I am a lifelong rancher and I plan to tell a rancher's tale, avoiding, if I can, the garrulousness associated with my kind. It is about my employer, King Ranch, and the brains and heart at its focus, Bob Kleberg, how he guided it into a period in its 140-year history that made it unique to American agricultural enterprise. Mine is the oftentimes fruitful, sometimes tragic, story of that era, why and how the ranch grew from a typical South Texas range cattle operation, albeit quite a large one, to a global agribusiness conglomerate managed by this cattleman genius. He organized ranching ventures in nine countries, along an earth-circling cattle trail from Australia to Africa to Latin America, over a span of fifteen years, expanding and consolidating them in his remaining five.
Then he mounted for his ride to Valhalla, leaving to his extended family his worldwide legacy to do with as they willed. Piecemeal, over the next decade and a half, they sold off the bulk of it. From Texas to Texas in less than forty years—an empire that ended as suddenly and as breathtakingly as a stampede. The world's few international agricultural enterprises tend to permanence. His must have been unique for its brevity.
My forty years with King Ranch—December 1948 to precisely December 1988—spanned this unparalleled epoch. Much of my career I was the assistant to Bob Kleberg, the chief executive, architect, and overlord of his 15-million-acre domain. So my story will be about the ways he went about his work and how I and others provided him sets of hands to accomplish it.
The focus will largely be on the period in Mr. Kleberg's life that brought me into his orbit, from the early 1950s to 1974. To provide this view of the pace he set for himself, I must jump across time zones and continental boundaries in not seeming but actual disarray; that was the way life was during those tumultuous and fascinating decades.
In a day we shifted through all five gears: from hours upon boring hours waiting on telephone connections (the international fax was down the road a bit), to the exhilaration of being boosted into the substrato sphere in the posh comfort of a Grumann G-2 jet (surely one of the nobler technological utensils)—or bouncing in the back of a Toyota four-wheeler over an unfenced semiarid plain, or under the canopy of a steaming rain forest, or holed up in a palm-thatched lean-to to let a sudden downpour pass, or doing our laundry in camp water dirtier than our shirts.
But it was worth the toss, as our Australian mates say. For in these seemingly haphazard circumstances, Bob Kleberg eventually reached a moment and a place where he got out of the Toyota, walked out a way, folded his arms across his chest, and—eyeing mainly untended land that he had walked over, dug into, smelled, assessed—projected on the screen in his mind a picture of fat cattle grazing tall grass. By just watching the back of his head under the faded Stetson, we too witnessed a transformation—raw land into beef. Then those of us around him pitched in to turn his visions into creations of splendid proportions, the King Ranch chain of foreign operations.
At the end of most of the chapters, I have included a diversion, an intentional one. Bob Kleberg bore the burden and reaped the benefits of the King Ranch's near-legendary name, symbolic of our country's unique western culture. It became almost a cliché that visiting the ranch was the best glimpse one could get of American ranching life; it wasn't—many attributes of King Ranch business were not typical of the livestock norm. In the early 1950s, Bob tried to explain this to Miss Edna Ferber when he denied her request to come and settle down at the headquarters to do, in her words, a book on a "typical Texas ranch." Her interpretations of the word "typical," as she detailed them in her best-selling novel Giant, Bob and Helen were forced to live with for over a decade.
More recently in the public mind, the TV series Dallas became the stereotype of the family-owned Texas spread. Some of our visitors have appeared downright disappointed that they didn't step into an evil empire where Kleberg pursued Kleberg with invective, stiletto, and gun.
The upshot of these commonly held erroneous beliefs was that they brought us a steady stream of visitors—there were few days when from one to several hundred did not pass through the front gate. Bob was generous in the extreme with his time with them, accommodating his schedule to them at every opportunity. Strangely, most of his management people did not follow his example; they were more likely to shy away, making excuses that their business of the day was too pressing to interrupt even when the visitor might be on the ranch to study their particular field of work. So it most often fell to me to break into whatever I was doing to look after them, and as it turned out, I, along with the boss, benefited from these worldwide contacts. The friends I made are my lifetime's richest reward.
