Nov 19, 2020 in Politics

Texas Oil Fortunes

Book Report

Bryan Burroughs The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes


Many books have been written about oil in Texas and the millionaires made due to the oil drilling. Burroughs book, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of Texas Oil Fortunes, covers 466 pages and gives a picture of the most notorious millionaires from Texas, the power which the money made from the oil gave them, their eccentricities, and their eventual fall. Regardless of having a few drawbacks, the book is worth being published in this field as it makes a compelling reading due to its presentation of facts.

The author presents the story of modern Texas oil fields through the lives of several people, whom the oil fields brought fame and fortune, including Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison, H.L Hunt, and Sid Richardson. The oil businessmen have one thing in common since being relatively well-known few decades ago, they are now fading into the history as time passes (56). According to Burrough, these people were so famous that if the earth-forming processing would have bequeathed Texas a mountain akin to Rushmore, their faces would adorn it (19). In my opinion, their excesses laid in the book seem irrational to the average person. An example is Hunts three families, which he had to maneuver every day, and the fact that Cullen combined professional wrestlers performing their art to the sound of a symphony as he embarked on a war drive (147). The discarding of 100 dollar bills by the rich after wearing them as bow ties as well as the fabled riding of a pet lion to get mail will ignite many people against the extremes of the affluent (252). It is apparent that these escapades characterized the oil families at the peak of their money and power.

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However, the book not only dwells on the eccentricities of these oil business people but also start its story at Spindletop (5-11). Burrough chronicles the rise and fall of Glenn McCarthy, one of the most remarkable oil millionaires in the US, from his poor beginnings as a water boy working for 50 cents a day, to his hitting fortune from oil (10). The opening of McCarthys Shamrock Hotelwhere the biggest party in Houston took place also gets a mention. According Burrough, they all made their fortunes in a five-year window, between the years 1930 and 1935 (154). The book thus implies that the Great Depression had a role to play in their rise. During that period, many of the large oil firms faced financial difficulties, and the subsequent failure of the large firms opened a void in the oil exploration and market that the Texans filled.

Moreover, the author explored the power, both social and political that the Big Rich gained as a result of their enormous wealth. While in contemporary America there are complaints of money from Americas billionaire class taking a posture and significantly influencing politics, Borough shows that this is not a recent event. Cullen and Hunt supported far-right movements in their day rallying the supporters using their petrodollars to causes as diverse as anticommunism. They also rallied around the far-right groups against racial minorities such as Afro-Americans and Jews (Burrough 330). Meanwhile, Burrough indicates that Murchison tried to cozy up few of the leading men in the political class, from Roosevelt and Eisenhower to Johnson and even an attempt to unseat the then US Vice President, Nixon (339). I find their scale of their political influence and maneuvering significant.

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The oil from Texas would not last forever. The advent of the cheaper oil from the Middle East meant that the influence that the Texas Big Rich had was no longer sustainable. Burrough portrays the way some of them increasingly become desperate which pushes them to the margins of politics (357). For instance, Richardson ends up being a fervent McCarthyist and a friend of the person from whom McCarthyism takes its name. Similar to others, Richardson would never recover from this self-inflicted setback.

The story also covers the next generation. Clint Murchison Jnr, the son of the oil millionaire, was the owner of Dallas Cowboys noted for his debauchery with drugs and women. Hunt's son, Bunker, was involved in wiretapping fiascos. In my opinion, the author covering two generations in the book shows his scale of research. The book chronicles the life of the largest oil families in the US. The author has done a comprehensive review of the rise in wealth and power of those families. The way the author has managed to fit this history in a mere 466 pages makes the book worthwhile. In my opinion, being well-written, the narration flows into an organized story as it is well-researched and well-narrated.

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The books greatest strength is probably its undoing. The author has crammed this history in just 466 pages. I suppose it could have fit in 2 volumes or more. In addition, it seems have too fast pace for a book that covers such a wide array of issues from oil discovery, oil politics and individual biographies of the oil millionaires.

In conclusion, in spite of the few drawbacks, the writing is worth reading due to its presentation of facts. It covers the contemporary American history of oil and Texan petrodollars better than any other book. Burrough has shown profound research, intellectual and creative effort in coming up with the book. While reading the book, one will not only discover the story behind the Texas oil billionaires but also undoubtedly get an understanding of the connection between oil and politics in America that has perpetuated to the present day.


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