Hunt, H(aroldson) L(afayette), Jr.

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HUNT, H(aroldson) L(afayette), Jr.

(b. 17 February 1889 in Vandalia, Illinois; d. 29 November 1974 in Dallas, Texas), businessman and oil tycoon, a right-wing conservative who focused on influencing the political and social consciousness of America throughout the 1960s.

Hunt was the youngest of eight children of Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, a farmer, commodity dealer, and owner of a local bank, and Ella Rose Myers. He was educated at home. By the time he was fifteen, Hunt had begun his travels throughout the West, including Colorado, California, and Texas. After working at various jobs, he joined the oil boom in Arkansas, became an oil lease broker, and developed his first oil well. By 1925 he is believed to have had a personal worth of $600,000, a considerable fortune at that time. By 1930, however, Hunt was nearly bankrupt because of bad business operations. Nonetheless, he continued in the oil business and by 1932 he owned approximately 900 wells in East Texas.

Over the next decade, Hunt became the largest independent operator during the East Texas oil-field boom and amassed a huge fortune. A 5 April 1948 article in Fortune magazine named him as the richest man in the United States. By the 1950s Hunt was becoming more and more interested in politics, and he financed Facts Forum in 1951 as an "educational" foundation. Through Facts Forum, Hunt produced a series of radio and television programs featuring right-wing conservative and anticommunist messages. Hunt and Facts Forum came out in strong support of Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, which essentially became a witch-hunt for communists in the United States.

By 1960 Hunt's sons were primarily running his business enterprises. Hunt was more interested in promoting his political agenda by espousing his views on society and politics. In 1960 he self-published Alpaca, a utopian novel about a small nation under a dictatorship. The book was a thinly disguised platform for Hunt's message about what he believed to be a perfect society, including his view that the oldest, wealthiest, and most ambitious citizens, especially those among the top 25 percent of the taxpayers, should have more votes than the common man or woman. Hunt also addressed his pet peeves: big government and high taxation. He wrote, "Big taxes encourage overbearing and despoiling government, and government has been and always will be destructive to human liberty." Nevertheless, Hunt failed to acknowledge that he benefited from government regulations bolstering the oil business, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1934 federal order blocking interstate shipment of "hot oil" and a federal regulation in place in 1936 that maintained oil field pressure and price.

In its appendix Alpaca included an example of what Hunt considered to be the "perfect constitution." Reportedly, Hunt sent copies of the book to leaders of numerous countries. Despite his immense wealth, Hunt was noted for his frugality; he even brought brown-bag lunches to the office. Thus the book, which sold for fifty cents a copy, was printed on inferior paper with cheap glue and often literally fell apart in the reader's hands. An often repeated anecdote about the book is the instance when Hunt brought his two daughters to a book signing and had them sing—to the tune of "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?"—the lyrics "How much is that book in the window? The one that says all the smart things."

During the 1960 presidential primaries, Hunt strongly supported the nomination of Lyndon B. Johnson as the Democratic Party candidate, primarily because Johnson had supported oil-depletion allowances when he served in Congress and the Senate. When John F. Kennedy was nominated instead and chose Johnson as his vice presidential running mate, Hunt made a large donation to the Kennedy campaign. But Hunt soon came to dislike Kennedy, especially after Kennedy showed little inclination to provide tax breaks for the oil business. Specifically, Hunt was upset over Kennedy's growing efforts to get rid of the oil-depletion allowance. Dating back to 1926 the allowance represented a significant tax break by allowing certain companies to deduct a sizable percentage of the gross income derived from oil and gas wells for as long as those wells were still producing. As a result, Hunt used his fifteen-minute LIFE LINE radio broadcasts, which had replaced Facts Forum, to regularly attack the Kennedy presidency. The LIFE LINE broadcasts were carried by more than 400 stations throughout the United States and cost Hunt, through his companies, an estimated $2 million a year. Overall, the radio shows were essentially a form of propaganda to promote conservative viewpoints and habitually used scare tactics, such as warnings that Communist infiltrators had plans to enslave America.

