H. L. Hunt’s Long Goodbye
Like they said, you can’t take it with you.
That last weekend in November was almost too much, even for astrologers and students of the absurd. It began predictably enough—former President Nixon was too ill to testify at the Watergate cover-up trial, doctors had decided—but then strange headlines began to hop out. Popular Princess Elizabeth Bagaya, the foreign minister of Uganda, was dismissed by President Idid Amin after he charged that she had made love to a European in the restroom of the Orly Airport in Paris. In Philadelphia, family pressure and the delicate political position of Vice-President designate Nelson Rockefeller forced Happy Rockefeller’s 77-year-old millionaire aunt, Rachel Fitler, to call off her engagement to Michael Wilson, her 29-year-old chauffeur. In our other staid, conservative, oldline town, Harvard students were giving standing ovations to none other than Fanne Fox, the Tidal Basin Bombshell who had stripped Congressman Wilbur Mills of his doughty dignity and made of him a dirty old man.
It was a seductive, if lurid, time to be alive, and every health faddist knew that H. L. Hunt was trying. At 85 he was munching dates and doing the full lotus and aiming at a century and more. But then secretly, before only family and friends, he began to fail. And on that last Friday in November, he died in Dallas’ Baylor University Medical Center, of pneumonia and complications from cancer. The weekend was yet full of surprises. The Bears of Baylor University, some fellow Baptists, were outscoring the Rice University football team to cap off their first conference championship in 50 years. It would have been a fitting final balm for the world’s richest Baptist and football fan.
But perhaps it is just as well Hunt was not aware of the events that transpired on the last day of his life. For transcending everything was the news—in a surprise announcement from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—that President Ford would visit Peking in 1975. What an irony to go down to! Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, Jr., had been notoriously stingy with his money, except in one endeavor. Like a Daddy Warbucks, he had waged a long and expensive crusade against communism and what he considered its influence here. Joe McCarthy and Douglas MacArthur had been his idols, Nixon a dupe for allowing Kissinger to subvert us into a rapprochement with China and Soviet Russia. Hunt’s last hope lay in Gerald Ford, whom he had recommended to Nixon as a vice-president back before 1960. Yes, it was just as well.
If the highest estimates of H. L. Hunt’s wealth are true, he was not only four times as rich as all the Rockefellers, he was nine times richer than all the accumulated wealth of all the presidents of the United States—all 38 of them from George Washington to Gerald Ford. Some sheiks of Araby may scoff at that two or five billion now—whatever it is—but if they hadn’t taken the Libyan fields from him two years ago, he’d still be the richest man in the world. I’m not hung up on his money, though. What I liked about old H. L. was the originality and richness of his character.
The big rich are not always fascinating, but Hunt was. Take Fortune Magazine’s head count on the new centi-millionaires in America. The Yellow Pages make better reading. Once it was at least vulgar to have suddenly made a fortune. Now it’s just dull. Can you imagine squeezing oranges for a living? That’s what Anthony Rossi does down in Florida, and in the last six years it has made him $70 million. He’s one of 39 men in the country Fortune says has made at least $50 million since 1968. The list doesn’t include people who have inherited that much or who made it before 1968, so it’s an interesting insight into our newest crop of Croesuses. What emerges is not a saga of flamboyant wheeling and dealing, but rather a parade of pedestrian types who have cornered the market on faucets and tire treads, of people who purvey pet foods and discount clothing. I didn’t see a sugar daddy among them. If they throw their money away, it is not to blondes but to Baptist Churches and Bible colleges.
But H. L., now, he was many men in one, multitudinous and contradictory. Good and bad, but on a larger scale, right out of Ayn Rand. In an age of midgets and conformists, he was a rogue who broke rules and cut a large swath and then, at last, lay down with a smile and allowed the ubiquitous and unctuous preachers to make of him a monument to nobility. He knew they would because he knew human nature. The will, after all, was still to be read. If ever a dead man looked satisfied with himself, at peace and in repose and yet somehow expectant, it was Mr. Hunt.
