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The Thrill of Swanee Hunt

Raised in an evangelical household, she wasn’t supposed to have a voice. Now, she is an advocate.

On a foggy winter morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, inside a sprawling 19th-century house with 10 fireplaces, a Chinese terra-cotta warrior and a group of George Segals, 13 women from war-torn nations, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Liberia, Syria and Myanmar, gathered in a room the owner calls her ballroom. A harp and baby grand piano filled one corner. Fringed lamps, tables and antique couches were arranged in groupings for maximum social lubrication, and the walls were hung with a tasteful if eclectic art collection, featuring the owner’s own photography from global travels, portraits of her parents, folk paintings from the Balkans and African masks. Servants quietly replenished coffee urns and silver platters of quiche. 

While one woman lectured the group on “the three C’s of communication,” a second woman, 62, petite with close-cropped blond hair, slipped into the room in stocking feet, slacks and a plain sweater, completely unobtrusive—except for the African gray parrot perched on her shoulder. The women looked up and met their hostess, Swanee Hunt. They were beginning a weeklong seminar of training, networking and encouragement as “peacemakers”  at Hunt’s Institute for Inclusive Security, which identifies women leaders in countries ravaged by war and grooms them to be power players.

First on the day’s agenda was teaching the women how to tell a compelling story to the people they would be meeting in the coming week: Harvard University academics, military personnel, American reporters and wealthy donors. Hunt, who served as ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997 under President Bill Clinton, set the tone with her own story, a yarn about the moment that led to forming the Institute for Inclusive Security. While in Vienna, she had a 20-minute meeting with a female doctor who had traveled three days from Bosnia to share horrific details of ethnic fighting with the ambassador. Several years later, sitting on the edge of her own mother’s deathbed in a Texas hospital, Hunt saw television footage of a new refugee exodus from Kosovo.

“Old ladies were being pushed in wheelbarrows, and old men were dying in the backs of trucks next to women giving birth,” Hunt recalled. “I started to cry, and my husband said, ‘Your mother feels no pain,’ and I said, ‘I know that; it’s about this flood of people.’ You see, I knew the doctor who had come to see me was in there somewhere. And that’s when I realized I wanted to dedicate my life to helping women working in situations like that.”

Philanthropy isn’t unusual among the American super-rich, but the source of Swanee Hunt’s woman-empowering cash is. Her father, Dallas billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt, considered the richest man in the world at one point, was a “Red” hater who wouldn’t let his family shop at Neiman Marcus “because Jews owned the store.” Hunt was rumored to be a bigamist and philanderer, and it’s fair to say his attitude toward women was premodern. 

Fast-forward a generation. Hunt, staunch conservative and occasional villain in JFK assassination conspiracy theories, has died, and the multimillions from his fortune are funding global women’s empowerment, gender parity in U.S. politics and the abolition of prostitution—all causes, one could assume, that would have given him apoplexy were he alive. 

A chief distributor of this largesse is Swanee, the youngest daughter from his second wife. Along with her sister Helen LaKelly Hunt, Swanee Hunt has doled out as much as $100 million to various progressive causes through the Hunt Alternatives Fund. 

There was not much encouragement for feminist philanthropy in Dallas or, for that matter, anywhere in the world in the 1950s. The fact that the leaders of American feminist philanthropy would turn out to be H.L. Hunt’s progeny is a plot twist worthy of Swiftian satire.  


Swanee with father, H.L. Hunt

Swanee Hunt credits her mother, Ruth Ray, with inspiring her. “When I look back, I know that she was extraordinarily tender,” says Hunt, clad in a paisley fur-trimmed jacket, reminiscing in a rolling Texas drawl.

If a lady of means in last-century Dallas had an urge to do some good and the church collection plate felt small, she had to rely on her allowance and ingenuity, because Texas women did not hold the purse strings. When Swanee’s mother learned her maid’s house had burned down in the early 1980s, she found her way into the blighted neighborhood, pulled up at a 7-Eleven, looked around and told the clerk she needed “two of everything.” She paid with a credit card, because she didn’t have much money of her own. “She had enormous capacity to give to others, but she didn’t know how to become part of the financial scene with my father,” Hunt recalls. “He gave her an allowance, and he gave her credit cards. It is very hard to be philanthropic with credit cards.” 

