The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 98, July 1994 - April, 1995

Southwestern Historical Quarterly

Biles should be congratulated both for writing a rather brief synthesis of the
New Deal in the south and for reminding other historians how much original re-
search and writing is still needed to tell the story of the recent south and Texas.
Texas A&M University ROBERT A. CALVERT
Gus Wortham: Portrait of a Leader. By Fran Dressman. (College Station: Texas
A&M University Press, 1994. Pp. xvi+284. Acknowledgments, preface, fore-
word, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN o-89096-580-3. $29.95.)
Gus Wortham was an influential Houston businessman who wielded signifi-
cant power within his city and in Texas politics during the four decades before
his death in 1976. Fran Dressman has investigated Wortham's career as an insur-
ance executive, philanthropist, and power broker in a judicious and evenhanded
way. Using the extensive archives of Wortham's American General insurance
company and other public and private manuscript collections, she provides a
clear and informative narrative about Wortham's diverse economic, political,
and cultural activities.
The core of the book is an examination of Wortham's career as an insurance
executive. Dressman has mastered the rather dry record of how Wortham built
his enterprise, and she has performed a task that will not need to be repeated.
The interconnections of companies, types of insurance, and Wortham's role are
well outlined, but the resulting story will be most rewarding to devotees of unal-
loyed business history.
Wortham's corporate activities naturally involved him in the politics of Hous-
ton and Texas. The author makes clear that Wortham moved in the highest cir-
cles of state government and knew most of the major players. What he did with
his power, however, remains elusive. Wortham and Lyndon Johnson had a long-
standing political friendship, but Dressman does not make clear who gained
more from their relationship. Why, for example, did Wortham support Johnson
so strongly in his 1948 Senate race against Coke Stevenson? Dressman notes that
Wortham wrote Johnson about the Bricker amendment in 1953, but where the
insurance executive stood on the issue remains uncertain. While Wortham was
involved in the effort to keep liberal Democrats in Texas from gaining influence
in the party during the 195os, Dressman leaves unanswered the question of
whether he was a leader or a follower in this political battle.
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Wortham does not seem to have been a
reflective or perceptive thinker beyond the economic ventures to which he was
devoted. From his ignorance of the artistic side of the operas he supported as
well as his willingness to tamper with academic freedom as a regent of North
Texas State University, he seems more of a philistine than Dressman's professed
ideal of the modern southern gentleman. As a result, the book is stronger on
what Wortham did than on what he thought about his impact on his city, state,
and nation. Dressman does her best to make Wortham's prejudices understand-
able, but she acknowledges that a strong vein of paternalism marked his treat-
ment of African Americans, women, and those Texans with fewer economic

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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 98, July 1994 - April, 1995. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101216/. Accessed November 26, 2014.