Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Texan in Egypt, 1951

On days when I’m still getting over the sinus problems of the black cloud (caused by crop burning north of Cairo), I explore Google's recesses and type in pairs of search terms that I think might bear fruit. In 2008, Google began an ambitious effort to digitize newspaper archives around the world. What made the pages of the Milwaukee Sentinel one day in 1955 or 1976? The Austin American-Statesman? The Robesonian? (of Lumberton, North CarolinaLike I said, ambitious).

The project didn’t last long, but the results really get my imagination going. I’m sure one day they will spark a lengthy, if slightly frivolous, research project. Lately, the pair of search terms I’ve used are the two places I’ve recently called home: Texas and Egypt.

Less than a year before Egypt’s 1952 revolution, a Texan named Glenn McCarthy took a trip to Egypt. McCarthy was only famous among Texans, but soon he would be immortalized as the character named Jett Rink in the novel Giant, and played by James Dean in the movie version. 

He was an oil tycoon, a wildcatter (he was dubbed King of the Wildcatters), who lived out the distinctly Texan variety of the American rags to riches story. When he got married at age 23, he claimed he had $1.50 in his pocket. Just after his fortieth birthday, he spent 21 million dollars to build the lavish Shamrock Hotel in Houston. He was on the cover of Time magazine, and famous for getting drunk, getting into fights and making wild business deals.

“The stereotype of the raw, hard-living, bourbon-swilling, fistfighting, cash-tossing, damn-the-torpedoes Texas oil millionaire did not exist before Glenn McCarthy rocketed into the national imagination in the late 1940s,” explains Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough. “No other Texas oilman ever rose so high or fell so hard.”

But McCarthy knew that oil wouldn’t be an endless resource in Texas. So, like many of his contemporaries, he looked east, to the Middle East, as the new place the world would go for oil and the fortunes that would come with it.

In 1951, McCarthy went to Egypt, and attempted to buy a 51% share of the National Petroleum Company, which was mostly controlled by the British. Less than a year later, his oil fortunes would crumble, only in part because Gamal Abdel Nasser, leading a group of army officers, took over Egypt in a 1952 coup and nationalized the oil industry.

When I found that picture above, which is in Burrough’s history of Texas oil wealth, The Big Rich (a great read), I wanted to know what it was like for Glenn McCarthy when he came here. What did this once poor, now ostentatiously wealthy Texan think of Egypt? Of the Pyramids? Of the bustling streets of Cairo when he visited in 1951? How did the man who once had $1.50 to his name feel when he realized he could impact the entire economy of a country of millions? 

Photo from Vanity Fair

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