Hormel and his bride, Alice, leave the Charlottesville, Virginia, church where they were married in 1955. (Photo courtesy James Hormel)

Fear of discovery

Law School graduate and administrator James Hormel, JD’58, seemed to have a storybook family and career. His secret life, however, could undo it all.

For the first several years of our marriage, Alice and I lived a picture-perfect life in Chicago, complete with beautiful, affectionate children and an expansive social circle.

I attended and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, clerked at the Illinois State Appellate Court, and worked in a small general practice firm of about 30 lawyers. Alice, meanwhile, contended with the many challenges of motherhood; chased after our runaway dog, Barkley P. Drinkwater; and still found time to finish her bachelor’s degree at Lake Forest College. We eventually moved to Winnetka, a northern suburb of Chicago graced with regal old homes and mansions along the lakefront.

In 1961 I went back to the Law School to work as its first full-time dean of students. Like many American colleges and universities, the school was starving for students as the GI Bill, which sent millions of war veterans to college, expired.

The Law School dean, Edward Levi [PhB’32, JD’35], a smiley, balding man who wore horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties, was determined to continue the school’s tradition of excellence. He oversaw construction of a spectacular new campus designed by Eero Saarinen, the architect of the day, and created the dean-of-students position to ensure classes were filled with the highest caliber students.

The happiest periods of my life have most always been at the beginning of something new, and being at the Law School was definitely a novel experience. I had never dreamed of working at one of the country’s major research institutions and was swept up in the magic of the unexpected. The school had all kinds of notable jurists and academic stars, including a former Nuremberg prosecutor and two future US attorneys general.

Among the Law School’s 400 students were just eight women and a handful of students of color—two statistics I hoped to change. En route to my office each morning, walking past a large rectangular pool reflecting the pleated-glass facade of Saarinen’s building, I carried a tremendous sense of mission. I felt that I owned a small share of a glamorous, exciting world.

About that time, word on the cocktail circuit was that the four-term congresswoman from my district, Marguerite Stitt Church, planned to retire. At an after-work event, Ned Jannotta, a North Shore native who worked in a prestigious investment-banking firm [and who would become a University of Chicago trustee], chatted with me about his involvement in the search for a new candidate. This is my recollection of our discussion:

“Say Jim, have you got any interest in running?” he asked. “It’s a very safe seat for a Republican.”

“Well, gee, I don’t know,” I replied casually, as if the concept was completely new. The idea, however, had occurred to me. I did not lie around dreaming of running for Congress, but I was small-minded enough to think that I was from the right kind of family, and that it was the sort of thing that people, like Ned, might expect me to do.

“You’re associated with the University, you’re on the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations—you’ve got the right background and qualifications,” he said.

As he spoke, my excitement grew. Ned was much more connected than I was. If he thought the seat was within my reach, then it must be.

“Give it a thought and let me know if you have any interest,” he replied, shaking my hand and moving on to his next conversation.

“I’ll certainly do that,” I said, with all the grace and calm I could muster.
What an opportunity, I thought.

I was not one of those gung-ho people who ran for student-body president and then spent the rest of his life climbing the electoral ladder. But I always had an eye on politics. My interest started when I was a little boy, observing my father’s [Jay Hormel, then president of Geo. A. Hormel & Co.] interactions with governors, congressmen, and cabinet secretaries, and grew when I got to Swarthmore. In Chicago I started to connect with local Republicans.

In 1960 I volunteered for ten minutes at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. When Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was nominated as Vice President Richard Nixon’s running mate, I paraded across the convention floor with a small crowd, hoisting a “NIXON-LODGE” placard, as if there were a massive groundswell of support for the ticket. I was not enthusiastic about Nixon, but my service earned me a convention floor pass.

I was a Republican because my father was a Republican. Still, certain aspects of the party line rang true to me: Free enterprise made the country great. Labor had too much power. I was too idealistic then to catch the nuances of real life; the fact that enterprise in America was not so free, or that the problem with labor was not about power per se, but about union leaders who rested on their laurels and aspired to be like business moguls. The Republican Party was right for me because it still reflected the individualism of Teddy Roosevelt. It had not yet been overtaken by southern bigots disappointed with Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Like many dwelling in the privileged confines of academia, I felt a psychological proximity to the events of the day. Riled by the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, and our stare-downs with Khrushchev, I naively thought that a term in Congress was an opportunity to right some wrongs. I saw myself as a conciliator, someone who could bring people together on issues. That seemed to be exactly what the country needed.

I left the event and drove my white Volkswagen beetle toward Winnetka. I couldn’t wait to talk to Alice. Just 30 years old, I was puffed up with the possibility of a dream coming true. The halls of Congress did not seem far away.

