Think about Scrooge McDuck, Daddy Warbucks, Citizen Kane, John Beresford "The Millionaire" Tipton, all the grotesque and inordinate stereotypes of tycoons you've ever run into, all the dime-tipping stinginess, or the preposterous largesse for eccentric causes.
Okay. Hold that idea in mind, and right next to it start working on Texans. Think big oil, think of yeehaw riverboat-gambler types yelling at their geologists for not understanding luck, by God; think of right-wing haters of the eastern establishment; tink of one who totes lunch to work in a paper bag, but lives in a replica of Mount Vernon, and tells the world: "I would starve to death on an income of a million dollars a week."
Get it? Got it. H. L. Hunt, 1889-1974, right? Maybe the richest man in the world, wildcatting progenitor of three families at the same time, including the dynamic duo of first-family sons Herbert and Nelson Bunker Hunt, who have lately been involved in schemes worthy of comic-book tycoons, i.e., trying to buy most of the world's silver, and lately a lot of its soybeans.
A writer named Harry Hurt III has spent three years thinking about the Hunts, interviewing the Hunts, rooting through old records bearing on the Hunts, all to bring us a book entitled "Texas Rich -- The Hunt Dynasty From the Early Oil Days Through the Silver Crash."
Hurt himself is the son of a Houston oil millionaire. He is 29, a graduate of Choate and Harvard, he has those rich-kid's eyes that look like they've squinting even when they're not, and he is firing up a $1.95 Madrigal cigar the size of a pecan roll.
"Bunker Hunt appeared in front of Congress after the silver market collapsed," Hurt says. "He told them he didn't know how much he was worth and that 'People who know how much they're worth usually aren't worth that much. Imagine David Rockefeller trying to fly with that. Impossible! That Texas image comes in very handy, when you want to act like country boy. But to think them naive and unpolished is to fall for their game."
Maybe that's why so much of the money in America seems to be in Texas these days, and a lot of the Texas money still belongs to the Hunts.
"Hebert told Fortune that the collateral for the loan he and Bunker got after the silver crash was worth 10 times the loan -- which was $1.1 billion. So we're talking about wealth in the $8- to 10-billion range."
Billion. As in thousand million.
As in Bunker trying to raise $1 billion for the Campus Crusade for Christ, explaining, Hurt says: "'All it takes is 1,000 people giving $1 million apiece.'"
On the other hand, the Hunts can be modest. Old H. L. once had his house measured in response to claims that it was 10 times bigger than the Mt. Vernon it duplicates. He was proud to announce it was only 2 percent larger.
Then again, it's all part of the same sort of ego that prompted H. L. -- Haroldson Lafayette Hunt Jr. -- to name his son after himself, including the "Jr. " That was "hassie," who startled mourners at his father's funeral with his eerie likeness to the old man.
Except that Hassie had been lobotomized and had spent his life in and out of asylums, after therapy which included his father supplying him with a string of "female companions."
"It's not like 'Dallas,' where all the characters are one-dimensional," Hurt says, pulling at the Madrigal and drinking black coffee on a rainy Washington afternoon. (Clearly, Hurt hasn't taken to Hunt's wisdom on cigars. Hunt gave them up in the 1950s, claiming that the amount of time it took him to unwrap them was costing him $300,000 a year.)
Anyhow, the one-dimensionality: Before Hurt started this book, that was the fault he found with his own daddy's oil business -- one-dimensionality. "I never wanted to go into the old business. My impression was a bunch of fat old men in white shoes and white belts looking at maps. I didn't even have any interest in writing about it. But Bill Broyles, the editor at Texas Monthly, wanted some pieces on the first and second Hunt families . . ."
Plus the third one, known to the others as "the Lee people," who formed the other group of H. L.'s pregeny, his spawn, his prodigious 15-child get. All of them were part of his design to "populate the world with people who carried what he felt to be his genius gene," says Hurt.
The trick was, he had all three families going at once, just another example, says Hurt, of his belief that "he wasn't accountable to anybody -- he was entitled to play by different rules."
H. L., son of an Illinois farmer who'd foughtr for the Confederacy, exhibited wonderful powers of mimd as a toddler. At the age of 2 he could read the St. Louis livestock report of the newspaper. He was too smart for school, and stayed home to be taught by his mother, who also breast-fed him til he was 7. In 1905, at age 16, Hunt left home to wander as far as San Francisco, working at dishwashing, stoop labor, muleskinning, and, above all, gambling.
