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James Hormel

Jim Wilson, New York Times

Withering Glance: The Spam-tastic life of unnormal James Hormel

  • Article by: RICK NELSON and CLAUDE PECK
  • Star Tribune
  • November 26, 2011 - 2:46 PM

CP: It was more than 10 years ago that James Hormel had to fight off multiple attacks to become the country's first openly gay U.S. ambassador.

RN: He endured a bruising battle, that's for sure. The glamour of the appointment receded slightly when I learned that Mr. Hormel walked in the footsteps of the socialite Perle Mesta -- inspiration for the Ethel Merman musical "Call Me Madam" -- as the top American dignitary in lilliputian Luxembourg, population 500,000 and roughly twice the square mileage of Hennepin County. The Court of St. James it's not. But hey, a first is still a first, right?

CP: Yep. And Hormel tells his story in a new book, "Fit to Serve." He opens with the day he heard that the ever-forgiving and charitable televangelist Pat Robertson had just trashed Hormel as a "pee-doh-phile" on his nationally syndicated TV show. Nice.

RN: Yeah, lovely. Hormel is one of those Hormels, from Austin, Minn. His grandfather founded the gi-hugic meatpacking company that bears the family name, which rhymes with normal. I never knew that pronunciation.

CP: James had a childhood that was anything but normal. Imagine living in a southern Minnesota town of 18,000, in a mansion with 25 bedrooms on a 200-acre estate. Kidnapping fears meant he and his two brothers had to go to and from school each day in a chauffeured limousine. And this during the Depression.

RN: The family did enjoy occasional meals of Spam, however, as a fun culinary novelty. Still, all that wealth couldn't shelter him from feeling bad about feeling different from other boys.

CP: Shipped off to boarding school at 13, James later flunked out of Princeton, but eventually graduated from Swarthmore.

RN: To that he added the University of Chicago's law school, a wife, five children, a divorce, a famous ex-sister-in-law -- Leslie Caron! -- and a Lake Shore Drive residence in a landmark Mies van der Rohe apartment house. He'd already lived the equivalent of several lives before moving to San Francisco in the 1970s, palling around, as they say, with Harvey Milk, Nancy Pelosi and other boldface names.

CP: And rising to the top in Democratic circles, thanks to a chunky Hormel checkbook. I remember seeing an entire section at the San Francisco Public Library named after him.

RN: His extreme generosity with those Little Sizzlers proceeds has made Mr. Hormel a philanthropy role model. I also noticed that, like many older men of means, Hormel's romantic partners are on the youngish side. Then again, as F. Scott once remarked, the rich are different from you and me.

CP: As in, when you don't have to work you can pursue est, travel the globe and campaign for years for an ambassadorial post. In his case, he was out to make a point, and I'm glad he made it.

RN: Absolutely. If Austin hasn't had a James Hormel Day already, the city should get on it. Pronto.

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