He lay in an open casket at First Baptist, the world’s largest and richest Baptist church. The church, a mighty fortress covering several downtown blocks in Dallas, is noted as a rock against theological and social heresy. Only recently has the congregation, which numbers 20,000, been moved to accept a Negro member. Hunt was not necessarily the most famous First Baptist; Billy Graham is also a member, though he was not at the funeral. The presiding preacher was the pastor, Dr. W. A. Criswell, a compelling and charismatic fundamentalist who helped convert Hunt after his second marriage seventeen years ago. That was a conversion to match Saul’s when he became Paul. Perhaps a more profane comparison would be the transfiguration of that old rip-roaring, foul-mouthed drunk, Sam Houston. It was a woman that helped old Sam see the light: his second wife, the resourceful and enduring Margaret Lea. Legend has it that H. L. was equally rollicking, and history knows that Ruth Ray Wright brought him to heel in a chorus of hallelujahs.
Ruth was a Hunt Oil secretary H. L. married in 1957, two years after the death of his first wife, Lyda Bunker. This marriage, when Hunt was 68, confronted the six children of his first bed—Lamar, Nelson Bunker, W. Herbert, H. L. III, Margaret, and Caroline—with a stepmother 30 years younger than their father. They also faced four sibling rivals in the children of Ruth: Ray Lee, June, Helen, and Swanee, the issue of “a former marriage.” After Hunt formally adopted them, Ruth revealed that Hunt was, indeed, their true father. Ruth, a pretty blonde with Southern belle manners, seemed just the right tonic for the old rascal. It wasn’t long before she and the preacher put the Lord on H. L., turned him away from gambling and cigars, and led him up the aisle to salvation. Dr. Criswell baptized Hunt and his new family—and from then on they were all devout in the faith.
In his last years Hunt was a doting family man, a moulty old lion in winter. He loved to lay up there in his out-sized replica of Mount Vernon and sing hymns with Ruth and the youngest girls. As he began to fail, there was one song he could not bear to hear: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” where it keeps repeating, “comin’ for to carry me home…”
It was my first time to hear Brother Criswell preach, and I waited expectantly as the pews filled. People quietly streamed in, filling up the benches except for a few in the balcony. It was more like a theater than a church. There were even little traffic signs and admonitions. I dutifully took note that “In Case of Emergency,” I was to “Please Use Exit 2.” Another said, “Please Be Reverent.” Tommy Brinkley, the organist, began to play. First, “The Solid Rock,” and then, “This is My Country.” Every now and then, a knot of mourners would get up from their seats and go gaze at the body. Mr. Hunt was laid out in a dark, pinstriped suit. He was a beautiful man, his pink and fine, bold head more delicately carved than pictures had portrayed. He was thinner than I had thought, his nose as aristocratic as his Huguenot forbearers. Others had compared him in the flesh to Herbert Hoover, but I saw in him a Leopold Stokowski. He was a genius in a way, an entrepreneur, an impresario, a maestro of money. Most of us pass through town unnoticed. He made ripples, made men note his passing. He had made his mark, like the conquistador of old who, traveling in the wilderness of New Mexico, had inscribed upon the rock, “Pasó por Aquí.”
The day before the funeral I had walked to the Kentucky Fried Chicken stand and had ordered a box of No. B, regular, and an iced Coke. They were selling copies of Colonel Harland Sanders’ autobiography, so I bought one. My mind was on Hunt and his death, and it struck me, in an amused way, that he and the old bird-cook shared some similarities. The Colonel called his book Life As I Have Known It Has Been FINGER LICKIN’ GOOD, and inside the jacket was a rundown of the Colonel’s checkered career. Sixth grade dropout, farmhand at age twelve, army muletender, locomotive fireman, railroad section hand, aspiring lawyer, insurance salesman, ferryboat entrepreneur, chamber of commerce secretary, tire salesman, amateur obstetrician, unsuccessful political candidate, gas station dealer, motel operator, restaurateur… until finally, at the age of 65, a new interstate highway snatched the traffic away from his corner, leaving the Colonel with nothing but a Social Security check and a secret recipe for fried chicken. Dad-gummit! The Colonel was 74 before someone paid him $2 million for his fried chicken franchise. He went on to get religion and sue the people who bought him out something like 22 times, for various and sticky reasons.
