Nothing is more irritating than other people's possessions. The man next door may be the best friend you have in the world, but when he shows up one evening driving a new Mercedes 230-SL and beeps the two-toned horn and gives you that cavalier wave of the gloved hand, you could bust that rat-fink right in the mouth.
If this be true, then the most irritating single American has to be a fullback-sized, blandly handsome young Texan named John Mecom Jr., known to his friends as "Little John" to differentiate him from his father, who at 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds is just a size larger. Anything you can buy, Little John can buy better. You say you just bought a TR-4 with wire wheels and a windshield washer? Little John has 15 cars: Ferraris, a Lotus, a Scarab, a Lola, several De Tomaso racers, Corvettes, Mustangs, Fiats, half-tracks, full-tracks, jeeps and an Amphicar that he can drive across rivers. You say you just bought a Cessna with a retractable landing gear and a supercharger? The Mecoms have a four-engined Viscount turboprop, a Convair, a vintage B-23, helicopters, seaplanes and light planes for a grand total of 10. You say you splurged and made a down payment on that summer place in Vermont? Little John's family has two ranches in Colorado, 780,000 acres in Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico, a lavish layout with asphalt landing strip on the Mexican border in Laredo, Texas, several mansions in Houston, three hotels and a permanent suite at the Waldorf Towers in New York City. You say you went to Wyoming last year and shot an elk? Little John, at the tottering age of 25, has all but retired from hunting because he has taken every specimen of African big game except the bongo and the rhino and potting animals is beginning to pall on him. Little John has 75 pets, including lions, zebras, lesser kudus, ostriches, llamas and pussycats. He also has a beautiful (and wealthy) wife, a string of racehorses and polo ponies, a fleet of boats including the Little John (200 feet), a collection of rare guns numbering upward of 300, a home in the snooty River Oaks section of Houston and a wardrobe so tasteful and natty that he seems to think it a cardinal sin to appear more than once in any given outfit and frequently changes clothes three or four times a day just for the hell of it.
In a word, John Mecom Jr. is loaded. He is the realization of everyman's ambition times 1,000. The family fortune runs in the pleasant neighborhood of $200 million, and each year more millions come seeping out of the Mecom oil wells, the Mecom hotels, the Mecom plastics company, the Mecom natural gas pipeline, the Mecom chemical plant and other diversified Mecom interests.
But "great wealth and content seldom live together," as Thomas Fuller observed to the vast satisfaction of those of us who have to take his word for it. Do "great wealth and content" live together in young John Mecom? Happily for the worlds of competition and conservation, they do not. It is true that Little John has his gratifications: banging away at bobcats and coyotes with a Thompson submachine gun from the top of a half-track, slipping over to Bechuanaland for a go at the elephants, leading his automobile racing team to Nassau and Elkhart Lake, flying off to Jordan for a powwow with the king, galloping toward the goal on his polo pony or simply relaxing at home with his wife, Katsy, and his 15-month-old son, John III.
January 11, 1965
But he also has his inner doubts and frustrations, his angers and drives. There are problems that keep Little John lying awake at night, even as you and I and Ralph Kramden, and there are purposes and goals in his life, as well as setbacks and defeats that bedevil him. At the moment, for example, he is annoyed at General Motors and the Ford Motor Co., two organizations to which most of us can merely say, "Yes, sir," "No, sir," and "No excuse, sir." He is fighting them on all fronts and, as befits a man with $200 million behind him, he is not afraid to say so. He has his own miniature Viet Cong going against the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior. He is tilting at certain sports car powers whom he accuses of sleazy, sneaky practices. And he is enraged at the slaughter of animals and species now taking place in the emerging nations of Africa. To all of these annoyances and angers he is bringing his prodigious bankroll and his equally prodigious energies. Thus he takes his place as a new type of rich young American: one who engages in conspicuous consumption and at the same time engages in conspicuous action.
