BIGGER THAN LIFE

It’s not bragging if it’s true is an often-heard proverb in Texas. Houston oilman and entrepreneur Glenn McCarthy, the inspiration for the film Giant, was full of Texan bravado and international acclaim even before he threw the biggest party the state had ever seen in 1949, and his reputation only grew larger in the wake of the celebration. Geoff Connor, our Texas cultural history aficionado, takes us back to that era of the decadence.

READY AND RARIN’ TO GO

Some things you just can’t make up. When you take massive oil wealth and connect it to political power, attach it to high society, and give it a thorough dusting of Hollywood magic, the result is a cultural force that could only arise in Texas. Case in point: Glenn McCarthy. He was a rags-to-riches legend who shone brightly, coinciding with Texas’ Mid-century emergence as the center of the world’s oil industry whose glittering opulence created a flood of wealth… and publicity for the state.

McCarthy was born in Beaumont in 1907, with the sound of oil rigs in his ears, the son of an oil field laborer before the family later moved to Houston. According to historians, he grew up in Houston’s “Bloody Fifth” ward, where he McCarthy recounted, “the cops were afraid of the people, and there was almost always a dead man somewhere on the street in the morning.” Rising above humble origins, to say the least, he attended Tulane, Rice and Texas A&M but never finished his college studies. Instead, at age 23, he eloped with 16-year-old Faustine Lee, the daughter of a wealthy Houston oilman who was not pleased with his scion’s choice. McCarthy did not seek or accept money from his father-in-law, however, and set out to make his own future through shrewd business assessments and sheer hard work. He parlayed a small investment in a gas station into money for oil leases and drilling equipment and achieved the magic millionaire status before he was 30. He drilled some dry holes, but also hit some huge ones.

He aggressively pushed ahead until he established himself as one of Houston’s most successful oilmen. By the 1940‘s he had acquired a showplace mansion in River Oaks, a 15,000 acre hunting ranch, and the respect, even if at times begrudgingly, of his peers.

Never content to relax and enjoy the fruits of his labor, McCarthy blazed ahead with more business acquisitions including commercial real estate, a steel mill, petro-chemical assets, media companies and more. His wealth was estimated to be at least $200 million by 1949 (approximately 20 billion dollars in 2015 valuation). It was at this point that McCarthy embarked on an ambitious project that brought international recognition, epitomized Texas as the home of the rich, inspired books and movies and remains one of the stars of Texas legend.

YOU CAN’T BEAT iT WITH A STICK

By the late 1940’s, Houston had grown to a city of 600,000 people making it the 14th largest in the United States. But its image loomed much larger than that, with the explosion of energy wealth that had begun at Spindletop in 1901 flowing out to the enrichment of East Texas, then Houston and then Texas in general. From there the nucleus of wealth began to attract people to Houston for the wide range of jobs created by the oil industry, but also as purveyors, builders, professional helpers and the general mass of humanity attracted by lucrative opportunities. The Texas oil boom, much like the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, produced the same kind of opulent atmosphere and flamboyant characters seemingly drunk with the freedom and material luxuries their new wealth could provide. Even in that rambunctious crowd, the amazing McCarthy made a memorable splash.

The centerpiece of McCarthy’s ultimate vision was the construction of a massive 1,100 room hotel of unparalleled luxury that was an homage to his own Irish heritage with 63 shades of green everywhere. The Shamrock glistened with its Emerald ballroom, high tech equipment, and swimming pool so large it could accommodate ski boats and boasted a three-story diving board. In fact, noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright deemed it an imitation of Rockefeller Center.

The Shamrock opened in 1949 to one of the greatest media splashes in history. Starting well in advance of opening night, McCarthy sought to create the perfect storm of public attention by coordinating the grand opening of his hotel with the premiere of a movie – and not just any movie, but one that he personally went to Hollywood to organize and produce. The end result was The Green Promise, named to match the forthcoming Shamrock, and starred a young Natalie Wood.

I’LL BE THERE WITH BELLS ON

McCarthy not only created a legend with his hotel, but he brought the legends of the day to attend the opening ceremony. First, there was the tony crowd that arrived on Howard Hughes’ Stratoliner aircraft, then the largest passenger aircraft in the world. Plus, there was the chartered luxury train of luminaries from Hollywood. The tens of thousands of Houstonians that turned out for the spectacular Shamrock grand opening on St. Patrick’s Day 1949 were dazzled by a stream of arriving stars, including Dorothy Lamour, Kirk Douglas, Errol Flynn, Van Johnson and Ginger Rogers, the biggest celebrities of their day.

The Texas notables included Hugh Cullen, Amon Carter, Sid Richardson, and Governor Beauford Jester. The evening program included a sumptuous dinner, endless bottles of champagne and the formal rooms decked out with an enchanting mix of silver, crystal and thousands of fresh shamrocks flown in from Ireland.

However, all was not enchanted on opening night. For one thing, approximately 1,000 more guests came than were anticipated, leading to congested entries, hallways and public areas. According to guests who attended, the mayor of Houston had to stand for over an hour because his chair was swiped by other guests trying to squeeze more attendees into their own table. The hotel reported that over 1,200 bottles of champagne were consumed before dinner even started and larcenous guests stripped orchids off decorative trees in the lobby to take home as souvenirs. The dinner, when it finally arrived to the long-waiting and starving guests, included five-star cuisine of the day, including Pineapple Surprise, blue ribbon steak, pheasant pâté in aspic, and pistachio mousse.

