Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny. By Margaret Leslie Davis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Illustrations, photos, notes, bibliography. xviii + 339 pp. $35.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Christopher J. Castaneda, Associate Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento, author of Invisible Fuel: Natural and Manufactured Gas in America, 1800-2000 (forthcoming), and co-author of Builders: Herman and George R. Brown (1999)
Edward L. Doheny is known to most college students who have taken the second half of the American History survey as the man who in the early 1920s bribed Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall. In U.S. History survey texts, Doheny (along with Harry F. Sinclair) are depicted as the men who “loaned” Fall nearly $400,000 in return for lucrative drilling rights on naval petroleum reserves in Elk Hills, California and Teapot Dome, Wyoming. This scandal officially concluded when Doheny was acquitted of bribing Fall even after Fall had been found guilty of accepting bribes from Doheny and Sinclair!
While this infamous episode is the centerpiece of Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny, author Margaret Leslie Davis offers a very readable, if not sympathetic, biographical study of a significant entrepreneur. Davis has carefully examined secondary sources and conducted research in previously unmined sources to augment with personal context the standard historical legacy of Doheny the crook.
As a young man in the 1880s, Doheny worked as a prospector in New Mexico silver mines. During these years, he first met Albert Fall, a fellow miner. But Doheny did not find his fortune in silver, so he moved to California with his wife, Carrie. In Los Angeles, he observed wagon loads of “brea,” or pitch, being transported from a location near Westlake Park to an ice factory where it was used as a fuel in place of coal. Doheny realized immediately that mining petroleum from the brea pits was a much better proposition than prospecting silver. With a former partner, he entered the oil business and learned through trial and error how to drill wells. Before long, he was selling oil to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway as a substitute for coal.
Doheny’s single-minded attention to his rapidly growing oil business meant that his wife felt abandoned and isolated. In 1899, she left Doheny, took their son to San Francisco, and filed for divorce. The next year, Doheny met a new love, Carrie Estelle Betzold, a young telephone operator who handled many of Doheny’s phone calls. Doheny married Estelle, and not long afterwards his ex-wife committed suicide by drinking battery acid. Estelle also complained to Doheny about his extended work-related absences from home, but she occupied her time with raising Doheny’s son and creating a luxurious abode for the family.
Doheny’s railroad industry contacts informed him about possible oil fields in Mexico. There, Doheny recognized an opportunity, albeit fraught with difficult technological and political obstacles, “to create a giant international concern that would produce, refine, market and transport oil to buyers throughout the world.” (p. 36) In this quest, Doheny navigated the highest political circles in Mexico.
By the close of the second decade of the twentieth century, Doheny was a nationally prominent oil man. From here, Davis goes into great detail in recounting the background, and events, of the Albert Fall oil scandal. Disclosure of the apparent exchange of personal “loans” for drilling rights in naval petroleum reserves led to an intense U.S. Senate investigation and numerous trials over many years. For Doheny’s final trial on bribery, his son, Ned, who had carried the $100,000 cash “loan” to Fall, was scheduled to testify. Tragically, Ned’s personal assistant murdered Ned and then committed suicide before this trial began. Subsequently, Doheny was acquitted of bribery, but he was heart-broken and gradually descended into a state of physical and mental disability. As a tribute to his son, the father provided funds for the establishment of the Edward L. Doheny Memorial library at the University of Southern California.
In this biography, Davis describes Doheny’s personal life and career in friendly terms. She believes that Doheny has unfairly been excluded from the legendary ranks of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and other more well known U.S. “financial and industrial giants” (p. 283) in large part because of the stigma that the oil scandal attached to his name. This is not a convincing argument. Rockefeller’s name was associated with corruption and cut-throat business practices from his earliest ventures in the oil industry. Carnegie’s mishandling of the Homestead Steel Mill strike, for example, forever tarnished his name as well. Doheny’s work was simply not as historically significant as that of the other industry creating entrepreneurs with which the author compares him; he was not an industrial first mover or great innovator. Yet, Davis is correct that Doheny’s legacy is misunderstood. He helped develop the oil industry in both California and Mexico, and he left a significant philanthropic legacy. This is an engaging story well told which adds context and a human face to the life of a man known in history texts only for a bribe.