Ruth Ray was H.L. Hunt’s kept mistress for many years, bearing him four children while living in a separate house until first wife Lyda died, and Hunt married Ruth. Moving into the Big House, Swanee, sisters Helen and June and older brother Ray were now under the same roof as their mother’s frequent gentleman caller, whom they then learned was their father, along with a cast of others, including “the help.” Later, a mentally ill adult half-brother from Hunt’s first marriage left the institution and moved back home, at Ruth’s insistence.

Hunt was well into his 60s by then and a formidable figure to his small children, who sometimes hid when they saw him coming. When he was in the mood for family entertainment, he would call the girls into the parlor to perform anti-Communist folk songs. Ruth, raised Methodist in Idabel, Oklahoma, somehow reconciled her Commandment-breaking lifestyle with lifelong evangelical Christianity. She was fond of telling her daughters that, except for drugs, feminism was the greatest curse the country had ever known. 

She also made sure her children went to church. But the preacher’s fiery sermons on saving heathens from hell resonated differently than expected, Swanee recalls. “At the end of the church service, singing the hymns, we might be in tears thinking, What can I do to help this other person from burning eternally in hell? But I don’t believe in hell, and I don’t believe people burn eternally. And the great commission—baptizing all the nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—I didn’t want to go around baptizing people, but I did want to be there for them.” So the blond baby girl of the Hunt clan (H.L. sired 14 with three women), who could easily have become the sort of Dallas maven who financed secret anti-Communist gun-running operations for the likes of Oliver North, instead set out on the road to become a liberal activist.  

At 20, while a sophomore at Southern Methodist University, she married her church boyfriend, Mark Meeks, a baker’s son four years her senior, and eventually bought a ranch southwest of Denver. There the young couple lived a hippie-ish existence, albeit with a bedrock of trust-fund stability, growing vegetables and baking their own bread. “My biggest influence at that time was Mark,” says Hunt. 

The couple had a daughter, Lillian, and Hunt began studying religion, earning a master’s in religion and a doctorate in theology. At the seminary, she decided to start giving away her father’s money to progressive causes. By 1981, she and her sister Helen started Hunt Alternatives Fund. Swanee and Mark  divorced in 1985—the marriage foundered partly over class issues, she wrote in her autobiography, Half-Life of a Zealot

She moved to Denver and entered civic life. There, on a board, she met her second husband, Charles Ansbacher, a Vermont cellist and orchestra conductor. They would have three children.

Examining sculpture with Bill and Hillary Clinton while serving as U.S. ambassador to Austria

In 1992, she was coaxed into her first really big political donation—$250,000—to the Clinton political campaign. “I never knew how becoming such a player in politics would propel me as it did,” she says, sipping tea. “I never saw the upside to that. What I feared was the downside. When [former Colorado Representative] Pat Schroeder said, ‘You need to be an ambassador,’ I said, ‘I can’t possibly—because I gave this big contribution.’ She said ‘This is how it’s done.’ And I said, ‘I’ve been a card-carrying member of Common Cause! I have been fighting against people buying ambassadorships!’ Well, sure enough, I ended up in the New York Times, first on the list as an example of how Bill Clinton was selling ambassadorships. I think Common Cause itself sent out a fundraising appeal with me as a poster child.”   

Swanee Hunt pauses to laugh.

“That was what I feared, and it was real. But what I didn’t understand was how much I would be able to do. And that was wonderful.”

Hunt is sworn in by Vice President Al Gore, with her mother, Ruth, holding the Bible, in 1993.

Hunt was sworn in as ambassador to Austria in 1993. In Vienna, Swanee first got involved in the Bosnian refugee crisis, becoming a hero of sorts to Bosnians like Mirsad “Miki” Jacevic, a college student during the breakup of Yugoslavia, who is now vice chair of Hunt’s Institute for Inclusive Security, based in Washington, D.C.

The Vienna years were complicated by family trauma: Her bipolar daughter, Lillian, was repeatedly hospitalized for breakdowns and suicide attempts. 

“I know that when my daughter was in the hospital and I was sitting there doing, let’s say, 10 appointments a day and a speaking engagement, people thought I was completely present,” Hunt recalls. “I could look them in the eye and respond, but 60 percent of me was at the hospital, where I knew my daughter was playing ping-pong with someone floridly psychotic and sleeping near a roommate with no legs because she’d thrown herself in front of a tram.”

Lillian’s mental illness manifested in childhood and worsened through her adolescence, uncontrollable for years until a doctor recommended the right cocktail of medications. Those difficult years shaped Swanee’s focus on mental health and later influenced her efforts to support women, especially mothers, who, like her, find themselves torn between work and caring for family.

