Oil Executive John Swearingen Has a Private Energy Source: His Wife Bonnie
11/30/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
As human beings they are poles apart, but together John and Bonnie Swearingen comprise one of the business world's most magnetic couples. At 63, he is the portly, scholarly and conservative $635,000-a-year chairman of Standard Oil Company (Indiana). Bonnie, about 50 (the number is unlisted), is a bubbly Southern belle who tried four times to become Miss Alabama, had a fling as an actress and now delights in arching eyebrows in her adopted hometown of Chicago with her sexy outfits and sassy talk. She collects famous friends and calls one and all "Honey." A longtime associate of John's concedes, "She has put a wide smile on his face—he used to be so grim."
The couple spend half the year globe-trotting on company business (Indiana Standard ranks ninth on the FORTUNE 500). Last week they headed for Cairo, where John was scheduled to receive the country's highest civilian award from President Hosni Mubarak. Anwar Sadat arranged for the honor before his assassination, and the Swearingens intend to visit his widow, Jihan, whom they entertained in Chicago last spring. Bonnie relishes hobnobbing with heads of state. She talks exuberantly about "dinner with Ronnie" and "darling Imelda," the wife of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos.
A telling item in the Swearingens' 10-room apartment, high above Lake Michigan, is a needlepoint pillow with the message: "Napoleon lives! I am married to him." Bonnie exclaims, "I'm mad for Napoleon, honey. I dreamed of Napoleon every night before I married John."
Their 1969 union stunned Chicago society. John divorced a wife of 26 years who had borne him three daughters; she had already been through two marriages to Texas oilmen. The jokes were often cruel, e.g., "Maybe Bonnie feels she needs a change of oil." She quickly lived up to her reputation for daring by confiding to Town & Country that she liked eating "honey with the honeycombs, especially just before making love." To another interviewer she announced that she made her husband's breakfast wearing nothing but emeralds. Even now she persists in telling reporters, "I just love oil. If it could be made into a perfume, I'd wear it."
Bonnie has become a leading charity organizer and the first woman ever to sit on the national board of the Boys' Clubs—but the "old money" in Chicago still views her with suspicion. A rival hostess once dismissed her as "one of those Alabama Gabors."
Even John Swearingen occasionally winces at his wife's excesses. Yet he is devoted both to her and to her party-going ways. "John is a bright man who likes to associate with the bright people in the upper crust," says Bill Moore, a retired Indiana Standard executive. "Bonnie is a good-looking asset, she loves the social whirl and loves to talk business."
John grew up in Columbia, S.C. in a quiet Southern family. His early inspiration was his father, John Eldred, who was blinded in a hunting accident at 13 but managed to graduate from college Phi Beta Kappa and later served 14 years as South Carolina's commissioner of education. John himself was an admitted grind ("I'm probably the only company chief who's had six years of Latin"). He attended the University of South Carolina and by 20 had a master's in chemical engineering from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Tech.
A professor there steered Swearingen to Indiana Standard, where he got a job in the research labs. His industriousness caught the eye of Frank Prior, the company president. Under Prior's tutelage John began a fast rise, during which he pressed for the vigorous expansion of oil exploration and production in the U.S. and overseas. At present Indiana Standard has more undeveloped U.S. oil and gas land—39 million acres—than any other company. Swearingen became a director at 33, president at 39 and chief executive at 41. This year the FORTUNE 500 chief executive officers named him the second-best CEO in the nation (after GE's Reginald Jones). Says Bonnie: "John should have been No. 1."
Born in Birmingham, she was one of seven children of Thomas Bolding, a poor, itinerant Church of Christ minister. She placed high enough in all those Miss Alabama contests to earn tuition for Birmingham's Samford U, where she studied drama. "She wanted badly to do well," recalls an old friend, Margaret Sizemore, now assistant to Samford's president. "She once asked me in her very appealing way to polish her rough edges."
After graduation Bonnie headed for California, where she studied drama at the Pasadena Playhouse and landed a few TV and movie roles, such as in Bundle of Joy with Debbie Reynolds. Along the way she married two Lone Star wheeler-dealers—first John Manley, then Oscar Wyatt Jr.—from whom she picked up oil expertise and a portfolio of oil stocks. After divorcing Wyatt in the early '60s she moved to Manhattan and worked as a stockbroker for five years at Shearson, Hammill.
Bonnie considered buying a seat on the Stock Exchange but lost interest when she found she could not be the first woman on the Exchange. One day in 1968 John Swearingen came to a stockbrokers' meeting on Wall Street. Bonnie, who was then dating a friend of John's, was also there. Soon she switched partners. By February 1969 Swearingen had gotten his divorce; three months later he wed Bonnie. Her mother, Gertha, told Bonnie, "If anything happens to this marriage it will be your fault, because he's the best you've ever had."
John immediately took Bonnie to Indonesia, Africa and Egypt, where he had Indiana Standard business to conduct. Another company executive traveled with them. Says Bonnie today, "He owes me a honeymoon. I'd like to go back to Bali, but this time live in a grass hut, swim topless, eat fish and nibble on wild flowers."
Bonnie exercises religiously, diets ("I do all of them, honey") and golfs. Although blind in one eye since age 6 when a playmate threw a pebble at her, she also is a crack shot.
As for the chill she encountered in Chicago, she says, "You must remember John had a very trying divorce, but the people of substance accepted me for what I was. The biggest challenge was to have a life for Bonnie and still give my husband first call. For John the first call is his company. I'm far down the list. As soon as he steps out of the shower in the morning he's not mine anymore: He belongs to the company." Bonnie rises at 6:30 and pours her husband's coffee to let it cool. "John considers waiting for coffee to become drinkable a great waste of executive time," she explains. "We always have breakfast together and I always kiss him before he leaves. It's a lot like sending a child off to school."
And after class? "Travel is one of the things I like best," Bonnie says. "I love getting to know the people who run the world. I look around me and still can't believe that the little girl from Alabama with all of her enthusiasm and naiveté is sitting with people like Imelda Marcos. My God, honey," she adds, "sometimes they even listen to me."