From ‘Wright’ to Wealth: An Oil Heiress Tells Her Tale

Swanee Hunt’s “Half-Life of a Zealot” is written in the illustrious tradition of self-indulgent, self-congratulatory autobiography, but the book is strangely fascinating.

Hunt—who is former US Ambassador to Austria, the heiress to an oil fortune, and the founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government—offers a fascinating glimpse into the bizarre lives of the outrageously wealthy. She tells the stories of her larger than life Texan childhood, her work as a champion of women’s issues and social justice, her stint as an ambassador, and her family life involving three children and two marriages.

Hunt was a progeny of affluence. Her birth father, Texas oil magnate H.L. Hunt, was dubbed “the world’s richest man” in 1948 by Life magazine. As an illegitimate child, she spent her first seven years in a modest three-bedroom house just a few minutes away from her father’s mansion. Her mother, Ruth Ray, raised Swanee and her three siblings as the offspring of a fictitious husband with the surname “Wright.” Life as a single mother and woman of faith was difficult in 1950s Dallas, Texas.

However, Hunt’s fortunes improved at the expense of her father’s first wife, who died after conceiving six children with the oil baron. Two years later, Ray married H.L. Hunt, 29 years her elder, and Swanee Wright became Swanee Hunt. Her family moved into a Dallas replica of George Washington’s Virginia mansion, Mt. Vernon.

Despite the unification of father and children, Hunt never felt a close connection with the oil baron, who was an emotionally distant and demanding lothario. However, it was her father who first introduced her to politics. H.L. Hunt espoused a doctrine of rabid anti-communism. He penned a utopian novel in which wealth dictated voting privileges, and he pressed his daughters into the service of his anti-communist crusade. “Making speeches with my father was the closest thing to a meaningful relationship we ever had,” the younger Hunt writes.

As a teenager, Hunt adopted her father’s zealous anti-communist politics and her mother’s fervent brand of evangelical Christianity. She attended revivals and tried to convert strangers at beaches. Later in life, Hunt would redirect that fervor into both liberal philanthropic projects and politics.

After donating a quarter million dollars to Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign, Hunt lobbied for an ambassadorial appointment in 1993.

Hunt is frank about the role wealth played in her career. “To be indelicate, money bought a seat at the table,” she writes. While it is hard not to sympathize with the career diplomats who resent her appointment, I admire Hunt’s candor.

She is equally candid about her personal life. She treats the subjects of divorce, miscarriage, and her daughter’s mental illness with surprising openness. Her philosophizing can be formulaic—“My vision is a world in which every person is valued. No lives are discarded as statistics. No one is marginalized,” she writes—but she is unapologetic, and sometimes appealing.

Hunt may not be a literary giant, or even a legitimate politician, but she is clearly a compelling individual. Her charisma makes her memoir a surprisingly engaging read.

Half-Life of a Zealot
By Swanee Hunt
Duke University Press
Out Now