King for a Day
This month’s cover story is one for the history books—in two ways. First, because executive editor Sam Gwynne’s report on the myth, majesty, and future of the King Ranch (“The Next Frontier,”) is as sweeping as the ranch itself, and second, because it’s a report from the inside. One does not cross the fence line of the most storied acreage in Texas without seeking the blessing of the powers that be, and that blessing has been bestowed rarely in the past 154 years. As Sam notes, few writers have been invited onto the land where Captain Richard King, “Mr. Bob” Kleberg, and countless heirs have trod. Rarer still have photographers been permitted to capture images of cowboys and cattle that are as iconic as any on film, yet on the cover is one of many shots taken for us this summer by the venerated Western photographer Kurt Markus.
So how did we do it? How did we get cooperation from the King Ranch’s press-averse CEO, Jack Hunt, and its board members, who are fiercely protective of the way the several-generation family saga is spun?
Trust me: It’s not like we hadn’t asked before, and every time we’d been stiff-armed. Or, more accurately, every time we’d been told how unhappy King Ranch Inc. had been with the last story we’d done, so why do business with us again? In October 1980, we published a cover story—a 28,000-word opus—by our founding editor, Bill Broyles, on what he christened “the last empire.” Bill’s piece, I was told flatly, wasn’t well received. In September 1997, Anne Dingus, then one of our senior editors, wrote a short item on daguerreotypes believed to be of the King family. Annie’s piece wasn’t well received either. In November 1998, executive editor Skip Hollandsworth wrote a cover story about the resignation of Tio Kleberg, the great-great-grandson of Captain King, who had been responsible for the ranch’s day-to-day operations. Skip’s piece was definitely not well received. Nor was our last King Ranch cover, in December 2002: an excerpt of a book by one of our writers-at-large, Don Graham, about a lawsuit challenging Captain King’s ownership of the original ranchland.
It was while we were readying Don’s piece that I first reached out to Hunt, only the fifth non—family member to run the ranch. Although we didn’t need to interview him or anyone else, we’d hoped to send a photographer to the ranch to shoot the cover. No. Well, could we get the ranch’s okay to run an existing photo on the cover? (The ranch makes photographers sign a contract promising not to resell their pictures without permission.) No. Eventually we found a rare photo—taken in the seventies—that had escaped the ranch’s legal clutches.
This time around, my call to Hunt came after a newspaper article about a feud between the King Ranch and wind-energy promoters over the location of wind-powered turbines. It struck me as very twenty-first century, and it made me think about how big ranches are repositioning themselves to survive and thrive in the future. So I asked Hunt if we could send Sam to the ranch to talk to him and other top executives and tour the place. After a bit of back-and-forth, during which he consulted with his directors, he agreed. It probably helped that Sam had recently written major pieces for us about the likes of Dell, Maxxam, and TXU, as well as a profile of James Baker, who happens to be one of those directors. It also probably helped that the photographer we hired was known to them: Kurt had published an entire book about cowboys that featured many shots taken at the King Ranch.
Access is hard-won, yes, but keep after it. That’s the moral of this story, and every other one.
Lady Bird Johnson, Eva Longoria, Craig Watkins, a Border Patrol battle, Kinky Friedman’s Katrina evacuee, and the return of Prudence Mackintosh.