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James Beard and Reed

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on May 01, 2017 12:00 AM

This month, PBS will release a new documentary of pioneering gastronome James Beard, the celebrated titan of American cooking. The film (which premieres at the NW Film Center on May 5!) is sure to inspire new interest in Beard, a fascinating figure who attended Reed in 1920-21. Indeed, Frank Bruni wrote an insightful column last week in the New York Times about erasure, suppression, and the peculiar silence that lingered over a central fact of Beard’s life—the fact that he was gay. Bruni also made reference, in passing, to the often-repeated claim that Reed expelled Beard for being gay.

As far as I know, the story first surfaced in Robert Clark’s excellent 1993 biography, which traces Beard’s mercurial arc at Reed against a backdrop of rising homophobia in Portland in the teens and twenties. At some point, Clark writes, Beard became lovers with one or more male students and a professor, and he was subsequently booted out—”quickly, quietly, and with no formal explanation.”

I could find nothing in the archives to support this claim. We could not even find any 97-year-old coded language, euphemisms, or double entendres in Beard’s record to indicate that anyone at Reed knew or cared about his sexual orientation.

What I do know, however, is that Beard and Reed reconnected years later. In 1976, he returned to campus for commencement so that the college could present him with an honorary degree (he shared his recipe for brownies and got a standing ovation).

There can be no doubt that Beard cut an outsized figure at Reed while he was a student. He made frequent appearances in the Quest. He won a prize for a Halloween costume in full drag and was elected as the treasurer of the freshman class. He was the anchor of the freshman team in the annual tug-of-war contest. The 1921 Griffin devoted an entire four-page section to him, titled “The Jimmie Book.” He was, as Clark writes, “the celebrated wit and rococo Gargantua of the class of ’24.”

It also seems clear that Reed made a lasting impression on Beard. He maintained lifelong friendships with classmates. He came back for his 50th reunion. “He felt very good about Reed,” Portland lawyer (and trustee emeritus) Morris Galen told me in 2011, “and was thrilled when he was awarded an honorary degree."

In fact, after his death in 1985, Beard bequeathed the bulk of his estate to Reed, including his private collection of his own cookbooks, and set up the James Beard Scholarship Fund, which supports students who otherwise could not afford tuition.

There is no question that he is revered at Reed today. We are proud to recognize him as an alumnus of the college.