“I had a mentally ill half-brother. I had a mother without a husband and four children. It made sense to me to work on mental-health issues and to found the Women’s Foundation of Colorado. [As philanthropists] we don’t have to ask, What am I reading about in the newspapers? It can come out of our own lives.”


Swanee with her sister Helen

The focus on women’s empowerment was personal in another way, too. Like their mother, the three Hunt sisters (older sister June has her own global evangelical radio show) were not “empowered” themselves, not at first. Their eldest brother, Ray, ran the family business without them, in Texas fashion. He proved himself an able and prudent businessman—Swanee calls him “brilliant”—but he was not inclined to bring his sisters into the boardroom, or even give them control over their own money. The sisters lived, like their mother, on allowances doled out by men. 

“Helen at one point was in tears saying to me, ‘How can we work on the empowerment of women when we don’t have the kind of full status that we should have in our family?'” Hunt recalls. “I said to her, ‘Helen, that’s why we work on the empowerment of women, not because we have solved it, but because we have that empathy.'” The sisters eventually won control over their money, which was tantamount to a feminist revolution in Hunt family history. 

“That was the 1970s, when men were expected to control family wealth,” Swanee says. “Our business restructuring was hard, complicated, with terribly tough tradeoffs. But bottom line what Ray did then—and since—has yielded hundreds of millions for our philanthropy.”

The three sisters have now established that they are part of the family enterprise. “That’s what we needed to do,” Swanee says. And their brother has stated that they have changed his view of women dramatically.

Today, in Cambridge, the house may be open to cocktail receptions, coffees and daylong networking sessions for the causes she supports, but the house is also the inner sanctum of a woman of means and a certain age who pretty much does what she pleases. One friend called her sui generis. She’s an amalgamation of Helen Reddy and Auntie Mame, trailing a little New Age magic dust.

Since Hunt bought the house in Cambridge, a multitude of recipients of Hunt Alternatives Funds have gathered in it. For Demand Abolition Colloquium, survivors of prostitution from the United States, many of them trafficked when under age, have served as experts, speaking as panelists and educating policymakers and police officers that prostitution is not a choice. 

In January, the group of women from war-torn countries who met Swanee did go on to hobnob with policy makers at planned Boston events. Slipping quietly into that ballroom, parrot perched on shoulder, was a relatively subdued entrance for Hunt. She has been known to turn up at events clad in red cowboy regalia from head to toe, bang out songs and hymns on any piano she encounters or burst into show tunes from the musical Oklahoma. Extrovert to the core and often on the move, she frequently tweets and snaps iPhone photos, signing dashed-off e-mails to friends, “Swan, now nesting in Belgrade”—or wherever she happens to be at the moment.

The girl can be taken out of Texas, apparently, but Texas stays in the girl. Her flamboyance and willingness to say whatever’s on her mind, unfiltered, have earned her the occasional “She’s nuts” from colleagues and co-workers, but also words of admiration. 

Heiress and philanthropist Abigail Disney, whose Hollywood dad was at least as famous in the same era as Swanee’s father, is a fan. Disney, encouraged in her own pursuits by Swanee’s sister Helen, says she would not have made her award-winning 2011 film about war, women and Liberia, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, had it not been for Swanee taking her on a trip to the blighted country.

“To boil her down to a word: gutsy,” says Disney, 52. “There are no unnamed elephants in any room with her. She is all about speaking the truth. That’s not to say she is not diplomatic. She just operates in a straight-on kind of manner that is very refreshing.”

New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who has worked with Hunt on anti-trafficking and prostitution issues as well as shared concerns on issues of gender parity in politics, is another admirer.  

“Swanee Hunt gets it,” Maloney told DuJour in an e-mailed statement. “She understands both what needs to change and how it gets changed. Her work on opening doors for women is changing the landscape and shaking things up. America needs more women like Swanee Hunt, who seek justice tirelessly, lead fearlessly and act compassionately. She is one of my heroes.” 


Leaving the global fellows to refine the personal stories they would have to share during their networking in and around Harvard, Hunt takes me on a house tour. Walking up the steps to her office, she pulls over at an alcove containing four small bronzes, two by Rodin and two by Camille Claudel, the artist who was Rodin’s lover and muse. “Aren’t these lovely,” she says, leaning in and stroking one of the Rodins. She lays her head on it and murmurs, “Oh, I just love these.”

