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When the Texas Rich Were Really Texas Rich


by Jerome Weeks 23 Sep 2008

Journalist Bryan Burrough has a knack for taking what would seem to be a thoroughly well-worn topic — 1930s bankrobbers, say, like Bonnie & Clyde or Machine Gun Kelly — and finding a fresh, inventive angle on the story. Which is what he did with Public Enemies, his action-packed history of how the gangsters and […]

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Journalist Bryan Burrough has a knack for taking what would seem to be a thoroughly well-worn topic — 1930s bankrobbers, say, like Bonnie & Clyde or Machine Gun Kelly — and finding a fresh, inventive angle on the story. Which is what he did with Public Enemies, his action-packed history of how the gangsters and the early FBI fed off each other, establishing the legends of both and leading America, for good and ill, to accept a nationwide, internal security force without public debate.

Now, Burrough, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, has turned his eye on Texas oil clans in his new book, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. The book won’t be out until January, but Burrough’s chapter on hell-raising Houston wildcatter Glenn McCarthy has been excerpted in the newest issue of Vanity Fair. (I’d expect Texas Monthly would like an advance excerpt, too, seeing as it concerns favorite topics of the magazine: the creation of Texas legends, wealthy Texans and their conspicuous consumption.)

These are certainly characters who’ve inspired plenty of books before this, notably John Bainbridge’s The Super-Americans from 1961 and Sandy Sheehy’s gossipy 1990 volume with the rather similar title,  Texas Big Rich. As for the VF excerpt: Anyone who’s lived in Houston for any length of time or anyone conversant with mid-century Texas history would find most of the stories about Glenn McCarthy, especially the splashy, chaotic opening of his once-infamous hotel, the Shamrock, familiar enough. Ditto how McCarthy provided the inspiration for the character of the rebellious Jett Rink in Edna Ferber’s1952 novel, Giant. (In the 1956 film version, any physical resemblance is more evident in the later scenes when James Dean plays Jett as an older man. With his hairline shaved back, a pencil-thin mustache and his sunglasses, Dean looks much more like McCarthy in his latter heyday — as above.)

Even so, a former Houstonian, I learned things from reading Burrough I didn’t know (mostly about McCarthy’s later years). And because his book aims to chronicle families like Dallas’ own Hunts and Murchisons — the dynasties who established the entire mythos and the (mostly right-wing) politics of the Texas oil industry, all the while shaping campaign fundraising and much of our country’s energy policy — you should expect The Big Rich to get a lot of local talk and attention come January.

Photo of McCarthy from blogs.chron. Photo of Dean from exquisitelyboredinnacogdoches.blogspot

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