Sitting there licking my fingers, I decided to outline Hunt’s career the way the Colonel had his. This is what I came up with, and it probably isn’t complete: never went to school, farmhand till fifteen, freight train and flophouse hobo, dishwasher, cowboy, lumberjack, laborer, sheepherder, carpenter, mule-team driver, card shark gambler, cotton planter, oil lease hound, oil operator, big-time gambler, farmer, rancher, real estate man, food processor, manufacturer, author, philosopher, political propagandist, unsuccessful advisor to four presidents, and, of course, at one time or another the world’s richest man. Compared to Hunt, the Colonel was chicken feed.
Hunt’s life was highly American—as bodacious and ungoverned as the age that made him. He was born and raised on a 500-acre farm near Ramsey, Illinois, the youngest of eight children in a well-to-do family. The early years of his youth were among the most prosperous in American history, as the great captains of industry followed the pioneers’ movement to the west. There was the Panic of 1893, when Hunt was four and Grover Cleveland was president, and it grew into our first serious depression, but that soon was dispelled by a resurgence of production and patriotism—the latter culminating in Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. The rough rider was Hunt’s hero; when Roosevelt tried to make a comeback in 1912 as the “old Bull Moose,” Hunt, then 23 and running a cotton plantation down in Mississippi, rode all the way back to Illinois to vote for Roosevelt for president. Hunt himself seemed to imitate, throughout his long life, the vim and vigor of the president.
The Land Panic of 1921 destroyed his cotton venture, and Hunt moved on to El Dorado, Arkansas. Oil had been found and the town was booming. Old-timers claim H. L. came to town as a gambler, and won his first oil well in a game of five-card stud. Hunt admitted he was something of a hustler, but he insisted that he had gotten his stake by shrewdly trading leases. From El Dorado he moved to Smackover in Arkansas, Urania in Louisiana, and out to West Texas—anywhere there was the smell of oil and a sucker at a card table.
As his luck held, Hunt began to form a political philosophy to match his new fortune. Where once he had admired a strong man in the White House, such as Teddy Roosevelt, now he came to value weak men at the helm of government. Young Hunt was not alone. The 1920s was an era of giants in every endeavor except the presidency. There were great heroes in sports—men such as Dempsey and Cobb and Ruth, Thorpe and Red Grange—and as president, a congenital weakling, a bag of wind named Warren G. Harding. There was Man of War on the race track. Lucky Lindy in the sky, George Gershwin on radio, Mary Pickford on the silver screen, and in the White House that old corpse, Calvin Coolidge. And H. L. Hunt loved him. By the end of the decade, when the country was going from riches to rags, Herbert Hoover was in the White House, a rags to riches man. It was all catawampus. But not for Hunt, because out in the dogwood and deep red clay of East Texas there was a fortune to be made.
H. L. Hunt was already a millionaire, when, at the height of the panic in 1930, he bought out Dad Joiner’s strike in East Texas. Joiner had drilled with money raised among the poor farmers of the area, but by the time he had brought the first few wells in, he found that the Depression had created an oil glut, and he couldn’t sell his leases to the majors because of some clouded titles. But Hunt didn’t lay back. For $50,000 in cash, $45,000 in notes, and a guarantee of $1.3 million from future production, he took over a field that turned out to tap a lake of oil 43 miles long and up to nine miles wide. Hunt’s share of the profits came to $100 million, at least. By 1940, H. L. was a billionaire and expanding into the Middle East. During World War II, he produced more oil, here and abroad, than did Germany, Italy, and Japan. By 1960, he was the world’s richest man. By this time, his old partner in East Texas, Columbus Marvin (Dad) Joiner, had been broken and buried thirteen years.
A murmur arose from the congregation. A small black man, who seemed to materialize from nowhere, stood before the coffin and drew a sword. He waved it before the dead man, sheathed it, and exited by a side door. It seemed an act of defiance, and I—and I’m sure others—thought, my God, is he some revolutionary, some Symbionese Liberationist come to defame the dead capitalist’s memory? Later the mysterious man identified himself as Louis Lyons, a 44-year-old ex-convict Hunt had befriended. He had come to salute the old Caesar, not to damn him.
