Though they grew up in the rural Texas town of Athens, 65 miles southeast of Dallas, Sid Richardson and Clint Murchison hardwired themselves into the heart of the American establishment. Born April 11, 1895, Clint was the third child of eight fathered by John Weldon Murchison, who had inherited the First National Bank of Athens from his father, T.F. Murchison, an unreconstructed backer of the Confederate cause.
Sid was four years older than Clint. His father, John Isadore Richardson, ran a saloon on the town square and owned one of the largest peach orchards in Henderson County. Clint and Sid packed peaches for old man Richardson. As teenagers they traded cattle they bought on speculation during trips to Louisiana. Richardson later claimed he’d made $3500 in profits during his senior year of high school, 1909.
Richardson enrolled in Baylor University in Waco but left after two semesters and went to Simmons College in Abilene. A hard drinker, he did more brawling than studying. Four months later his father died, and Richardson, on family advice, dropped out to work in the oil fields outside Fort Worth.
Murchison went to Trinity University, a Presbyterian school in Waxahatchie. Three weeks later, he was back in Athens, expelled for shooting craps, and went to work in the family bank. In April 1917, he enlisted in the motor-transport division of the army’s Quartermaster Corps but never saw the front and spent most of World War I in Texas.
After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, according to a biography by Murchison’s private secretary, Ernestine Orrick Van Buren, Clint began getting letters from his old pal Sid Richardson, saying there was big money to be made trading leases in the oil fields around the wild boomtown of Burkburnett on the Oklahoma border.
With Murchison’s father’s cash, the pair hustled the less sophisticated out of valuable leaseholds using inside information from drillers about where gushers were expected. In 1920, oil prices collapsed, wiping out most of their quick profits, and the boys parted ways. Murchison remained in north Texas. Using the family money, he became a wildcatter himself, hitting strike after strike. He was well on his way to becoming one of America’s richest men.
It took Richardson a little longer. In 1935, thanks to some surreptitious intelligence, he struck it big in the legendary Keystone Field on the border with New Mexico. Within a few years his fortune was nearly as big as Murchison’s.
Murchison bought Matagorda Island, southwest of Houston in the Gulf of Mexico, and built a hideaway for hunting and fishing; Richardson acquired St. Joseph’s Island across the channel from Matagorda and assigned his nephew Perry Bass, a Yale-educated engineer and son of E.P. “Doc” Bass, to build a modernistic concrete house. Doc had died, and Richardson took Perry under his wing.
“He staffed the island with Negro servants and a wrangler for his cattle and, along with the pilots and chauffeurs he accumulated in later years, this group became what amounted to his immediate family,” writes Bryan Burrough in The Big Rich.
But Del Charro would become the most cherished jewel in Murchison’s and Richardson’s hospitality empire, and its most legendary guest was J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Politicians, movie stars, and mobsters might come and go at Del Charro, but Hoover, along with his second-in-command Clyde Tolson, was a permanent fixture.
“You had to be there to feel the power of this man,” Witwer once said. “Hoover had more power at that time than the President of the United States. But one man he didn’t faze at all was [Sid Richardson]. Richardson would say, and did so at a particular party with Senator Goldwater, ‘Edgar, get your ass over here and get me some more chili.’ And Hoover did.”
Some accounts say Hoover met Murchison and Richardson at a political fund-raiser in 1951. Others have it that they first crossed paths at a racetrack in the late 1940s. But given the closeness of Sid and Clint to Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the fact that Hoover lived across the street from LBJ in Washington, DC, and had long cultivated Hoover, it seems probable that the Democratic senator from Texas was the matchmaker.
Ed Crowley, a fellow Texan and friend of Murchison and Richardson, who ran the Town House hotel in Los Angeles and was on the board of the Del Mar Turf Club, described Hoover’s special accommodations to author Ovid Demaris in 1972. “We built four bungalows there in the back of the hotel. Mr. Richardson had one, the Murchisons had one, Mr. Hoover had one, and we moved from the Casa Mañana to our little hotel.
“The Texans would come out in the summer and we’d gather around the pool for breakfast and talk over old times and the races and then we’d go to Del Mar. Mr. Hoover and Clyde Tolson would go a couple of times a week and sit up there in their own little booth. And this went on summer after summer after summer.”
Van Buren, Murchison’s secretary, remembers things a bit differently in a 1986 biography, at least as to the number of bungalows: “To the existing hotel facilities, Clint added eight two-bedroom cottages scattered beyond the pool area, each a miniature home with its own intimate garden of luscious and colorful begonias and geraniums.
“One morning during the first summer of their stay at Hotel del Charro, Clint asked J. Edgar if he was enjoying the cottage. ‘It’s fine…but when I was in Florida I could pick fruit for my breakfast right from the trees at my door.’ Clint made no comment and nothing further was said, but the next morning when Hoover stepped into the private patio of his cottage he discovered two orange trees, two peach trees, two plum trees, and a grape arbor. Clint’s wonderful sense of humor was given full reign in expressing his regard for a friend.”
Hoover hosted guests of his own at the resort, according to an account of George Allen, a Washington insider, as told to Ovid Demaris. “I was at La Jolla with Hoover one day when Howard Hughes came to the Del Charro and tried to hire him…. I talked to him right after his meeting with Hughes, and he told me everything they talked about. Hughes wanted him [Hoover] to represent him in Washington. To be his contact man, lobbyist, so to speak…He said, ‘You name the price and I’ll pay you anything you like, give you a lifetime contract — any amount of money.’
Continue to Part II