Little John is, however, a businessman first. He knows where the money comes from, and he reckons his primary job is to make it. "He puts a good business deal together," says a longtime observer of the Mecoms. "Little John knows what trees make shingles." The family's original money came from John Sr., who borrowed $700 from his mother as a young man, put down an oil well and hit. With this well as a starter, and a solid geological education as a foundation, John Sr. began drilling on the outer edges of areas regarded as used up by other drillers. By going deeper (he has drilled to 22,570 feet, a world record), Mecom Sr. found producing wells where others had abandoned dry holes and moved on. Now he is one of the half dozen richest independent operators in the world.
From Little John's early teens, he has found himself a full partner in the family enterprises. At 15, he was the courier who carried a sackful of promissory notes and liens and title searches from New York to Louisiana and back to New York to consummate the 780,000-acre land purchase along the Gulf Coast. In one of his college years he made 18 Atlantic crossings, and nowadays he is likely to spend as much time out of the country as in it, working on deals in places like Beirut and Jerusalem. He does not suffer the classical rich boy's problem of feeling worthless and guilty over using his father's money; he has been too busy helping his father earn the money for the last 10 years. "There's never a business deal that goes on that Little John doesn't sit in on," says close associate Bill Smyth, "whether it's in Yemen or Afghanistan or wherever. This boy has been putting together international contracts since he was in high school."
The business pace of the clan Mecom may be seen in the fact that every Mecom airplane is refueled instantly when it lands; the Mecoms p√®re et fils frequently land in a strange city, conduct their business in a few hours and then take off for another city and another deal before the pilot's lunch break is over. "When you work for Mecom," says Smyth, "you carry your toothbrush and your passport at all times."
Somehow Little John manages to find time and energy for sporting interests that would take the full attention of a lesser man. Three years ago he started an automobile racing team while hard-footed veteran racers stood around and guffawed; they had seen many another rich young man lose his tuxedo trying to put together a winner. A little over a year went by, and the Mecom Racing Team took its blue-and-white cars to Nassau's Speed Week and won the top three events, a feat never accomplished before. Mecom cars have since won such races as the Bridgehampton and Elkhart Lake 500s. Nowadays the Mecom team is regarded as one of the top three teams in the country, along with Carroll Shelby of Venice, Calif. (Cobra-Fords) and Jim Hall of Midland, Texas (Chevrolet-powered Chaparrals).
Little John's interest in speed dates back 10 years to the Chevrolet Corvette he owned when he was 15. He used to take it down to an abandoned blimp base in Hitchcock, Texas and open it up on the 4,000-foot runway, a practice which no one could complain about: the Mecoms owned the blimp base. When he was 20, Little John entered a few races and hill climbs and brought the wrath of the elder Mecom down on him. "I was racing Jaguar XK-150s," Little John recalls ruefully, "and a couple of people were banged up in one of the races. Of course, I've seen the same things happen playing polo and football. These are the chances you take in competition. Hell, the ceiling could fall in on us right now. But when my father found out and said nothing doing, I quit. That's all there was to it. I don't blame him." The paternal attitude was that Little John, as the only male heir (he has two sisters), was too valuable a commodity to risk being splattered all over a racecourse while trying to win a genuine simulated silver trophy worth $11.50.
Thus frustrated, Little John hired Roger Penske to drive for him, and in its first race, in 1962, the Mecom-Penske combination ran into some rare racing luck. As Little John explains it: "I bought this Ferrari Grand Touring car for Roger to drive at Nassau in the Bahama Tourist Trophy Race, and the Ferrari factory gave us the wrong car. They gave us a factory car, and it had been prepared for racing at the factory in Italy. Now, it's usually impossible to get hold of a good racing car from Ferrari if they know the car is gonna be used to race against them. Their factory cars are always tuned a little better than their customers' cars.
"But we were lucky and got one. The night before the race they realized what had happened and they tried to get the car back. We stayed up till 2 o'clock in the morning arguing with them, and finally they said that my check hadn't cleared the bank yet, so the car wasn't mine. But I knew the check had cleared; so we kept the car. Roger did three warmup laps in it and won the race and set a record."
After that success, Little John bought Lance Reventlow's Scarab, installed A. J. Foyt behind the wheel and entered a sports car race at Riverside, Calif. Fuel problems forced the Scarab out, but in its next race at Laguna Seca it took a second, followed by firsts at Nassau and Daytona Beach. The Mecom racing team was off and cornering.
John Jr.'s attitude toward racing was expressed early and often to his crews and his drivers. As he restated it recently: "There used to be a romantic thing about sports car racing, back in the old days. They used to say, 'Maybe we'll win and maybe we'll lose, but nevertheless we'll have our champagne afterward.' There was romance and glory and things like that. We don't see it quite thataway. We say don't go into it unless you can stay in it and put on a good effort to win. We feel pretty damned sure that by the time our cars leave our shop, we will win the race, barring the human element. We'd never go to a race otherwise. I don't think there's been a race yet where our cars haven't at least led. And when one of our cars drops back to second or third, either because some other car is faster or because of mechanical problems, I sometimes just pull the car out. Second or third is not what we came after. We're not in it for the romance and we're not in it for the money. We're in it to win."
At the same time, Little John keeps a balance sheet and has no intention of dumping any important increment of the family money into racing. "I learned by the example of Briggs Cunningham and Lance Reventlow," he explains. "They spent a lot of time and money and effort in racing, but the goals they were after they sure went about in a strange way: by not keeping touch with what was being spent and what was being taken in. We run on a budget, and if we never make a nickel, at least we make every effort to cut costs. We get prize money and accessory money. Right now I'm trying to negotiate a deal with Chrysler, and if that goes through we'll be cutting costs way down."
The Mecom racing team currently runs on a budget of about a quarter of a million dollars a year, and takes in about a third of that. Still, Little John figures he is ahead of the Reventlow and Cunningham balance sheets. "In three years of operation," Mecom says, "Lance spent $5 million. Whatever any promoter suggested to him, Lance'd say, 'Go ahead, do this job, do that job.' I like Lance an awful lot, but I guess he was trying to impress Hollywood and he just wound up spending an awful lot of money. Briggs Cunningham at least tried to make a business out of it. But he spent a hell of a lot of money too, and he's such a nice guy that he didn't realize that a lot of people working for him were working against him. I could name you two big car factories that had men on Briggs's payroll. This mechanic wouldn't put a wheel on tight enough and that mechanic would do something else wrong."
Not that Mecom doesn't encounter the same problem. "John Kalb [his racing team manager] and I have had to fight hard to keep our personnel straight. We've had the hangers-on that were really working for others. We've even had a driver who was on somebody else's payroll. In one race, one of my drivers made a deal with another guy to hold back my best driver and keep him from winning. People think that sports car racing is so sporting; they just don't realize what's going on. We've even had people come out to the shop at 11 o'clock at night and jump the fence to snoop around and see what we were up to. And we've had 'em come around in the daytime with Polaroid cameras to sneak pictures."
Much of Little John's fierce drive to win is aimed nowadays at Chevrolet and Ford, especially Ford, and for reasons that are not entirely clear. For a time, the Mecom cars raced almost exclusively with Chevrolet engines (a few still do). "I stuck with them for a while," Little John says bitterly, "but it became a political thing, a question of whose foot are you gonna kiss. And I don't like things like that. Now General Motors is saying that it's not involved in sports car racing, but I know that Chevrolet is helping Jim Hall and his Chaparrals [big winner at Nassau this year], and he's doing a damned good job for them. We tried to do a good job for them, too, and we spent our own damned money and we never asked them for one bit of financial help. Last year at Nassau it cost us $38,000 to race Corvettes that we'd never seen till we bought 'em from Chevrolet. They got all the publicity and they had a big increase in Corvette sales as a result. But do you think they'd say thank you for this? Do you think they'd say thanks to us for proving out the Lola Grand Touring car that beat the Ford Grand Touring car?
"We put a Chevrolet engine in one of our new cars, and then I began to realize that the help we were supposed to be getting from General Motors was going somewhere else. A lot of people thought General Motors was sponsoring us, and they have yet to pay us one nickel. We did our own research and they got the benefit of it. They gave us one engine that I could have gone down to the corner store and bought for $500, and that's all."
Little John flatly refused to talk about his imbroglio with Ford, but his intimates give one version of how the affair ended. "We'd won a few races with Chevy engines," a close friend explains, "and Ford put out feelers. They said how would you like to use Ford engines instead of Chevy engines? So we went up to Milwaukee the night before a race, and there was some brass from Ford standing around. One of their guys had had a few drinks and he didn't catch Little John's name and he made a few disparaging remarks about that rich blanking Texan and a few other remarks, and Little John was standing right next to him!
"Well, that problem was patched up, but then there were others. They sent John an engine to try out and by mistake they sent him a bill. That didn't make him too happy. And soon he got disgusted and cut the whole thing off."
Not every red-blooded American lad can take on the Ford Motor Co. (assets: $6.35 billion), but Little John is having a go at it. Not only is he chasing Ford on the racetracks, but he is building a powerboat for the sole purpose of ending Ford's dominance in the Miami-Nassau Race. "All this is competition for Ford," Little John says, "and they ought to like it. The more competition we give Ford, the more they'll work. Look what happened to General Motors. Heck, they had some fine racing material and Ford came out with a little better racing material and General Motors held back waiting for the Fords to fall apart. Well, they didn't fall apart, so all of a sudden GM had to get to work in racing. Now I think they've caught up."
Having returned the engagement rings of two of the Big Three in the automobile industry, Mecom currently is holding hands with the third. He has built a flashy new sports car named the Hussein (after the King of Jordan, where the Mecoms have oil interests), and powered it with a 500-hp Chrysler "Hemi" engine, by far the most powerful engine on the sports car circuit. He is dickering with Chrysler for free engines (worth about $68,000 a year to the team) and already has taken delivery on one.
The radically designed blue Hussein, driven for Mecom by A. J. Foyt, has yet to win in three starts, but it has had all of racing's entrepreneurs standing on tippy-toe watching. "We're not discouraged in the slightest," says Little John. "It always takes a half dozen races to sort a car out, and the Hussein is coming along fine. "The first predictions about the car were that it would disintegrate when Foyt applied 500 hp to 1,600 pounds of car. Says Team Manager John Kalb: "People said all sorts of things when we wheeled it out for the first races: that we wouldn't be able to stop it, that it would become airborne, that the gearbox would be ripped apart by the torque, that there was too much weight in the back and it would hang out on a corner and keep right on going, and the car just generally wouldn't handle. Well, the car has handled fine so far, it's little things like carburetion problems that have been bothering us. When the car's been on the course, it's passed everybody. Jimmy Clark said he'd never been passed so fast in his life as he was by the Hussein. And it leaves such a turbulence behind it that nobody can tailgate on it. We figure the car'll do 220 flat out, but that's more speed than we'd ever need and probably more than anybody could handle, even A. J."
Little John's ambition of the moment is to take the bugs out of the Hussein and clobber Ford-and Chevy-powered cars on the sports car circuit, and then put the Hussein into limited production: "Six or eight a year at $15,000 to $18,000 each," he says. That would move the Mecom Racing Team into the black and enable young Mecom to turn his attention to another of his vendettas, and a more benevolent one: the preservation and improvement of the vanishing species of world game. Little John's interest in wildlife goes back to childhood, when he raised, among other animals, cheetahs, ocelots, a jaguar and a sea lion, and not without incident. One New Year's Eve his ocelot got loose and strolled into a house where a party was in full swing. The man of the house grabbed a shotgun and fired five shots at the friendly animal, missing every time but creating some interesting avant-garde patterns in the woodwork.