Hunt's efforts to influence public opinion backfired when his LIFE LINE radio show criticized Kennedy on 22 November 1963, the very day the president was assassinated in Dallas, where Hunt lived. In addition, Hunt's son Nelson Bunker Hunter was one of the contributors to a full-page advertisement in that day's issue of the Dallas Morning News that asked the president questions such as "Why has the foreign policy of the U.S. degenerated to the point that the CIA is arranging coups and having staunch anti-Communist allies to the U.S. bloodily exterminated?" A citizen group boycotted HLH Products, a division of the Hunt Oil Company and leading sponsor of the radio broadcasts.

Hunt and members of his family, including his sons, were also questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after the assassination because of their many public and sometimes vitriolic attacks on Kennedy and his administration. In an interview conducted with Hunt's son Lamar Hunt, the FBI questioned Lamar about the fact that his name and address appeared in the address book of Jack Ruby. Ruby had shot and killed Kennedy's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, on 24 November 1963—just two days after Kennedy's assassination. Although no evidence was found that any of the Hunts were involved in an assassination plot, Hunt did receive death threats. In addition, conspiracy theorists continued to publish reports describing Hunt as one of the financial backers and manipulators in the assassination. Nevertheless, after Kennedy's death, the Houston Chronicle quoted Hunt as deploring the assassination, saying, "Freedom is in fearful danger when a president dies by violence."

Hunt also wrote the newspaper column Hunt for Truth, which was syndicated throughout the United States. Much like the LIFE LINE radio programs, the column was a format for Hunt's ultraconservative viewpoints. Hunt eventually gathered these columns and self-published them in book form in 1965 under the same title. Hunt's outlook was strongly antigovernment in the sense that he thought government-run organizations and programs were inherently wasteful and misguided. James Hepburn, in his 1968 book Farewell America, quoted Hunt as saying, "All services to the public should be abolished in favor of personal enterprise." As for his old political ally Johnson, who assumed the presidency after Kennedy's assassination, Hunt openly supported Johnson's Republican rival Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign.

Hunt's name continued to pop up in relation to various anticommunist efforts throughout the 1960s. The 12 November 1968 edition of the Miami Herald reported on the federal trial of the Cuban Power organization and several Cuban exiles accused of plotting to bomb foreign ships. A tape that was played during the trial revealed one of the defendants saying that Hunt had given $15,000 to help with the bombing. Interviewed by telephone, Hunt denied any involvement and said that he had only "helped in the political campaign" of a Cuban running for a Florida office. In a 27 February 1969 article in the British Guardian Weekly, Hunt also said that he had once been approached by the Catholic Church to help support the Vatican's anticommunist movement in South America.

In the 1960s Hunt began practicing what at the time were considered avant-garde dietary habits. His interest in promoting health continued, and in 1968 he began to sell aloe vera cosmetics. Throughout his life Hunt was an eccentric; he built a modest home in Dallas that imitated George Washington's famous home at Mount Vernon. He also kept three families. He married Lyda Bunker in 1914, with whom he had six children. In 1925, while still married to Bunker, Hunt married Frania Tye, and the couple had four children together. Two years after Bunker died in 1955, Hunt married Ruth Ray and adopted her children, who were born between 1943 and 1950. Ray later said that the children were actually Hunt's biological offspring. Ray is credited with persuading Hunt to become a Baptist and to give up gambling, especially high-stakes poker, a game that helped to finance his first forays into the oil business.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Hunt's political and social philosophies, he was undoubtedly one of the shrewdest businessmen and financiers of the twentieth century. His strong will and dedication to his businesses and causes is reflected in his often repeated quote: "Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work." Hunt is buried at Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas. At the time of his death, his estate was estimated to exceed $2 billion, and its settlement was bitterly contested for several years in the courts, largely because of disagreements among Hunt's three different families.

An overview of Hunt's life can be found in the Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. (1998). Books about the Hunt family dynasty include Harry Hurt, Texas Rich: The Hunt Dynasty, from the Early Oil Days Through the Silver Crash (1981), and Jerome Tuccille, Kingdom: The Story of the Hunt Family of Texas (1984). For more information on Hunt in the 1960s, see Tom Buckley, "Just Plain H. L. Hunt," Esquire (Jan. 1967). A look back at Hunt's novel Alpaca is in Rusty Crawley, "How H. L. Hunt Viewed Utopia," Dallas Business Journal (22 Sept. 2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (30 Nov. 1974).

David Petechuk

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Hunt, H(aroldson) L(afayette), Jr.

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