The family had not yet entered the sanctuary, but at our backs we were startled to see an unmistakable likeness of the dead man standing in the doorway. It could have been Hunt himself, 30 years younger. “Hassie!” someone whispered. And indeed it was. Haroldson Lafayette Hunt III, the old man’s eldest son, the gentle one who was said to live in a world all his own. Some great tragedy had befallen him, and he had lived close to the side of his father. Once, it was said, he had shown the same managerial genius as the father, only to retreat from the world of men and affairs. Some said Hassie’s tragedy was his experience in the Second World War. Others said he had never gone to war, that he had changed because he could not stand up to the pressure of being a great man’s son. Is it indelicate and inaccurate of me to slip here into hearsay? What the mourners said that day, and what the press and other people wrote and said, were the stuff of the Hunt legend. For a man so prominent yet so private, this legend is what lives on, just as it bathes the children in the same light. In a moment Brother Criswell himself would be myth-making, and I would listen to that. Right now I watched Hassie Hunt. He walked down the aisle, looked at his dead father, and wept. Then he returned to his post behind us, near the door. There was in him a sad dignity.
The organist launched into “God Bless America,” the cue for Brother Criswell, followed by the family, to enter the stage. The casket was closed. The family sat to the left down front, and Brother Criswell stood at the pulpit above the casket. He is in his 60s, a silver-haired, handsome man with a large head and lantern jaw. Many of his parishioners drive great distances—past closer Baptist churches—to hear him preach. His Wednesday night prayer meetings had to be moved from a hall seating 700 into the main auditorium to handle the crowd. On Sundays the crush is like a small Cotton Bowl. Worshippers often have to stand. Parking lot attendants with walkie-talkies are all about the grounds. Criswell has written at least a dozen books, the most recent entitled Why I Believe In The Literal Word of The Bible. The literal fact of First Baptist is extraordinary, approaching legend. Housed in a complex which includes an eleven-story office building, First Baptist Church is a publishing house; a television and recording studio which broadcasts Sunday services; a credit union; a country club and health spa which includes gymnasiums, bowling lanes, skating rink, and snack bars; as well as, of course, the church school and the church itself. First Baptist has 22 choirs, one of which travels throughout the world. The pastor’s wife plays saxophone in the church’s swing band, and H. L. Hunt’s third daughter, June, used to sing solo in one of the choirs before she went to Nashville to record and tour with her gospel-singing engagements.
June Hunt would sing, Brother Criswell announced, a song that her father loved so well. It was about Jesus. “I shall know him,” it went, “by the print in the nails of his hand.” June is a tall, good-looking blonde, and she sang with poise and warmth, clear-eyed and smiling without a break in her voice. Brother Criswell read scripture. “Great and noble father,” he intoned, “teach us to number our days.. The grass witherith, the flower fadeth…”
H. L. Hunt knew only too well that grass witherith, but he tried to forestall the aging process as long as he could. He developed a keen interest in what enabled other men to live beyond the usual life span. When items appeared in the newspapers about some Methuselah holding forth in some far comer of the world, Hunt would have his secretary call the Associated Press, or even the character in question, to see if there might be more details he could pick up.
In September, 1972, Rena Pederson of The Dallas Morning News went to the Hunt home to interview him at breakfast. Hunt sat munching grapes, pecans, dates, and apricots. He also had before him an array of fruit juices and bouillon. All of a sudden, he dropped to the floor on all fours and began crawling about. “I’m a crank about creeping!” he cried, rounding the antique dining table on his hands and knees.
“Don’t go too fast,” Mrs. Hunt cautioned,
“Yes, please slow down,” the News photographer begged. “I want to get your picture.”
“They never can keep up with me,” he cackled, returning to the table. “Yahoo!” he whooped, and ordered a date for everyone. He bit into a pecan and declared, “I used to be the world’s Number One softshell pecan grower. I suppose I still am. I eat them instead of meat.”
