James Dean – in the movie “Giant” – tells Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor that he has struck oil. And not only that, it’s payback time.
James Dean was playing Jett Rink, a hard drinkin’, brawlin’, tough-talkin’ uncultured Texas wildcatter who struck it rich. But everybody in Texas knew that he was really playing Glen McCarthy, a Houston wildcatter, who struck it rich – cover of TIME rich. The fictional Jett Rink spent millions of dollars building the Emperador, the biggest hotel in Texas. The real life McCarthy did the same. But he called it, The Shamrock Hotel.
The Shamrock, nicknamed the Houston Riviera, was the grandest hotel in Texas when it was built, the largest outside of New York or L.A. It was 20 stories tall counting the two-story emerald SHAMROCK HOTEL sign on top. It cost $22 million in ’47. Today it would be $250 million. It had the biggest swimming pool on the planet, so large that people water-skied in it. It had 1,100 rooms, all air-conditioned, each with a TV and radio.
In 1949, McCarthy wanted to have a grand opening for his monolithic hotel. He wanted Hollywood stars. He was told that the only way Hollywood would come was if there was a movie opening to attend. But no big studio would launch a film in Texas. So he decided to fund his own Hollywood movie. In this way, he had the movie debut and hotel grand opening at the same time. And Hollywood came. Howard Hughes even gave him a good deal on one of his planes so he could fly stars to Houston. McCarthy chartered a Santa Fe party train that brought in hundreds of stars for the St. Patrick’s Day opening.
The evening was regarded as the most prestigious event in Houston social history. And it likely remains so. Everyone who was anyone was there. Ginger Rogers was there. So was Errol Flynn. It was broadcast live on national radio by NBC and hosted by the WWII pin-up Dorothy Lamour.
Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t impressed with the Shamrock’s 63 shades of Irish green. He was called it “architectural venereal disease.” But many loved the Shamrock for its sheer size and art deco style, the Emerald Nightclub where Sinatra sang, The Cork Club up top overlooking Houston, and the hotel’s grand devotion to the Irish theme.
It was sold to Conrad Hilton in 1955 and was known as the Shamrock Hilton until it was demolished in 1987. Today Texas A&M Health Sciences Center sits on the site. I think McCarthy would like that. He was, after all, an Aggie.