OIL & HONOR The Texaco-Pennzoil Wars By Thomas Petzinger Jr. Putnam. 495 pp. $19.95 THE TAKING OF GETTY OIL The Full Story of the Most Spectacular -- & Catastrophic -- Takeover of All Time By Steve Coll Atheneum. 528 pp. $19.95
THESE TWO books tell a story that, while a true account, sounds like the plot of one of those made-for-TV movies, perhaps something that ought to be subtitled "Life Styles of the Rich and Infamous."
Picture the central character: Gordon Getty, son of the late J. Paul Getty, who had been the world's richest man, worth a cool $1 billion back in the pre-inflation 1950s. Gordon's a dreamy kind of guy -- a 50-year-old composer, poet and opera singer -- and on the infrequent occasions when he worked for Dad's company, he did silly things. Often, he even forgot where he parked his car, explaining that all cars look alike, anyway.
But Gordon, for all his lapses, owns 40 percent of the Getty Oil Company's stock, and that's why he's so mad. He's a member of the company's board of directors, and, sure, he fell asleep during a directors' meeting (not very hard to do, one suspects). Another time, he walked out of the meeting, thinking it was over when it wasn't.
Still, when Gordon makes suggestions about how his inheritance should be run, Sidney R. Petersen, the chairman of Getty, won't listen. He figures Gordon is some kind of clunk.
But Gordon isn't as dumb as some of the other people in these books turn out to be. In one of the funniest scenes of all, Gordon goes to Wall Street, calling on those sabre-toothed tigers known as investment bankers. Gordon's simply trying to find out how things in business operate. After all, Salzburg's a long way from Wall Street. But the tom-toms of the Wall Street jungle quickly pound out the message: a big hunk of Getty Oil stock -- nearly enough to control the company -- may be up for sale.
Gordon ends up teamed with a tough, barrel-chested oilman named J. Hugh Liedtke, the head of Pennzoil and the former drilling partner of Vice President George Bush. After torturously long meetings, hours of haggling, the weary Getty directors are putting on their coats and Hugh Liedtke believes he's got a deal -- Getty and its huge reserves of oil are his for a price of $112.50 a share.
Now Gordon may not have a head for business, but he can understand numbers. Four days later, Texaco has a competing bid, and when its chairman says "I am prepared to offer -- "
"I accept! cries Gordon. Then he sees how startled everyone around him is. "Oh!" cries Gordon. "You're supposed to give the price first!"
The price is $125 a share.
But did Getty Oil already have a deal with Pennzoil? Without giving away any more of a truly fascinating story, Texaco had agreed to indemnify Gordon (who's not such a clunk, after all) holding him harmless from any breach of contract suit from Pennzoil. So an enraged Liedtke sues Texaco, in a Texas court, and wins the biggest judgment in history -- a massive $10.5 billion, enough to send even giant Texaco staggering into the bankruptcy court.
Both books are well done, especially many of the courtroom scenes, and they are packed with colorful detail. Sample: the judge in the trial, Solomon Casseb, a wealthy ex-divorce lawyer, once complained that as a traveling judge he was allowed $23 a day for meals, noting: "I drink more than twenty-three dollars worth of Chivas and soda before I even sit down to eat."
In fact, tremendous research has gone into both books, and this review can only hint at some of the characters and institutions involved (including the J.Paul Getty Museum, a big holder of the stock). Still, Steve Coll, a reporter for The Washington Post, ends his work with what's called a "biographical note," one noting that many of his characters did not use the exact words we see in quotation marks in the book. He devotes a few pages to explaining this away, noting that "by employing a simple cosmetic device the journalist endows historical events with the feeling of truth -- a feeling the reader intuitively appreciates."
Not this reader. Maybe I'm old fashioned in my approach to journalism, but if an author tells me somebody said something, I want to know that's exactly what he said. Thomas Petzinger notes specifically that none of his quotes are made up -- or approximated -- and his book is even more lively than Coll's. So Petzinger gets my vote.
Ray Brady covers business for CBS News.