Their backgrounds were as varied as their numbers: presidents and princes, reigning monarchs and deposed ones, ministers, business leaders, artists, entertainers, learned doctors, students, ne'er-do-wells sent off on world tours to get them out of the family hair, lots and lots of attractive ladies. I have chosen a few among them to represent this important facet of King Ranch life. Rather than being typical of the flow, these are some of the ones who interested me.
They often appeared on very short, sometimes no, notice, and that's the way I'll introduce them here—as interruptions in the flow of events in Bob's and the ranch's routine.
So together let's explore American ranching, the finest our world has ever seen, as it unfolded in an immeasurably exciting way under the hand of the man who was, for over half a century, at its pinnacle.
I had had about all I could take—my hide, thin at the outset, had been peeled away in layers, my nerve ends exposed; I was a cadaverous zombie for lack of sleep. From the time this trip had begun two weeks ago, relations between my boss, Bob Kleberg, and me had jutted up and down the graph like the daily stock market averages, changing every fifteen minutes, markedly declining. Too many people with too many agendas were bidding for the old boy's attention, while he by turns was distracted by his three older grandchildren, an assortment of pretty girlfriends, and an assortment of bottles.
Lifting off from Kingsville on a spring day in 1974, Bob had aboard his jet his Brazilian partner, Dr. Augusto Antunes, and the doctor's assistant, Ambassador Barbosa da Silva and his wife, King Ranch do Brasil president Francis Herbert, and his granddaughter Helen Alexander. Landing in Houston, we exchanged the Barbosa da Silvas for a ravishing Mexican friend named Sandra Riverole—next leg, to Manhattan. By the time we had unpacked, a cadre of glittering types had ascended to the King Ranch suite on the thirty-seventh floor of the Pierre Hotel, drinks aplenty, a move to the 21 Club—heavy food, heavy conversation, to bed at 1:30, one of the earlier nights.
The ensuing days varied little in context and substance, a great deal in time and place. In New York, grandfather said good-bye to the others, escorted aboard Helen, and two more grandchildren, John and Emory Alexander, and the five of us headed out over the Atlantic bound for Madrid. Waiting at the Ritz was George Moore, the recently retired chairman of the board of First National City Bank. George still is to the top echelon of entrepreneurship as the Zambezi in monsoon is to Victoria Falls: in his enthusiasm he cascades over the precipice, obscuring the fundamentals in a rising mist of words. His proposal at the time was for his friend Bob to go into business with Iran (Iran, my God!—but George was a great friend and adviser of the Shah), either by selling the Iranians part of Bob's holdings in Argentina or by buying a property there and managing it for them. Bob: "No."
"No? Well, then, try this one. Iran buys a property in Kenya and King Ranch comes in to run it for them." Bob loved Kenya. "I like that one. Let's have a drink"—and a drink—and a drink.
From Madrid we headed for King Ranch, España, on the frontier west of Seville. Bob's Spanish friends found us, Mercedes and helicopter loads of men with their wives or girlfriends in tow. They were ready for a day's sight-seeing and partying, maybe two; then they returned to their tightknit business and social worlds and were replaced by the next batch of partygoers. A pleasant interlude for them, an endurance contest for us. Bob fell ill of a stomach complaint—sadly, we did not give it the attention it eventually merited. After all, his innards had every reason to complain at the fluids he had been pouring into them. We were wrong in not watching him more closely; his ever-darkening mood was a warning I didn't heed.
His bickering and complaints intensified, some directed at me, with reason. I was helping him to bed most nights and returning to his guests for another two or three hours of conviviality. I had lost my edge; things were slipping by me.
The next leg took us to Rabat, where Bob had an appointment with King Hassan. It was bound to be confrontational—Morocco had not kept its part of an agreement with King Ranch to furnish an allotted amount of land to their joint ranching venture. In the past, Bob's meetings with His Majesty had been cordial, but he could not be looking forward to this one. Michael Hughes, the president and general manager of both the Spanish and the Moroccan operations, had located a piece of land up on the Mediterranean coast that he thought the government might acquire, a possibility for relieving the pressure somewhat. When we walked over it, Bob didn't like it—which added little to his frame of mind.