Beyond the lure of the fine cuisine for the times, the crush of the crowd delayed important guests on the program and caused severe scheduling problems for news networks trying to cover the opening program. The worst instance was a live broadcast of Dorothy Lamour’s radio program from the hotel’s aptly named Emerald Ballroom. The crowd was so raucous that Lamour’s singing could not be heard and she finally left the stage in tears. A frustrated NBC engineer, not realizing the microphone was still live, uttered the ultimate expletive that shocked American living rooms into stunned silence. McCarthy, however, considered the evening a huge success and indeed, it was a remarkable and unprecedented hotel opening.

Joanne King Herring, then 19, and Houston’s social queen then as now, remembers the grandeur of the night, sharing, “We had never seen anything quite like it before in Houston. I was escorted by McCarthy’s nephew so we had the most thrilling experience being close to stage and meeting all the Hollywood stars – it was the kind of dazzling experience that stays with you over the years.” Others who attended noted that McCarthy himself was so loud during the radio broadcast that it disrupted singer Dorothy Lamour mid-performance. The crowds were almost unbearable, the air conditioning wasn’t working properly on the warm evening, the coast-to-coast broadcast was both delayed and challenged with its transmission to listeners, but the hullabaloo of the gala event created a buzz that lasted for years.

The pageantry of opening night was covered by the leading international press corps, including stories in Time and Life magazines. As Time magazine reported in a profile on McCarthy, “He looks like nothing so much as a Hollywood version of a Mississippi River gambler—a moody and monolithic male with a dark, Civil War mustache, a cold and acquisitive eye, and a brawler’s shoulder-swinging walk. He affects dark glasses, wears a diamond ring as big as a dime on one rocklike fist, and on the flat Texas highways drives his royal blue Cadillac at 100 m.p.h., often with a whiskey bottle at his side. He likes to shoot craps at $1,000 a throw, and has a longshoreman’s uninhibited propensity for barroom fights.”

Barroom fights not withstanding, McCarthy followed the opening with several years of high profile events, including a series of weekend entertainment broadcasts from the Shamrock featuring stars such as Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra. The hotel continued to attract high-profile guests like Margaret Truman and the Duchess of Windsor and was, at least initially, the brilliant star of Houston that was envisioned by McCarthy.

A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT

After such a meteoric and universally recognized rise to fame and wealth, it is almost expected that there must be a fall, and indeed, it was tragic to watch Glenn McCarthy’s subsequent financial and personal decline.

Houston Christopher Criner recalls a story his godfather, Houston businessman of McCarthy’s era, E.L.Lester, Jr, that tycoon McCarthy had bought a private plane from fellow tycoon Howard Hughes which was a Lockheed Constellation, the largest private plane ever built. Hughes flew the plane to Houston (now Hobby Airport) and though McCarthy was certainly no deadbeat, he had just gone broke so was unable to purchase the aircraft. He called Hughes and said to come pick up the plane and he told McCarthy to go to hell  and instead of picking up the expensive airplane he just left it at the airport.  McCarthy never did pay Hughes and as with any two good practicing egomaniacs the plane remained in a hanger at Hobby until it finally just rotted away.

McCarthy’s decline also eventually led to the loss of the Shamrock in 1954. Hilton Hotels operated the venue for another thirty years, but the property was eventually closed and demolished in 1987, coinciding with the downturn Houston was facing at the time. There are many reasons given, but one problem was certainly the hotel’s distance from the business district of Houston, a point that had been pointed out to McCarthy at the outset. As Houston’s population grew denser, it became more convenient for business travelers to stay elsewhere.

The famed oilman also suffered personal disappointments including his daughter’s elopement. In a strange historical repetition, 17-year-old Glenalee McCarthy ran away in 1950 with 19-year old George Pontikes, son of a Greek cobbler who had made his way to Houston. McCarthy was angry, but, like his own father-in-law years before, had to accept the match. As Herring remembers the event, “McCarthy was so furious and the whole family nearly died over it, but it actually turned out to be a good match, and they had many good years together – I know in time the family grew to love the handsome George.” King added that the support of McCarthy’s wife, Faustine, was crucial at this juncture of personal crisis as at other times. “She was beautiful and gracious in all circumstances, and she passed those traits on to each of her wonderful daughters,” said King.

McCarthy lived more quietly until his death in 1988, but his impact on Texas and the world had long been accomplished by then. In many ways, McCarthy embodied the swashbuckling, hard-drinking, fun-loving, bigger-than-life image of rich Texans. Certainly he sought, with the Shamrock Hotel, to create an icon of Texas that represented all that was the absolute very best of an affluent and cosmopolitan society. In so doing, he marketed better than anyone had done before the image of a big Texas millionaire with the will and the means to put the world at his feet. Texas was a very different place after the oil boom, and people throughout the U.S. and abroad recognized these changes and formed new images of what a Texas millionaire playboy could be. In doing so, they were thinking mostly of Glenn McCarthy and his astonishing life.

THAT’S ALL SHE WROTE

As Houstonians said of McCarthy at the time, “He’s going to kill himself, go bankrupt, or get to be the richest man on earth. You figure out which.” If much of Glenn McCarthy’s story seems somewhat déjà-vu, it probably is. The wild ride that was his life inspired the novel Giant, by Edna Ferber and the eponymous subsequent film starring James Dean as the fictionalized McCarthy, along with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.

The film, garnering 10 Oscar© nominations, is itself an icon of American culture and Hollywood legend. Like the real life on which it was based, the movie has its high points and lows and became symbolic of Texas, the state of mind, as well as our inhabitants. It expresses wealth and exuberance, but at other times only poverty and pain. Giant, though, reminds all viewers of the range of choices that life brings and the opportunities to use those for good. McCarthy was no saint, but then again he didn’t set out to be. He was a successful, often notorious, man with a passion for life and whether he intended to or not, he came to represent a rich and colorful part of the tapestry of Texas that still exists today.