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Colorful Characters, Black Gold In 'The Big Rich'

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent to <em>Vanity Fair.</em>
Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent to Vanity Fair.

Rare is the patriarch who can count among his brood a lobotomy patient, the creator of the Super Bowl and the world's most notorious silver tycoon. But as journalist and author Bryan Burrough colorfully illustrates in The Big Rich, Haroldson Lafayette "H.L." Hunt wasn't a conventional man, at least by the stuffy standards of the 49 states not named Texas. Along with Sid Richardson, Roy Cullen and Clint Murchison, Hunt was one of the Big Four — men who rose from relatively humble beginnings to become patriarchs of Texas' wealthiest and most powerful families. The Big Rich tells their stories.

The Big Rich is a wonderful read, all the more so as the decades and pages roll by and the opportunities to ponder "What's with these guys?" pile up. These gentlemen seem sensible enough at the outset of the Texas oil boom in 1901. Richardson, for example, was a traditional "wildcatter" (oil prospector) and Murchison was a savvy natural gas entrepreneur. But it doesn't take long for things to turn, well, weird.

Hunt, a closet bigamist, takes on a second and then a third secret family. Cullen develops political views described at the time as "slightly left of Hitler." Though the sundry exploits of the four men (and eventually their families) unfold like a picaresque novel, Burrough — author of the excoriating tobacco-industry expose Barbarians at the Gate — also does an excellent job with the more serious themes.

His exegesis of Texas Oil's ultraconservatism and the after-effects, in the 21st century, of those politics is astute and well researched. And his award-winning financial journalism shines when he explains, among other things, the cyclical economics of a boom-and-bust commodity. Notably, it was the intricacies of supply and demand, of leveraged debt and collateral, that did more to bust Dallas and Houston's overnight "oilionaires" than mere Texas-sized hubris.

One need only look at the various petro-dictatorships around the globe to know how The Big Rich ends. Clint Murchison Jr., the original owner of the Dallas Cowboys, had his boots firmly planted in Texas soil, but his addictions to sex, cocaine and gambling are the same ones that have destroyed oil-fortune heirs from Iraq to Eastern Siberia. Only one of the Big Four families emerges from The Big Rich still rich.

Ultimately, Burrough's book can't answer whether Big Oil made Texas or whether Texas made Big Oil. But to hear George Bush's Texas twang is enough to remind us of how the Big Rich changed a nation.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.