My end-of-the-line crisis came two days before the audience. Coming away from a three-hour lunch, Bob, Mike, and I were driving through a reforestation project on the outskirts of the capital. Bob, in front with the driver, had been silent, withdrawn, in a vapor; Mike and I were chatting in the back seat. Rousing himself, Bob said, "I think I'll send John home. We don't need him anymore." Then he turned and faced both of us, his eyes blank, vacant. Mike was nonplussed—I was flabbergasted. We had been together the whole day and he didn't realize I was in the car!
So to hell with him, this lousy trip, this kind of life. My mentor, the only one I had ever had aside from my father, had turned on me. Back at the hotel I made reservations, packed, and the next morning went in to tell him I was on my way. He was silent for an embarrassing minute, two, then, "I don't want you to leave." That's all.
I stayed another day, the last one for all of us. Following his afternoon meeting with the king, Bob was taking his grandchildren on a safari to eastern and southern Africa. At the hotel entrance, I watched the car door close on him and the prime minister and whistled for my driver. I could have waited over another day to take the plane from Rabat to Paris, but there was one from Casablanca in just three hours and I wanted to be on it, away from these miserable surroundings.
Three days in Paris and the rational world reclaimed me. Out over a sparkling North Atlantic, watching occasional icebergs drift past the window and make dazzling white triangles in a calm sea, I was a bit more at ease with myself, a bit more rational. What in the world could have happened to change the old boy's attitude toward not only me but every facet of his surroundings? That the change was irreversible I had little doubt. He was seventy-eight, in the grip, the mind-set, of about his only fear: old age. Yet this had come on so puzzlingly sudden; there were missing bits in the scenario.
During the next several weeks I received not a direct word from him. What course would be best for me and my growing family to take on his return? (Culminating nearly half a century of bachelorhood, I had married Patricia Riba y Rincon Gallardo of Mexico City and entered another exciting world, a distinctly different culture. We had a son and were expecting our second child in just a few months. Was I to let two weeks color a relationship of twenty-six years, even though they were the latest, most decisive two weeks? In my mind, a scale weighed that minuscule period of time against two decades and more of watching a genius put together unparalleled accomplishments. Those accomplishments, the paths leading to them, for me began like this ...
On a balmy fall evening in October 1953, 150 guests, the top ranchers in Texas and around the world, together with an elite group of animal and range scientists, overflowed the dining room and the large central patio in the main house on King Ranch. It was a black tie occasion, the closing night of a conference rather cumbersomely titled "Breeding Beef Cattle in Unfavorable Environments." The gathering was commemorating the centenary of the King Ranch's founding, and the previous four days had been taken up with reading eighteen scientific papers, each on some aspect of producing beef in tropical and subtropical climates, presented by seventeen of the most eminent agricultural researchers of our generation. The papers were interspersed with field trips—to roundups, to inspect the pastures and the herds and the bands of horses, and to see the wildlife. The nights were for partying.
Now the symposium was closing with an address by the president and general manager of the ranch, Robert Justus Kleberg, Jr. His speech that night was long; it was read, delivered in a monotone, in marked contrast to the opening remarks made four days earlier by his brother, Richard M. Kleberg, the chairman of the board, whose ability on his feet was legendary. Bob had anguished over putting into words the ideas that had taken a lifetime to mature in his mind. Rereading them, I find that he said the things that I later learned he most deeply felt, regardless of the delivery. They have as much import for our world of the 1990s, restructuring itself from its forty-year division into Communist/Free World camps, as they had for his divided, divisive world of the 1950s.
Today our civilization is advancing ... in the direction of an increased world population. Food, always important to the progress of civilization, has taken on a new significance, a new dimension. Not only is food important to human progress, but today food is important in and to human affairs. Food has become an effective instrument of diplomacy. More than ever before food has become a weapon of peace.
... We believe that the future expansion of large-scale beef production will be in the wet and dry tropics and the semidesert areas of the world. That is where the largest undeveloped regions lie.
We must operate within our sphere to contribute the most possible to the common-good effort that is man's struggle for freedom—for freedom from hunger, for freedom from oppression.
