A “Giant” of a Grand Opening for Shamrock Hotel—
Houston History Revisited on St. Patrick’s Day
Houston’s vibrant social scene is always in the center of our preeminent events, especially those that draw us national attention. Held in reverence as one of the greatest and celebrated events in our history is the Grand Opening of the Shamrock Hotel on St. Patrick’s Day of 1949. Designed by Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick, the 1,100-room behemoth towered eighteen stories over the raw plains surrounding the fledgling Texas Medical Center. Its shamrock-green-tile pitched roof was an iconic Houston landmark for the next 37 years. Conceived by oil wildcatter Glenn McCarthy as a city-sized hotel─scaled for conventions─with a luxurious resort atmosphere, “The Shamrock” was the largest hotel in the U.S. It boasted a 5,000-square-foot Art Deco lobby paneled in burled mahogany, a 1,000-car garage and 25,000-square-foot exhibition hall. Amid its lavishly landscaped and flowered garden─designed by Ralph Ellis Gunn─dwelt the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool, which accommodated speedboats for exhibition waterskiing and featured a 3-story diving platform with an open spiral staircase. Over the decades, hanging out at the pool was a social occasion in itself for Houston’s upper class. In today’s dollars, the hotel’s $21-million cost translates into approximately $230 million. For a frame of reference, Tilman Fertitta’s lavish Post Oak at Uptown Hotel’s 38-story, five-star complex (with twice the number of floors) has been said to have cost between $350-$400 million.
Who was Glenn McCarthy? Once with less than $1.50 to his name, McCarthy’s was definitely a “rags-to-riches” story. Between 1931 and 1942, this Beaumont-born (on Christmas Day) oil prospector struck oil 38 times (after one failed attempt) near Anahuac, Texas. His investment strategy was both aggressive and legendary. In 1941, he bought land where the future Astrodome would be built and 4,800 acres of what became Sharpstown. His phenomenal oilfield success (and good luck?) earned him the nickname “Diamond Glenn” and “The King of the Wildcatters.” His new-found entrepreneurial wealth and charismatic persona drew much attention (both good and bad) from the national media. Glenn used his popularity and eccentric personality to the extreme when he launched the Shamrock Hotel.
On March 17, 1949, McCarthy launched his vision to the public with media coverage that no Houstonian had seen at that time (and perhaps since in the celebrity department). Two-thousand Houstonians paid $42 (around $500 in today’s dollars) to attend what was widely publicized as “Houston’s Biggest Party!” This million-dollar gala ($10.5 million today) brought in celebrities from both coasts─many being flown into town on McCarthy’s customized Boeing airliner, bought days earlier from Howard Hughes. Others arrived on a chartered Santa Fe Super Chief train. An estimated crowd of 50,000 gathered outside the hotel to see the ribbon cutting and get a glimpse of the many stars arriving for the festivities. Luminaries caught on camera included Ginger Rogers, Dorothy Lamour, Pat O’Brien, Hedda Hopper, Robert Preston, Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Houston Gossip Columnist Maxine Mesinger, and many more. The paying guests enjoying the event and its entertainers were soon overwhelmed and overcrowded as more than 1,000 additional people found a way to “crash” the party and steal seats from tables when people got up to walk around. Mayor Oscar Holcombe and his wife ended up in a hallway sitting on a couch after their chairs were stolen. He was quoted as saying, “It was the worst mob scene I have ever witnessed.” Houston Chronicle Women’s Editor Eleanor Wakefield said, “It was bedlam in diamonds, furs, satins and laces!” Life Magazine called it “…the most dazzling exhibition of evening dresses and big names ever seen in Texas. Everyone had to concede that it was quite a party and quite a hotel.” The Shamrock Hotel’s Grand Opening is still considered by many to be one of the biggest and best social events in Houston’s history!
McCarthy’s fascinating personage caught the eye of famed author Edna Ferber, who in 1952 was writing her soon-to-be-celebrated novel, Giant. She patterned her character Jett Rink (played by James Dean in the 1956 movie) after McCarthy, and the hotel was referred to as “The Conquistador.”
In the hotel’s heyday, celebrity singers such as Dorothy Lamour performed in the hotel’s Emerald Room nightclub, push-button radios sent recorded music to each room through a then-state-of-the-art, in-house system, and “Saturday at the Shamrock” was a nationally broadcasted radio program. With its surfeit of rooms to fill, occupancy rates declined after the opening honeymoon, and the hotel was seldom ever fully booked. McCarthy had to borrow heavily against his assets and defaulted on a loan, which allowed the hotel to be acquired by Equitable Life Assurance Society, but the social set still kept “Houston’s Riviera” hopping. The private Cork Club featured Frank Sinatra several times and reportedly helped seal many oil deals (and fist fights!). The Andrews Sisters’ Patty Andrews launched her brief solo career in the Emerald Room, as other notables continuing to visit the hotel included Humphrey Bogart, Liberace, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore.
Hilton Hotels assumed management of the hotel in 1954 and launched Texas’ first Trader Vic’s Restaurant inside the hotel, which continued to draw crowds until 1985. Debutante balls, barbecues, business meetings and charity fundraisers continued to keep the hotel busy as a preferred choice of a “status” venue for many Houstonians’ events. But by June 1987 the gleam had faded, and the hotel was demolished─the swimming pool transformed into a parking lot. For someone who had been so publicly active, Glenn McCarthy and his wife retired quietly to La Porte, Texas, where he passed away the following year, one day after his 81st birthday. An eventful and exciting life for one of Houston’s original “Wildcatters!”
Beautiful Shamrock Memories from Legendary Houstonians:
Television personality Warner Roberts modeled in many fashion shows at the Shamrock. She remembers fondly the Edith Head Shows presented by Neiman Marcus when the famous fashion (and movie-costume) designer had Warner model the gown that Mae West wore in “Diamond Lil.” Warner also walked the runway in the gown Zsa Zsa Gabor wore in “The Big Top.” Warner said, “Years later, I would interview Glenn McCarthy for what was called his last interview, in the lobby of the Shamrock Hilton in 1986. I had met him on several occasions but had never interviewed him, and I remember him still as charismatic, quick-witted and of course, very interesting. My husband Bob remembers going to the Shamrock with many friends to swim in the mammoth pool and attending nightclub shows starring Eddie Fisher, Tony Bennett and Roger Williams.”
Houston luminary Linda McReynolds vividly remembers chairing the last Junior League Charity Ball held in the hotel. Linda remembers, “The gala encompassed three nights. The first night was a cocktail reception. The second night was a full ball and the third night was a mirror image of the second night. Over 1,800 people attended the events. My memories of the hotel have always been happy. It was a very special place!”
Social stalwart Margaret Alkek Williams said, “All my recollections of the Shamrock were wonderful and happy. My family and I thoroughly enjoyed being there many times over the years!”
The legendary Honorable Joanne King Herring recalls, “My father used to date Faustine Lee, who eventually married Glenn McCarthy. She was a lovely and very dignified lady. I was invited to the grand opening by Glenn’s nephew, but my family would not allow me to go. Through the years, we spent many marvelous evenings there listening to the top bands and Hollywood singers. The hotel was extremely elegant and evolved into a Houston gem known throughout the world!”