In the Winter of 1980, the notorious billionaires Nelson Bunker and William Herbert Hunt conspired to deprive me and my wife of our household silver. It was an outrageous act. Katie and I were engaged to be married that year and had registered our pattern at various department stores, hoping to get lucky with five or six place settings. At the time, silver was going for about $6 an ounce, and a decent dessert spoon cost about $10. It was not too much to hope for, we thought.
Then the Hunt brothers, in perhaps the single most astounding, not to mention pigheaded, financial maneuver of the twentieth century, decided to try to corner the global silver market. They bought up 200 million ounces—more than half the world’s deliverable silver. In January 1980 the price of silver rocketed to $50 an ounce. By March, when we got married, that dessert spoon was going for $60. We received no silver at all for our wedding. We barely even got any silver plate. We still have one of those pieces—an ugly little butter dish—and every time I look at it, I think of Bunker and Herbert Hunt.
That was the first time I had heard of the Dallas Hunts, and it was a measure of their staggering financial power that they could not only rock world markets but also affect a small wedding in northeastern Ohio. Bunker and Herbert, who still live in Dallas, are two of the fourteen children of H. L. Hunt, Texas’ most famous oilman and one of the richest men in the world. His other offspring include Dallas oil baron Ray Hunt, philanthropists Caroline Rose Hunt and Margaret Hunt Hill, radio evangelist June Hunt, former U.S. ambassador Swanee Hunt, and Kansas City Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt. They tend, like Bunker and Herbert, to be driven, extremely successful prominent workaholics who have refused to coast on their fabulous wealth.
They are also inseparable from another H.L. legacy: They are part of one of the most scandalous familial relationships in American history. H.L. had three families, and two of them were a secret, at least for a while. Over one eight-year period in the late twenties and early thirties, he had seven children by two wives, none of whom knew of the others’ existence. As if that weren’t enough, he later had a third secret family.
H. L. Hunt was born in 1889 in Illinois, the son of a prosperous farmer-entrepreneur. A peerless poker player who could dominate no-limit games with the country’s best card players, H.L. nonetheless tried to settle down as a cotton farmer. He got rich, lost a small fortune gambling in cotton futures, then turned his attention to the booming oil fields of East Texas. In 1930, in the most famous deal in the history of the Texas oil business, he bought leases on five thousand acres owned by Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner. The leases turned out to be part of the largest oil field in the world at that time. They soon made him $100 million in the middle of the Great Depression.
Yet just as interesting was what was happening in his private life. Though he had married Lyda Bunker in 1914 (with whom he had six children, including Bunker and Herbert), in 1925 H.L. secretly married a 21-year-old Florida real estate broker named Frania Tye, with whom he had four children. In 1942 he severed that relationship, paying Frania $300,000, setting up small trusts for the children, and agreeing to pay her $2,000 a month for life. But that same year, he acquired a new mistress, a 25-year-old Hunt Oil Company secretary named Ruth Ray, with whom he had four more children— unbeknownst to either of his other two families. In 1957, two years after Lyda’s death, he married Ruth, whose children had been going by a fictitious name. (Ruth died in 1999.)
Bunker Hunt and Herbert Hunt are the best known of H.L.’s “first” family. They started out in the oil business with their father in the forties—a time of phenomenal prosperity for Hunt Oil—and eventually went out on their own. In 1961 Bunker acquired the rights to an oil field in Libya that turned out to contain most of that country’s oil. For a while, that deal made him the richest man in the world, worth $16 billion. He lost a lot of that when Colonel Qaddafi nationalized Libya’s oil fields in 1973.
But their biggest play by far was the silver market. In the seventies they gradually accumulated large amounts of silver. By 1979, they had nearly cornered the global market. Then it all came crashing down. After peaking in January 1980, the price of silver began to fall precipitously. They incurred huge losses, which they covered by mortgaging their oil properties. When the price of oil crashed during the bust of the eighties, the brothers were nearly wiped out, a loss that has been widely estimated at $5 billion. They declared corporate bankruptcy in 1986 and personal bankruptcy in 1988. What followed was a legal proceeding worthy of Charles Dickens’ Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Creditors pounced on Bunker and Herbert, who brought their own lawsuit against the banks for trying to run them out of business. Bankruptcy trustees sued one hundred defendants, mostly members of the Hunt family; the legal bill alone was $20 million. In 1994 the brothers paid some $160 million, mostly to the IRS. A New York jury also found them guilty of conspiring to manipulate the price of silver, for which they paid a fine.
But they’re still rich. That’s because of the personal trusts their father set up for them in 1936 that were untouched by the litigation. As of 1995 Bunker still had a personal trust worth $175 million; Herbert’s is thought to be on the same scale. Those two trusts hold the oil companies that the brothers now run. Herbert’s Petro-Hunt does mostly domestic exploration in East Texas and the Gulf Coast. Bunker’s Hunt Exploration and Mining has interests in