Half-Life of a Zealot

Swanee Hunt's life has lived up to her Texas-size childhood. Daughter of the legendary oil magnate H. L. Hunt, she grew up in a household dominated by an arch-conservative patriarch who fathered a brood of colorful offspring. Her family was nothing if not zealous, and her own zeal—albeit for more compassionate causes—propelled her into a mission that reaches around the world.

Half-Life of a Zealot tells how the girl who spoke against “Reds” alongside her father became a fierce advocate for progressive change in America and abroad, an innovative philanthropist, and Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Austria. In captivating prose, Hunt describes the warmth and wear of Southern Baptist culture, which instilled in her a calling to help the least fortunate and most vulnerable. The reader is drawn into her full-throttle professional life as it competes with critical family needs.

Hunt gives a remarkably frank account of her triumphs and shortcomings; her sorrows, including a miscarriage and the failure of a marriage; the joys and struggles of her second marriage; and her angst over the desperate illness of one of her three children. She is candid about the opportunities her fortune has created, as well as the challenge of life as an heiress. Much of Swanee Hunt’s professional work is devoted to expanding women’s roles in making and shaping public policy through her position at Harvard University and through the family foundation she has established.

Swanee Hunt’s autobiography brims over with strong women: her mother, whose religious faith and optimism were an inspiration; her daughter, who fights the social stigma of mental disorders; the women of war-torn Bosnia, who transformed their grief into action; and friends like Hillary Clinton, who used her position as First Lady to strengthen the voices of others.

Hunt is one more strong woman. Half-Life of a Zealot is her story—so far.

Praise for Half-Life of a Zealot

“Swanee Hunt is the woman behind the women, supporting their leadership throughout the world. Through them, she touches millions who will never have the privilege of browsing in a bookstore. This beautiful book tells why and how.”
— Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

“Swanee Hunt’s life reads like a novel. Born into a powerful, conservative and patriarchal American family, a young girl grows up to use her part of that power to support the powerless, and to encourage peace and women’s leadership around the world. To discover the fascinating story in between, you must read ‘Half-Life of a Zealot.”
— Gloria Steinem

“For a dozen years I’ve watched Swanee Hunt transform her resources into possibilities for others. Her autobiography shows the creative nexus of personal values, political savvy, and global reform that has made hers a life well lived.”
— George Soros

Select Readers’ Comments

Swanee, I meant to write earlier but I have been on the move around the country since I last saw you, still working hard to finish the work on the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Your book is truly one of the best accounts that I have read of what it is like to be a woman in a leadership position with all the trials and joys of domestic life…. The humour, the warmth and the love are all there in abundance. I found I was reading about a companion of mine as your story proceeded. I only hope one day that I can write my own story as beautifully as you have written yours. I don’t much care now if I don’t write it because I think you have summed up the lives of many of us women – the never ending struggles we face to make the world a better place, to make our homes full of love, to challenge the animosity towards us and to leave a better future behind for our kids….When I first saw you in Belfast all those years ago, when we had the first women’s conference after the ceasefire, I was so intimidated because I had heard so much about you and you seemed to have such a large following of women in that great hall….It just shows you that you don’t know a person until you get to see their real humanity and I have been so privileged to get to know yours.
–Monica McWilliams; Human Rights Commissioner, Northern Ireland

Fabulous book! I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can’t rave enough about it! Swanee, through her life’s work, is an incredible inspiration.
–S. Farrell

Half-Life of a Zealot is a remarkable book, and Swanee Hunt is a remarkable person. In her introduction, the author quotes Jill Ker Conway who wrote: “The woman autobiographer…cannot depart too dramatically from popularly accepted stereotypes, which affirm the man of action and the suffering or redemptive female. To do so is to risk losing persuasive power.” A statement Ms. Hunt agrees with, but; she writes, “rather than feel reluctant about showing my vulnerability, I’ve wondered if it’s safe to show strength.” In those two sentences, Ms. Hunt beautifully sets the book’s tone of the dualities of her life, one that was lived in isolation, and the other in public; one where love was given freely by her gentle mother, the other often held at bay by her powerful, famous father. With razor sharp intellect, openness, and candor, Ms. Hunt weaves her many lives as politician, daughter, sister, wife, mother, and peace maker into a wonderfully complex tapestry that pulls readers in deeper with each flip of the page. For even with her family’s enormous wealth, Half-Life is a universal tale of a child’s longings for family, love, and acceptance; and a triumphant story of a woman who grew into her own power and self-worth. Written in a casual and easy to read narrative, Half-Life is filled with unforgettable characters, fascinating events, and enough twists and turns that both mend and break the hearts to make it an engaging read.
–Loung Ung

