Before Oil became near synonymous with massive Middle Eastern reserves in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, the American state of Texas was the centre of the world's oil industry. At heart of the Texan oil drive were Wildcatters, or freelance oil producers, who often lived tough poverty stricken lives and never struck black gold in meaningful volumes. But many did, through instinct, ingenuity, perseverance or pure good luck. Among them nearly half a dozen became the world's richest men. This brilliant book by Bryan Burrough is their tale - of their family, wealth, resourcefulness, canniness, excesses, egos and idiosyncrasies.
While there are other characters, it principally charts lives of four great Texan oil families - "The Big Rich" - namely those of H.L Hunt, Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison and Roy Cullen. Burrough narrates an enjoyable story of an era when the United States churned out nearly two-thirds of the world's oil output.
He begins by going back in time to Anthony Francis Lucas and his team's discovery of the first successful oil well at Spindletop (Beaumont, Texas) in 1901 which literally created the American Oil Industry. Tracing their early activities, Burrough describes Wildcatters as "the woolly frontiersmen of oil" who discovered new pockets of Petroleum the majors would then develop into rich fields. The killer discovery came in 1930 when Columbus Marion (a.k.a. "Dad") Joiner's men, associates of H.L. Hunt, discovered the East Texas Oil Field (largest US oilfield outside of Alaska).
It was around that time the Big Rich slowly began shaping their destinies and shaped early mechanics of the oil business, tussled with oil majors, crafted their finances and legally outmanoeuvred both the suspecting and unsuspecting alike, the author writes.
These men, especially Cullen and Hunt, in subsequent years shaped the American radical right financing Senator Joseph McCarthy's political witch-hunts and sowed seeds for the recent Texanisation of the Republican Party in shape of Tom DeLay (former House majority leader) and President George W Bush. However, they also based their politics on prejudice and paranoia and failed to build any bridges or a rational movement leading historians to dimiss them as fools. If you thought clan patriachs' lives were interesting and complicated their children were not far behind.
Examples of excesses, scandals and historical etchings are hugely entertaining and Burrough's narrative comes into its element there. For example, H.L. Hunt's astonishing polygamy (resulting in his having 14 children from three different women all of whom were unaware of the other's presence until much later), Clint Murchinson Junior's promiscuity with Dallas Cowboys cheeleaders (a team he then owned), Lamar Hunt's coining of the acronym "Super Bowl" which has become one of the world's major sporting events in subsequent years, his attempt to buy Alcatraz and convert it into a shopping mall or his brother Bunker's stupendous attempt to corner the global silver market in 1979-80.
Anecdotes about bourbon fuelled parties with the great, good and bad of America in attendance, or pranks the Big Rich perpetrated are just as entertaining. One oilman got a 40-foot yacht dumped in another's swimming pool while he was away, another smuggled a jaguar into the other's car! Quotes are memorable too, Murchison (senior) perhaps offered the most memorable one: "If you're gonna owe money, owe more than you can pay, then the people can't afford to foreclose (page 49)."
The book ends on a poignant note describing how descendants of the Big Rich squandered wealth and are only run-of-the mill affluent people today. Some do not even have that luxury. Few of the early pioneers also died alone and penniless, most notably Dad Joiner, whose photograph adorns the history pages of the modern Hunt Oil Company website. Only Roy Cullen redeemed himself with a lasting legacy courtesy his philanthropy which left its mark, not just on Dallas and Houston but on Texas' universities, museums and hospitals.
Overall it is a gripping account though a tad confusing at times as it trawls fortunes of a number of wildcatters in a single narrative. I am happy to recommend it to those particluarly interested in the history of Texas, oil and early links of the industry with US politics. General interest readers are likely to enjoy it just as much. Burrough spent three years researching lives of the Big Rich and the end product does not disappoint.