make the argument, without too hard an edge on it, that the era of the Big Rich is over. The end of the Bush administration really marks the end of Texas political power.

Do you think there are ways in which understanding the culture of the Big Rich can help shed light on our most recent president?
Oh, goodness, yes. These four men never met George W. Bush, but I guarantee you they would have loved him.

You were raised in Texas. How different is the state's culture and economic geography today from the era of the Big Rich?
The economic culture is kind of Texas-flavored high tech. People don't realize that there are more Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas than anyplace else. The level of education is so much higher than it was 50 years ago. I go home and it's almost a little bit sad. It's like a Texas-flavored Ohio. We've still got cowboys and ranches. But if you spend your time in Houston and Dallas and Austin, you can almost forget there for a few minutes that you're actually in Texas.

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