The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes

A fine exploration into four families who wildcatted their way into unprecedented wealth and their fair share of scandal

Book Reviews

The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes

by Bryan Burrough
The Penguin Press, 464 pp., $29.95

"Texas," barbs veteran journalist and author Bryan Burrough in his most recent book-length effort, "has always been the butt of jokes." This is, I believe, something of a misstatement – a personal redirection (Burrough grew up in Temple, Texas) of the inferiority complex shared by so many other residents of states that share in the distinct trouble that comes with being of the U.S. and not of its urban Northeast.

But that's not exactly the brand of armchair psychology that we'll get into here. Nah: What matters more, or should – at least to Burrough and to anyone who might want to pick up a copy of The Big Rich – is the fact that this perception continues to exist and, in so doing, continues to fuel Texans' needs to live up to the size of the mass of land that exists between the Red and Rio Grande rivers.

Nowhere is this sort of overcompensation more evident than in the actions of various members of the four families who make up the frame for Burrough's latest. The Hunt, Richardson/Bass, Murchison, and Cullen clans all found wealth on an unprecedented scale when their respective patriarchs wildcatted their ways into major oil finds. Then, suddenly blessed with that which they'd never before had (and itching, no doubt, to prove that they were worth it), H.L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison, and Roy Cullen promptly began to spend. On multiple secret families. On private islands. On radical politics. On future presidents. The best part? Everything might have been fine and dandy had three-quarters of their collective brood not proven to be complete and total fucktards. (Really, Nelson Bunker Hunt? You had to have all of the silver in the world? Really?)

That this stuff makes for an easy page-turner comes as nothing of a surprise. Nor does the fact that Burrough – whose past credits include a co-author turn for Barbarians at the Gate (about the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco) and who is still a Vanity Fair special correspondent – did a pretty good job researching the thing and making it into a cohesive narrative. Indeed, the only thing that seems to be missing from Burrough's book is a stab at lay psychoanalysis.

And that's not exactly a terrible loss.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Mike Kanin
Council-Staff Tension Spills Over in Budget Talks
Council-Staff Tension Spills Over in Budget Talks
Spelman and Martinez drill staffers over cost projections and turnover

Aug. 30, 2013

Gómez Pushes Road Plan Near Racetrack
Gómez Pushes Road Plan Near Racetrack
Commissioner says she's concerned about access and safety issues in her precinct

Aug. 30, 2013

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas oil, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, Bryan Burrough

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle