Grifters, Oil Men, Tabloids, The Scrappy Ingenue, The Titans and the Hardass: An American Story
August 13, 2008 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Corrupt U.S. Government officials leased the Teapot Dome oil field to one Harry F. Sinclair in 1922 in a sleazy no-bid contract.

Turn back the clock. 27 years earlier, suspected grifter Gilmer Bonfils had seized control of the Denver Post; he and his family turned it from a sleepy, staid paper into a wild, brazen broadsheet. So brazen they were shot by a furious lawyer. For an editorial page, Tammen and Bonfils substituted invective, raked up so much scandal—a good deal of it true — that they kept a loaded shotgun in their office to discourage reader complaints. As the Post grew in power and prosperity, its proprietors branched into other fields; the Post became the first and last U.S. daily ever to own a circus (Sells-Floto), run a burlesque house and sell coal."

It was this paper that, through the machinations of Sinclair's enemies, began excoriating the Teapot Dome deal under the editorial byline "So That The People May Know". Eventually, Frederick G. Bonfils rumoredly took a million dollar payoff from Sinclair as hush money.

Fast forward. The Post hired professionals and lost its edge. But then, in 1960, into Denver's mile-high sunshine stepped the fastest-growing newspaper publisher in the U.S. In one hand he carried a battered 13-year-old briefcase bulging with the blueprints of a big deal.

But Si Newhouse Sr., who was rich enough to buy Conde Nast as a surprise anniversary present for his wife the year previously, for all his business acumen and deal-making wiles, didn't expect to run into Helen Bonfils...

Helen, one of the daughters entrusted with the Post, reacted to Newhouse's hostile purchases by declaring "No further sales are contemplated. Not under any circumstances." And for many rollicking years, the fight continued. Eventually, outmaneuvered legally, Newhouse gave up. But the story doesn't end there.

A tall, slender, blonde with bright blue eyes and a husky voice, Helen was theatrical, energetic and a millionaire. Bejeweled and befurred, she toured the town in her Pierce Arrow with Colorado license plate No. 1. She would be accompanied by her chauffeur (more on this in a moment...), favorite poodle, and spiritual adviser, the Rev. John Anderson, who shared her interest in philanthropy. And when the Rocky Mountain News says 'theatrical', they mean it; she in her youth starred in extravagant musicals with casts of hundreds, always as the principal angel. Her hunger for the spotlight grew over the years as she acted in and produced a score of productions, and created the Helen Bonfils Theater Complex at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She also found the time to create the Belle Bonfils Memorial Blood Bank, named after her mother -- now a fixture of the Denver healthcare system; and, having seen people faint in its stuffy basement for lack of air conditioning, to fund the completion of the Holy Ghost church -- as well as 'innumerable' other charities, including the Dumb Friends League and the Denver Zoo.

But does the story end there? No it does not. Helen, at age 69, fell in love with her chauffeur -- "Tiger" Mike Davis, a strapping young college dropout of 28. Their romance died, and a nasty divorce ensued, in which he received a large settlement. Rolling that money into oil field investments, "Tiger" Davis got rich.

In May 2008, none other than the Denver Post reported that he had gotten paid off for helping to move control of oil interests -- unlike Teapot Dome, this time legally -- by introducing an old friend, an ex-amateur boxer named "Rifle Right" Kirk Kerkorian to Delta Petroleum. Turns out having friends earned him a cool 263,158 shares, which if he still holds it is as of this writing.

But that's not the story either, dear reader -- the story is that "Tiger" Mike Davis, in between marrying the scrappiest, most extravagant and most powerful women in Denver and helping to broker a gigantic oil investment deal for one of the titans of industry, ran his own business. And he ran it real tight. And the memos of that business -- which spawned this post -- are some of the funniest interoffice memos on the planet.
posted by felix (33 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, thanks!
posted by zpousman at 9:11 AM on August 13, 2008

for "if he still holds it as of this writing", please read "if he still holds it as of this writing, is a cool 4.5 million bucks." Damn HTML editors.
posted by felix at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2008

odd formatting aside, what a fascinating post. thanks!

though if mod made the fold happen a little earlier in the post, that'd be the bomb.
posted by shmegegge at 9:20 AM on August 13, 2008

I only followed the last link, but I'm already picturing exactly what "Tiger" Mike Davis looks like. It involves paunch and a cigar. Perhaps a combover.
posted by DU at 9:23 AM on August 13, 2008

also, for 'marrying the scrappiest...', please read 'marrying one of the scrappiest'... my allergy medicine is apparently destroying any vestige of proofreading skill I may have once possessed.
posted by felix at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2008

I have gently massaged the formatting.
posted by cortex at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2008

"Do not speak to me when you see me. If I want to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don't want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you sons-of-bitches."
posted by danb at 9:26 AM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

He sounds bad until you read the memo telling people to stop stealing candy, cigars and medicine from his desk.
posted by No Robots at 9:28 AM on August 13, 2008

posted by drezdn at 9:28 AM on August 13, 2008

From a memo to all employees:

I swear, but since I am the owner of this company that is my privilege, and this privilege is not to be interpreted as the same for any employee. That differentiates me from you, and I want to keep it that way. There will be absolutely no swearing, by any employee, male or female, in this office, ever.

This stuff is gold!
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:31 AM on August 13, 2008

I'm intrigued by the lunch lady idea. You go up to, BUT NOT IN (heaven forbid!), the kitchen and tell her you'd like your lunch. She gets it out of the fridge (I assume), enplates it, cooks it and hands it to you? If she isn't doing any light cleaning?
posted by DU at 9:32 AM on August 13, 2008

I started off with:
Is this relevant gossip?
Most of the 'before the fold' (and there are many) links are over 30-40 years old.
Before I could post it:
I was intrigued but with all the verbiage and the tossing around of the 'after the fold'. Forget it, it probably didn't affect me anyway. Next.
posted by tellurian at 9:40 AM on August 13, 2008

Did rugs really cost $1000 to clean in 1978?
posted by drezdn at 9:40 AM on August 13, 2008

"Any truck driver or employee who ruins a piece of equipment due to negligence or abuse will be terminated immediately by his boss, and if the boss doesn't do this, then the boss will be terminated by Mike Davis."

posted by Alex404 at 9:52 AM on August 13, 2008

Did rugs really cost $1000 to clean in 1978?

This is a BUSINESS OFFICE. Get back to work!
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:52 AM on August 13, 2008

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by mosk at 9:55 AM on August 13, 2008

tellurian, if you don't like it, you know where you can go to pick up your final check.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:58 AM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

From using memos to chastise people to the levity-free office, this guy isn't the exact opposite of Michael Scott, but is equally a bad boss but in a totally different way.
posted by drezdn at 10:03 AM on August 13, 2008

Do not speak to me when you see me. If I want to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don't want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you sons-of-bitches.

I think that's my new email signature.
posted by grubi at 10:03 AM on August 13, 2008

This is a fantastically good post, and you should be very, very proud.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:11 AM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Christ, what an asshole.

In all seriousness: No kidding. Guys like him (or even 10% as bad) are the primary reason unions continue to be relevant.
posted by DU at 10:18 AM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

I want to laugh but I have the horrible suspicion that if my boss worked in our office I'd see memos similar in craziness to these. The memos we get now are close enough in tone that I can easily imagine him going into full TigerMike mode if he noticed us more.

(Not that we are "hippies, long-hairs, dope fiends or alcoholics" or anything)
posted by Mamapotomus at 10:42 AM on August 13, 2008

"Anyone who lets their hair grow below their ears to where I can't see their ears means they don't wash. If they don't wash, they stink, and if they stink, I don't want the son-of-a-bitch around me.

The logic is impeccable. This guy probably dictated his memos to a secretary, right? I wonder what was going on in her head as she took this down.

Great post, felix.
posted by joedan at 11:02 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wait, an oilman who's an asshole?

Now I've seen everything.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:10 AM on August 13, 2008

SUBJECT: Mr. Richard E. "Dick" Phillips, Sr.
             (do not confuse him with his son,
             who is also an employee of Tiger
             Drilling Co., Inc.)
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:47 AM on August 13, 2008

MetaFilter: No one welds with a welding machine unless he knows what he is doing.
posted by Mayor West at 12:38 PM on August 13, 2008

This is a fantastic post. Thanks!
posted by homunculus at 12:52 PM on August 13, 2008

posted by pxe2000 at 4:23 PM on August 13, 2008

Awesome post tying together the interesting history in this neck of the woods. My cat was adopted at the Denver Dumb Friends League, and Bonfils collects blood at my place of employment. Interesting tying together of events.
posted by Eekacat at 4:33 PM on August 13, 2008

Tiger Mike wouldn't raise many eyebrows in the oilfield today. The only thing unusual is that everything is spelled correctly.

A lot of people seem to think working for a guy like this is hell. I've worked for a few like him, and I'd say this: In the blue-collar world he represents, a screwup brings an ass-chewing. However, when the ass-chewing is done, it's back to work and no hard feelings. In fact, unlike in the office settings I've been in, a manager of his type would be astonished to see you harboring any resentment over it.

The flip side is, if you do your job, and do it well, you're golden.
posted by atchafalaya at 6:36 PM on August 13, 2008

Hands down, the best company vacation policy ever: "Ask for it like a man."

(Please sir, can I have some more, sir?)

Fantastic post.
posted by not_the_water at 9:15 PM on August 13, 2008

I wish Tiger Mike ran MeTa: "Don't like having your comments deleted? Come get your five bucks. I don't need it, you do. Think I can't get more members? Try me. Any you sons of bitches caught posting while intoxicated will be terminated on the spot. Now listen up: cortex works directly for me. Kind of a troubleshooter, see? You stay out of his way. Don't like it? Hit the red button."
posted by popechunk at 6:10 PM on August 14, 2008

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