An “epitaph,” as Texas expat and Vanity Fair special correspondent Burrough (Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 2004, etc.) calls it, for a storied, moneyed time that defines the Lone Star State’s self-image.
No matter how the fortune was made, the pattern is the same: The first hardscrabble generation fights, thieves and kills to get rich; the second becomes respectable, makes lots more money and gives money away; the third generation drinks, snorts and whores its way to the poorhouse. Thus, with some tailoring, the course of Burrough’s “big rich” families: the Hunts, Richardsons, Cullens and Murchisons, who came out of the West Texas dust or the South Texas swamps to make astounding fortunes, turn Dallas into a prairie paradise and build mansions that you could lose a herd of cows in. The first generation, writes Burrough, was “the original Beverly Hillbillies, counting their millions around the cement pond as they ogled themselves on the corner of Time.” But they were no simpletons. H.L. Hunt made much of his money not in oil but in real estate. “He was a strange man,” writes Burrough, “a loner who lived deep inside his own peculiar mind,” and who was convinced that he had superhuman qualities. He also had a deep, almost innate understanding of how markets and politics work, and he wielded tremendous power after earning a fortune in a time of severe economic depression precisely because other oil operators did not spend money exploring. Hunt did, living a few secret lives on the side, only to see his fortune dwindle in the hands of his heirs and eventually collapse in the oil-eating recession of 1979. Others of Burrough’s “big four” (including the Bass family, tied in with the Richardsons, last heard from funding research into space colonies) arced along similar rise-and-decline-and-fall paths—but not, as he writes, before they helped install the likes of George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Phil Gramm and other oil-friendly politicos into office.
Full of schadenfreude and speculation—and solid, timely history too.