#149 The Big Rich Oil Billionaires

Summary Notes


In "The Big Rich," author Brian Burrow delves into the extravagant lives and dramatic fall of Texas' wealthiest oil families—the Hunts, the Basses, the Murchisons, and the Cullens. These dynasties, flourishing amidst the 1970s oil boom, epitomized the opulent Texas mythos, with their patriarchs' rags-to-riches stories, notorious scandals, and high-stakes political influence. Burrow's three-year research odyssey uncovers the rise and fall of these oilmen, from their early struggles to their zenith as America's richest men, and eventually to their empires' decline, marred by debauchery, feuds, and bankruptcy. The book paints a vivid portrait of an era when Texas oil reigned supreme, its barons wielding power that shaped the state's identity and reached beyond, even as younger generations squandered or multiplied their inherited fortunes.

Summary Notes

Texas Identity and the Myth of the Big Rich

  • Texas has a strong cultural identity, often romanticized through myths, especially surrounding the oil industry.
  • Brian Burrow grew up in Texas but was not directly exposed to the oil culture until his late teens.
  • The "big rich" class of Texans lived a life of luxury, talking about boarding schools, international travel, and extravagant lifestyles.
  • The era of the "big rich" was ending in the 1980s, marked by bankruptcies among the oil elite.

"It's hard to tell people about Texas. It's hard to explain what it means to be a texan." This quote highlights the difficulty in conveying the unique Texan identity to those who haven't experienced it.

"I never met an actual oil man." Brian Burrow emphasizes his initial distance from the stereotypical Texan oil culture.

"Those were the years, the early and mid 1980s, when their era was ending." The quote marks the decline of the wealthy oil class during Brian's adolescence.

The Big Four and The Rise and Fall of Texas Oil Fortunes

  • Brian Burrow's book "The Big Rich" focuses on the great Texas oil families and their myths.
  • The book is a result of three years of research, including interviews and extensive review of books, articles, and archives.
  • The author explores the history of the Texas oilmen, many of whom are being forgotten.
  • The book recounts the dramatic rise and fall of Texas oil fortunes through the stories of the "big four" families and their peers.

"I thought of them as the big four, though it wasn't until I began my research that I found out that they had been called exactly that." Brian Burrow realized his concept of the "big four" was a recognized term during his research.

"There's never been anything lasting written about Houston's flamboyant Glenn McCarthy, though there should be." This quote points out the lack of comprehensive historical accounts of significant Texas oil figures.

"This is their story, told through the lives of the four Texas families and a few of their peers who rose the highest and, in some cases, fell the hardest." The quote summarizes the scope of the book, focusing on the dramatic narratives of the wealthiest oil families.

Prehistory of the Texas Oil Industry

  • A previous generation experienced a boom in Texas oil before the "big four."
  • The Lucas number one oil well had an unprecedented production rate, surpassing all other wells in the world at the time.
  • The Spindletop oil discovery led to a paradigm shift in energy consumption, from coal to oil.
  • The book distinguishes between independent wildcatters and major oil companies.

"The Lucas number one oil well changed the world forever." This quote signifies the global impact of the Spindletop oil discovery.

"Everything that today runs on oils and its byproducts, from automobiles to jet fighters to furnaces, barbecue grills and lawn mowers, all of it began at spindle drop." The quote emphasizes the far-reaching influence of the Spindletop oil on modern technology and industry.

The Independents vs. The Majors

  • The first generation of Texas oilmen, primarily independents, mostly went bankrupt.
  • Howard Hughes Sr. emerged wealthy by selling drilling equipment during the oil rush.
  • The author speculates about the potential for a single Texan to discover another massive oil field and create a fortune.

"What if there really was another spindle drop out there, and what if it was not discovered by a large company, but by a single texan working alone?" The quote captures the dream of independent oilmen to strike it rich with a single well.

The Big Four: Pioneers and Tycoons

  • The "big four" oilmen found the most success after World War I through various means.
  • They were considered the founders of the greatest Texas oil fortunes and would be on Texas oil's Mount Rushmore if it existed.
  • The book focuses on the unique stories and methods of each of the "big four": Roy Cullen, H.L. Hunt, Clint Murchison, and Sid Richardson.

"Of all the thousands of men who swarmed into the muddy tent camps in those boisterous years after World War I, four would find the most." This quote sets the stage for the exceptional success of the "big four" among many hopeful oilmen.

"A good old boy, a scold, a genius, a bigamist. Known in their heyday as the big four, they became the founders of the greatest Texas family fortunes." The quote gives a brief character sketch of each of the "big four" and their collective title.

The Story of Roy Cullen: From Adversity to Wealth

  • Roy Cullen's history is marked by hardship, perseverance, and eventual success in the oil industry.
  • Despite a difficult childhood and multiple business setbacks, Cullen persisted and eventually became one of America's richest men.
  • Cullen's story is an example of the self-made man, starting with nothing and building a massive fortune through determination and hard work.