My association with him, from that evening until the end of his life, reaffirmed for me over and over that he was speaking from his intellect and from his heart. He truly sought, in his past accomplishments and in his plans ahead, to do his part to nurture his fellow humans, pretentious as it sounds.
The conference closed; everyone rose from the tables. Bob was standing in the dining room doorway sharing a much-needed glass of champagne with Holland McCombs, a former editor in the Time-Life-Fortune group who had helped him with his speech, when I happened by on an errand. I had knocked my brains out over the past several weeks, helping to put this thing together and acting as nonstop gofer while it was under way. Bob knew this and he caught me: "Stop whatever you're doing and have a drink with us."
I raised my glass to congratulate him on the things he had said. He didn't thank me; his assessment: "I got through it."
I have since wondered if that night he realized that at fifty-seven, with a full lifetime's accomplishments behind him, he was embarking on enterprises that in themselves would have been a full life's accomplishment.
To assess his remaining twenty-one years, let's examine briefly the elements that made this particular Kleberg the man who could, with the faith and confidence he expressed in his speech, with élan and with dispatch, create a string of jewellike ranches to girdle the world's temperate and tropical waist.
The son of King Ranch manager Robert J. Kleberg, Sr., and grandson of the founder, Captain Richard King, Robert, Jr., was born just before the century ended, on March 29, 1896, born, as it turned out, to transform the Captain's legacy. Having adjusted to his calling (he told me that in college he had wanted to study electrical engineering), he first had to pass through the character-forming seasoning that eventually prodded his own household into placing the mantle of authority on him.
Alice, Captain King's youngest daughter, had married Robert, Sr., and borne him two sons and three daughters, all living in the mansion of the matriarchal owner of the ranch, the widowed, revered grandmother, Henrietta M. King. From an office in her home, armed with his mother-in-law's power of attorney, Robert, Sr., managed her considerable holdings. Bob was the younger brother of a more-favored child, Richard M. Kleberg; he grew up overshadowed by his older sibling. Childhood photos, brown and faded, tell part of the story; they picture young Dick as handsome as a 1920s movie idol, sitting his horse ramrod straight, his chin high. Bob had a relaxed slouch in the saddle—his head low, his hat propped on his ears—that did nothing for his image. Hardly any of those early pictures show him smiling.
Dick knew everyone; he had a ready, cheerful word for his myriad Latin and Anglo friends. Completely bilingual, he cultivated a lyrical form of speech in both Spanish and English that made him the most sought after orator in our part of the country—"orator" being a term still used in Mr. Richard's best years. This talented man—it seemed that everything he put his mind to came easy for him—never fully explored those talents; he wore them like a bush jacket, casual and easy. Trained in the law, in 1931 he was elected to Congress from our district and made his contribution to ranching from a Washington base. While constrained by his opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and some of the president's New Deal programs, Mr. Richard was able to make contributions where his expertise counted. A notable one was his sponsorship of the Duck Stamp Act; this pioneering legislation in the fields of ecology and wildlife management is still providing funds to support the preservation of waterfowl habitats. With years of perseverance, he was able to convince the Department of Agriculture to recognize the Santa Gertrudis breed as the first to be developed in the U.S., an achievement that had brother Bob's eternal gratitude.
By Contrast, Bob was not at all versed in words or at ease with strangers. To compensate, he had a will as hard and durable as a forged horseshoe—and the incentive, the intensity, the brains, the ability to focus his concentration, and the overpowering energy to excel by unremitting hard work.
Mrs. King's ranch foreman was a bachelor named Sam Ragland, respected in our region for his knowledge of livestock and of men. As a part of Bob's early training, his father sent his young son over to the bachelor quarters near the main home to live in a room next to Sam. It could have been an astute move on the part of the elder Kleberg; even as an unseasoned youth Bob did not see eye to eye with his father on many things. They did not share a philosophic view of the ranch's management and direction under the South Texas conditions of the early 1900s; shifting quarters must have reduced those tensions. So days in camp and nights in the bachelor digs, Sam tutored his young charge in the basic things, in turning grass into beef. From Sam, Bob mastered the fundamentals.
