When I arrive at The Ginger Man to meet Halvorssen in person for the first time, the midtown Manhattan bar is bursting with holiday throngs, and the din is deafening. Amidst the investment bankers, I’m looking for the Human Rights Foundation’s Christmas party, which turns out to be about eight staffers, looking impossibly young, huddled around a table with a couple of plates of appetizers. Halvorssen, however, is nowhere to be found.
Rain, it turns out, had delayed his shuttle flight from Washington. Running late, he is headed straight for the Fox News studios where, along with chess champion-turned-Russian-political-dissident Garry Kasparov, he is slated to be a talking head. I am supposed to be there, too, so I grab a cab and head uptown to intersect him. From the taxi, I call to say I am on my way, only to be informed of another change in plans: The traffic is bad, so he will be doing the interview by phone, from his chauffeured car. Whereupon I beg my disgruntled taxi driver to pull over, overpay him for the six-block ride, and retrace my steps through the drizzle.
After another call, Halvorssen finally swoops down on me in the plush lobby of the Carlton Hotel. He is a bit short, model-handsome, with perfect cheekbones and a gentlemanly mien. He points out that he is actually early for dinner. He has booked what he calls his “usual table” in the café at Country, with a relatively affordable bistro menu. Unfortunately, the café is filled with holiday revelers, so we retreat upstairs to the main dining room, a fantasia of candlelight, white tablecloths, and Tiffany glass.
“I like to have some stability in my life,” explains Halvorssen, “and I can usually control where I eat and what I eat. Today is a normal day: I pulled an all-nighter last night to finish work, left my office at around 7 a.m., got home, showered, shaved, left my home for JFK, [flew to] Washington, got off the plane, [went] straight to meet the Colombian ambassador,” before returning to New York. He doesn’t even look tired. “There’s enough drama and enough variety in my life,” he says, “that I kind of like to have the same food.”
That won’t be happening tonight. We’ll have to make do with the $105 per person four-course prix-fixe menuor a really expensive truffle menu. Halvorssen orders a martini “half Bombay Sapphire, half Grey Goose, straight up” while we contemplate our options.
Por favor, caballero, amigo…
Halvorssen resorts to his native Spanish to try to get the waiter’s attention. Later, he will speak flawless French to the sommelier, who, in appreciation, will pour us each free glasses of Muscat de Beaume de Venise. But first we have to get past the amuse-bouche. “You like frog’s legs? I did not think that we’d be eating frog’s legs here tonight,” he says. “This is the bone. Don’t eat the bone.”
Halvorssen’s cosmopolitanism reflects his aristocratic background. His maternal great-great-great-grandfather was Cristóbal Mendoza, the first president of Venezuela and the author of its Declaration of Independence. On his mother’s side, he is also related to Simón Bolivar, the great South American liberator and Venezuela’s second presidentas well as the subject of Halvorssen’s master’s thesis. On his father’s side, Halvorssen is also well-connected: His late grandfather, Oestein Halvorssen, was the Norwegian consul to Venezuela.
Though his family has extensive business interests in Venezuela, Halvorssen says he was raised in “a culture of thrift.” When he was 12, his parents divorced, and his mother moved to London. Halvorssen, who acquired his perfect English in British schools in Venezuela, attended secondary schools in Switzerland and England, where he liked “the discipline and the rigor” and participated in a march to demand Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
Penn was a family tradition (16 degrees all told) started by his maternal great-grandfather, who attended the University’s dental school, and continued by Halvorssen’s father and his uncle, Olaf [“Alumni Profiles,” July|Aug 2007], who reportedly dated Candice Bergen CW’67 Hon’92 here. “I didn’t want to go to the same school” at first, says Halvorssen, “but when I visited the campus I fell in love with it: the diversity of buildings, the architecture. Penn had this funky soul.”
Kevin Harper C’98 W’98 WG’08, who met Halvorssen in the Psi Upsilon fraternity, remembers him as “intensely genuine,” and notes that his intensity “freaks people out sometimes.” Harper, from a working-class background, says that Halvorssen took him under his wing and even helped him buy a suit. “He was really a champion of the oppressed,” says Harper, now a portfolio manager at Drexel Hamilton Asset Management, as well as MPI’s vice president and a member of its board of directors. “Thor rescued his father as a freshman and just didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It’s one of his defining characteristics.”
Halvorssen’s four years at Penn included the “water buffalo incident” of 1993 and its aftermath, and he became enmeshed in his share of the era’s controversies. He says that he didn’t set out to be a free-speech advocate at Penn. But in British schools, “the very concept that an idea can be banned is out of the question. So I get to Penn and suddenly you can’t discuss certain things because of political correctness? I thought to myself, ‘This is really bizarre.’”
He says that the trigger for his involvement was the murder of his mathematics teacher, Al-Moez Alimohamed, which set in high relief a crime problem in West Philadelphia that he believed the University was reluctant to address. In September 1994, Halvorssen wrote a bristling guest commentary for The Daily Pennsylvanian that concluded by suggesting that the University “at least be fair to prospective students and their parents and stamp the next set of applications with a warning: ‘It may be hazardous to your health to attend Penn, it may be deadly to live in West Philadelphia.’”
The piece inspired the editor of The Red & Blue student magazine to recruit him, and he eventually took over the struggling conservative publication as editor. When the magazine was evicted from its space in Irvine Auditorium and back issues were trashedeither a “deliberate and malicious attempt at sabotaging The Red & Blue,”as Halvorssen told the DP at the time, or because the magazine hadn’t kept up with the paperwork required to save the space (according to the Office of Student Life)Halvorssen demanded a full-scale investigation. When the Student Activities Council rescinded recognition and funding for the publication over its general rightward political slant and one particularly controversial article about Haiti, Halvorssen led the fight for its restoration. (He also put out an issue without SAC funding, paid for, he said at the time, by “lovers of liberty.”) The controversy would help lead to a change in SAC rules banning funding decisions based on a student group’s politics.
In time, Halvorseen says, The Red & Blue “went from being a magazine that nobody wanted to read to being the most popular magazine on campus. When the head of the gay and lesbian association came out as a Republican, he wrote his essay in our magazine. Talk about diversity: Whereas Penn had a wonderful diversity of color and sexuality and race and nationalities, it was kind of lacking in diversity of opinionand we provided it.”
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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/02/08