Hunt confides that she is in the habit of buying art without examining it in person. “Sotheby’s sends me these catalogs, and I sometimes just buy what I like,” she says. That’s how she found a quartet of life-size figures by the sculptor George Segal. She bought them from the catalog, and when they were delivered, she found their expressions terribly “dour,” she says. So rather than install them together in a group, as the artist had, and concentrate that dourness, she separated them and has them facing away from one another around the patio and lawn.

Up another flight, we enter her bedroom, on the door of which hangs her mother’s silk-and-lace dressing gown. The room is decorated in shades of mustard and white. She points to the drapes enclosing the bed.

Swanee with Charles Ansbacher, her husband of 25 years

I had those installed to protect Charles from the light when he was dying,” she says. After a 25-year marriage, Ansbacher died of a brain tumor in 2010, a year after being diagnosed. Hunt still grieves. She often tears up looking at his pictures on the gallery along the stairs. A copy of Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, A Widow’s Tale, is on the bench by the bed. She keeps Charles’ ties draped over a chair nearby, and his shirts still hang in a closet. Some of them she has made into teddy bears for the grandchildren.

Hunt says she is compelled to share intimate details of his dying and wants to write a book about how she and her children managed, because she realized that she knew so little herself.  If she, with all the resources of the world at her fingertips, knew so little about dying—how does everyone else cope? Her husband spent almost no time in the hospital and died in his own bed. Friend and neighbor Yo-Yo Ma played cello at its foot the night before he died. By then Ansbacher had lost the power of speech, and his breathing was labored.  

Hunt says, “The next day I lay down beside him and said, ‘Charles, I’m going to take a nap, and while I’m asleep, it’s OK if you let go.’ And when I woke up, he had stopped breathing and his fingertips were cold. And I lay there beside him and held on to him and felt the warmth drain away. Did you know, when someone dies, the chest stays warm a very long time. It is the last to cool. And then I called the nurse.”

“Charles was my greatest supporter and toughest critic,” she says. In 2008, he encouraged her to throw her name into the ring as a replacement for the Colorado Senate seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (since resigned), but Governor Bill Ritter did not appoint her. She has researched a political gambit and for now is not going there. “I have done the calculation, and I think the chances of my winning the office that you would want me in are between 40 and 60 percent. And the cost to me of doing that in terms of opportunity cost compared to what I can do in support of other candidates and my philanthropy—it’s not a smart thing for me to do. And as soon as I say that, I hope I’m not one of those women who says, ‘Oh, well, it’s not really for me.’ I don’t not run because I am afraid of being out there or afraid of the scrutiny of my family. I looked at it very carefully.” She pauses. “I would never say never!” 

For now, she is throwing her support behind female candidates of both parties and is hoping to see Hillary Clinton run for the presidency in 2016. Hunt was an early and forceful HRC backer in 2008 but unequivocally shifted her support to Barack Obama as soon as it became clear he was going to be the nominee.

“We had to understand it wasn’t just about Hillary; it was about ourselves,” Swanee says of women’s dashed hopes in 2008. “She became secretary of state, which she wouldn’t have if she hadn’t been a presidential contender. I desperately hope that it is her stepping-off place to be president. She is more than electable four years from now, if she chooses to run. She has the energy, and she will be a brilliant, brilliant president.” 

And what would H.L. Hunt make of a daughter who is an avowed supporter of a woman for president? Surprisingly, neither Swanee nor her sister Helen think their father is turning over in his grave as they send his money to feminists and liberals. Helen thinks he would be tickled pink. 

“Dad was an iconoclast, an out-of-the-box thinker, and he followed an inner passion and an inner voice—he thought he was doing the best thing for society,” Helen says. “I think he would be so proud that he couldn’t possibly button his buttons.”

In her memoir, Swanee wrote, “I’ve rejected most of Dad’s social and political values, while trying not to reject him.” When asked which of her character traits she inherited from her legendary father, Swanee Hunt answers with a family parable.

“They used to say, ‘Follow H.L. Hunt and get rich.’ But once, Dad drilled 99 consecutive dry holes, and that was before seismic. Back then, you would go out there and make a hunch about where an oil field is. There were people called oil finders, just literally going on intuition, like people with divining rods. Dad was going around punching holes in the ground, and that costs some money. People started saying, ‘Follow H.L. Hunt and go broke.’ Dad loved that story. He would say, ‘I wish I could lose it all and start all over again.’ For him, it was about the challenge. I have no desire to be famous, or rich and famous. I want to use resources like Dad did, to go after the impossible.”