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A Life Well Lived: The Estate of Bonnie Bolding Swearingen

Bonnie Bolding Swearingen, former Alabama beauty queen, actress, stockbroker and a flamboyant staple of society pages for decades, unapologetically lived her life to the beat of her own drum. From hunting at the LBJ ranch with close friends Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson, to jetting off on a whim with Imelda Marcos to dine with King Hassan II of Morocco and the Shah of Iran, Bonnie’s life reads like that of an American princess. Bonnie and her husband, John Swearingen, were fixtures on seemingly every major guest list for decades, including Ronald Reagan’s inauguration (she affectionately called him “Ronnie”) and a legendary Palm Desert dinner party in 1975 hosted by Walter Annenberg in honor of Richard Nixon (his first appearance since leaving office).

Anyone that’s met Bonnie, or was even in the same room as her, remembers her uniquely magnetic presence and imitable charm. She was never afraid to speak her mind—a quality that was admired by those close to her and frequently landed her name in newspapers and magazines, including People, Town & Country, The New York Times and Chicago Tribune

Bonnie’s outspokenness fit perfectly with her husband John’s often-times provocative commentary during the oil crisis in the 1970s. While at the helm of Standard Oil, John Swearingen was one of the highest-profile and most powerful business leaders in America. Amidst the crisis, Swearingen also served as Chair of both the national Petroleum Council (1974-75) and American Petroleum Institute (1978-79), positioning him as the face of “Big Oil”. Swearingen was fiercely defensive of the oil industry and highly critical of Washington, especially President Carter.

In 1980, following years of her husband’s public defense of the oil industry and months before Carter’s defeat, Bonnie was interviewed by People Magazine at their Chicago residence and wittily remarked: “I just love oil. If it could be made into a perfume, I’d wear it.” The following year, Reagan eliminated price controls on oil and natural gas and production soared. 

From an early age, Bonnie was destined for a life much bigger than her Joppa, Alabama home town. She entered the Miss Alabama contest four times, eventually achieving first runner-up. While her dream was to be Miss Alabama, she recognized that some things were just not meant to be. In her own words: “I learned then that it is not what you do that are successes, it’s the failures that make you what you are.” 

The competition afforded her the opportunity to attend Birmingham’s Samford University (Howard College at the time) through a scholarship awarded to her as a contestant in the Miss Alabama competition. Her time at Samford nurtured her love for the spotlight through her participation in the school’s drama and cheerleading programs. She was also instrumental in fundraising for the school’s new campus during her time there, a skill that she carried with her for the rest of her life. The importance of her time at Samford was never lost on Bonnie; she generously donated to both the athletic program and the Samford University Arts Center, which was renamed Bonnie Bolding Swearingen Hall in 2007 in her honor. The fine arts facility includes Bolding Studio, an intimate performance and events space also named for her the year prior, as well as offices, rehearsal facilities and an art gallery. After graduating in 1955, she pursued another scholarship opportunity, this time at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, a prominent Los Angeles-area theatre frequented by scouts from all the major film studios. This launched a brief, but relatively successful acting career in the late 1950s that included an appearance with Charles Boyer in an Alcoa Hour drama on NBC-TV and roles in the TV series “Cheyenne” and “Have Gun-Will Travel.”

In 1958, she married her first husband, John David Manley III of Corpus Christi. Only three years later, she had divorced Manley and remarried prominent Texas oilman Oscar Wyatt, Jr., but their marriage lasted only six weeks. While married to Manley and Wyatt, Bonnie learned about the oil industry and ended up with a portfolio of oil stocks. Twice-divorced and in her late 20s, Bonnie decided to “reinvent” herself by moving to New York to work as a stockbroker at Shearson, Hammill & Co. She considered buying a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, but once she discovered she would not be the first woman on the Exchange, she began to lose interest. 

Bonnie met John Swearingen in 1968 at a stockbrokers’ meeting on Wall Street. Like so many others, John was enamored by this charismatic and intelligent young woman, but he was married at the time and Bonnie happened to be dating one of his good friends. Within a year of meeting one another though, John divorced his wife of 26 years and remarried Bonnie just three months later in May of 1969. She moved to Chicago to begin yet another new and exciting chapter in her life. 

John Swearingen took the reigns as Chairman and CEO of Standard Oil of Indiana in 1960, a position he held for 23 years. Swearingen transformed a “second-rate” oil conglomerate with low reserves into one of the most successful oil companies of all time through aggressive exploration and lucrative offshore drilling ventures. His business savvy and hard work paid off; by 1980, Standard Oil’s stock was exceeded by only five other corporations. As one of the highest-paid and most respected executives in the country at the time, Swearingen was extremely influential in both business and politics. 

His status and wealth afforded John and Bonnie an incredible life travelling the world together and rubbing shoulders with the upper echelons of international society. However, Bonnie’s entry into the Chicago social scene was far from easy. Her wit and charm ultimately prevailed, and she became a beloved local celebrity and a favorite of Chicago’s social elite. Bonnie was an effective fundraiser for a myriad of causes in Chicago and throughout the country.

Bonnie was also known for her incredible jewelry collection and was frequently photographed wearing the finest pieces. A memoriam in The Chicago Sun-Times noted that Bonnie was always “suntanned, smiling and sparkling with jewels.” 

Following a remarkable collection of fine art, furniture, decorative objects and important jewelry presented in our December 2020 Estates Auction, New Orleans Auction Galleries is pleased to offer additional items from the Swearingen Estate in our January 29-30 Interiors + Jewelry & Accessories sale. Part II of Swearingen’s estate includes jewelry, paintings, furniture, decorative objects, couture and more.

BROWSE THE ESTATE OF BONNIE SWEARINGEN (PART II)

Session I (Jewelry & Accessories) begins Friday, January 29, 2021 at 1:00 p.m. Central Time

Session II (Interiors) begins Saturday, January 30, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. Central Time

This auction offers absentee and telephone bidding (note that there will be no in-person bidding). Live online bidding is available via LiveAuctioneers and Invaluable.

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