Burrough, Bryan. The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Texas is known for its bigger than everything mantra, and for a few Texas families, known as the Big Rich, the unofficial state motto, “Everything’s Bigger in Texas,” held true for a few tumultuous years from the mid-forties to the seventies. Bryan Burrough explores the lives, fortunes, intrigues, philanthropy, and bankruptcies of four richer-than-thou Texas families, the Richardsons (Basses), the Murchisons, the Hunts, and the Cullens. In The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, Burrough explores the early days of Texas wildcatters as they search for black gold in the mosquito-infested pine forests of east Texas before finally hitting pay dirt at Spindletop in 1902, inspiring a real life version of the Beverly Hillbillies.
Burrough unveils the layers of secrecy that have surrounded these families for decades, and he leaves no dry holes. From H.L Hunt’s bigamous marriages to his sons attempts to corner the silver market, the stratospheric rise of the Murchison clan’s fortune to the squandering of its billions on the Dallas Cowboys and private islands by the Murchison sons, the transfer of the Richardson estate to the Bass brothers and their transformation of the meager (by Big Rich standards) 5 billion fortune to one well in excess of 50 billion, all the way to the Cullens’s tragedy of losing Roy Jr. to a blown well and their founding of the University of Houston, Burrough writes about it.
Although focused on the riches of the four founding families, the Big Rich of Texas are visited by an array of characters, who could have joined their ranks, but flamed into their riches back to rags stories in some of the most spectacular falls in the annals of American wealth. The most interesting tale of riches to rags is the proto-character of Edna Ferber’s Giant’s Jett Rink. Glenn McCarthy’s story is a harbinger to the misuse and abuse of vast fortunes at the hands of the uneducated and misdirected. In a short five years, McCarthy blazed through a fortune which at its peak was estimated at four- to five-billion dollars. His is a cautionary tale not heeded often enough by the multi-millionaires of the sports and silicon industries of today.
The Big Rich, and the patriarch H.L. Hunt particularly, redefined the political landscape of the day by fueling Senator Joe McCarthy’s predecessor Martin Dies of Texas. However, as Dies star dimmed, the Big Rich funded the vitriol of McCarthy and earned McCarthy the moniker of Texas’s third senator. As the Big Rich pumped oil wealth into American democracy, they also gave birth to the modern ultra-conservative right.
The Big Rich is essential reading for any student of today’s political climate, but it is also a primer on how to gain wealth and how to not squander it. Weighing in at a lofty 400+ pages, the book reads well, and Burrough captures the reader’s attention with a flowing prose that coaxes the reader into a sense of reading great fiction rather than heavy non-fiction.