The Death of the Texas Oilman
In an excerpt from his new book, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, Bryan Burrough revisits the Hotel Del Charro, the elite playground where stars like John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor drank mint juleps by the pool.
All the gaudiest elements of Texas Oil’s new prominence—the Hollywood stars, the political maneuvering, and especially the developing albatross that was Joe McCarthy—came together in a single place, a new hotel Clint Murchison opened as a personal retreat in La Jolla, California, north of San Diego. Clint and his wife, Ginnie, often accompanied by Sid Richardson, had been summering in La Jolla for several years to bet the thoroughbreds racing at the Del Mar Turf Club, whose season ran from July until Labor Day. They usually arrived at the track at midmorning with friends and stayed all day, downing mint juleps and ham sandwiches between races. Murchison loved La Jolla so much, he tried to buy the landmark Casa Mañana hotel; when its owners wouldn’t sell, he decided to build his own. He bought a riding academy on the edge of town, transformed it into a 50-room hotel, and turned the stables into eight two-bedroom cottages around the pool.
Tuxedoed waiters drifted through the crowd, carrying trays of mint juleps and bourbon; riffraff was kept away by room rates set at $800 a night at today’s prices.
When the new Hotel Del Charro— charro is Spanish for a costumed horseman—opened for the 1951 season, Murchison’s oilmen friends and their wives descended upon it en masse: Effie and Wofford Cain, Emily and Billy Byars, Jodie and Pug Miller, Sid Richardson. A Texas flag flew overhead, a Dow Jones ticker clattered in the lobby, and after the day’s races, a gin game was always under way at the pool. Tuxedoed waiters drifted through the rarified crowd, carrying trays of mint juleps and bourbon; riffraff was kept away by room rates set at $800 a night at today’s prices. (House rules excluded pets, and unofficially, Jews.) Within weeks, the never-ending party was joined by a rushing tide of movie people, including John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, William Powell, Jimmy Durante, Betty Grable, and Joan Crawford. Crawford, taking swigs from a flask of vodka, caused a stir on several evenings by focusing her attentions upon Richardson.
“Everyone around the country knew that Sid was a billionaire, and there was a lot of press about him right at that time when we introduced Joan to him,” Ginnie Murchison remembered. “She followed him around so much that he finally came and sat on the couch between me and Effie Cain, so that Joan couldn’t get near him. He was very shy around women, and he didn’t like it at all when they flirted with him.” Irksome actresses aside, Richardson relaxed at Del Charro as nowhere else, drinking bourbon, playing cards around the pool, and cursing so loudly that when Eisenhower’s secretary of health, education and welfare, the Houston heiress Oveta Culp Hobby, was put in an adjacent cottage, she asked to be moved. Most mornings, Richardson put in a call to Sam Rayburn before driving Murchison to the track.
Hobby and Rayburn were only the first in a stream of politicians to stay in touch with goings-on at Del Charro. Soon others, Eisenhower and his vice presidential candidate, Richard M. Nixon, came to pay their respects to Murchison and Richardson. “They spoke to Nixon like he was an office boy,” the Del Charro’s manager, Allan Witwer, recalled years later. The Washington figure who most enjoyed the hotel, and who stayed the longest, was J. Edgar Hoover, who accepted Murchison’s invitation to Del Charro in 1952 and returned every summer until his death in 1972. The two men, who met at a California fund-raiser in July 1951, became fast friends. Hoover and his longtime aide Clyde Tolson stayed in Bungalow A, one of the cabins reserved for Murchison’s friends. The oilman looked after Hoover’s every need. When the director mentioned one night that he loved Florida because he could step from his hotel room and pluck fruit from a tree, Murchison had a grove of plum, peach, and orange trees planted on Hoover’s patio by the next morning. A sickly grapevine hung, complete with healthy grapes the staff spent hours wiring to the vine.
Hoover was a famously buttoned-up man, but the oilmen around the Del Charro pool did their best to loosen him up. One evening, while dining on “caviar of chili” a Dallas millionaire had flown in from Ike’s Chili Parlor in Tulsa, Sid Richardson spied Hoover sitting quietly beside the buffet. Suddenly Richardson’s booming voice rang out across the poolside crowd: “Goddamnit, Hoover, get your ass out of that chair and get ma another bowl of chili!”
Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of five books, including the bestseller Barbarians at the Gate (written with co-author John Helyar). A film based on his last book, Public Enemies, will be released this summer by Universal Studios, starring Johnny Depp as the legendary bank robber John Dillinger.