A few years ago Little John installed a sea lion in the family's backyard swimming pool, to the consternation of the richly conservative River Oaks section of Houston. The Mecom Jr. home abuts on a country club, and one morning the manager was driving to work when he spotted the sea lion slurping across the sidewalk. Says John: "The poor guy, he calls the police and he says, 'There's a seal lost here!' And the police said, 'Yes, sir, now you go and have a cup of coffee and call us back and tell us about it.' " After a few such jolly confusions, Little John exiled the sea lion to the family ranch on the Rio Grande. The animal was content for three weeks, but then he slipped away from the pool and headed across Highway 83 toward the river. "There was a Greyhound bus coming and the driver stopped and everybody got out and looked at this interesting specimen of south Texas wildlife," Little John recalls with glee. "Then Napoleon—that was his name—he went across the road and he was last seen swimming upstream in the river. I imagine he's confused a couple of wetbacks since then, and maybe a few border patrolmen, too."
On one of his five safaris to Africa, Little John met Major Evelyn Temple-Boreham, the famous game warden of Kenya, and listened sympathetically to Temple-Boreham's description of the slaughter of tens of thousands of African animals by poachers. "So I got the idea of capturing specimens of all the game there and bringing them to the United States and breeding them," he recalls. "That was three years ago, and we went right to work, but we ran smack into the old, antiquated laws and the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior. We even hired lawyers to fight the case, and we're still fighting."
What Mecom ran into was the quarantine laws, aimed at keeping American species pure and uncontaminated. Under these laws, some of them predating the 1900s, animals brought in from Africa must be kept in quarantine for at least 60 days in Africa, then another 30 days in Government pens in Clifton, N.J., at a largely prohibitive cost. "And even if we complied with all that," Mecom says, "the animals would have to be kept in closely confined shelters. They wouldn't be allowed to run free on our ranch."
To get around the problem, young Mecom took advantage of a loophole in the law: that an animal born in the U.S. is a sort of "native-born American" and may go anywhere, so long as he has the fare. Now Little John buys animals in foreign countries, puts them through the quarantine period, gives them to zoos and, in return, collects their American-born offspring. These are released on a 5,000-acre refuge on the family's Laredo ranch to the eternal puzzlement of their American brothers-under-the-fur: bobcats, whitetail deer, red wolves, jackrabbits, cottontails and coyotes, who are not used to mixing with zebras, oryxes, llamas and impalas. One venerable joker at the ranch swears he heard a coyote tell a friend of his: "Five'll get you 10 there's a horse over there in striped pajamas."
Beautiful friendships have sprung up among the exotic animals, the most touching of which is between a lesser kudu and a wildebeest that are inseparable; the kudu runs like a kudu when other kudus approach, and the wildebeest is scared to death of the other wildebeests. "I think I've got it doped out," says Little John. "The two of them were shipped here together, and they've never seen a mirror; so I'm sure that the kudu thinks he's a wildebeest and vice versa. Anyway, they're great pals, and you can't pry them apart."
Whatever the original misgivings of surrounding ranchers and the various departments of the federal establishment, young Mecom's terrestrial ark is working; in more than a year of operation there have been no diseases, few unnatural deaths and no escapes. The total herd has grown to 75 and includes animals from Africa, Europe, Asia and North and South America.
John Jr. has set no limits on the refuge. "We're prepared to double the size to 10,000 acres and take in any animals from any part of the world," he says. "If you asked me what my ultimate ambition is, it would be to have every species of game in the world living here and reproducing. I can even see the day when animals from our ranch would be used to replenish species that have been wiped out in other places. I know that sounds ambitious, but I always try to make my ideas work out. I mean this all seriously."
Indeed, he does, and down around Houston you will find nobody who laughs at Little John's ideas, whether vehicular, zoological or otherwise. As a close friend of the family sums it up: "If Little John woke up and announced one morning that he was gonna dig a great big lake and stock it with mermaids, you know what everybody'd do? They'd go out and buy binoculars." To date, John Mecom Jr. has announced no such plans. But if you go to Houston and somebody offers you a good buy on a pair of binoculars, don't pass it up.