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 Pakistan, Australia, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.
After being in the public eye for so long, the two brothers have lived quieter lives in the nineties. “The bottom line is that I came out of it with very little, from a personal standpoint,” says Herbert, who is now 72. (Like all the Hunts, he distinguishes between his personal wealth and his trust estate.) “After the January 1, 1990, settlement, I walked away with an IRS overhang for ten years. I survived all that, and I’m in the oil and gas business.” He has paid back all the money he owes, he says, and is now free to concentrate on Petro-Hunt, which he runs with his three sons (his two daughters share in ownership). He goes to the office every day and travels frequently. “My hobby is work,” he says. “It always has been.” Though he and Bunker, who is now 75, remain close, they are no longer in business together. “Bunker and I split up,” he says. “It seemed like every time one of us got sued, the other got sued too, and we had to hire twice as many lawyers.”
Bunker has had similar financial problems. In 1995 it was reported that he owed the IRS more than 70 percent of $6 million that he had gotten from his trust since 1990. In 1999 he felt flush enough to return to one of his passions: horse racing. One of the most famous moments of the Hunt bankruptcy was the day in 1988 that he sold 580 Thoroughbreds for $46,912,000. Eleven years later, after being completely absent from a sport he once dominated, he stunned the racing community when he showed up at a sale of two-year-old horses at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie. Wearing his trademark rumpled suit and black-frame glasses, he purchased 13 horses for $359,000. Since then he has purchased 67 more and is now a regular, with his wife, Caroline, at Lone Star Park. “Whenever he goes to a sale, he can’t help himself,” his wife told a Dallas Morning News reporter in June—an oddly apt summary of a man who was once the richest person on earth.
We know what became of Herbert and Bunker Hunt, but where are the rest of H.L. Hunt’s children? Three—Helen Lee Cartledge, Haroldina Franch, and Howard Lee—are dead. Hugh Hunt’s whereabouts are unknown. H. L. “Hassie” Hunt III, who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic in the early forties and later had a prefrontal lobotomy, lives quietly in Dallas; the 83-year-old co-owns Hunt Petroleum with his sister Margaret Hunt Hill, 85, one of Dallas’ leading philanthropists. Caroline Rose Hunt, 78, owns a chain of chic hotels, including the Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Hotel Crescent Court, both in Dallas; Forbes estimates her net worth to be $600 million. Lamar Hunt has focused his energy on pro sports for years—he co-founded the American Football League and the North American Soccer League and owned pro football’s Kansas City Chiefs—and he’s not done yet: At 69, he is a part owner of pro basketball’s Chicago Bulls and owns two Major League Soccer franchises, in Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City, Missouri. Ray Lee Hunt, 58, is the chairman of Dallas-based Hunt Oil; his net worth is an estimated $2.3 billion, according to Forbes. June Hunt, 57, lives in Dallas and hosts a daily religious program, “Hope for the Heart,” which is broadcast on 130 radio stations. Helen Lakelly Hunt, 52, is a pastoral counselor in Dallas. She co-manages the Hunt Alternatives Fund, one of the family’s charitable arms, with her 51-year-old sister Swanee Hunt, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria who now heads the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.