Originally created 07/13/97

Son of Spam



PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. - Meatpacking heir Geordie Hormel doesn't fit the mold. Certainly not like a can of Spam.

First, there's his appearance.

A large, clumsy man with a silver mane and beard, the 68-year-old multimillionaire dresses like a vagabond, in sweat pants and mukluk boots. He looks like a cross between Santa Claus and Jerry Garcia - jolly, rumpled.

Then come his opinions.

Zipping around his suburban mansion in an electric cart, Mr. Hormel vilifies corporations whenever possible. As for the famous luncheon meat his father invented, Geordie Hormel says Spam "kills people for profit."

This is no monotonous, preachy grump.

When he isn't lambasting the business world he was born into, he's playing rock music extremely loud, doodling obscene cartoons or painting. He scatters notes around, urging guests not to pass gas, have sex on the tanning bed or use more than one square of paper towel at a time.

While Mr. Hormel may seem an odd millionaire, what's odder is that he's a millionaire at all. By his own description, he may be the most naive financier on the planet.

Mr. Hormel estimates that he has blown close to $30 million in the five years since he moved to Arizona from Los Angeles.

"I'm one of those people that no matter how often I've been taken I still believe in people. I hate to turn anybody away."

In his zeal to use his wealth for social good, Mr. Hormel has literally given away millions - to needy friends and strangers who asked, to failed environmental projects and to impulsive, extravagant purchases. He has spent millions buying homes he'd barely seen and on "genuine" art that turned out to be fake.

But to those who know him, Mr. Hormel is more saint than sucker.

"You'll never find a better guy on the planet than Geordie," says Vic Ceasar, a friend since 1958 and one-time staple on the Phoenix nightclub scene. "He has faith and trust in people ... He's the kind of man that when he asks you for a favor, you thank him for asking."

Indeed, Mr. Hormel has remained beloved by past girlfriends and wives, including French actress Leslie Caron, to whom he was married in the 1950s. He is currently wed to his fourth wife, Jamie, a 28-year-old former store clerk with whom he has two daughters, ages 5 and 3.

"When I first met him he'd be on the phone all the time giving people advice. He's everyone's best friend because he's so sweet," says Jamie, the person Mr. Hormel credits with reining in his reckless spending tendencies. "It's hard because everyone wants something and how do you say no?"

Mr. Hormel's inability to say no is hardly a secret. Locally, anecdotes abound about him and Jamie rounding up homeless people, giving them showers, clothes and jobs. He estimates he gave away $1 million to total strangers his first few years in Arizona.

"I got so many calls I had to stop answering my mail and phone," he said with a smile. "They'd tell me their problems and most were legitimate. But if you help the person get through the month, then what happens when they come back the next month?"

Among Mr. Hormel's most imprudent investments are motivated by environmental and civic concerns.

When he first moved into what is known as the McCune Mansion, he was outraged by the $11,000 electricity bill for the 54,000-square foot, $3.75 million home. He sought out researchers at Arizona State University who were working on a cheaper, more environmentally safe air-cooling system and plunged $1 million into the project. Unfortunately, the whole thing relies on butane gas, considered a dangerous explosive.

"No one will touch it," he says.

Mr. Hormel is currently funding several research projects on alternative fuels, which he won't discuss but calls revolutionary. Researchers in jeans mingle in Mr. Hormel's kitchen with nannies and other visitors.

Like the McCune Mansion, Mr. Hormel had barely seen the Wrigley Mansion before plunking down nearly $3 million to buy it in 1992.

One of the state's most historic and regal homes, the Wrigley was threatened with being turned into condominiums when Mr. Hormel heard of it. He estimates he has lost about $8 million on the project as he keeps it semi-open to the public.

Mr. Hormel's hobbies are as expensive as his investments.

The mansion is jammed with modern and antique instruments and recording machines for making music, high-tech photocopying equipment and easels for making art and computers and toys for his young daughters. Only slivers of the ballroom floor are visible between all the boxes of art, CDs and books.

Mr. Hormel is full of regrets about how he's handled his fortune, some of which he inherited and some of which he made on his own.

Bullied out of the Hormel Co. when their father died, Mr. Hormel says he and his two brothers have no role in running the company but receive about $4 million apiece each year. A recording studio Geordie started in the 1960s became wildly successful and still earns him about $2 million a year. He also came into about $13 million when his mother died.

About the millions he's blown, Mr. Hormel says, "If I could do it all over, I'd do nothing the same."