Mr. Kleberg chose the University of Wisconsin for his son to attend on completing high school in nearby Corpus Christi; it was one of the leading agriculture institutions in the country. Bob was enrolled for two years, a good time in his life. But by 1916 the war clouds were roiling over the U.S., and his father ordered Bob home, got him an agricultural exemption from the draft, and put him to work. This was a mistake that darkened the rest of young Bob's life. The Klebergs were of German origin, so the local loudmouths branded Bob and his brother draft dodgers with enemy sympathies, an undeserved smear that lasted long after the war was over. It was a tragedy that need not have happened; Bob very likely would have enjoyed the military experience—he would have made one hell of a cavalryman. Only once did he speak to me of this; even after five decades, his temper and his anguish flared at an act that was not of his doing. The local harassment tended for many years to isolate Bob on the ranch, away from the people in the village of Kingsville that his grandmother and father had founded. It was possibly the reason he had but few local friends.
In 1900, Mrs. King brought Caesar Kleberg, a nephew of Robert, Sr., to South Texas to work for her. It was cousin Caesar who was to most profoundly influence young Bob's life. Though Caesar was the older, the two became lifelong, binding companions. Caesar was another bachelor and another outgoing Kleberg—his friends were legion, embracing every spectrum of American life. He and Bob shared the same interests: cattle, horses, wild game, and improving the land. Bob's contributions to each of these placed him above his peers in ranching; Caesar, the mentor with the remarkably level head, guided him along the way. Caesar managed the south half of the ranch, and Bob was the general manager from the headquarters on the north end. Their homes were forty miles apart. When a problem of any proportion arose, Bob did not let the distance interfere; he set out to talk it over with Caesar.
Many years after Caesar died, I glimpsed the depth of this Bob/Caesar bond, at Aqueduct racetrack on a summer afternoon in 1970. During this particular season, racing was dominated by an outstanding colt named Buckpasser. (The second-best horse was Buffle, owned by King Ranch.) Buckpasser was winning everything, as he did the feature event this particular afternoon. Shortly after the race, an agent came by Bob's box to try to interest him in buying a breeding share in Buckpasser's syndicate when the stallion retired to stud (a share representing the right to breed one mare a year to the syndicated horse. The agent didn't get the time of day, just a short reply and a dismissal.
That night Bob had invited a group of eight or nine to dinner at the 21 Club, his perennial watering hole in Manhattan. Over drinks, I asked him why he wasn't interested in getting a breeding to a proven champion like Buckpasser. He got mad at me, telling me I knew so little about racehorses that he couldn't explain it on my level. "Not only that, Buckpasser's not syndicated!"
This took me aback; I asked if he didn't remember being approached about purchasing a share that afternoon.
"John, how long have you known me?" "Well, I suppose nearly all my life."
"Then you should goddam well know I never listen to anybody!" and he turned to his pretty dinner companion.
But I couldn't let this tiny portal into his character close on me. So at my peril I nudged back into the conversation.
"But at some time in your life you must have listened to someone."
He turned quiet and thoughtful for a moment, then said, "Yes, I listened to Caesar."
Let me interject here a clarification. I will be using two forms of address for Bob Kleberg: "Bob" and "Mr. Bob." When I refer to him, "Bob" will suffice. It's a short, compact name that will easily identify the principal. But when I relate conversations I had with him, he will be "Mr. Bob." On the ranch, especially among his employees and those a generation younger than he, he was "Mr. Bob," a uniquely southern-southwestern form of address, evolved over time to render respect for one's elders. In our region, it is never misconstrued as subservience. To Spanish speakers, here and in Latin America, he was "Don Roberto." By my father I was taught to use "Mr." Even though his friends and employees in the East and overseas, many younger than I, called him "Bob," I never varied from the "Mr. Bob" I had become accustomed to in my youth.
Regarding his attachment for Caesar, I sensed an ambivalence in Bob's perceptions of his family. On the one hand, he made it the focus of his thought and work; his dedication was to leaving the ranch in perpetuity to his relatives and their descendants. He looked on his family as the sole heirs and future managers of their inheritance; it was so much a part of his being that he often repeated, "I have no business except King Ranch business."
