The Fall of Bunker Hunt

Famed Texas Oil Tycoon Nelson Bunker Hunt Dies at 88

The show Dallas, which aired from 1978 to 1991, portrayed a wealthy oil family with its womanizing and scheming patriarch, J.R. Ewing, at the helm. This series was based on the Hunt family of Texas, which was prosperous and a political force of its own. The family patriarch, Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt (1889-1974), was a mathematical prodigy, a cotton plantation owner, and a good gambler. He used his poker winnings to purchase his first oil well and his enterprise grew into the greatest ownership of oil properties in the world and by 1925 he was one of the wealthiest men in the nation. His interest in politics was lifelong: the first presidential candidate he supported was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and as an oilman he absolutely loved Calvin Coolidge. Hunt had also assisted the career of Lyndon B. Johnson, a man he eventually came to bitterly oppose. Controversies surrounded the large family, and like the Kennedys, one their children, H.L. “Hassie” Hunt III, his first son, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1942 and was later lobotomized to try to cure it. As a man of great power and influence, H.L. Hunt was able to get around: he fathered fifteen children with three different women, the first two he was married to at the same time without the other knowing. Thus, he was a bigamist.

Hunt’s politics in his later life were extremely conservative. He was a prominent member of the John Birch Society and financially backed George Wallace for president in 1968. He used his wealth to fund Facts Forum and Life Line, two conservative radio programs. By the end of his life, H.L. Hunt was one of the three wealthiest men in the world, the other two being J. Paul Getty and Howard Hughes. Due to Hassie Hunt’s mental illness, the next in power and influence was his second son, Nelson Bunker Hunt (1926-2014), who shared his father’s politics and was also a key financial backer of the Wallace campaign.

Bunker Hunt was a successful oilman in his own right, as he managed to discover and secure the largest oil fields in Africa with Hunt Oil’s expansion into Libya in 1961. The profits from these fields made Hunt one of the wealthiest men in the world. He was also interested in racehorses and owned 1,000 of them at his peak of wealth. Hunt also was an evangelical Christian closely connected with Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and contributed to such causes, including the worldwide distribution of the film Jesus (1979). Although the 1960s were a decade of profit for him, the 1970s would prove more troublesome. In 1969, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi and his forces overthrew the Libyan monarchy in a coup and in 1973 he nationalized the Libyan oil fields. Although this was a bad blow, it wasn’t the worst of it. Throughout the decade, Bunker and his brothers William Herbert and Lamar were buying tremendous amounts of silver to corner the market to diversify their holdings, to counter inflation, and out of a fear of economic apocalypse.

By 1980, the brothers owned approximately a third of the world’s silver supply and used their leverage to jack up the price of silver from $6 to $48.70 per ounce, or a 713% increase from 1979’s price. A public backlash grew against the brothers, and in response federal regulators placed heavy restrictions on commodity purchases on the margin. Silver dealers in response released massive amounts of silver into the market and on March 27, 1980, the price of silver fell to $10.80 an ounce. The Hunt brothers lost over $1 billion as a consequence. Worse yet, they had borrowed to fund their purchases of silver, which resulted in creditors coming after them throughout the 1980s. By 1988, their wealth had declined from $5 billion to under $1 billion as the price of oil declined during the decade and they were forced to file for bankruptcy that year and liquidate their assets, including household items. However, they were still wealthy as H.L. Hunt had provided trust funds for each of his children. Bunker Hunt never quite regained his level of wealth and lived modestly in his last years. However, his brother, William Herbert, who is still around, has since regained his wealth.

References

Nelson Bunker Hunt – obituary. (2014, October 22). The Telegraph.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11180661/Nelson-Bunker-Hunt-obituary.html

Porterfield, B. (1975, March). H.L. Hunt’s Long Goodbye. Texas Monthly.

https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/h-l-hunts-long-goodbye/

 

 

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