To reporter Pederson’s amazement, the billionaire barraged her with health food tidbits. Avoid white bread and white sugar. He recommended his own bread of cracked wheat and honey. He grew most of his own vegetables in a three-acre garden at the side of the mansion. Ate them raw as possible and salt free. He handed her literature: pamphlets on health, a mimeographed Bible verse, and an article he had written about the benefits of creeping.
“I have lots of money,” he laughed, “so they call me the ‘Billionaire Health Crank.’ Heh Heh Heh.”
At that time, a little more than two years ago, Hunt was convinced he had a good chance to live as long as the world record-holder, a Russian the Soviets claim was 167. He liked to compare himself to the Hunzakuts of the Himalayas, who played polo into their 100th year.
Frank Tolbert, The Dallas Morning News columnist and author, once put Hunt onto buying a Mexican border ranch because of the curative power of its springs. Tolbert claims to be the first writer Hunt ever consented to see. This was back in 1948, when Hunt was as reclusive as Howard Hughes. Tolbert didn’t do too badly by him, so Hunt trusted him and was open to most of the other journalists who began beating a path to his door. Anyway, one day Hunt got all excited over Tolbert’s tales about an old resort ranch at Indian Hot Springs, on the Rio Grande about 125 miles downstream from El Paso. There was a spring on the place called Geronimo Springs, which the old-timers out there likened to a fountain of youth. It revived an old feller’s interest in sex and exorcised sores and such. The Vanderbilts once used it as a spa, and Pancho Villa used to dip in it to rid himself of gonorrhea. Hunt bought the retreat, and you rarely saw him without his old leather valise which contained bottled mineral water from its healing springs. Along with the water he usually had some of his breads made of wheat from the Panhandle soil of Deaf Smith County.
One summer day a few years back, Hunt showed up in Judge Tom Neely’s general store out at Sierra Blanca, near Fort Bliss. He had just returned from his hot springs, so he passed his water bottle and bread to the men about and joined them in a game of checkers, at which, he was mightily skilled. Judge Neely, who is the Roy Bean of Hudspeth County, was complaining about a foot ailment, when to his surprise the world’s richest man got up from the checker board and got down on his knees and pulled off Neely’s boots and socks. “He started rubbing my feet,” the judge said. “At first I felt bad about it, a man like that on his knees rubbing my old feet, but then I felt good about it and it did make me feel a lot better.”
Dr. James Draper, the young associate pastor, followed Dr. Criswell. He said a prayer for Hunt and his survivors, and then, to my astonishment, called (in what I thought was a very pointed way) for some of the Hunts who had not accepted Christ to do so. I know that preachers grab you when they can get your attention, but at your father’s funeral? He was obviously aiming at someone among the older children, all of whom are grown and quite competent to come to God in their own fashion. It didn’t help matters much when he extended the invitation to the rest of us who might be beyond the fold.
Dr. Criswell came back to announce that the last hymn that H. L. Hunt had heard was one that had been broadcast on television a Sunday or so before, and that Beverly Terrell, a close friend of the Hunts, was going to sing it. She dedicated the song not to a man who was wealthy, but to the God who made the wealth of this world. “Voices of a million angels,” she sang, “could not express my gratitude… All that I am and ever hope to be… I owe it all to thee, God…”
Sidney Latham, Hunt’s long-time friend and personal attorney, a retired vice-president of the Hunt Oil Company, delivered the eulogy. He described Hunt as one of the finest Christians he had ever known. Hunt’s faith was, he said, in keeping with the faith and nobility of the company and of the family who founded it.
He said something I liked. “Hunt,” he said, “moved in and about the timberlines of life where the timid fear to venture.” Sure, Latham said, Hunt had his faults. He was all too human, the old lawyer ventured, and certainly, he added, Hunt was one of the most misunderstood men who ever drew public comment. He described his old colleague as a patriot who proved that the American Way would work, but that in all candor, after all the millions were made, signed, sealed, and delivered, that the greatest happiness Hunt had had was the Sunday night he joined the church. “He said it was the best and biggest trade he had ever made,” Latham said, raising his voice. “He said he had traded the here for the hereafter, and he was pleased.”
