SON OF SPAMMEAT-PACKING HEIR GEORDIE HORMEL HAMS IT UP IN PHOENIX SOCIETY
The first appearance is startling: George A. Hormel II, whom everyone calls Geordie, has a shocking cascade of gray hair that fans across his shoulders, and a full, white beard that frames a bemused expression. Though he's heir to millions of dollars, he favors slouchy suits that he buys at Ross Dress for Less stores. He's 64 but looks older. He walks with a distracted shuffle, partly the result of years of neglecting his health. A former secretary likened him to a wizard, a Phoenix friend to the Man of La Mancha, not just for his visage but for his vision and because he is hopelessly, charmingly idealistic.
"Geordie doesn't live in Los Angeles or Phoenix," says his close friend Lisa Lyon, best known as a bodybuilder and as a model for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. "Geordie lives in his mind." And his mind is a strange and boundless landscape that harbors no reverence for money or power or protocol.
George A. Hormel II tools around town in a white stretch limo, a screaming deal at $14,000. He leaves his front teeth out for business meetings, and often gives the impression of not paying attention, when, in fact, he is a stickler for detail. When he bought the Wrigley Mansion last summer for $2.6 million, he fibbed to the daily newspapers that he hadn't bothered to read the deed.
In part it's a practiced eccentricity, a deliberately off-putting screening device to weed out false friends. He's just a little embarrassed at having the things most men think they want. He has a net worth of $20 million, some of which he made himself and some of which he inherited from his family. Aside from the former Wrigley home, which he runs as a restaurant and private club, he owns the McCune mansion in Paradise Valley, as well as a mammoth log cabin in Los Angeles and an estate in Minnesota. He owns a successful Los Angeles recording studio. He has time to dabble in art and music, and talents for both. He has a beautiful, doting wife 40 years his junior, and a new baby.
Hanging on his kitchen wall is a photograph of Geordie shaking hands with an elegant businessman at some social function. Geordie has added cartoon balloons to the picture, with the businessman pronouncing, "You know, there's something I like about you, Geordie."
"What's that?" Geordie responds.
But his feelings toward money are ambivalent. As with most scions of old-money families--his grandfather and father built the Hormel meat-packing company--wealth is a cumbersome necessity to be spent on a schedule the rest of us will never understand. Geordie gives away about $1 million a year to total strangers who are down on their luck. "I've seen him sweat more over a $500 check to me than when he bought this house," says his son, John, a rock musician in Los Angeles. Geordie paid $3.75 million in cash for the McCune mansion, then was so taken aback by a $10,000 electric bill--the cost of cooling 57,000 square feet--that he hired full-time technicians to overhaul the house's air-conditioning system, then gave a grant to Arizona State University researchers working on a cooling system that doesn't use fluorocarbons and set up a company to market and lobby for the technology.
"It's obscene, a house of this size," he says. "There's spaces here, I don't know what the fuck they are."
He has filled the spaces with his coterie, with nannies and housekeepers, drivers and security guards, sound engineers from the L.A. recording studio, a bandleader who says his lady friend dropped him "like toxic waste" and who had nowhere to live, studio musicians who never had homes in the first place. Every day is a cavalcade of friends and associates, former lovers, celebrities, scientists, politicians. Geordie seems to collect stray people like others collect stray animals. "I can't say no," he says plaintively, but his friends say he prefers the commotion around him. It's a motley group that on first visit gives an Addams Family feel to the house, playful but strange.
The couches in his sitting room are surrounded by life-size cutouts of celebrities: Magic Johnson looking down Marilyn Monroe's cleavage; John Wayne; James Dean; Jose Canseco; Michael Jordan; George Bush holding a hand-printed sign that reads: "Out of Work. My Wife Will Work for Food." Barbara smiles demurely beside him.
Boxes, lining walls as if someone is moving in or out, are piled next to his 16-month-old daughter's toys and a wheelchair scooter he rides to the bedroom at the other end of a long hall to save his damaged feet. This is not an interior you'd be likely to see in a slick spread in Architectural Digest or even Phoenix Home and Garden; it's full of the detritus of a life in the fast lane. On a coffee table, there's a photograph of Geordie with his first wife, French actress Leslie Caron, she, with tongue in cheek, holding a can of Spam, which Geordie's father invented. As a young man, Geordie was thought to be a playboy. "I hated that term," he says. "I did everything I could to avoid it." Still, he has been married four times, had tumultuous affairs with actresses, models, dancers. Women adore him despite the hoary exterior--like some warm, furry pet," as one lady friend put it. His children--who are 34, 33, 23 and just over 1 year old--are devoted to him.
His current wife, Jamie, raises many an eyebrow, of course, because she is 23 and he is 64. When a television reporter pressed the question, you know, if their age difference didn't pose some problem in the bedroom, Jamie looked the reporter straight in the eye and quipped, "Actually, we like it, because it's so much like incest."
Speculation flies as to the nature of their relationship. Though they own a house the size of an armory, Geordie and Jamie live in a three-room apartment near the back of the building that was once the servants' quarters. Rumors also abound as to their income and spending habits, that Geordie received $25 million this year from his trust fund and he was so foolish with money that he had blown it all by November. The fact is that he has made much of his own money, notably through the Los Angeles recording studio he built, the Village Recorder, whose clients have included the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Robbie Robertson and countless other acts. Furthermore, Geordie has lost his fortune more than once and been able to retreat to his considerable creative talents as a musician and a businessman. And though he is a millionaire, he does not make as much as the rumors would suggest.
Standing at the back of his sitting room is a soft sculpture of Geordie, a three-quarter-scale rendition in Cabbage Patch style. It smiles good-naturedly, though the fingers of its left hand have been folded back so it appears to be flicking the bird.
At this point on the road less traveled, Geordie Hormel doesn't much care what you think.
In December, Mayor Herb Drinkwater offered Geordie the key to the city of Scottsdale, in deference to his money, one supposes, and because among his other projects, he had leased a vacant restaurant in Scottsdale. Drinkwater asked for a rsum so he could better introduce the esteemed guest. The rsum presented to the mayor looked normal on its first page, detailing Geordie's grants to ASU, his renovation of the Wrigley Mansion and other good deeds. But at the top of the second page, Hormel had penned this entry: "Has leased the property on SW corner of Scottsdale and Camelback, including the former Ten Downing Street, with the intent of opening a reasonably priced whorehouse and a center for child pornography with a low-priced crack house for teenagers in the next building."
Drinkwater gave him the key, anyway.
@body:It's lunchtime at the Mansion Club, the private club and restaurant in the Wrigley Mansion, which Geordie Hormel bought to rescue from developers' wrecking balls. Piano music tinkles like silver spoons on crystal goblets. Smiling servers in pleated white shirts and bow ties slip graciously from table to table, inquiring ever so nicely about the diners' welfare.
All is in consummate good taste, as well-ordered as the McCune mansion is disordered. Women in elegant dresses chat with men in pricey business suits. Geordie sits at a table near the wall, his long hair fanned across the shoulders of his suit coat, patiently waiting for his waitress to bring him the proper spoon with which to eat his soup. Geordie, the iconoclast, is the product of a proper upbringing.
He grew up in Austin, Minnesota, where his grandfather, the original George A. Hormel, founded the Hormel meat-packing company. Geordie's father, Jay Hormel, was the company CEO, and the family set a proper example from an elegant, though not opulent, Tudor mansion. As Geordie put it in a song he recorded:
We had a perfect, most respected, regal, first-class American life.
Perfect mama, perfect daddy, who were the perfect husband and wife.
Perfect family, perfect servants, perfect order, perfect space,
And everything we had, all we said, all we did,
Of course was always in the very best taste.
With all these perfections, it was plain to see
I'd better hide the imperfections in me.
His brother Thomas says that Geordie has always been incongruous: "Don't ask me to explain it," he begs. Thomas is a philanthropist in Ketchum, Idaho, and runs a foundation that sponsors environmental research and education. Their younger brother, James, whom Thomas describes as "the adult supervisor of the family," is a lawyer in San Francisco, and runs a human-rights PAC. Geordie has strong political concerns. During the last presidential election, he realized he was not yet registered to vote in Arizona, so he hopped in his custom bus, took two drivers and drove nonstop to Los Angeles so he could pull the curtain and push the levers. Then he turned around and drove straight back.
He can rail about health and environment and about those industries that threaten those things--oil, dairy, tobacco and especially auto. "Look at General Motors," he starts. "I can't conceive of a company losing billions of dollars and then paying someone millions of dollars to run it. What is the guy getting millions for?" But he avoids organized charities, because he feels much of the money donated slips through bureaucratic cracks, goes to marketers and staffers instead of the intended recipients. Instead, he is listed in the telephone book, and so his telephone rings incessantly with people who want jobs, charities who want money, real estate agents on the make, people with sob stories, real or contrived. He tells of one such story, a man out of work who sold everything he owned to pay bills, and thought Geordie might help him, because his father used to work for the Hormel Company. "I sent him $3,000," Geordie says with hushed embarrassment.
His sense of humor may come from his mother, who once put her prodigious cooking talents to work making hors d'oeuvres out of dog food to serve to the ladies' club. When her husband brought the head of the Meat Institute home for lunch, she served him horse meat. All through the meal, he commented on the most marvelous steak he had ever eaten. The brothers attended Shadduck Saint Mary's military school in Faribault, Minnesota, as their father had before them. Geordie was a classmate of Marlon Brando, who was thrown out for going on a bender. Brother Thomas was thrown out, too, caught the first time he tried to sneak home for a weekend--something that Geordie pulled off regularly. Among the coffee-table oddities in Geordie's living room is a class picture from the school, taken with a motor-driven, panoramic camera. Geordie first stood on one side of the picture, then, when the gaze of the moving lens had passed over him, scooted around the assembled group so he would appear on both ends in the photograph. (He was caught and the photograph was reshot.)
In 1947, with money he had earned by working summers in the packing house, he shipped off to Occidental College in California. He seldom went to class, because he felt he knew everything, and before a year was out, he dropped out, bought an old, plywood airplane with the money he had left over, flew it cross-country and crashed it at home in Minnesota.
His father exiled him to a company packing plant in Nebraska to spend the next two years butchering and slaughtering and learning the business, with the understanding that he would be the third generation at the helm of the Hormel Company.
But then, as he says, "I had the problem of how not to go to Korea." He had graduated from military school as a lieutenant in the Army Reserve, a likely candidate for the Korean War. So he enlisted in the Coast Guard, assuming he'd stay home and protect the coastline. He was stationed near Los Angeles; on the day his ship was to leave port--to clear Korean beaches for troop landings--he fell down a ladder and ended up in the hospital with a sprained back. The Guard put him to work organizing a Coast Guard band. Shortly, every sad sack hoping to avoid combat was calling him for a spot in the band, whether he played an instrument or not.
Both of his brothers were in the Coast Guard, as well. Tom was seeing a ballerina in a French dance troupe, and through her, Geordie met Leslie Caron, who had just landed the female lead opposite Gene Kelly in the film An American in Paris. They married after their second date, though the marriage disintegrated after four years. She made more money than he did. Geordie was absorbed in his search for an identity other than that of heir to the Spam fortune.
@body:Once, during a radio interview in Milwaukee, an obsequious interrogator asked Geordie, "What's it like traveling all over the country and everywhere you go, people are eating your meat?"
The answer to the question the interviewer intended would be that it is not his meat, only his name. Geordie's father, Jay Hormel, and his grandfather, George A. Hormel, arranged that the family fortune be set in several trusts, administered by a foundation with five board members, to provide for their wives and sons and certain charities.
"My father had intended that my brothers and I sit on the board of the foundation and hold the majority vote," he says. But Jay Hormel died while Geordie was still in his early 20s, and Hormel Company management pulled a palace coup to ensure its own tenure, first expanding the board to seven trustees, and making sure that there was no room in the company for Jay Hormel's sons.
The foundation corpus is now worth $700 million, and the brothers receive the annual interest, which the foundation head claims amounts to more than $4 million per brother per year. Whether that is an astounding figure is a question of perspective.
"As far as fabulous wealth is concerned, you're talking to the wrong family," says brother Thomas. "When you're talking about billions of dollars of income, it's a whole different group of people."
Back in the early 1950s, when he claims his trust-fund income amounted to no more than $5,000, Geordie Hormel decided to get into the recording business. He hired studio musicians and produced a generic rock n' roll recording he called "Scooby Doo." It rose to No. 7 on American Bandstand; he still has a photograph of Dick Clark pointing it out on a list that includes Elvis' "Love Me Tender" and Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill." But one of the musicians he had hired was under contract to another record company, and Geordie was sued for everything he had.
While he was in the Coast Guard, he had written a movie score and had never done anything with it. A friend was going to the Netherlands to make some recordings with a symphony orchestra, and Geordie gave him the score so he could hear what it sounded like.
"I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "I had all the parts in the right key, but the stresses were all wrong. They couldn't make heads or tails of it." But the orchestra played it every way it could, none of which worked, and Geordie was left with a body of tape recordings that was less than the sum total of snippets. Serendipitously, producers of the popular television show Playhouse 90 heard of the tapes and, to avoid dealing with the musician's union, bought passages to use as cue music on the air. Before long Geordie was providing background music for shows ranging from Leave It to Beaver to My Little Margie and Lassie.
After his father's death, Geordie bought the family mansion in Austin, Minnesota, and turned it into a hotel that catered to management seminars. He lost that when all his assets were frozen in the divorce proceedings that ended his second marriage. He went, penniless, to Portland, Oregon, to start over, scored a movie, did radio spots, one of which put the call letters of a local station to the tune and rhythm of "shave and a haircut." It was taken off the air, because every time it played, drivers in cars all over town would use their horns to sound the answer, "two bits." And he started performing as a lounge singer in a Portland nightclub in exchange for a percentage of the evening's take. In the early 1960s, Geordie took his act to New York, where he spent a year singing show tunes and standards at a club called the Most. He landed a recording contract with RCA, but bought it back after he heard Della Reese perform two of the songs he intended to play in a benefit concert they appeared in together. "Her interpretations were so incredible that I decided I just wasn't good enough."
He went back to Los Angeles, tried film distribution, helped put together the band Brasil 66, featuring Sergio Mendes. He thought of building himself a recording studio, but no bank would lend him the money for a private studio, so in 1968, he took out a commercial loan with the intention of calling it a business. That was the beginning of the Village Recorder. Though he had planned it intricately, Geordie never got a chance to use it himself; the first studio was always booked, so he built a second room. Fleetwood Mac asked if it could book a year's worth of time, so he built another. He pioneered such technology as 24-track recording and Dolby Sound, and found himself working 16-hour days, hosting clients that included Big Brother and the Holding Company (best known for its lead singer, Janis Joplin), Sly Stone, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, the Pointer Sisters, Supertramp, Robbie Robertson and Steely Dan.
He bought an oversize log cabin in Pacific Palisades, just north of Santa Monica. Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys had lived there before Geordie, and for a time, Wilson had allowed Charles Manson and his followers to live in a tree house on the grounds. After Manson was imprisoned, Geordie received a "strange and personal" letter from Manson asking if the tree house was still there and if peacocks still lived in the yard. Because Geordie had been friends with Jay Sebring, one of Manson's victims, it sent a double chill up his back, and although he tried several times to write a response, he never sent one.
Today, he estimates his net worth at $20 million, a figure his accountant corroborates. "That may be optimistic," Geordie says. The Village Recorder earns about $2 million per year. He gets $4 million from the trust fund. When their mother died in 1991, the brothers discovered that she was worth $40 million, and Geordie bought the McCune and Wrigley mansions out of his share, which was more than $13 million. He owns real estate here and in California and Minnesota.
He postulates on what it would take to wipe him out. "If the Hormel Company were to fold--which is hard to imagine--and my notes were called," he offers as an opener. "If interest rates went up to 25 percent. . . . If we got into a real depression and real estate went down to nothing." He thinks a moment and sighs. "Life would be much less complicated."
@body:If Geordie's finances have been a roller-coaster ride, the ride has been less frightening than the tunnel of love. He has had tumultuous affairs with Rita Moreno, 60s sitcom actress Annie Farge and a best-selling poet who dedicated her books to him (and illustrated them with nude photographs of herself). He has been married four times, though 20 years passed between his third and fourth marriages. "I put myself at considerable risk in marrying this time," he confides, "because after my last divorce, I asked several people to kill me if I ever married again."
As he had with Leslie Caron, he married his second wife, Mary Lou, John and Gina's mother, on a second date in Las Vegas. Geordie had forgotten to buy a ring, so Sammy Davis Jr., who was serving as a witness to the marriage, slipped one off his finger for them to use. That marriage, like his first, lasted less than five years.
His third wife, Nancy, was a dancer; they lived together for several years, were married for six and, though they've been apart for 20 years, she still speaks longingly of him. Long after they divorced, because she couldn't think of anyone else to call, she asked Geordie to help her bring her dying father home from the hospital; Geordie physically carried the man to and from the car. "If one of his children cries, he cries," she says of Geordie. She remembers that when Gina was 3 or 4 and left her favorite blanket on an airplane, Geordie dropped everything to retrieve it for her. Geordie in his 60s is silver and shaggy. Geordie in his 30s, Nancy says, "was an extraordinarily handsome man, like a leading man, gorgeous. And he had a speaking voice like black velvet." Though he has gotten older, his lovers have not. "My father likes young women," his daughter Gina says matter-of-factly. "He loves women," Lisa Lyon says. "Some men say they love women, but are really womanizers. Geordie is accessible to women."
And, apparently, they love him. He has a generosity that transcends money, a boyish playfulness, that shows up in the tales his children tell. Gina recalls that when she and John flew to Los Angeles to visit him as children, he would flow through the airport in purple bell-bottoms and fringed jackets as everyone turned to stare, that he would leave $100 tips for waitresses in truck stops. Gina moved to Phoenix to be near him; John lives in Geordie's Los Angeles home. Julie studies art in Los Angeles, and although she has a different mother, she is close to her half-sister, Gina.
The children are devoted, but in the end, the wives fell victim to Geordie's eccentricities and temperament, the same qualities that had charmed them in the first place. Boyishness, after all, is really restlessness.
"My mother just wanted him and he wanted his people around him," says John, the son of Geordie's second wife, Mary Lou.
"He wanted to be in the music business, and I wanted to be the Waltons," says Geordie's third wife, Nancy.
After his divorce from Nancy, Geordie went into virtual seclusion and spent a year freebasing cocaine, writing and recording Frank Zappa-esque songs in his home studio. He would paste a paper mustache on the TV screen and then wait patiently until it covered the appropriate spot on someone's face, then take a Polaroid snapshot. He claims he spent so many sleepless hours standing up that his feet swelled black with blood, so much that he couldn't get shoes on, and then he broke his toes walking around barefoot. His legs are still discolored from the knees down, and he walks with difficulty.
"I suppose I was trying to kill myself," he reflects, but he pulled out of his stupor after his oldest granddaughter looked smilingly up at him and earnestly asked, "What was it like when you were alive, Grandpa?"
@body:Late one morning, Jamie's in jammies at the big kitchen table, quaffing coffee from a mug. She's a slender wisp of a woman--the seat of her pajama bottoms hangs well below her own as she pads across the kitchen. There's a hint of Southern California in her voice, but she has a businesslike handshake, and a serious cast to her eyes, dark and burning beneath a thick mane of auburn hair. She looks younger in person than in the photographs that appear on the society pages of the dailies--Jamie in a strapless, Cinderella-style gown at the Heart Ball, for instance. She'd never had occasion to wear such a dress before. The Hormel family photographs of the same event show Jamie and Geordie and Geordie's two grown daughters, Gina, 34, and Julie, 23, along with other friends, comically posed with bogus jewels pasted on their foreheads.
Jamie studied advertising in college, but decided she didn't like it, and took a job as a sales clerk at a Bullock's department store in Beverly Hills. She met Geordie while visiting a friend who lived at his Los Angeles mansion, which had its own collection of stray people, much like the McCune mansion. They married in June 1991, unannounced, at a graduation party for one of her cousins. Near the end of the party, a woman demanded the attention of all the remaining guests, announced that she was a circuit-court judge and that she had come to perform a wedding. Jaws dropped.
"I was skeptical at first, but she signed all the necessary papers," says Geordie's son, John, who admits it was a shock "seeing Jamie, who's ten years younger than me, with the Gold Card." He thinks a minute and concludes, "He's happier and more together than he's been in years."
Geordie shuffles into the kitchen, appearing, as always, as silently and as suddenly as a ghost. He sits down; Jamie leans against him, and their contours match seamlessly in the way of people who know each other well.
She wants to go back to an antique store she'd shopped in yesterday to take another look at some things they considered buying.
Geordie coaches her on bargaining. "If they ask for $400, offer them $200," he says. "Are you going to buy the silverware?"
"I don't want somebody else's silver," she says with mock dismay. "What if it's got some bad karma stuck to it?" Then, as an afterthought, she asks, "Oh, may I have the credit card?" Once, on a lark, she asked Geordie for a Rolls-Royce, and just as impulsively, he bought it for her. She obviously shares his ambivalence toward money. Their personal living quarters are modest by middle-class standards. She doesn't like the master suites of the mansion. And she doesn't care for the coterie. She hates that silverware disappears from the kitchen to the far reaches of guest quarters, that people get into her room and use her perfume, that the carpets are soiled from the foot traffic. She wants her own small house where she can have her own dishes and linens, away from Geordie's hangers-on. She covets her stepdaughter Gina's house in Phoenix's Arcadia neighborhood for its privacy. At one point, she lost patience altogether and spent the night in Geordie's bus, which is a traveling hotel suite. They moved into the Wrigley for a month, and she loved it.
Geordie called in an architect to redesign their private living quarters. The architect drew up a blueprint with rain forests and a water slide that curved from a second-floor bedroom into a Jacuzzi below. Jamie and Geordie looked it over and fantasized, she at the privacy, he at the creativity--then decided it was really a bit much, no matter how rich they were.
A nanny comes into the kitchen carrying young Geri, Jamie and Geordie's 16-month-old daughter. Geri stands by the table, holding onto a chair for support. She spots a jalapeo pepper on the floor beneath the table and bends to reach for it. As she stands up, Geordie places a preemptive hand between her head and the tabletop before she can bump into it, and gently guides her out from underneath.
She climbs in and out of laps, then settles on daddy's shoulder and promptly falls asleep. He rises slowly, so as not to wake her, walks to his scooter and zips noiselessly down the long hallway to her crib.
Life is good.
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