Wildcats, stewardesses and Hell with Cows

You might be tempted to read this book to better understand the oil industry or how Texas went from populism to conservatism or even how one might go about cornering the world market on a precious metal. Certainly you would learn about all these topics by reading The Big Rich. But you would be missing the point. The point of The Big Rich is a Texas-size good time. Why? Because the crazy factor is through the roof.

The Big Rich in question are mainly the Big Four: Sid Richardson, Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison and H.L. Hunt and their families with occasional appearances by a “lesser” oil millionaires. Not a single one of them acquired their wealth in a boring manner. Physical derring-do, financial brinkmanship and fantastic luck all play a role in striking oil and amassing incomprehensibly large fortunes.

There's something innocent and charming about the antics of the Big Four - opening fancy hotels in the middle of nowhere or creating their own private clubhouse for the boys, at age 30 - at least the antics that don't involve H.L. Hunt and his bigamous desire to propagate his genes at widely as possible. H.L. is quite the character or "crank" as he describes himself. I'd substitute "creep" in place of "crank" but there's no doubt that he'd be happy to drink someone else's milkshake given the opportunity.

The fun hits the stratosphere when the second generation of big rich takes the stage. Bunker and Lamar Hunt are nearly as loony as dear old dad in their wacky hi-jinks such as the actual physical storage of one-third of the world’s silver and freelance wiretapping. Baron “Ricky” di Portanova seems to have been Patient Zero when it comes to the disease of EuroTrash complete with wife named Ljuba, pet monkey and marital pep talks from Kirk Douglas.

In any other book they’d be the most entertainingly crazy characters. But in this book has Clint Murchison Jr and he will take your crazy and raise it ten times. In the space of a mere ten years he’s launching a new company, building a resort, funding a pirate radio station in the Baltic Sea, and starting the Dallas Cowboys. And that’s just his job, Clint also has some fascinating hobbies: drugs (cocaine) and stewardesses (Braniff). As Burroughs explains, Braniff Airways

became one of his obsessions. In the early '60s Clint actually began attending their graduation, sitting in a back row eyeing his would-be conquests.

Clint Murchison, I never met you and I'm amazed that your first wife didn't take an axe to your head on multiple occasions but for living a life that allowed such a sentence to be written I salute you, sir. You're the most crazily trashy person in a book filled with insane crazy people. You go, Clint Murchison, wherever you are. (Also, way to cut out the middleman!)

Clint was called to glory in 1987 and today most of the entertainingly crazy scions of the Big Rich are also gone or bankrupt. The tales of their declines aren't nearly as much fun to read but that's hardly surprising. You can't top Joan Crawford trying to bag Sid Richardson with excerpts from bankruptcy proceedings.

Bryan Burrough has done his homework and explains the oil industry, the efforts to regulate it, and the intricacies of several lawsuits in a surprisingly accessible way. Still, as with all his books, what Burrough does best is tell a complex, wide-angle story with enough energy and just sheer enjoyment to fill out a half dozen summer blockbusters. It's like the Life cereal commercials used to say: "It's good tasting and good for you."

Kindle note: no photographs or linked index in the Kindle edition. The footnotes and sources are linked.

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