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Earle Jorgensen, Reagan Confidant, Dies

From a Times Staff Writer

Earle M. Jorgensen, the self-made industrial tycoon whose steel products fortified Southern California’s economic boom and who helped finance Ronald Reagan’s run for president, died Wednesday at his home in Bel-Air. He was 101.

The founder of the country’s largest independent metal distributor, Brea-based Earle M. Jorgensen Co., he outlived most of the other millionaire California conservatives in Reagan’s unofficial “kitchen cabinet” of supporters.

Last summer, he sang World War I songs before a crowd of Los Angeles’ social royalty gathered to celebrate his 100th birthday. Until recently, he was still working out with a personal trainer, playing tennis occasionally, and commuting to his office in Brea.

Among survivors is stepson Donald L. Bren, the Orange County developer.

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A statement Thursday from the office of former President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, recalled Jorgensen fondly.

“Earle Jorgensen was one of our oldest and dearest friends, and we will miss him terribly. He had a deep love for his country and supported numerous worthwhile causes,” the statement said.

“We will always cherish the kindness he showed us over the years. . . . Our sympathy goes out to his wife . . . Marion, and their whole family.”

Southern California was at the start of an oil boom touched off by a big discovery in Signal Hill when Jorgensen arrived in Los Angeles in 1921. He immediately saw the market for sales of steel and aluminum to help fuel the boom. After borrowing $20,000, he began selling shipyard surplus and scrap to oil drillers in quantities, and at prices that the area’s two steel mills in town could not match. By 1923, he had created in essence a supermarket for steel and aluminum. The plain-spoken salesman later supplied metals to an emerging aircraft industry, selling to the likes of Howard Hughes and Boeing.

At its peak in 1979, Jorgensen’s company had 19 national service centers, two forge divisions, two sheet and strip plants and one facility where blades for earth-moving equipment were manufactured. The firm had close to $400 million in sales that year.

“Every order was filled, no matter how modest. Earle would see that it was cut to order and delivered in a bright, shiny truck,” Bren once recalled.

Tireless Volunteer, Reagan Supporter

Memories of Jorgensen as a tireless community volunteer and philanthropist mix with recollections of his early, steadfast faith in Ronald Reagan.

In 1966, when Reagan was running for California governor, the Jorgensens hosted the Reagans, Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale and other conservative millionaires at their Bel-Air home for an election night party to await the results. The menu--Reagan’s favorite veal stew and coconut cake--remained the fare when the same crowd gathered at the Jorgensens for election-night festivities for the rest of Reagan’s career.

At such gatherings, Jorgensen loved to pull antics. “He’d stand on his head, just for fun, just to show us that he could,” Nancy Reagan recalled in an interview some years ago. The late Holmes Tuttle, the California auto dealer and top Reagan fund-raiser, once described Jorgensen as “loyal right down to the core for President Reagan. When Ron was running for president, he became active. . . . He worked hard in the steel industry getting people to support Gov. Reagan for president.”

Jorgensen also left his mark on many Southern California businesses, community organizations and cultural institutions. He served as a director of Northrop Aircraft Inc. (now Northrop Grumman Corp.), Transamerica Corp. and Citizens National Trust & Savings Bank of Los Angeles.

He volunteered for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the American Red Cross, the Boy Scouts of America, the YMCA, St. John’s and St. Francis hospitals and was a founder of the Los Angeles Music Center. He received awards for his philanthropy and community service from Caltech and the California Museum of Science and Industry.

Family Fled S.F. Earthquake, Fire

Jorgensen, the son a Danish sea captain, was born on June 22, 1898, and grew up in San Francisco. As a youngster, he sailed to the South Pacific before he was old enough to enter school.

He later recalled the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and the family’s flight from the city to an awaiting schooner. They spent three days on the ship watching the city burn.

His father died when he was 13, requiring the youth to go to work to support the family.

Young Jorgensen, starting as an office boy, quickly displayed the drive that would propel his career. At age 16, he clipped three words--"Hustle!--that’s all"--from a magazine and tucked them in his wallet.

He attended high school at night and later completed a correspondence course in business administration. During World War I, he served in the First American Tank Corps, with Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower as his commanding officer.

After the war, Jorgensen worked for a New York toy company until it went broke. His next stop was Los Angeles, where he started by combing shipyards for surplus scrap.

“Every morning it was the same thing: Go down to the beach where the oil guys were,” Jorgensen said in a recent interview. “Then, every night, same thing: Go back to the office to write up orders.”

A natural salesman who quickly earned people’s trust, Jorgensen met an older businessman--John E. Davis--on the street one day. Davis later lent him money to expand the company, and Jorgensen made Davis its first president.

