BIG FOUR Who Brought Us Texas Oil

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 8, 2009 | Go to article overview

BIG FOUR Who Brought Us Texas Oil


Byline: Joseph C. Goulden, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Ah, the fickleness of American public opinion. A bit more than half-century or so ago, the Texas oil man was the media/Hollywood embodiment of the uncouth, ignorant bore who no civilized person would have over for white wine. These illiterate bumpkins dripped with money, flaunted outsized cars and egos, and preached nutty political ideas.

But, by golly, as one of these rubes might have put it, they produced oil. Lots of it. Consider World War II, when U.S. oil imports consisted of the occasional tanker from Mexico. As Bryan Burroughs writes in his entertaining yet deeply flawed The Big Rich : Between 1941 and 1945, the Axis powers produced an estimated 276 million barrels; in the same time span, Texas produced more than 500 million, 100 from [H.L.] Hunts East Texas fields alone.

At war's end, two massive Texas-East Coast pipelines (24 and 20 inches in diameter) built to get around German subs lurking off the coast were converted to the transmission of natural gas, until then a worthless drilling byproduct that was flared off (burned at the well head). Scores of Eastern cities (New York and Philadelphia were the largest) switched from coal and oil to cleaner and cheaper gas furnaces and appliances. An even larger pipeline stretched from Texas to California.

Mr. Burroughs tells how Texas came to be synonymous with oil through the stories of four men who built and dominated the industry: H.L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison and Hugh Roy Cullen. His book is at its entertaining (and informative) best when he recounts how these hard-scrabble men thrived in an unregulated environment to satisfy America's thirst for oil. The common characteristics they shared were a capacity for hard work, financial guile and the raw courage required to risk all they owned to drill thousands of feet in unexplored territory, hoping that a wild cat venture would result in a gusher. Mr. Burroughs' prose is so vivid that I could close my eyes, take a deep breath and, figuratively, smell the oil that Hunt and others coaxed out of the Woodbine Sands in my native East Texas.

By the end of the war, the "Big Four were among the world's richest men - and they were totally unknown outside the insular oil world. As Mr. Burroughs notes, By 1948, despite Hunt's historic dealings in East Texas, Cullen's philanthropy, and Richardson's dinners with the Roosevelts, the Big Four had garnered precisely three references in the nation's newspaper of record, the New York Times. Cullen earned the only Times headline when he created a foundation that scattered millions of dollars across Texas. The paper identified him as a Former Texas Oil Field Laborer.

Alas for oil, public relations took a dive in 1952, when Edna Ferber published a novel, Giant, based on a boisterous Houston wildcatter named Glenn McCarthy. Unlike the Big Four, who eschewed publicity, McCarthy tooled around town in a Cadillac sporting longhorns on the hood and a bottle of whisky on the seat. McCarthy went through boom-and-bust cycles. Then came disaster: Zesting for top billing in Houston, he squandered millions of dollars (of borrowed money, of course) on the Shamrock Hotel to symbolize the future greatness of Houston. McCarthy flew in several plane loads of Hollywood stars for the grand opening. The ceremony flopped so badly that NBC Radio cut off its live coverage in midcourse. Ferber's novel recounted this fiasco in aching detail, and Hollywood followed with a movie featuring James Dean as the McCarthy character. Thus was born the Texas oilman of media myth.

There were some shadows in Big Four families. …

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