The only problem was my other life.


In those days, I might have joked at a student-faculty softball game about faggots, or imitated a lisping, limp-wristed fellow to get a few laughs, while going out that same evening to seek an assignation with another man.

Encounters with men, infrequent as they were for me then, gave me the kind of adrenaline rush you get when you know you are defying society’s mores. I learned, almost instinctively, which area of a given city to visit, which bar, which beach, which truck stop. It was surprising to me that I often met someone in a “legitimate” place during the coffee break at an academic conference or on an airplane.

There were code words and signs. You might slip the word “gay” into a conversation, or ask someone if they knew so-and-so, who was a “friend of Dorothy.” You caught on to the code very quickly, because if you made a mistake, your life could be ruined.

I lived in constant fear of discovery.

Over the years of my infidelity, I agonized about what I was doing to my marriage—the vows I made to Alice truly meant something to me. I never lost sight of the fact that I violated my commitment to her, or that I was a lawyer breaking the law (homosexual acts were illegal in all states back then). I lied to myself so many times: I’m never going to do that again. It wasn’t worth it. I didn’t feel any kind of satisfaction. It was anonymous sex with someone who couldn’t even tell me his real name. And certainly, I could not tell him mine.

Still, I never considered the acts themselves to be immoral. I was a human being, interacting with another human being, who had feelings and an urgency to express them in a world that offered us nothing but castigation.

A private civil war raged inside me as I struggled to come up with an answer for Ned Jannotta. I found myself alternately daydreaming about campaign strategies and Washington gay bars. A seat in Congress sounded fantastic. My mother would be thrilled. But was I setting myself up for a horrible situation? These were the days of the Lavender Scare, when official Washington actively hunted down and fired gay and lesbian civil servants. Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Advise and Consent (Doubleday, 1959) was made into a wildly popular movie that ended in an outed gay senator’s dramatic off-camera suicide. Bang. Dead. Life over. My mind turned toward fearsome fantasies of newspaper headlines, suicides, homicides—all kinds of devastating potential outcomes.

No, no, I can’t do this, I thought. I cannot risk ruining my life or humiliating my entire family.

I dialed Ned in covert despair. I thanked him graciously for his confidence and told him that Alice and I had decided to move out of the district, which happened to be true. We wanted to be closer to the University in a neighborhood with more diversity and less of Winnetka’s air of privilege.

I later read in the Chicago Tribune about the Republican Party’s candidate for Mrs. Church’s seat. He was an energetic young man, my age, with all the right North Shore credentials. He won easily. His name was Donald Rumsfeld.


In 1962 we moved into a well-worn Edwardian town house in Hyde Park with an easy-to-remember address: 1234 East 56th Street. Alice and I threw a housewarming on New Year’s Eve attended by more than 200 people, many of whom were eager to see our new renovated home. We loved to entertain and were good at it. I suppose many who came by that evening left feeling they had shared in the lives of a perfect couple and a perfect family. What they saw was not a false life—it was real life. I was doing my best to follow the paths that I knew, striving to be a strong, caring husband and father on an upwardly mobile career path. I was not faking it; I was trying to be that man.
Our reality was to the contrary, however: even as the wallpaper went up, our marriage frayed. Alice always sensed that I kept some part of myself isolated from her, and we often argued about it.

Yet, uncontrollably, perhaps even unconsciously, I laid clues for her. I encouraged her to read Advise and Consent and took her to see a British movie called Victim about a closeted gay lawyer, and The Children’s Hour about two women accused of a lesbian relationship.

Over time the hints got more specific. One day Alice returned from our new summer house—a breathtaking home on a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan—to find that a male friend from the Law School had slept over—in our bed. I could have gone into the guest room and rumpled the sheets before she got home, but I didn’t.

I had a seething cauldron of sexual energy inside me and couldn’t keep a lid on it. I had an increasingly greater need to let the feelings out but didn’t know how to do it in a way that would not wreak nuclear havoc on my life. There were no resources, no role models. Even Truman Capote, as openly gay as he seemed, always appeared in public with a woman on his arm. Forget any concept of “coming out.” The only eventuality was brutal discovery.

As near as I could see, the revelation of my homosexuality could only be destructive: the end of my perfect family, the loss of love from a woman I truly cared for, and the complete and total blockade of all pathways to professional success. I would not be a congressman, or a prominent businessman, or any other sort of pillar of the community. I might even lose the job I had.


Excerpted with permission from Fit To Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay US Ambassador (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) by James C. Hormel and Erin Martin.


James Hormel shares his insights into his ambassadorial quest and his perspective on what the rebellious UChicago students of the 1960s have in common with their peers today.