By People Staff
December 16, 1974 12:00 PM

Haroldson Lafayette Hunt was 32 and broke when he sat down to a game of five-card stud in the Arkansas boom town of El Dorado and won his first oil well. By the time he died of cancer two weeks ago at age 85, H.L. Hunt had pyramided his poker winnings into a global oil empire that made him one of the world’s half-dozen wealthiest men. Long before “Popsie” Hunt’s death, however, an ugly struggle had already begun within his family over the disposition of the Texas tycoon’s personal fortune, estimated at $5 billion.

The issue is between Hunt’s children by his first wife and those of his second. His first marriage to Lyda Bunker Hunt produced four sons and two daughters—Mrs. Al Hill, 59, H.L. Jr., 57, Mrs. Hugo W. Schoellkopf Jr., 52, Nelson Bunker, 48, Herbert, 46, and Lamar, 42. Hunt’s second wife was Ruth Ray Wright, a former Hunt company secretary, who married H.L. two years after Lyda’s death in 1955. She had four children, whom H.L. immediately adopted: Ray, 30, June, 29, Helen, 26, and Swanee, 23. (Friends say members of the family have told them H.L. was their actual as well as adoptive father.)

The internecine intrigue began, H.L. confidant Paul Rothermel told a federal grand jury, when he convinced the patriarch in 1969 to leave 51% of Hunt Oil to the “second family.” The first six children, recalled Rothermel, had already amassed many millions of their own. However, the other four children had “only” about $3 million all-told in trust funds. Two years later, private detectives working for Nelson Bunker and Herbert were convicted of tapping the phones of Rothermel and four other Hunt Oil executives believed sympathetic to the younger set of Hunts. Themselves now under federal indictment for ordering the wiretaps, Nelson Bunker and Herbert have pleaded not guilty, arguing that they simply wanted to investigate unaccountable company losses of $62 million over two years. Should the two Hunts be convicted, they could be fined up to $10,000 or be sentenced to five years, or both. For his part, Rothermel has come to an undisclosed out-of-court settlement with the Hunts over the wiretap.

Such Machiavellian maneuvers are hardly in keeping with the harmonious family singalongs that H.L. enjoyed in the Hunt mansion, an oversized replica of Mt. Vernon outside Dallas. He was a doting father, an outspoken arch-conservative and a health food faddist who advocated yoga and creeping about the mansion on hands and knees as exercise. Before he finally gave up gambling, he often bet up to a half-million dollars on the races in a single afternoon. Yet he sometimes brought his lunch to work in a brown paper bag. Accustomed to being overshadowed by Popsie’s myriad eccentricities, all but one of Hunt’s daughters opted for a housewife’s anonymity. The exception: June “Peaches” Hunt, a budding gospel singer who recently signed a recording contract with Stax Records.

The Hunt boys, however, have proven themselves every bit as adept as H.L. at wheeling and dealing Lone Star-style. (The only exception is H.L. Jr., “Hassie,” who has suffered continuing illness and who remains at home in the care of the family.) Reticent, ruddy-faced Nelson Bunker, father of four, is perhaps the most commercially rambunctious of the lot. The chief executive at Hunt Oil for the past five years, he managed to stave off nationalization of Hunt interests in Libya for two years after the holdings of other companies had been expropriated. Hunt’s counsel during the negotiations with the Arabs was fellow Texan John Connally. A major force on the commodities market, Nelson Bunker last year joined with brother Herbert, a Hunt Oil vice-president and real estate developer, to buy up $200 million worth of silver bullion, and is now using it to try to purchase America’s largest refiner of beet sugar, Great Western United Corporation. Enjoying record profits, Great Western’s board rejected the offer of $22 million two weeks ago.

At his sprawling Circle T Ranch, Nelson Bunker, who along with his father has been a booster of George Wallace and Gerald Ford, also raises thousands of prize Charolais cattle worth up to $20,000 apiece. And with a stable of 400 thoroughbreds, he is believed to own more racehorses than any other breeder.

For all the economic eclecticism of Nelson Bunker and Herbert, Lamar has stuck to one venture—professional sports. In addition to owning the Kansas City Chiefs, teetotaler Lamar is cofounder of the World Championship of Tennis and part owner of the Dallas Tornado in the embryonic North American Soccer League. Once as notoriously frugal as his father—Lamar drove a 1964 Plymouth for six years—he now lives in grand style with second wife, Norma, and their three children. They occupy the $3 million-plus miniature Versailles previously occupied by Dallas millionaire Jim Ling before he was ousted as president of Ling-Temco-Vought.

Like his older stepbrothers, Ray—the putative leader of the “second family”—is establishing a reputation of his own as a shrewd operator. His current pet project is a $74 million, 50-acre complex in downtown Dallas due for completion sometime in 1977. Also a devout family man, Ray, his wife, Nancy, and their three children live in an affluent Dallas suburb.

Only a few hours after the two families had gathered around H.L.’s gravesite last week, his will was filed for probate—and it was a stunner. He left his stock in Hunt Oil to his widow, Ruth, distributed the rest of his enormous estate to the children of both families and named Ray as the sole independent executor of Mrs. Hunt’s share. It seemed like a victory for the second family. And in the end, old H.L. assured the family harmony he was always so fond of. He stipulated that any beneficiary in his will who challenged its provisions would be cut off without a dime.