What did Hunt have here? Certainly America’s largest private fortune. And, some said, a divided family fighting over it—the children of the dead wife versus the children of the living wife. There were signs of struggle even before the old man’s death, hidden beneath a confusing tangle of lawsuits and investigations, both private and public, that involved not only the Hunts and their employees, but of all things, Watergate-ridden Richard Nixon, his attorneys-general, John Connally, Senator James Eastland, Israel’s Golda Meir, and the Arab terrorists Al Fatah.
The intrigue surfaced routinely enough four years ago, when a suburban Dallas policeman stopped Jon Joseph Kelly for running a stop sign. Kelly, a 25-year-old Houston man, identified himself as a private detective. The patrolman noticed a tape recorder in Kelly’s back seat. “When I asked him if he was working on a divorce case,” the policeman later recalled, “he stepped on the gas and took off. If he hadn’t panicked, I wouldn’t have hauled him in and none of this would have come out.”
What came out was this:
The FBI discovered that Kelly and a sidekick, Patrick McCann, had placed wiretaps in the homes of four Hunt Oil executives, among them Paul Rothermel, H. L. Hunt’s chief security man. Rothermel, a former FBI man and an attorney, claimed that in 1969 he had persuaded Hunt to change his will to the greater benefit of the second Mrs. Hunt and her children. Since then, odd things had been happening; and Rothermel believed that the older Hunt sons were behind it. Kelly and McCann, however, remained mute—until they got three years in prison. Then they fingered two of the older Hunt sons, Nelson Bunker and W. Herbert Hunt, as the plotters and paymasters. Nelson and Herbert were indicted on wiretapping charges, but only after a curiously long time lag. They have since admitted that they ordered “legal investigations” of Rothermel and the other executives, but not wiretaps. They contend their motive was not to spy on their father’s will-making, but to trace millions of dollars which were allegedly siphoned off into dummy companies. They backed up their charges with a suit against Rothermel and two other company officials. Since then Kelly has sued Nelson and W. Herbert Hunt, complaining they ruined his reputation and career. The Rothermels have retaliated with a suit against the Hunts, Mrs. Rothermel claiming the operatives interfered with her work as a psychiatrist’s aide by eavesdropping on her patients.
That’s the private war.
Publicly, three federal grand juries have returned indictments against nine men, including the two Hunt boys. Meanwhile, for almost a year, a fourth federal grand jury in Dallas has been investigating the three-year time lag in getting the wiretap indictments against the Hunt brothers. Hunt sources allege that President Nixon and his men promised Nelson Bunker and his brother immunity from prosecution if the Hunts would give the FBI a list of Al Fatah agents in the United States. Nelson Bunker, because of his attempts to keep Hunt oil fields from being nationalized by Libya, felt himself a target for assassination, and therefore kept a close count of Al Fatah agents in this country. Nelson Bunker and his father met President Nixon at the celebrated barbecue at John Connally’s Floresville ranch in the autumn of 1972. Soon after, Nelson Bunker huddled with Richard Kleindienst, then the new boss of the Justice Department, at the plantation of Mississippi Senator James Eastland. Hunt sources claim Nelson Bunker came through for the FBI, and that the information helped foil a plot against Golda Meir when she visited New York in March of 1973. The indictments against Nelson Bunker and his brother went through anyway. In April, Kleindienst fell to Watergate. The next month Libya’s Colonel Qadhafi confiscated the Hunt holdings in the Arabian desert.
Nelson Bunker Hunt is said to feel betrayed, and that’s putting it mildly. At one time Libya was his happy hunting ground. He negotiated Hunt Oil’s vast holdings there, wined and dined the inauguration of the new empire, and had high friends all over the Arab World. But then, because of his country’s friendship toward Israel and their own growing nationalism, the Arabs turned against him. Nixon let him down. And then, two days after the burial of his father, he learned that the old man had bequeathed him a stunner. The will gave Mrs. Hunt 100 per cent of the patriarch’s stock in Hunt Oil, distributing to Nelson Bunker and the other nine children and their families the rest of the estate. True to his fashion, the old man kept it all in the family, with Ruth’s offspring seemingly getting the upper hand. Ray Hunt, the oldest son of the second set, was named as sole executor. And to insure compliance, H. L. stipulated that any beneficiary who challenged the will in any form would be cut off without a cent.
