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Excerpt: 'The Big Rich'

There is a legend in America, about Texas, about the fabulously wealthy oilmen there who turned gushers of sweet black crude into raw political power, who cruised their personal jets over ranches measured in Rhode Islands, who sipped bourbon and branch on their private islands as they plotted and schemed to corner entire international markets. In popular culture the Texas oilman tends to come in two guises: the overbearing, dimwitted high roller with a blonde on either arm, and his evil twin, the oilman of Oliver Stone and Mother Jones, the black-Stetsoned villain whose millions pull the levers of power in Washington. He can be young and conflicted and obscenely rich, as in James Dean's portrayal of the wildcatter Jett Rink in Giant, or smooth and conniving and obscenely rich, like J. R. Ewing of television's Dallas, but he is almost always crass and loud and a tad mysterious, a classic American other. And obscenely rich.

There is truth behind the legend, a surprising amount, in fact. There really were poor Texas boys who discovered gushing oil wells and became overnight billionaries, patriarchs of squabbling families who owned private islands and colossal mansions and championship football teams, who slept with movie stars and jousted with presidents and tried to corner an international market or two. Back before television, before Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, they were the original Beverly Hillbillies, counting their millions around the cement pond as they ogled themselves on the cover of Time. They helped make Texas Oil an economic and political powerhouse, a world whose contributions, large and small — from Enron and two George Bushes to Styrofoam peanuts and the Super Bowl — shaped the America we know today.

This is their story, told through the lives of the four Texas families — and a few of their peers — who rose the highest and, in some cases, fell the hardest. Each of their patriarchs began in obscurity, and all, through a historic quirk of fate, laid the foundations of their fortunes in a single four-year span. They married, bore and lost children, and became the country's first shirt-sleeve billionaires, transforming America's idea of what it meant to be rich even as they played host to kings and queens and accumulated every toy of their age: mansions and ranches and castles, airplanes and yachts and limousines, skyscrapers and hotels and cabinet members. As they reshuffled the deck of America's most powerful families, eventually helping propel three of their favorite sons into the Oval Office, the country was enthralled by them, then suspicious, then, after a fateful fusillade of gunfire, came to view them as nefarious caricatures.

Excerpted from The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) January 2009.

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Bryan Burrough