In 1923, Jorgensen purchased an acre on Alameda Street in Lynwood for $10,000 and opened a warehouse. But the Depression hit hard everywhere. Nearly bankrupt, Jorgensen talked his way into a meeting with E.G. Grace, the chairman of his biggest supplier, Bethlehem Steel. Grace agreed to extend credit to help sustain the company.

During World War II, as demand for the company’s steel products took off, Jorgensen himself began volunteering for the American Red Cross’ local chapter. Mindful of how his mother had made bandages for the wounded in World War I, he served as the Los Angeles chapter’s fund-raising chairman for five years in the 1950s. He later took credit for helping build the Los Angeles blood bank into one of the world’s largest blood collection and processing centers.

Through the Red Cross, he met another wealthy volunteer--socialite Marion Newbert Call. On March 22, 1953, the two were married in Las Vegas, 24 hours after she divorced Thomas Call.

Jorgensen was 54, Marion 40, and both had been married twice before. Her first husband was Hollywood producer and real estate magnate Milton Bren, Donald Bren’s father.

Marion and her pals--social divas Betsy Bloomingdale and Betty Wilson--became friendly with Nancy Reagan, who joined them in 1962 in the Colleagues, an elite charity.

Meanwhile, Republican Party fund-raisers had learned they could count on Jorgensen.

Tuttle, who had known Jorgensen in the 1930s, once remarked, “Any time I wanted anything, I never had Earle Jorgensen say no to me in his life. He was a good loyal supporter, not only of Reagan but of Eisenhower and Nixon also.”

Jorgensen was prominent among the wealthy Californians who pushed Reagan to run for governor in 1966. The group--later dubbed Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet"--included the late corporate lawyer William French Smith and drugstore magnate Justin Dart.

Stu Spencer, Reagan’s longtime political advisor, remembered Jorgensen Thursday as a humble and classy man.

Reagan’s business advisors helped find staff for his gubernatorial administration, but they drew criticism for purchasing a $150,000 house in Sacramento, which Reagan rented when he was governor.

After the 1980 presidential election, Jorgensen and the rest of the kitchen cabinet helped Reagan select his first Cabinet. And several drew more attention for helping raise $750,000 to redecorate the White House. The Jorgensens contributed $50,000, for instance.

Jorgensen’s company even came under fire for paying William French Smith $50,000 when he resigned from its board of directors, shortly before he became Reagan’s first attorney general.

Smith eventually returned the money, even though federal investigators decided it was proper payment for past services, rather than an unethical supplement to his government salary.

Jorgensen himself didn’t seek a job with the Reagan administration.

“I asked [Earle] once whether he wanted to join his friends who were going to Washington, and I’ll never forget his reply. ‘That’s not my business,’ he said. ‘I need to stick to what I know best,’ ” his stepson Bren once noted.

When the Reagans were ready to leave office, the Jorgensens and other GOP supporters contributed $2.5 million in 1988 to buy a retirement home for the couple in Bel-Air. The Reagans later purchased it from the group.

Jorgensen never officially retired. In 1990, he stepped back into the company when his son John, its chief executive, died of stomach cancer.

In 1997, the company teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, straining under costs of a 1990 leveraged buyout that merged Jorgensen’s firm with the Brea metals distributor Kilsby-Roberts Holdings Inc. The founder and millionaire chairman emeritus, enriched further by sale of company stock, avoided questions about his personal finances.

But he was heartened after the Brea company--the descendant of Jorgensen’s original firm--hired Maurice Nelson, former president of Inland Steel Co., to turn it around. Nelson sold off plants, cut employees, restructured debt, and narrowed the company’s focus to providing management of metals inventories and other services.

The company posted record profits of $24.5 million on revenue of $915.8 million for its fiscal year ending in March.

Last December, when the redoubtable Jorgensen took a bad fall and his face swelled up, his determination continued to amaze his friends.

“The rest of us would be knocked out for a month, but he was back on his feet the same day. He went to the hospital, got some stitches, and had some people for dinner that night,” Nancy Reagan remarked.

Jorgensen is survived by his wife of 47 years, Marion Jorgensen; two children, Maren Long of Ojai and Earle M. Jorgensen Jr. of Mariposa, Calif.; and two stepsons, Bren of Newport Beach and Peter Bren of New York City. Jorgensen also leaves 17 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

Funeral services will be private.

Memorial contributions in Jorgensen’s name may be given to the American Red Cross of Los Angeles, St. John’s Health Center of Santa Monica, All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills or Caltech.


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