To top it off, more indictments are on the way, which are said to incriminate Watergate figures, as well as some prominent Texans within and without the Hunt empire.
Few Godfathers, whether Irish or Italian, political or criminal, have left progeny with such a bounty of brains and ability. Nelson Bunker is an aggressive go-getter with many of his father’s talents. Politically, he is a chip off the old genus Betula, a Birch not for bending, and has been almost as active as H. L. in backing Robert Welch and George Wallace. In 1973, he and Herbert, who himself is no slouch at real estate development, were reported to have cornered the market on silver bullion. They are now said to be trying to do the same thing with America’s beet refining. Bunker is supposed to have more racehorses than any other breeder in the country, as well as some of the best Charolais in the cattle business.
Lamar Hunt, of course, is probably better known than any of the boys because he took his father’s gaming instincts and love of sport and patiently turned the losing Dallas Texans into the winning Kansas City Chiefs. Lamar and his brother-in-law, Al G. Hill, put World Championship Tennis on tour, and Lamar helped kick life into the North American Soccer League with Kyle Rote, Jr., and the Dallas Tornado. The stepbrother and fifth son, Ray Lee Hunt, the executor of the will, is showing the same savvy with his dealings in downtown Dallas. Ray is also the angel of the new magazine, D.
As for the five daughters, June with her singing career is the most visible, but the others all married well, and each is as individual as the brothers. Margaret married Al Hill, the sportsman and banker; Caroline married Hugo Schoellkopf, scion of one of Dallas’ first families; Helen married Randall Kreiling, a dashing young mover from Peoria who is already making his mark in Dallas; and Swanee married a quiet but brilliant young preacher, Mark Meeks.
Those children, along with 25 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, are the sum of H. L. Hunt as a family man and provider—his private behest.
He went public in only one way really, and that was in his products—which included his political philosophy. William F. Buckley probably has never opened a can of HLH corn, but the old man’s political gumbo he tasted and found lacking. Buckley says politics was the least of H. L. Hunt’s talents, that his books were silly and that Hunt did more harm than good to the conservative movement. In a column published shortly after Hunt’s death, fellow Texan Buckley declared that Hunt had left “capitalism a bad name, not, goodness knows, by frenzies of extravagance, but by his eccentric understanding of public affairs, his yahoo bigotry and his appallingly bad manners.”
Yet Hunt was hardly a conservative, at least not as that term is used in American politics, and never claimed to be. I’m not quite sure how Hunt bothered Buckley. He made me nervous all right, but in some of the same ways that Buckley does. If Hunt had had his way, Senator Joe McCarthy would have purged every “pinko” and “subversive” from the roll call of American patriotism. Douglas MacArthur would have been president rather than Dwight Eisenhower, and we would have gotten out of the United Nations long ago and bombed the bejesus out of Russia and Red China—to deter their nuclear capacity before it matched our own. Hunt in 1966 told Playboy Magazine that the Air Force’s General George C. Kenney had had such a plan back in 1950, and Hunt wished we had used it.
Hunt called himself a “constructive.” A conservative, he argued, tended to put a weight around the neck of liberty. He defined liberty as “freedom for the individual to do whatever he likes consistent with organized society and good taste.” The word, “conservative,” he went on, “denotes mossback, reactionary, and old-fogeyism.”