"History has not been kind to Roy Cullen." The quote suggests that despite his success, Roy Cullen's legacy has not been well preserved.

"For the next five years, Colon roamed West Texas, leasing oil rights. Everywhere he went, all the wells came up dry." This quote illustrates Cullen's initial struggles and failures in the oil industry.

"Three years in hell," The quote succinctly captures the frustration and hardship Roy Cullen faced while pursuing oil drilling.

Family Struggles and Perseverance

  • Roy Cullen is depicted as a hardworking individual who is determined to provide for his family despite financial struggles.
  • He demonstrates perseverance by not giving up even as his personal responsibilities grow with his children's education and the addition of two more daughters.
  • Roy's wife, Lily, is concerned about the sustainability of their situation, but Roy remains optimistic, assuring her that "tomorrow will be another day."

"Lily, that's his wife, wondered how long this could go on. We got to keep going a little longer, honey. Cullen would say, I want the children taken care of. Tomorrow will be another day."

  • The quote illustrates Roy's commitment to his family and his hope for a better future despite current hardships.
  • His perseverance is seen as an admirable trait by the speaker, Brian Burrow.

Independence and Innovation in Business

  • Roy Cullen values his independence highly, refusing to relinquish control over his business endeavors.
  • He recognizes the importance of differentiating his strategies from others in the industry to achieve better results.
  • Cullen's approach to the oil business is metaphorically described as "drilling deep," emphasizing the need to look beyond the surface and not settle for conventional methods.

"The trouble with this business is that everybody expects to find oil on the surface. You've got to drill deep for oil."

  • This quote encapsulates Cullen's philosophy of going beyond the obvious and easy solutions in search of greater success.
  • It also sets the stage for his fundamental belief in perseverance, optimism, and the metaphor of finding success where others have failed.

Resilience and Success

  • Roy Cullen's second major oil discovery is highlighted as a testament to his resilience and determination.
  • His mantra becomes to "drill deeper," reflecting his commitment to pursuing goals even when initial attempts do not yield results.
  • The field hands' familiarity with Cullen's instructions demonstrates his consistent and unwavering focus on his business philosophy.

"Boys, let's go a little deeper."

  • This quote demonstrates Cullen's relentless pursuit of success, as well as the impact of his leadership on his employees.
  • It also reinforces the metaphor of perseverance in the face of adversity and the importance of digging deeper to achieve one's goals.

Philanthropy and Legacy

  • Roy Cullen's decision to give away 93% of his fortune before his death is contrasted with the fate of other fortunes in Texas.
  • The story of Clint Murchison Jr. serves as a cautionary tale of squandering wealth, highlighting the importance of learning from the mistakes of others.

"Another thing that's interesting, that he's different from the big four is he gives away 93% of his fortune, I think, before he dies, which, when you find out what happens to some of the other fortunes that are left behind, that's probably the best thing you could do."

  • This quote reflects on the wisdom of Cullen's philanthropy and the potential pitfalls of inheriting large fortunes without proper management.
  • It emphasizes the idea that studying the failures of others can provide valuable lessons for personal and financial success.

Maintaining Control and Rejecting Partnerships

  • Roy Cullen's commitment to independence is further illustrated when he rejects a lucrative partnership offer, choosing to maintain full control over his business.
  • His counteroffer to Wes, despite having significantly less capital, shows his preference for equal partnership and autonomy over financial gain.

"I'll go in the oil business with you 50-50 for every dollar you put in. I'll put in a dollar, but only on condition that I have full charge, no interference from you."

  • This quote reveals Cullen's priorities and his strong desire for control and independence in his business ventures.
  • It also highlights his confidence in his abilities and his willingness to risk personal capital for the sake of maintaining his business principles.

The Big Four of Texas Oil

  • Introduction to Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, two of the "big four" oil magnates in Texas.
  • Their early lives, friendship, and divergent paths in the oil industry are explored.
  • The fortunes and legacies of the big four, including their successes, failures, and the fates of their heirs, are discussed.

"So now I want to introduce you to the second and third of the big four. They're going to be friends. They start working together. Eventually they go separate ways, even though they're lifelong friends."

  • This quote sets the stage for the stories of Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, their partnership, and eventual separation.
  • It provides context for the complex relationships and business dynamics among the prominent figures in the Texas oil industry.

Clint Murchison: Banking and Business Acumen

  • Clint Murchison's background in banking and his understanding of leverage are key to his success in the oil industry.
  • His early interest in livestock trading and his natural talent with numbers are highlighted.
  • Murchison's innovative approach to business, including "financing by finagling" and his reliance on scientific methods, sets him apart.

"While his brothers took jobs at the bank, teenage Clint was drawn to the excitement of livestock pens, where roving traders wheeled and dealed for the best prices on cattle and horses."