Every person has multiple life themes, but few have so many, in such extreme form, so publicly exposed, and over time so effectively integrated into a life of service and beauty; fewer still are able to tell their story with such candor, vulnerability, generosity and hope.

The externals of Swanee Hunt’s life are worthy topics for a library of works: growing up in a family which merged great wealth, religious conservatism, and anti-communist fervor; finding her own gifts as a theologian, composer, philanthropist, civic leader, author and diplomat; learning to trust her instincts and voice to shape a life of radical compassion; engaging the full range of her gifts and resources to lift up the needs and tremendous capabilities of women throughout the world. These stories are well-told and compelling and would be an exceptional work if they were told in the third person.

But this book is at its core the story of one woman’s life journey as she has come to terms with those externals and with the joys and challenges of her own complex inner life, with family relations and responsibilities, with her loneliness and love, and with a deep awareness of her own strengths and searching. By revealing the inner and outer complexities of her life so boldly and honestly, Ambassador Hunt has created a work which will resonate deeply in the lives of many others.

I believe this work will have a lasting value, as the expression of a remarkable life, and as a witness and invitation to all who read it to live with similar passion and intentionality for a better world. By sharing her life, Swanee Hunt has helped blaze a pathway for countless other women and men. We can be very grateful for her wisdom and courage.
–J. Laurie

We heard Swanee talk about and read from her book Half Life of a Zealot, in November in Denver. We recommend it to every American, male or female! Swanee speaks from the heart in telling her story. She’s experienced success and failure, and she tells it exactly the way she felt about both her successes and her failures – and what she did to make the most of both. Her zeal for life and for helping others is a true inspiration. She lives that inspiration, and as my husband and I have said to each other, “reading her book is motivation to re-invent ourselves yet again.” Her passion for life and her dedication to helping others, while staying the course of being all that she can be, makes it a “must read” for you and those you care about. We challenge you to pick up the book, begin reading anywhere in the beautiful pages, and then try to put it down. Thank you, Swanee, for being who you are and for sharing that incredible you.
–Mary and George Sissel, Denver, Colorado

I picked this book up and started reading in the middle. I literally couldn’t put it down and realized immediately I would have to start from the beginning. Though some may say ‘Well, give me all that money and see what I could do with it,’ but that would demean the passion and commitment behind Swanee Hunt’s dedicated public service and focused philanthropy. I am from Texas myself, and I saw first-hand how the archconservatives down there try to denigrate anyone who doesn’t agree with their agenda. Thank goodness there are people like this firebrand who are determined to make the world a better place. I found myself very moved reading this woman’s story. Why do more people not know of her work? If ever the producers of ’60 Minutes’ are looking for a great candidate for a full profile, have I got a girl for you! Oops — a person for you!
–Charles Decker

Swanee Hunt’s book, Half-Life of a Zealot, is wonderful! Very empowering and a fun read. She has a gift for expressing complicated matters – personal, professional and political – in simple terms, and she manages to do it without losing the complexities and nuance that make this such a full-bodied story.
–Pam Plate

Swanee Hunt’s story is deeply moving. Her father, H.L. Hunt, has been called the richest man in America. But much of Hunt’s early years is spent in an emotionally impoverished family. Her spirited memoir is a story of transformation. Brought up as a conservative Southern Baptist fighting communism alongside her eccentric father, Hunt evolves into a dynamic advocate for women in conflict areas, women waging peace, and women on the campaign trail. As a citizen of the world, Hunt is appointed Ambassador to Austria and becomes a passionate philanthropist. She is astonishingly candid, vulnerable, and endearing. Hunt bares her soul and shows how Southern grit, hard work, and zeal (along with wealth) can help change the world. The journey of how she becomes who she is today is a spellbinding tale.
–Roberta Baskin