"He liked to say he was the greatest poker player in the world," Hurt says.
In 1921, after he'd settled in Arkansas, a collapse in cotton prices wiped him out. He saved the family farm in a poker game in the Grunewald Hotel in New Orleans and turned $100 into $10,000 in one night.
Not long after, the El Dorado oil field in Arkansas turned into a gambler's and speculator's dream, and Hunt arrived to open a gambling hall. He bought a half-acre oil lease, and hit oil with his first well, yet another example of the famous Hunt luck. In 1922 he had eight wells flowing, a wife and three children, and a reputation as a loner. Once an Arkansas barber asked him: "Why the hell don't you say something?" and he answered: "I don't have anything to say."
Strong and silent. And easily bored. These were virtues that would keep him going as the father and breadwinner in his three families, the next of which he acquired in 1925 when he decided to cash in all his oil chips and head to Florida where a real estate boom was underway. There he met one Frania Tye, and introduced himself as Maj. Franklin Hunt.
Later, and still, in the lawsuits which have lasted for years, Frania would claim that a justice of the peace in Ybor City, Fla., married them. In any case, this union produced "the Lee people," as they came to be known -- four children and 17 grandchildren.
The Lee people are not to be confused with what is known as "the second family," which started in the 1940s with Ruth Ray, a secretary at Hunt Oil. One day Hunt saw her standing at a bus stop and offered her a ride. years later, he would recall: "We drove out into the country. The dogwood was in boom."
In 1943, having been moved to an apartment in New York City, Ruth Ray gave birth to Ray, the first of four children. In 1957, two years after the death of the first Mrs. Hunt, the 14-year-old Ray visited his fater's office in Dallas, and, according to a Hunt account quoted in Hurt's book, he said: "You will marry my mother." Not long after, Hunt ate Sunday dinner with two of his daughters, then excused himself, saying he had "an appointment." The first that the daughters or their brothers would know of the wedding was an announcement the next morning in the Dallas Times-Herald.
Hunt felt accountable to no one. Consequently, his eccentricities flurished the richer and older he got. One morning in 1972, he was giving health-food tips to a reporter from the Dallas Morning News when, accortding to Hurt, he "dropped to the floor. Landing like a cat on all fours, he bgan to crawl around and around the dining room table on his hands and kneews. Slowly at first. Then faster and faster. Soon he was lapping the dining room table with astonishing speed.
"I'm a crank about creeping!" he shouted gleefully.
Creeping, he explained, was far superior to other forms of exercise. He concluded: "I have lots of money, so that call me a 'Billionaire Health Crank.' Heh, heh, heh."
After he founded HLH Products, a canned-food company, he would personally hawk his wares at booths at state fairs, saying: =I'm H.L. Hunt and I'm the world's richest man, and these are my products so you know they must be good."
He handed out his beloved rightwing literature with samples of the food -- Hunt was an avid propagandist, with his radio show, LIFE LINE, headquartered here at 620 11th St. Another Hunt organization was responsible for an ad in the Dallas Morning News headlined WELCOME, MR. KENNEDY, TO DALLAS, and containing a vitriolic attack on the president, on the same day that he was assassinated.
He wrote a novel, "Alpaca," about an ideal South American republic in which citizens got more votes, the more taxes they paid. He enlisted his daughters by Ruth, 11-year-old Helen and 10-year-Swanee, to help him promote "Alpaca" at Dallas' Cokesbury Book Store. While he signed copies (he published them himself) the girls sang a jingle to the tune of "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"
How much is that book in the window?
The one that says all the smart things. . .
Hunt was partial to singing, being known for breaking into hymns and show tunes in his office. He and Ruth would make a duet of what they called "our song," a tune entitled "Just Plain Folks."
Says Harry Hurt, now: "Texas is an exaggeration of values which are basically American. The Hunts are the paradigm, but all Texas people are not like the Hunts."
And he recalls: "I was interviewing Bunker Hunt, and he said: 'Money never meant anything to my did or me, it's just a way of keeping score in life . . .' and I could see him catch himself, and he corrected it to 'in business.'"
The Hunt sons have carried on with a lot of H.L.'s style, but Texas is changing, says Hurt. "There's a transition in Texas from enterpreneurial wealth to corporate wealth."
Hurt doesn't seem entirely happy about that. He may have been bored by the oil business that made both the Hunts and his own family rich, but having written this book, he says he understands the appeal of it all, the meaning: "It's a treasure hunt," he says, and puffs away on the $1.95 Madrigal cigar.