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Bonnie Swearingen, Chicago socialite, charity fundraiser, friend to famous and powerful, dead at 87

After marrying Standard Oil CEO John Swearingen, the most powerful oil exec of his generation, she was a staple of society pages, magazines from 1970s through the 1990s.

Bonnie Swearingen.
Bonnie Swearingen.
Sun Times file

Bonnie Swearingen was a flamboyant, irrepressible Chicago society figure and charity fundraiser who made headlines for her madcap comments and marriage to a Midwestern business titan.

In 1969, the former Bonnie Bolding, an Alabama beauty queen, Hollywood actress and New York stockbroker, married John Swearingen, who, as chief executive officer of Standard Oil of Indiana — which evolved into Amoco and now BP — was the most powerful oil executive of his generation.

Mrs. Swearingen died Aug. 2 at 87 in Birmingham, Alabama, according to Ridout’s Valley Chapel Funeral Home in Homewood, Alabama.

In another age, her parties, travel and fashion were chronicled in The New York Times and Town and Country. People magazine called her Swearingen’s “private energy source.”

While her husband retained the grave mien of one of the world’s most powerful CEOs, Mrs. Swearingen was suntanned, smiling and sparkling with jewels. She had a gift for remembering names and a Southern drawl that seemed to thicken “when she felt she needed some extra oomph,” said former Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker.

Bonnie and John Swearingen.
Bonnie and John Swearingen.
Sun-Times file

“She was just always fun,” said Abra Prentice Wilkin, a friend and former Chicago newspaper columnist. “She always listened to what you said. She wasn’t looking over your shoulder.”

Mrs. Swearingen attended inaugurations and coronations, hunted with former President Lyndon Johnson, entertained or was entertained by former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, actor Kirk Douglas and comedian Bob Hope, and socialized with King Hassan II of Morocco, Egyptian first lady Jehan Sadat and the shah of Iran.

Bonnie Swearingen twirling in satin stripe chiffon gown at a charity fashion event.
Bonnie Swearingen twirling in satin stripe chiffon gown at a charity fashion event.
Sun-Times file

In 1985, she described meeting Prince Charles to the Washington Post. ”He said my dress was the loveliest one there,” she said. “If I were to see him today, I would say, ‘Why don’t you and I go on a private picnic together?’”

When she married Swearingen, who was her third husband and 15 years older, in New York in 1969, The New York Times quoted her saying, “All my husbands have been oil men who have been heads of their companies.”

“Her husband just adored her,” her friend Maureen Smith said.

“She and John always sent outrageous Christmas cards, where she was in feathers and sequins,” Wilkin said.

Fashion designer Pierre Cardin listening as Bonnie Swearingen expounds on the vitality of Chicago life at a party in 1976.
Fashion designer Pierre Cardin listening as Bonnie Swearingen expounds on the vitality of Chicago life at a party in 1976.
Sun-Times file

In 1981, a writer from People — who interviewed the Swearingens at their apartment overlooking Lake Michigan — said she liked saying, “I just love oil. If it could be made into a perfume, I’d wear it.”

In 1972, then-Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko wrote about what she’d told Town and Country magazine: “I eat natural honey with the honeycombs, especially before making love. This is what athletes take before a big game.”

She was born in Joppa, Alabama, one of seven children. Her father Orin Bolding was “a poor, itinerant Church of Christ minister,” according to People. At 6, she was blinded in one eye “when a playmate threw a pebble at her,” the magazine reported.

She entered the Miss Alabama contest four times, eventually making first runner-up. That led to a scholarship to Samford University in Birmingham, where she was a drama student and cheerleader.

“I wanted to be Miss Alabama,” she said in 2006 while dedicating Samford’s Bonnie Bolding Swearingen Hall. “I knew that if I ever got on the stage in Atlantic City, I would be Miss America. But it was not to be.

“I learned then that it is not what you do that are successes, it’s the failures that make you what you are.”

She got a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse and became a Hollywood bit player in the late 1950s, appearing with Charles Boyer in an Alcoa Hour drama on NBC-TV and the TV series “Cheyenne” and “Have Gun-Will Travel.”

In 1958, she married Texas oil executive John David Manley III. Three years later, she married oil tycoon Oscar Sherman Wyatt Jr.

After reinventing herself as a Wall Street stockbroker, she became Swearingen’s second wife in 1969. They were married until his death in 2007.

Bonnie Swearingen.
Bonnie Swearingen.
Sun Times file

“I look around me and still can’t believe that the little girl from Alabama with all of her enthusiasm and naivete is sitting with people like Imelda Marcos,” she once told People. “My God, honey, sometimes they even listen to me.”

Mrs. Swearingen was active in fundraising.

“She did, in her own stylish way, get a lot of good done,” Smith said. “She was involved in any number of charities.”

She is survived by her sister Margie Bolding. A celebration of life is planned at a future date.

The 1981 People profile claimed a Chicago society doyenne dismissed her as “one of those Alabama Gabors,” the stunning, oft-married acting sisters from Hungary.

In her death notice, Mrs. Swearingen got the last laugh, noting that she and the rest of the Bolding sisters, “all glamorous,” were “collectively and affectionately known as the ‘Alabama Gabor Sisters.’”