On the other hand, he was of two minds in his assessment of his individual kinfolk, not extending to any of them his complete trust and confidence. The only two about whom he was unreserved were Caesar and his cousin Richard King of Corpus Christi, of whom he said publicly, "The best man I have ever known." Had it not been for problems Richard King had within his immediate family that precluded his putting his inheritance into King Ranch when it was chartered in 1934, he would have been at Bob's side in management.
Two times, Bob gave me an insight into his assessment of his relatives' abilities. On one occasion he said, "In this family, it's the women who make the difference." The other was at a roundup at Norias. We were reined in side by side, watching Adán Muñoz and Ed Durham cut yearlings. He told me, "After me, there are three people who can select and improve our cattle and horses: Adán [his chauffeur and constant companion], Helenita [his daughter], and Bobby [Shelton, his nephew]." Considering that these animals were at the center of his life, it was an accolade beyond measure.
Bob's lifelong mate equaled Sam and Caesar in molding his character. Moving at the pace he usually did when he made up his mind, in 1926 Bob courted, proposed to, and married Helen Campbell in just seventeen days. Helen was the daughter of longtime congressman Phillip Pitt Campbell of Kansas. The product of a Washington upbringing, upper-level-educated, widely traveled, Miss Helen made a place more than normally wide in her husband's and in the ranch's development.
In 1927, their daughter and only child, Helen King, was born. Though Helen passed much of her adolescence away from the ranch in school, she was a product of her parents' upbringing, loving everything about the rough-and-tumble and the intricacies of ranch life. Nor did she grow up an isolated only child; Bob and Helen raised in their household two of Helenita's cousins, B. Johnson and Bobby Shelton, the sons of Bob's youngest sister, Sarah, who was locally the most popular of the Klebergs. Three years after the birth of her elder son, Belton D. Johnson, Sarah had lost her first husband. She later married Dr. Joseph H. Shelton, and they in turn begot B.'s younger brother, Robert R. Shelton. In 1942 Sarah was tragically killed in an auto accident, and B. and Bobby were taken in by their aunt and uncle, who raised them, oversaw their education, and in every way treated them as the brothers of their daughter. All three were duly educated in the cow camp, and all three have stayed close to the ranching enterprise.
My early 1950s impression of Helen was of the ivory cool, eminently proper, straight-backed, auburn-haired, throaty-voiced mistress of the ranch, a perfectionist in dress and decorum who saw to it that those of us around her behaved the same way, husband excepted. As I began to develop habits that suited her standards, she occasionally smiled on me, a smile as radiant as her half-smile was deadly.
Miss Helen was especially a confidante and mentor of the young brides who married into her husband's family. Possibly she sought to spare them the jolting adjustments she had had to make to conform to the insular life the remote South Texas ranch demanded. Her encouragement and confidence were things to cherish, and they created in her circle as loyal and devoted a group of relatives and friends as I have ever known. But not all her in-laws succumbed to her intricate personality and her tastes. Her eastern connections, her education, and her European travels gave her an outlook that set her apart from the more provincial of Bob's relatives. For instance, she had a bias for English titles and emulated their ways, which were not the ways of her kinspeople and friends. But she toughed it outshe had that kind of fiber in her—and eventually became the dueña of a good-sized piece of Texas. For me, if I have but a few attributes of a gentleman, I am indebted to the lessons I received from her, sometimes at the symbolic back of her hand.
The wife of a rancher plays a larger role in her husband's professional life than is the norm in other occupations. The couple's relative isolation throws them together. If she is outdoor-inclined, and usually she is, since she made that choice along with her choice of suitor, she accompanies him to the cow camp and to the working pens to help on horseback, to keep records, or to keep tabs on the little ones.
Helen not only assumed this place in her husband's life on the ranch, but by years of gentle persuasion and guidance, exercising uncommon judgment on when to move in and when to back off, she broadened his horizon to encompass the world. Bob was innately provincial, a notsurprising characteristic in a young man raised on a huge spread with an open coast on one side and an unpopulated semitropical plain on the other three. She changed him, gave him an international outlook. It is my opinion that, but for Helen, Bob would not have ventured to any extent outside of Texas, though I expect that by the end of his life he would have expanded his local holdings to include a vastly larger piece of our state.