This smacks to me of classic liberalism, and I said as much on a Dallas television show a few years back. Hunt was intrigued by my calling him a liberal, and he asked for a copy of my remarks. If they offended him, it never reached me. I couched my argument in this context: the terms “liberal” and “conservative” came to be used late in the 18th and early in the 19th century, out of the froth of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise, and fall. The liberal believed first of all in the independence and autonomy of the individual, answering only to his conscience. A free individual, the liberal believed, had an unlimited capacity for self-development and improvement. In personal freedom, man could create on this earth near-perfect conditions. Unconstrained man, giving full play to his personality! A nice definition of H. L. Hunt. But the liberal wasn’t an anarchist. One man’s self-expression could not impinge on the freedom of other men, and this fits nicely into Hunt’s qualifications about “organized society and good taste” in his description of a “constructive.” Liberals, however, were not to be confused with democrats. Liberals came to distrust the common man, because they feared his ignorance; they suspected he could be manipulated by despots. Liberals opposed universal vote, limiting suffrage to the propertied classes. And this nicely defines “Alpaca,” Hunt’s model republic. Hunt’s utopia was not unlike Plato’s Republic. If Hunt’s was oligarchical and built upon mammon, Plato’s was a communistic aristocracy built upon a pathological passion for order that was self-defeating.
Neither old theorist could influence anyone to take his advice. Plato thought for a while he might persuade Dionysus II, the ruler of Syracuse, to put his ideas into actual practice, but it was an unhappy wedding of the philosopher and the king. Twenty-three hundred years later, Hunt was just as pushy with his programs to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; but Booth Mooney, who was Hunt’s man in Washington, admitted that “it is not of record that any of them solicited the counsel so freely offered.” It was Lyndon Johnson that Hunt especially liked. But as Mooney has written, “Advise as the old gentleman might, it was all of no use. Johnson never gave the slightest sign of paying any attention to the snowstorm of memoranda from Dallas, which for a time descended on the White House at the rate of four or five a week.”
Other Americans did listen. For six years in the 1950s, Hunt had Dan Smoot on radio and television with Facts Forum, a public affairs program which was finally replaced by Life Line. Hunt saw Life Line as a kind of Voice of America in the heart of the heart of the country; at its peak a few years ago Life Line was carried by 531 radio stations and heard by an estimated five million Americans. The guiding principle of Life Line is anti-communism, and it is delivered in fire and brimstone sermons about the evils of everything that has transpired since Sherman rode through Georgia and Roosevelt sold out at Yalta. The sum of it seems to have given form to some of the heart of darkness and fear of change that is in us all. The foe is everywhere, subversive and conspiratorial, and the instinct is to stack rifles in the basement and vote against minorities and longhairs and the welfare state.
There is, however, one truth we should accept from H. L. Hunt, without reservation: you can’t buy friends, domestic or foreign. He knew that long before he was rich, and so he never tried. The one thing you can buy, most of the time, is power, even political power and even in a republic. And that, ironically or not so ironically, H. L. Hunt did not do, either. And that’s the beauty of the man for me. His mouth always got in the way of his money, and turned the right people off.
Hunt himself did not seem to suffer from all that hate and fear and trembling that he supported. He was altogether himself in an age of cover and cosmetics. He had more deer about Mount Vernon than dogs, and his bark was worse than his bite, unless you were a radish or a ravishing woman. We forget that he was not always old and wispy-haired and hyped on greens and granola. You could catch him each year at the State Fair, manning a modest booth displaying his HLH products, handing out a goodwill bag which contained one of his paperback books—perhaps Alpaca—along with a packet of “freedom talks” from Life Line, as well as a free sample of “GASTRO-MAGIC,” his special brand of relief from heartburn and indigestion.
Some have painted him as sinister, the right-wing capitalist who conveniently left town the day JFK was killed in Dallas, but I can’t let my paranoia run away in that direction either. I don’t think Hunt conspired to kill the president anymore than I think Nelson Rockefeller is in league with Henry Kissinger to turn us over to the communists. Which means, I guess, that I give H. L. Hunt more credit than he gave Rocky and the rest of us.
Dr. Criswell returned to his pulpit. “Worthy, noble father,” he cried, his voice breaking, “sentimental about his home and children, good to them beyond compare. Especially to the child who was not well. Oh yes, I often referred to him as Mr. Golden Heart.”
And on he went, describing Hunt as a man too big for one life, a man wise as Solomon. “Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, living giant with gentle touch… au revoir, auf wiedersehn, till we meet again…”
An hour later Hunt was buried, in private ceremonies, beside the grave of his first wife in Hillcrest Memorial Park in north Dallas.