Editors’ note: As we approach our fiftieth anniversary, in February 2023, we will, every week, highlight an important story from our past and offer some perspective on it.

It was 1978 and Texas Monthly editor Bill Broyles wanted an article about Exxon. The oil and gas behemoth had not yet moved its corporate headquarters to Texas but was still one of the largest employers in the state, and for the previous few years, it had been either the most- or second-most profitable company in the country (second only to General Motors). Exxon was the ultimate Texas success story, and Broyles had a personal connection to it: He grew up in Baytown, which, with its giant refinery, was practically a company town. Broyles was also the son of an engineer who had worked at Humble Oil, which became Exxon USA.

Broyles had recently hired a writer, a Louisiana native named Nicholas Lemann, away from a Washington, D.C., magazine where he wrote about public policy. “He wanted to make Texas Monthly more serious,” Lemann recalls. The Exxon story would be Lemann’s first big article for the magazine.

behind the story exxon nicholas lemann
Nicholas Lemann in the early eighties.Courtesy of Nicholas Lemann

The harmonic convergence of writer and editor was complete, but there was a problem: Exxon would have none of it. There would be no interviews with executives. The company would not answer written questions. This rejection might have been the end of the assignment. But here’s a secret: Not having the cooperation of the subject of an article can be liberating. Gone are the messy entanglements of the writer-subject relationship. Lemann embraced this freedom. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me, or to Bill Broyles, not to go ahead with the story anyway,” he says. Untethered from any obligations to the company, he uncovered something about Exxon that is as true today as it was then. “The men who run Exxon are not entrepreneurs; they are managers,” he wrote.

The article that Lemann delivered explored how Exxon recruited, sifted through, judged, promoted, exiled, and assigned a numeric value to its employees. This story wasn’t about brash wildcatters or globe-trotting petroleum engineers; it was about how a company became a self-perpetuating institution that funneled and winnowed its employees, always on the lookout for the next young hotshot who could grab the tiger by the tail and rise to the top.

But what made the story a classic was Lemann’s realization that for the 15,000 Texans who at the time worked for Exxon, there could only be one chairman. That meant 14,999 others who, to one extent or another, felt the sting of disappointment and the bitterness of misplaced love. This was a story about betrayal and hurt, and the sacrifices it takes to get ahead.

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Behind the Story.” Subscribe today.