  • The quote showcases Murchison's entrepreneurial spirit and his preference for dynamic trading environments over traditional banking roles.
  • It provides insight into his character and the formative experiences that influenced his business strategies.

Sid Richardson: A Different Path to Oil

  • Sid Richardson's less conventional journey into the oil industry is marked by a series of odd jobs and a late bloomer's success.
  • His approach is characterized by secrecy and a reluctance to leave a paper trail, reflecting a strategic preference for maintaining a low profile.
  • Richardson's personal life, including his bachelorhood and lack of heirs, contrasts with the other oil magnates.

"For a man who would one day be proclaimed America's richest citizen, who at his death controlled more petroleum reserves than three major oil companies, Sid Richardson left few footprints on history."

  • This quote highlights the enigmatic nature of Sid Richardson's life and his significant yet understated impact on the oil industry.
  • It underscores the strategic advantage of discretion and the deliberate choice to avoid public attention in competitive industries.

Early Careers of Clint and Sid

  • Clint thrived in North Texas by partnering with a local wildcatter, striking oil multiple times in the early 1920s.
  • Sid, in contrast, was nearly broke during this period.
  • Clint became wealthy by age 30 and decided to run his own business.

"Clint, meanwhile, remained in north Texas and thrived. He partnered with a local wildcatter. These are these independent people, like these oil spectators. Spectators, speculators. And through their early 1920s, they hit strike after strike."

This quote explains Clint's initial success in the oil industry through strategic partnerships and successful oil strikes.

Clint's Transition to a Settled Life

  • Clint dissolved his partnership and took an estimated $5 million to move with his family to San Antonio.
  • He sought a settled life with a clean office job, contrasting the rough oil industry lifestyle.
  • Tragedy struck when his wife was diagnosed with yellow jaundice and died, causing Clint to leave his children with relatives and turn to alcohol.

"Clint dissolved the partnership. He took his proceeds, an estimated $5 million, which is an insane amount of money, in 1925, and moved Anne, that's his wife, and the boys, to cosmopolitan San Antonio."

This quote highlights Clint's financial success and his decision to change his lifestyle by moving to San Antonio.

Clint's Business Expansion and Innovation

  • Clint started a company to supply natural gas, drill for oil, and invested in various industries including life insurance, banks, and railroads.
  • Recognized the value of natural gas, which was often wasted by others in the industry.
  • Created a gas supply service for residents and businesses, charging a monthly fee.
  • Clint's company, Southern Union, expanded beyond Texas, leveraging his banking knowledge to gain a competitive edge.

"Clint had a thought. Why not offer gas, heating, and light to the locals? He already had the pipe. It was just the pipeline, and it only took a matter of weeks to lay it down on one side of the street."

This quote illustrates Clint's innovative approach to utilizing existing resources to create a new business opportunity.

Clint's Financial Strategies and Risks

  • Clint's mastery of banking gave him an advantage in securing funds for business expansion.
  • He was willing to take on significant debt, leveraging his understanding of banking to manage his financial risks.
  • Clint's philosophy was to owe more than he could pay, ensuring that creditors would be reluctant to foreclose.

"Clint operated this way for the rest of his life. As the son of a banker, he knew he could always find a gullible loan officer somewhere."

This quote sheds light on Clint's confidence in navigating the banking system to support his business ventures.

Sid's Late Success

  • Sid eventually became a successful independent oilman at the age of 37.
  • His perseverance and determination led to his eventual success in the oil industry.

"Sid eventually does better. He winds up hitting at 37. It takes him till he's 37 years old, but at 37 years old, he becomes an independent, successful oilman."

This quote marks the turning point in Sid's career where he finally achieves success in the oil industry.

H. L. Hunt's Eccentricities and Early Life

  • H. L. Hunt was a loner with a peculiar mind, convinced of his superhuman talents.
  • Hunt was a bigamist with secret families, believing his genes should be widespread.
  • Recognized for his intelligence and mathematical abilities from a young age.
  • Built his initial fortune through gambling and had a reputation for honesty.

"He was a strange man, a loner who lived deep inside his own peculiar mind, a self-educated thinker who was convinced, absolutely convinced, that he was possessed of talents that bordered on superhuman."

This quote describes H. L. Hunt's unique and eccentric personality, which was a driving force in his life and career.

H. L. Hunt's Transition to Oil

  • Hunt questioned his lifestyle at age 32 and decided to pursue opportunities in the oil industry.
  • His inner monologue and desire for change led him from gambling and cotton farming to the oil business.
  • Hunt's first oil success was in Arkansas, and he later moved on to Texas.

"What is it that you're trying to do? He asked himself. Are you going to bury yourself here for the remainder of your life? Why not rent out the land and try something new?"

