Henry Salvatori, GOP Kingmaker, Dies


Henry Salvatori, an Italian immigrant who became a confidant and major contributor to the nation’s most powerful and successful Republicans, including three U.S. presidents, has died. He was 96.

Salvatori, remembered as a key figure in Ronald Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” of advisors, died Sunday at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica.

A champion of conservative causes for decades, Salvatori used proceeds from the sale of his highly profitable oil company, Western Geophysical Corp., to become an important contributor and influence in the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford.


The oil company Salvatori founded in 1933 now operates as Western Atlas, a division of Litton Industries. Despite his innovative seismic instrument that lent accuracy to prospecting for oil, Salvatori was more famous as a behind-the-scenes politician.

He became so well known as an eminence of the Republican conservative hierarchy that when Democrat Jesse Unruh launched his fall gubernatorial campaign against Reagan on Labor Day in 1970, he chose to do so in front of Salvatori’s Bel-Air home.

As Unruh told a host of reporters that Salvatori stood to get a $4,113 property tax break if a tax-shift bill proposed by the then-governor became law, Salvatori, fresh from his tennis court, yelled through the gate: “Oh, you ass, you.”

The next day, Reagan assailed Unruh for “harassing” Salvatori.

Salvatori was not one to accept such conduct quietly. He said later that he was pleased the tactic had apparently not done Unruh any political good, and he continued to complain that Unruh “had the gall to come into my driveway.”

Salvatori, unlike many other insider Republican advisors, seldom attempted to stay out of the limelight. He readily made himself accessible to reporters and others, and he never was apologetic or secretive about his views.

He was a conservative long associated with highly conservative candidates, buthe sometimes displayed a streak of independence. He once said that despite being an avid anti-Communist, he could accept a socialist government as long as it respected individual freedoms. And after directing then-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty’s drive for reelection in 1969, he tried, in a speech at the maverick conservative Democrat’s inaugural, to hold out an olive branch to blacks who had been offended by the racial nature of Yorty’s campaign against challenger Tom Bradley.


A few years later, Salvatori temporarily broke with Reagan, supporting the more moderate incumbent, Ford, for the 1976 presidential nomination. Later, however, his ties with Reagan were restored and he was a supporter of Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

Salvatori was born in Rome on March 28, 1901. He came to the United States as a child and grew up in New Jersey, where his father was a wholesale grocer.

Educated at Pennsylvania and Columbia universities, he became an expert in the science of prospecting for oil by seismic methods. By the late 1950s, his company was the world’s largest offshore seismic contractor.

But it was as a political advisor, campaign director and big contributor that Salvatori became best known. San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, in fact, once charged that Salvatori, not Reagan, was the real governor of California, through all the money he raised for Reagan and the influence he wielded.

Salvatori usually acted with a strong hand. As finance chairman of the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964, he was accused in a book written later by the two men who handled the campaign’s public relations with almost strangling the effort by holding back on money for staff so that it could be saved for television advertising. Salvatori’s “most ineluctable fault,” said the book by Herbert M. Baus and William B. Ross, was that he “could not keep his hands off the nuts and bolts of the campaign.”

Characteristically, a year after the book appeared, when he was brought in as campaign director on an emergency basis to save Yorty from defeat by Bradley, the first step Salvatori took was to hire Ross as his chief assistant.


Salvatori and his late wife, Grace, gave a reported $90,000 to the Republican Party in 1968, and contributed $100,000 to Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972.

Besides their political contributions, they gave major gifts to USC, Stanford University, Caltech, Pepperdine University, Claremont McKenna College, the University of Pennsylvania, Howard University and the Marlborough School in Los Angeles, among others. Schools are named after Salvatori at USC and Stanford. The Salvatoris also contributed greatly to hospitals, children’s clubs, civic groups and the arts.

Politically most active during the period in the 1960s and early ‘70s when anti-Vietnam War fervor and campus dissidence were at their height, Salvatori was unabashedly opposed to the protesters.

“These revolutionaries and critics of our society, lacking wisdom and understanding and beguiled by Communist-inspired ideology, focus on the unresolved problems of our nation and demand instant solutions,” he said at a Columbus Day observance at Los Angeles City Hall in 1970. “Deficient in perspective and realism and with little understanding of our inspiring history, they would destroy the highest civil order ever created by man--the United States of America.”

Salvatori always was proud of his role. “The Eastern press in particular always describes me by implication at least as if I’m secret, or sinister, perhaps, a mysterious guy in the background,” he once said. “This isn’t so.”

Instead, he was assertive, in private as well as public.

Probably the most famous example of Salvatori’s self-confidence and general assertiveness was his attempt, on Feb. 25, 1976, when he was 75, to personally fight off two young masked gunmen who invaded his home and carried off $450,000 in silverware and other loot.


At one point, he pulled a pistol on the pair but was quickly disarmed. He suffered a 2 1/2-inch cut on his right leg in a scuffle with the gunmen, who finally left him and his wife bound hand and foot in an upstairs bedroom. The injury later required an operation.

“There wouldn’t have been any violence if I didn’t react,” a calm and unruffled Salvatori told reporters a few hours later. He said the two burglars seemed surprised when he grabbed for his weapon in a night stand and quoted one of them as saying, “Can you imagine this guy pulling a gun on us?”

Police said Salvatori was lucky he was not shot. Much of what was stolen was later recovered, and the two burglars were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Survivors include a son, Henry Ford Salvatori; a daughter, Laurie Salvatori Champion, and a grandson. His wife of 54 years, Grace, died in 1990.

Funeral services will be private. Memorial donations may be made to St. John’s Hospital Foundation.