“Diamond Glenn” McCarthy
In the late 1940s, as stereotypes about Texans shifted from millionaire Longhorn cattle ranchers to oil barons, people started calling “Diamond Glenn” McCarthy the reigning King of the Wildcatters.
Some historians say the $21 million hotel McCarthy opened in 1949 put Houston on the map – and that the character Jett Rink in the 1952 novel Giant was based on him.
Glenn H. McCarthy’s oil patch career began with a 1935 well 50 miles east of Houston. On July 21, he and partner R.A. Mason brought in the No. 1 White well with initial production of almost 600 barrels of oil a day. The well extended the already productive Anahuac field three miles to the north.
By 1945, McCarthy went on to discover 11 new oilfields and extend others. In Brazoria County a year later he drilled the highest-pressure gas well drilled to that time.
Described as a “bombastic, plucky Irishman best known for building the famous Shamrock Hotel,” the Texas independent oilman would be featured on the February 13, 1950, cover of TIME magazine.
Born in Beaumont, Texas, on December 25, 1907, Glenn H. McCarthy worked as a water boy at the age of eight in the Beaumont oilfields, where father Will McCarthy worked for a wage of fifty cents a day, according to HoustonHistory.com. The family moved to Houston in 1917.
McCarthy excelled in football at San Jacinto High School. He eventually won a football scholarship to Tulane University and later transferred to Texas A&M, the website notes. Although recruited to play fullback at Houston’s Rice Institute in his early twenties, McCarthy decided to drop out of college and enter the oil business.
McCarthy soon owned two Houston service stations. While he was pumping gas one day in 1930, the daughter of a successful oilman pulled into his station driving a Cadillac convertible. When he later eloped with Faustine Lee, he was determined to find success in oilfields without help from his father-in-law, Thomas P. Lee.
After drilling wells for other oilmen, McCarthy at age 24 drilled a wildcat well in Hardin County. The attempt was a dry hole. Others followed but “two years later he struck oil at Anahuac, near Trinity Bay on the Gulf Coast,” notes the Texas Handbook Online.
“The well could have produced 3,000 barrels of oil a day, but was only allowed twenty because of a glut in the Texas oil market,” the website adds. By the end of 1949 McCarthy had more than 400 producing oil and natural wells in Texas and was president of the United States Petroleum Association.
As his reputation as a hard-charging, hard-drinking wildcatter grew, his estimated worth reached $200 million (about $2 billion today).
A big spender increasingly known as “Diamond Glenn” McCarthy, he produced a movie, “The Green Promise,” starring fellow Irishman Walter Brennan and a new star, Natalie Wood. His friends included Errol Flynn, Pat O’Brien, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Dorothy Lamour, Howard Hughes Jr., and Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Airlines.
In addition to his McCarthy Oil and Gas Company. McCarthy would eventually own the Beaumont Gas Company, the Houston Export Company, KXYZ Radio, the McCarthy Chemical Company, the McCarthy International Tube Company, fourteen newspapers, a magazine, a movie-production company, two banks and the Shell Building in downtown Houston.
Constructed between 1946 and 1949, the 18-story, 1,100-room Shamrock Hotel was the largest in the United States. McCarthy spent $21 million to build it. He spend another $1 million for its opening day gala on St. Patrick’s day.
The Shamrock’s opening made Houston a star overnight, one newspaper reported the next day, March 18, 1949. The opening gala – where McCarthy also introduced his own label of “Wildcatter” bourbon – was dubbed Houston’s biggest party.
“The hotel had a shamrock motif, 63 shades of green colors in the interiors, the reception desk pen wrote in green ink, the Steinway piano in the lobby was green, out front, above the entrance, Irish flags flapped in the breeze. The Shamrock was something to see,” noted one observer.
Although built far from the downtown business district, something unheard of at the time, more than 5,000 attended (invited and uninvited) the hotel’s opening. McCarthy arranged for a Santa Fe Super Chief 16-car train to bring his Hollywood friends to help him celebrate.
A headline in the Houston Press proclaimed, “Glittering Shamrock Debut Transformed into Champagne-Popping ‘Subway’ Rush.” Events of the evening before at the new Shamrock Hotel were indeed unlike anything Houstonians had witnessed before, explains a 2011 article in the Houston Business Journal.
“The hotel had a swimming pool large enough to accommodate water-skiing demonstrations, a lobby the size of a football field with Brazilian mahogany paneling carved from one gigantic tree, and a television set in every room, notes reporter Betty T. Chapman. Houston had only one station at the time with very limited programming.
The Shamrock’s Emerald Room would soon rival Las Vegas with headliners like Frank Sinatra, Burns and Allen and Sophie Tucker. On opening night, actress Dorothy Lamour agreed to broadcast the festivities.
“Part of the entertainment was a live broadcast of Dorothy Lamour’s national radio show from the Emerald Room,” Chapman reports. “Lamour was shut off the air after 10 minutes because of colorful language used by a network engineer in Chicago referring to the poor transmission from Houston’s station.”
Although the show resumed, Chapman says, “the incident gave the Shamrock opening some notoriety that would become part of its ongoing legend.” From 1949 to 1953, a national radio show, “Saturday at the Shamrock,” was broadcast from the Emerald Room – the only regularly scheduled national radio show to broadcast from Texas.
McCarthy once said he built his hotel to last 100 years, but the Shamrock was demolished in 1987 by the Houston Medical Center, which had bought it from the Hilton hotel chain. Despite his years of success, by 1952 he had found himself overextended and in debt.
Although he would recover financially, in 1955 he sold the Shamrock to the Hilton Hotels Corporation. McCarthy lived to see it torn down and turned into a parking lot.
In his later years, Glenn McCarthy lived a quiet life in a modest two-story house near La Porte. He died on December 26, 1988, and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery next to his wife, Faustine.
The legend lives on, notes the Houston Business Journal, “because on one March night in 1949, the Shamrock introduced Houston as a dynamic city of the future to the rest of the nation.”
The Journal also notes that according to a Vanity Fair article, “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.”
Read the Vanity Fair article excerpted from the 2009 book The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, by Bryan Burrough.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.