This quote captures Hunt's moment of self-reflection, which catalyzed his move into the oil industry.

H. L. Hunt's Business Acumen

  • Hunt's conviction in his business decisions led to the acquisition of the East Texas oil field from Dad Joyner.
  • Recognized the potential of the field despite inconsistencies and legal troubles faced by Joyner.
  • Hunt's deal to take over Joyner's leases was considered the deal of the century, laying the foundation for his fortune.

"Great fortunes are built on great convictions. And from the moment he watched Joyner's drill test hunt was certain that this was a giant field."

This quote emphasizes Hunt's strong belief in his business judgment, which was pivotal in securing a significant oil reserve.

H.L. Hunt's Commitment to Oil

  • H.L. Hunt recognized the potential of the oil industry and dedicated all his resources and time to drilling for oil.
  • He closed his other businesses to focus solely on exploiting the Texas oil fields, which he believed were the greatest opportunity he would ever encounter.
  • Hunt's efforts and investments rapidly increased his wealth, making him one of the richest individuals in the world.

"He drilled wells like a madman. He worked from dawn till late in the evening, seven days a week, every cent he took in... he plowed back into the search for more oil."

The quote demonstrates Hunt's intense work ethic and his strategic reinvestment of all earnings into further oil exploration, which was pivotal in building his fortune.

Influence and Political Corruption of the Big Four

  • The Big Four, including H.L. Hunt, wielded significant political influence and were involved in corruption with politicians like Lyndon Johnson and FDR.
  • They opposed government intervention and used their wealth to manipulate regulations and laws in their favor, often through questionable means such as bribery.

"These four oilmen, if you put them together, it's almost like they had the GDP of a small country."

This quote highlights the immense wealth and power of the Big Four, which they leveraged to exert influence over political figures and policies.

Clint's Defiance of Proration Laws

  • Clint, another oilman, refused to adhere to federal proration laws designed to limit oil production, viewing them as un-American and an infringement on his liberty.
  • He became the largest distributor of "hot oil," illegally drilling and transporting more oil than legally permitted.
  • Clint's actions were part of a broader resistance among independent oilmen against major oil companies and government regulations.

"Clint was apoplectic. This is un-American, he told anyone who would listen."

The quote reflects Clint's strong opposition to government-imposed limits on oil production, which he saw as an attack on his freedoms and entrepreneurial spirit.

The Economic Impact of Texas Oil During World War II

  • The demand for oil during World War II significantly increased the wealth of Texas oilmen as the state's oil production was crucial for the war effort.
  • Texas alone produced more oil than all of the Axis powers combined, highlighting the strategic importance and economic power of the state's oil industry.

"Between 1941 and 1945, the axis powers... Produced an estimated 276, 76 million barrels... Texas produced 500 million from Texas alone."

This quote emphasizes the staggering scale of Texas oil production during World War II and its critical role in supporting the Allied forces.

H.L. Hunt's Eccentric Personality and Influence

  • H.L. Hunt was known for his eccentricity and egotism, believing himself to be a unique intellect with the potential to save the nation from communism.
  • His self-perception and behavior reflected a larger-than-life character who left a significant mark on the oil industry and American culture.

"More than one of his aides sensed a new messianic quality. And Hunt, one of them, said he thought he was the second Jesus Christ."

The quote illustrates Hunt's grandiose self-image and the almost religious fervor with which he approached his work and influence.

The Second Generation's Fortunes and Failures

  • The descendants of the Big Four had mixed fortunes, with some, like Sid Bass and his brothers, making wise investments in various industries, while others squandered their inheritance.
  • The Bass family's strategic investments, particularly in Disney, resulted in one of the greatest investment performances of the 20th century.

"Now big Clint's son slouch in his wheelchair, fully aware that Sid Bass and his brothers had since achieved everything he hadn't."

This quote contrasts the different paths taken by the second generation of oil families, highlighting the Bass family's success and the failures of others.

The End of the Golden Age of Texas Oil

  • The dominance of Texas oil eventually waned as other regions began producing oil more cheaply.
  • The original oil magnates, such as Clint and Sid, retreated from the limelight, and their final years were marked by a focus on personal relationships and a diminishing role in the oil industry.

"Nothing marked the end of the golden age so much as the dimming of the men who had created it."

The quote signifies the decline of an era in Texas oil history, as the pioneers of the industry aged and were surpassed by new developments in global oil production.

Conclusion and Recommendation

  • The podcast concludes with a recommendation to read the book for a deeper understanding of the history and impact of Texas oil magnates.
  • The story of these oilmen is presented as a wild tale of ambition, wealth, and influence that shaped American history and culture.

"If you're looking for a wild story, pick up the book. It was absolutely fantastic. I really enjoyed reading this."

This final quote serves as an endorsement of the book and its detailed account of the Texas oil industry's history and the larger-than-life characters who dominated it.

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